One of the often-discussed topics in our household and among my friends here in Paris are the differences between certain every-day things in America and here in France. There are things that we Americans take for granted that other people just find strange. But they're not necessarily what you might expect. I'm sure the reverse is true as well: travelers to France will also find some of the differences a bit odd or funny or even annoying.
So reading this article on "30 Non-Americans on the American Norms They Find Weird" was something I could (a) relate to, (b) agree with much of, and (c) laugh my ass off about. And I decided to weigh in on this list myself.
Bread being too sweet in America. Georges has often told me he thinks many American products are over-sugared, but his biggest complaint about American bread is "THAT'S not really BREAD". In America, bread comes in a plastic bag and it's square and mushy; in France they call this "pain de mie" with the "mie" being the soft stuff inside the crust. But real "pain"/bread in France? Comes from a bakery oven, is fresh and crusty, with no preservatives and yes, MUCH less sugar.
Toilets in restaurants and other public spaces. I have to agree with the non-Americans on this one: I MUCH prefer how things are in France where you get an entire cubicle with floor-to-ceiling walls and a full-sized door and all the privacy you want. Now when I go back to the States and have to head to the head? I CRINGE with embarrassment, and flash back to when I was in the 2nd grade and started to be aware that whenever I had to pee at school, the other kids could HEAR ME. It was traumatic. Fav quote from the article about this: "You can put a man on the moon but can’t design a setup whereby I can have a shit in comfortable privacy. Sort it out America."
Service being better/overly friendly/pushy. Yes, service in America is ALL of those things. Overall, I think the service is better than in France. Certainly, more emphasis is made by companies on providing good customer service. Often, however, I also now feel that it is overly friendly to the point of the phoniness being tough to take, and sometimes it is downright pushy; like, geez, Dress Barn Saleslady, stop HOVERING over me while I shop!
Tipping. Oh, God, my math-challenged brain LOVES that in France I never, ever have to calculate a tip because gratuities are included in the price and waiters are paid a decent living wage so they don't have to exist on tips. (This is also part of the reason they might give you lousy service, however.) And I apologize in advance to the servers in the U.S. whom I routinely now FORGET to tip whenever I go back. It's not you, it's ME.
Advertising prescription drugs. I never realized how creepy this really IS until I got away from it. Best quote on this: "In the UK, your doctor tells you what drugs you should take, not the other way round." Same thing with all the lawyers advertising -- it's TOO DAMN MUCH.
The Pledge of Allegiance. OK I might get some backlash on this one, but I tend to agree that this practice of making little school kids recite this when they don't even know what the hell it's about IS rather disturbing. It's not the part about "under God" that I take issue with, either, even though I am not religious; it's that it's the sort of thing you see in movies where groups of people are being brainwashed by having to stand up in a room and repeat certain "loyalty oaths". Why do we need to force our kids to do this? Aren't there less creepy ways of instilling a sense of national pride and loyalty in our population? I just don't see that this ritual is necessary or useful in any way.
Flags. Yeah, we Americans sure do love to display our flags, even more so since 9/11 I think. But you know what? I really kind of LIKE this about us. I'm not sure why people from other countries don't do more of this.
The Guns, the Guns and more Guns. This is probably, right now, the #1 thing French people ask me about when they meet me: "What is the deal with you Americans and the guns?" And I am hard-pressed to give them any sort of rational response because you know what I really think? I think the gun situation is totally out of control and I am embarrassed that there are people who would put their desire to own a weapon ahead of someone else's life. And I do not want to hear about "self-defense" because that isn't really why a lot of people want to own guns. I had a boyfriend once who owned a legal handgun. He got trained and licensed to use it. He kept it unloaded in a case on the top shelf of his closet. And you know what? If someone broke into his house, by the time he got into that closet, unlocked that gun case, and actually loaded that gun, the intruder could have killed him and his entire family. No, why he REALLY bought it? He thought it was cool and it made him feel like a man. And that macho, gun-toting, "we're tougher than everyone else" attitude? Is what I take issue with when it comes to the gun thing. I don't think a lot of people realize that to the rest of the world? That America just looks freaking INSANE in this respect, with every single day a new incident at schools, airports and workplaces. And it's getting crazier every day. Something's gotta give, because what we're doing with our gun obsession, America? Isn't working.
Free refills on soda. I never thought about this at all until I read the article, but yeah, America is generous with the drinks. We're also practically the fattest nation in the world except for, like, Tonga. Maybe we need to work on the PORTION SIZES, people.
Loud Talkers. Yep, we sure are loud. Now when I'm on a bus or the metro or anywhere on the street in Paris and I hear loud voices, I can pretty well bet it will be some Americans (although sometimes they're Russians or Italians... or even Japanese (but only the Japanese men seem to be loud talkers).
Pickles. I thought the pickle comments were funny because that was another thing I never thought twice about. But then again when you go to an American supermarket, how many dozens of different kinds of pickles do you see? Ouf! I do miss not being able to get sweet gherkins over here (see? I'm brainwashed and addicted to the sugar.)
Education and social hierarchies. This was interesting. I don't know that the French education system necessarily stresses everyone being the "same" but in France the emphasis is ON the education itself and on kids doing their work. In the US education is, to a large degree, about having kids be "happy and well adjusted" and at the same time it's like a damned popularity contest. Sports heroes and competition, having to be the best, the smartest, the richest, have the coolest car or the latest designer sunglasses? The whole Prom and sorority/frat and Homecoming thing? Yeah, that doesn't really exist anywhere else, as far as I am aware. Kind of makes me wonder if in countries where there is less emphasis on social popularity, are kids also bullied less?
American chocolate sucks (except M&Ms). Yes, I think I have to agree with this. But then I'm in Europe with easy access to the "good stuff" from Belgium and Switzerland. The French are TOTALLY into chocolate, by the way. Go into any supermarket and you will find two things: a HUGE display of bars of chocolate (more dark chocolate than in in the States, too); and a LOT OF chocolate-spiked breakfast cereals. The latter is one way I think French kids are now being brainwashed by marketers, like American kids, into wanting sugary cereals for breakfast instead of the more "normal" French breakfast of a hunk of a baguette (the "real" bread) with butter and jam or honey. This love of chocolate (and candy in general) in France? Is actually something I find quite funny since the French also criticize American cuisine for being too sugary! Pot = kettle = both black, thank you very much.
Too much choice. From sandwich and salad fixin's to flavors of sodas, yogurts and ice creams, we are the land of Freedom of Choice. Which we are very fortunate to have, certainly. Until you go to other countries and realize that people actually do just great with having to make their own salad dressing (we do!) instead of choosing one of HUNDREDS of pre-processed, bottled dressings. And the homemade stuff tastes better anyway. I always think of the movie where Robin Williams played a Russian immigrant in New York, and the first time he went to a supermarket to buy coffee, he asked to be directed to the coffee LINE. When he got to Aisle 5, he saw so many different kinds of coffee, his blood pressure spiked and he fainted dead away from the shock! More isn't ALWAYS better.
Being too touchy-feely. Yes, we probably are. And I'm proud to say I'm one of 'em. In France, I do the 2-cheek kiss thing because that's how it's done here. But one of the things I love about going back to the States is the HUGGING with my friends and family. Lucky for me, I'm married to a very tactile man who is just as physically affectionate as I am.
But the verdict seems to be in:
We're great people, despite our perceived "flaws". Oh, totally. We may be loud, gun-loving, sugar junkies who watch too much television with too many ads for Xanax and Prepaid Legal Services, and we may love our pickles and 31 flavors and squishy bread. But we also invented Levis and sky scrapers and Disney, and people love our big, brash, movies and loud music and easy-going ways.
For what it's worth, there are also plenty of things I think we do better in America, things I still miss being over here in France:
- Personal space. The American "space bubble" is much bigger than in other countries. In Paris, I am surrounded by native Europeans, whose need for a wide perimeter of personal space is much smaller than mine, and immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Arab countries, where personal space is almost non-existent. We were at the movie theatre the other night, waiting to get in to see "Gravity" in a big mish-mash of people because FRENCH PEOPLE DON'T LIKE TO LINE UP FOR ANYTHING EXCEPT A FRESH BAGUETTE AT THE BAKERY (see next bullet) and I swear to God I nearly belted the person behind me (who turned out to be a lady) because I thought s/he was trying to grope my ass because s/he was standing so unnecessarily close to me in that crowd. Actually I think it was her big purse or something that kept bumping my ass, but if she hadn't felt the need to crowd up that close to me I would never have noticed.
- Orderly lines. People do not have any sense of waiting their turn for things in France. Ski lift "line"? Nope. Just ski to the front of the pack and cut in front of everyone else. Waiting to get into the metro car or bus? Feel free to elbow that old lady out of your way. Sometimes this really pisses me off.
- Clothes dryers. Oh, what I wouldn't give to someday have an apartment with the appropriate space to put a clothes drying machine. I miss fluffy towels and am not crazy about having laundry racks of damp clothing in my living room OR having to cart heavy bags of wet sheets and towels to the laundromat to machine dry them. I'm used to how it is here now, but I really hate scratchy bath towels.
- Efficiency. Once again, I've adapted and accepted that every time I go to the supermarket, the checkers will be dawdling and also will stop checking out my order so they can kiss each other hello or goodbye or so they can engage in personal conversation while they completely ignore me and the 20 other people standing behind me (incredibly, IN A LINE, but only because they have no choice in places like a supermarket; if they COULD cut the line, though, they would). The French are lovely in many ways, but they are not efficient. EVER. Everything takes longer than it needs to. The French hate this too, by the way... but apparently not enough to actually do anything to change it. For the most part, America's got the efficiency thing down to a perfect science. Wish we could teach it to the French.
And there you have it.