Ever wonder what the rest of the world thinks about Americans and the USA?
After traveling for nearly 11 months (7 of which were spent in New Zealand), I’ve compiled some of the most common assumptions or stereotypes people tend to have about “the States” and its people.
Eradicating stereotypes through travel is a two way street. Typically, we think of traveling the world as a chance to inform ourselves about other cultures and people. What I’ve found is I have equally become a teacher, informing others about where I come from.
Through my conversations with New Zealanders, I realized many of their thoughts about America have been echoed in conversations I’ve had with people all over the world. So I finally started to write them down along with my responses.
The assumptions turn out to be a lot of half-truths and misunderstandings. Here they are:
1. Americans mostly eat take out and the portions are huge
Living in New York City, I once ordered pancakes to my door. Pancakes! This was an exception to my usual routine. In general, it was too expensive and unhealthy to eat out multiple times a week.
But the USA average of 5.8 meals or snacks eaten out a week seems like a lot. I imagine this number includes the coffee and a muffin they have for breakfast or the quick sandwich they devour on break at work.
These aren’t healthy or justifiable eating habits, but cooking and eating supper at home with the family each night is still a pretty big American tradition—even if an ideal.
The portions may be huge in the USA, but rarely do people go home without getting a “doggy bag” (taking the rest home). I waited tables for 4 years and take away containers were the most common request along with the bill. It’s pretty standard not to finish everything on your plate.
The fact is, most Westernized nations are going in the direction of a fast-food, take-away, restaurant-eating society if they aren’t there already.
Even New Zealanders have seen a recent 67% growth in revenue in the take away industry. That’s a lot of fish and chips orders!
2. Americans all live in big urban cities
Apparently, we have no farmhouses, no log cabins in the middle of the forest on a mountainside, no “little house on the prairie.” Nope. Just huge towering sky scrapers, traffic-jammed highways, and city parks.
At least this is what people assume.
Actually, 20% of the US population lives in rural areas. That’s actually a huge number of people—about 60 million or over 13 times the population of New Zealand!
My hometown, less than 90 miles North of New York City, is considered a “hamlet” on Wikipedia. It has less than 2,000 people living there. There is a post office the size of a shoebox, a country store, and a gas station. That’s about it.
America may be dominated by cities in movies and TV. And young people may be flocking to cities searching for work in recent years. But there’s still 60 million US citizens living the slower-paced life in the countryside.
3. The USA is easy to see in a short period of time
The USA is enormous. People talk about Australia being big, but the USA is actually over 2.1 million square kilometers larger than Australia and 14 times its population.
People often ask me how many days they will need for a trip in the USA if they want to see “all of the good stuff.” Days? I ask. Try weeks or months!
It takes 5-6 hours on a plane to fly from the West coast to the East coast of continental USA. Most people take weeks if they want to road trip across the USA and actually get to see some of the highlights.
Some of the highlights.
Plan to miss a lot unless you do a meandering zig-zag to hit all of the states. And then you’ll need a lot more time than just a few weeks, especially if you decide to tack on Hawaii and Alaska.
4. Americans see celebrities everywhere and often
According to New Zealanders, the United States has so many celebrities we must be bumping into movie stars and musicians all day long! In reality, we just have more opportunities to see famous people because they happen to live in and entertain in our country’s big cities.
New Zealanders seem to think if they visit the USA they will spot Ellen walking her dogs as easily as a New Yorker spots a homeless man on the street. This assumption probably stems from the other assumptions that everyone lives in cities and the USA is not as big as it actually is.
Fairly regular celebrity sightings are probably truer for people living in metropolitan areas, especially New York and Los Angeles. Even then you have to be looking.
I’m notorious for completely missing celebrity sightings while I’m walking around New York. My friends will often be like, “Ha! That was Jake Gyllenhaal who just walked into that vegan cafe.”
And I’m like, “Who in the what in the where?!”
I ask New Zealanders, “who is the most famous person you ever met?” and most of them respond with the name of an All Blacks player, a news anchor from TV ONE, or guest from Come Dine With Me.
Meanwhile, I’ve met several internationally famous actors (e.g., Megan Mullally) and musicians (e.g. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins) because I’ve had the chance to shake their hands after a live show.
So, no, I’m not typically trying to weave my way passed Angelina Jolie and her entourage of children on the street every day. But I’ve certainly had more opportunities to meet a famous person as a New Yorker than the average kiwi.
5. All Americans are ruled by the same set of laws
The United States may be United by certain federal laws, but they all adhere to their own individual state laws.
I find that fellow foreign travelers are often surprised to learn that the laws across the US are not standardized. I tell them about my education growing up in New York and explain there are probably different expectations for my next door neighbors in Pennsylvania.
Some states have really strange laws, unique from any other states. In Florida, for example, bar owners will receive a $1000 fine for allowing the tossing of little people in its establishment. Nowhere else in the USA will you see a law like this.
With state laws as varied (and sometimes as random) as this, you can’t really know what is acceptable or expected state by state. You have to find out as you go!
6. Americans mostly drive “yank tanks”
Yank tanks are pretty much any American made car with a huge V8 engine, terrible handling, and extremely bad fuel economy.
I would have said its true—Americans mostly drive these—if we were back in the late 1990s or early 2000s when SUVs and Hummers were all the rage. However, foreign-made cars—especially Toyota Camrys and Corollas—are still the most popular vehicles in the USA.
With the increase in fuel cost in the last decade, I have seen more and more SUVS with for sale signs on them on the side of the road than any other vehicle. People are trading them in for more gas efficient sedans and hybrids these days.
Although this view may be a bit out of date since I’ve been away for 11 months. In the last year, I’ve heard there’s been a jump in SUV sales suddenly because the cost per gallon of gas dropped below $3.00.
Will Americans ever learn?
At the same time, it seems many people in Australia and New Zealand treasure their “utes” and massive 4x4s for their off-roading adventures. I have to ask then, is the “yank tank” a derogation or a compliment?
7. Americans sound like Canadians
Alright so this one is partially true. I cannot tell you the number of times someone has asked me if I am Canadian. Then they feel bad when they find out I’m American.
Really, it’s okay.
I actually think I’m more okay with being assumed Canadian than Canadians are with being assumed American. Maybe it’s just me.
In defense of accents, however, some Canadians do sound authentically Canadian. The best way to tell is to make them say “out and about.” If they say “oot and aboot” you can be certain they are Canadian. If they say “eh?” at the end of every sentence, they might be Canadian. If they don’t? Well, your guess is as good as mine because I can’t even tell the difference.
French Canadians are easily identifiable except when they are confused with being from France. But talk to a person from France and they’ll maintain there are differences. Many people from France have told me they cannot understand a word people from Quebec say to them.
If a Canadian doesn’t say oot and aboot or speak with a French accent, then they are more likely to be mistaken for someone from the Northern United States than the South. To the trained ear, it’s probably more likely to tell apart a Southern American from any Northerners, American or Canadian.
8. Americans don’t travel
I have to admit, Americans are pretty infrequent international travelers. Reflecting this is the statistic showing 46% of Americans own a passport compared to 75% in the UK.
But do Americans really not travel? Why not?
The reasons Americans don't seem to travel are similar to most of my explanations in this post—they are cultural.
Undeniably, fear and misinformation about the world and the difficulty of traveling within it are two important reasons why Americans justify not traveling internationally. But here are two commonly overlooked reasons why Americans are infrequently encountered abroad:
(a) America has a lot of biodiversity and cultural diversity right there within its borders.
Why leave when there’s so much to see at home? Going back to how enormous the country is—a person really could spend a lifetime trying to see all of it. When you put it all in perspective, traveling from France to Germany is the equivalent of traveling from New York to Ohio two states over. There’s a lot of ground to cover.
(b) Americans work long hours and get very little time off.
Unsurprisingly, Germans are the most common tourists I have encountered since they receive an average of 30 work days of paid leave. This is very different from Americans who are lucky if they get the average of 12 days off. America is also far enough away from most other countries that when you factor in days lost traveling to the beautiful beaches of Thailand, it makes more sense to visit the beautiful beaches of Miami instead.