As American as Baseball and Apple Pie: How Would You Describe the United States?

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The Atlantic posted a fun, thought provoking article this week which explores travel advice offered by guidebooks for foreign travelers visiting the United States.

As someone who loves travel, and who would never dream of going to a foreign country without reading at least one travel guide from cover to cover, I was intrigued to learn what cultural traditions and advice travelers receive when visiting the United States.

Some guidebooks warn travelers to be aware of people’s sensitivities around politics and about the historical oppression of people of color and same sex couples in the United States.

Most guidebooks emphasize the importance of punctuality, which is practically a religion in this country – a religion which I practice faithfully, I might add, illustrated by the fact that I must show up at least 15 minutes early for any appointment.

It is fun to read about your own culture from a different perspective. That is one of the things I love about travel – it can change the entire framework through which you see the world in an instant.

The article includes a delightful excerpt from Wikitravel with advice about etiquette when visiting a home for a meal:

When invited to a meal in a private home it is considered polite for a guest to ask if they can bring anything for the meal, such a dessert, a side dish, or for an outdoor barbecue, something useful like ice or plastic cups or plates. The host will usually refuse except among very close friends, but it is nonetheless considered good manners to bring along a small gift for the host. A bottle of wine, box of candies or fresh cut flowers are most common. Gifts of cash, prepared ready-to-serve foods, or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.    

I had never really thought much about this tradition – it is just what we naturally do!

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Guidebooks also describe how much people from the United States love our personal space. I recall the first time a person came and sat at our table on our honeymoon in Europe – I am not sure the person even asked to join us – we loved it, but that never happens in the United States!

I was struck by the portion of the article where the author highlights issues of safety in inner cities. I have no doubt that this is important information to share with visitors and obviously every person has to use common sense when travelling, but reading about our street crime made me wonder about safety warnings in guide books that I have read for other countries. Perhaps the warnings in all guidebooks are a little over-exaggerated to ensure that people pay them heed.

What do you think? Isn’t this part of the fun of travel – to help you think about doing things in a completely different way? What travel advice would you want to give foreign travelers to your country to avoid committing a cultural faux pas? If you are from the United States, how does this list of cautions and cultural traditions fit for you? What would you add to the list? Do you use guidebooks when you travel? Which ones are your favorites? Have you made any cultural faux pas that you would care to share? Have you learned any ways to avoid these mistakes? What are your favorite cultural traditions and customs to explore when you travel?

I hope you will share your thoughts. Thanks so much for reading.     


Filed under Books, Culture, International, travel

24 responses to “As American as Baseball and Apple Pie: How Would You Describe the United States?

  1. This is a really interesting perspective! I think that other countries, however, have a somewhat negative view of Americans. When my brother went to Europe, they were very surprised at his size. They thought all Americans were overweight!

    • I thought it was a fun perspective, too! I agree that there are some misperceptions about Americans but some of the generalizations are based in truth, I suppose. Certainly, many of us are overweight! 😉 Thanks so much for your comment and for the follow!

  2. Unfortunately I can’t answer your question, as I’m not American, nor have I ever been there, but I recently wrote a similar blog post after stumbling across a Spanish travel show that accused my country of having a love of going barefoot. How odd!! Although I guess once these things are really pointed out to you, you begin to notice them more and more..

  3. This is all amusing but I don’t travel much anymore, and when I did travel, I mostly went to the carribean countries. I believe they have some traditions similar to our traditions here in the US. i have to get used to their driving though…they drive on the wrong side on the road. Also when they are greeting you, instead of saying hello, or good evening, their greeting is “good night”.

  4. Jenni, I am like you and read about where I am going. Our favorite family excursion was to Ireland where did our first “tour.” If you love history and don’t mind getting up early, a tour is great for your first visit. I wonder what a tour of the US would be like as we are so spread out. My favorite parts of the Ireland trip was hanging out with the people. I would say that would be the same for our country. America is so diverse, it surprises people. Thanks for the post.

    • Oooh, Ireland is high up on my list of places I would like to visit. Thanks so much for reading and for the comment. I think you’re right. The people are always the best part! Thanks again.

  5. I think the travel guide should be distributed to people who are already residents here, many do none of the things expected of the visitors. Even when I travel within the states, it’s nice to do a tour. Hell, I’ve done tours in my own city! As much as I dislike schedules, I would have to insist on a tour in a foreign least on the first trip. Great post!

    • A tour in your own town – what a fun idea! I’m going to add that to my list of things to do. I do usually get a guide book for cities I move to. I have found some things that long-time residents had no idea existed! Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

  6. Actually, as a Canadian, a lot of the same things apply to us. When I went to university in Grand Forks, everyone was surprised that I was Canadian, partly because I didn’t do the ‘eh?’ thing when I talked, and possibly because I had picked up the accent of my roommate from Arkansas, but I found very little difference between us, culturally.

    As for travel elsewhere, the only places we’ve been are the US and Mexico, so never bothered with a travel guide. Hmmm, I wonder what the travel guides say about traveling in Canada? You’ve given me some interesting things to ponder. 🙂

    • Glad I made you think! That’s just what I try to do here. Thanks so much for your comment. I think you should run to the library and check out a Canadian guidebook! I think it will say don’t discuss ice hockey. 😉 Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  7. This was a fun and thought-provoking article! The food part was really interesting. For a while I taught English to a group Japanese exchange students and we went to lunch one day. They were shocked and slightly disgusted by the barbecued ribs, which Americans eat with their hands, of course!

    I’d add an explanation of American cultural tradition of being very enthusiastic about everything with a giant smile. It’s polite in the States, but in other countries it can come across as either very fake or very stupid. I live in Spain now, and they make fun of Americans’ big grins and “Oh my gosh!”-type exclamations about small things.

    Thanks for a fun post!

    • Those are two great examples. You are so right about the smiles in the US. We just expect it and smile for everything – and when someone – especially a woman is not smiling, she is frequently told to smile – as if something is wrong with her! Thanks for reading and for a thoughtful comment.

  8. When visiting someone in their home in Canada, it is considered polite to bring a 6-pack (If you really want to rock their world bring a two-four) and a good sense of humour (yes I said humour not humor because that is how Canadians spell it eh? Loved this post, and I too, read the guides of places I visit. 😉

  9. It’s fun playing tourist in your own city and I do that every now and again even if I don’t have out of town visitors. You get a whole different prespective. I am not an American, but have been to America more than a few times. I remember visiting NYC back in 1995 reading about the crime rate and muggings with more than a bit of trepidation. But as you have said, common sense is what it’s all about and it was nothing like what I had read. Travel is one of my passions, there is nothing better than working out how to get by and exist in a foreign place. I skim the Lonely Planet guide before I go to get the basics, otherwise it’s every day brings a new adventure… and that’s just to buy a cup of coffee, LOL.

  10. Karl

    Fantastic find, thanks!

    You, like the article, find the foreign guide’s fear of our inner cities a bit unrealistic. But I think that fear is understandable, given the way our culture is portrayed in our own movies (our greatest cultural export), and given the our actual crime statistics. We tolerate a level of violence and lethality that is unheard of in other developed countries, and some “undeveloped” countries. Why we accept that is deeply puzzling for many other people. In much the same way, we tolerated slavery long after most countries had given it up as barbaric or at least uneconomical.

    • Great point Karl. I guess it comes from growing up in Baltimore. If you trusted what you read or saw on TV, Baltimore is the scariest place on earth, but that does not show the full story. You are absolutely right that we tolerate a high level of crime and that our limited gun control laws make things worse, but I do think guidebooks sometimes blow that out of proportion. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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