Notes on the social and cultural life in the United States of America

inkwell

penline

Things that Americans seem to like:
Asking people how they are. In most cultures that I am aquainted with, only old friends would be so familiar as to ask that question (Hur står det till? Wie geht's?). Indeed, it gives me a creepy feeling to have an utter stranger, for instance a shop clerk, ask me "how I am". Maybe I've had a really lousy day, or maybe I'm just sick and tired of everything, but that's my own business and nobody else's. I assume that one is supposed to say "Fine!" and smile, because that's what I see other people doing, but when I'm not in my best mood, I usually don't bother with feigning happiness. That's probably rude of me, by American standards.
Neon lights, which is a good thing not only because it is very pretty to look at, but also because it helps to light up the otherwise dark streets (see below).
Warning signs informing the general public that wet floors are slippery. This obsession with the dangers of wet floors defies all description. You would call me a liar, so come and see for yourself instead. And don't trip over on the warning signs.
Parades. In America, any reason is a good reason to have a parade.
Plastic surgery. Not only are the papers full of advertisements for plastic surgery (or "body sculpting" as it is often called), but also if you go to see a picture at the cinema, you can expect commercials for plastic surgery to be shown.
Sodium hypochlorite, which is simply called "bleach" in America. Similar to the product "Klorin" in Sweden. It is the all-purpose household chemical, despite its effects on noses and on nature. It is also used to dip chicken carcasses in, before they are sold as food, in order to kill off bacteria.
Driving recklessly at pedestrian crossings, against red traffic lights etc. Sounding the horn is also popular.
Shouting comments from speeding cars. Since it is almost never possible to hear what is being shouted, it leaves the pedestrian with an unpleasant feeling that it may have been a crude insult.
Complimenting young women on their looks, dress etc. The men doing this face to face with the woman are often quite pleasant in their manners. I leave it to the readers to decide whether whistles and hoots across the street can be regarded as a compliment; I dare state as my opinion that it is never polite.
Flattering customers is a common strategy for increasing sales and fishing for tips in fashion shops, at hair dressers and other related businesses. You are regularly told that the person you're dealing with simply loves your shirt/jacket/shoes/nose/etc. Although they often put it on quite thick, it is presumably regarded as odd only by foreign visitors like ourselves. Yet, one must probably have a quite high opinion of oneself to take it all seriously.
Sandwiches, in all the various forms and names that they come under, hot or cold, domestic or exotic, seem to be the favourite lunch alternative.
Sprays. There are sprays for frying in ("replaces fat"), to imitate whipped cream ("no cholesterol"), for poisoning insects, cheese and garlic sprays, sprays for creating a fried-like crust on microwaved food, for frosting the Christmas tree, for defrosting the refrigerator (I swear!), for removing smells (from the other sprays, I reckon), and lots of other purposes. I've been told that one ladies' room at my workplace even has an automatic gadget that continuosly sprays some chemical in the air. Wise female colleagues avoid that room.
Naming buildings after people is big business in America. This is a way to convince rich people to put up the money for some good cause. It can also be rather irritating for a foreigner who is accustomed that at the University the department of microelectronics is called Department of Microelectronics, the office building is called Office Building and soforth. In America, when you come upon the Humphbert F. Hinkelton Building or The Ezra Goldshue Towers, you have no means of knowing whether it is the department of paleontology, the football team's locker room or the janitor's office. Also individual rooms, corridors et c can be named. I'll name my broom closet after anyone who contributes with five dollars to my rent.
Name plates is a way for smaller contributors to get their names on fence posts, benches, bike racks etc. Imagine a pavement with thousands of individually named bricks in it! It can be seen at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Would it not be more rational to use efficiently collected tax money (as opposed to money collected in rather wasteful campaigns) and use ordinary machine-made bricks, which probably you get at least ten for the cost of one inscribed brick? Well, that's not how things are done here. Would probably smell of Communism.
Sports. Not unique for America, though.
The expression Oh My God, pronounced either as a short Ohmygod! or as a high-pitched yell, Oh my Goooooood!, is very often used by American women to express amazement at something said in conversation. It seems to be roughly equivalent to a Swedish "Verkligen?" or a British "I say!".
Very large flags on very short flagpoles.
Rice beer. This kind of beverage is incredibly popular. It is likely that this is not only the effect of local standards of taste and massive marketing, but also to the fact that many brands of rice beer, such as American Budweiser (not to be confused with the good Czech malt beer Budweiser, made in the city of Budweis) are sold at about half the price of malt beer. It should, however, be noted that in the shadow of the large beverage companies, some smaller breweries produce excellent beer. Two American beers well in keeping with European standards are the Hurricane Reef Lager of Miami and the Samuel Adams Stock Ale, formally of Boston but brewed at other locations as well.
Round doorknobs that can't be opened with the elbow when you are carrying things in both hands (and probably not at all by many handicapped people).
Collectibles. This is a term that applies to almost anything useless offered for sale, but especially dolls. Personally, I have tried to tell the difference between a collectible ball pen and an ordinary one, but failed. My best guess is that you buy an ordinary pen only when you are in need of something to write with, but a collectible one at any time. Anyway, show me a man who collects angelfaced porcelain dolls in pink and blue lace for a hundred dollars apiece, and I'll show you a very sick man.
Soap operas. They are probably not dominating among the TV programs only because they are cheap to produce. Many people obviouly take a great and active interest in them, as can be seen from the fact that in a typical supermarket with perhaps 30 different periodicals for sale, four were papers dealing exclusively with soap operas (Soap Opera Weekly, Soap Opera Digest, Soap Opera Update and Soap Opera Magazine).
The word "value". One comes across it dozens of times a day. All kinds of enterprises etc. offer "value". Whether you buy a can of soup or open a bank account, you are guaranteed it. In commercials and advertisements, the word is very prominent. I have not yet found out how this promise should be interpreted. "Power" is also very common in all kinds of neologisms, such as "Power buy".
Jesus is much more present in the American society than in Sweden, not only as an electrically lit plastic garden decoration during Christmas, but as a generally accepted Superiour Being. Few people seem to question his existense or to have given the matter much thought, and even the banknotes and coins simply state that the Americans believe in God. Your humble etnographer, wearing his Hammer of Thor as usual, was approached in a railway wagon by an American Christian who cautiously questioned him about this adornment. The questions quickly took on the character of accusations of disbelief in the Christian religion, and with these suspicions confirmed, the good Christian promptly declared that if we met in the street, he would beat me up. The old ladies around us cheered the apostle on and threw in supporting comments of the type "Yes, I'm a Christian too!" and "That's right!". But perhaps some of them were just afraid of being beaten up by any Christians present if they showed lack of zeal.
Superstition. Especially the so-called psychics are numerous and offer their services in TV commercials, in newspaper ads or in the street. They seem to have a prospering business going, indicating that many Americans believe in their powers. Also a great number of magazines discover, in hidden chambers in the pyramids or elsewhere, new prophesies by Jesus and Nostradamus on a weekly basis and always have first-hand information regarding the activities of the space aliens visiting Earth. I warmly recommend this link to a site devoted to fighting such rot.
Chewing gum. In America, grown men imagine themselves to look really cool when they masticate a piece of gum. But we all new that, already.
Pepperoni on pizza. My estimate is that some 85 % of the pizzas sold here, from pizza bakers or frozen, have either pepperoni (which in the US is a kind of artificially coloured salami, not a vegetable as in Sweden) or only cheese on them. The way you choose pizzas over here is very different from Sweden, so don't try to get an Orientale Special or a Quattro Staggioni when you visit America.
Garden decorations. These are typically of a seasonal nature, probably in order to sell more plastic junk. For Halloween, you put lots of plastic pumpkins, skeletons, witches and ghosts in your garden. For Thanksgiving, turkeys. For Christmas, Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, plastic snowmen, reindeer, Mary Mother-of-God and camels. For Valentine's Day, hearts. I look forward to seeing inflatable Bill Clintons in people's gardens, now that President's Day is coming up.
Lawsuits. The idea is that if something unpleasant happens, it is never your fault, and with some luck, you can make big bucks by suing someone. Some examples can be found here:
Things that Americans don't seem to like:
Refund systems for beverage bottles, aluminium cans etc. However, there are some limited refund systems in operation in some North States.
Pavements. This is no doubt due to the fact that Americans prefer driving cars to walking. In many places where you would expect a pavement to exist next to the road, there is none. On the other hand, when there is one, it is usually deserted. It is a peculiar feeling to walk or, as we have found practical, cycle on empty pavements in an overpopulated city.
Street lights. This may be due to the relatively high price of electricity. Streets are remarkably dark for such a large city as Miami.
Labour unions. This despite that many workers (especially waiters) are so poorly paid by their employers that they couldn't survive on their salary alone, but are dependent on what they receive as gratuity from customers they serve. In some South States as little as 4% of the labour is organised. An interesting account of the background to this state of affairs, and what could be done to remedy this unfortunate situation, can be found on the adjacent link.
Pendant lamps. Apartments in many cases have no sockets at all in the ceiling, and the installation of a lamp, which would take five minutes in Sweden, may require major rewiring by a professional in America. The Americans compensate for this lack of pendant lamps with ingenious designs of floor lamps, but since these rarely can be placed in the middle of the room, the rooms are often unevenly illuminated with many dark corners.
Coconuts. Although most homeowners have a few coconut palms, they throw the coconuts on the garbage heap (which, in Florida, it is customary to keep on the front lawn for everyone to see). Perhaps this is some inedible subspecies of coconut, but then, why don't they grow the edible kind?
Natural foods, as opposed to synthetic, adulterated, or depleted ("light") products, are in many cases only available in certain expensive shops or not at all. Especially bread baked on only flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar, spices and other "normal" ingredients is rare, although available in selected shops at a higher price. The Americans favour bread containing at least 20 ingredients, preferrably including ethylenediaminotetraacetic acid, propylene glycol, butylated hydroxytoluene, aluminium phosphate, benzoyl peroxide and sodium iodate.
Baker's yeast of the traditional kind is completely absent from the market. In most cases, shop clerks don't know that such a commodity exists at all. Instead, self-rising flour (whatever that may be) or freeze-dried yeast is used. The Swedish readers can read more about my attempts to bake traditional Swedish bread in America on the page "Lussekatter på Amerikanska".
Mud guards on bicycles. Prepare to have the seat of your pants sprayed with mud when it rains. Also racks, kickstands, headlights etc are usually absent.
Hallways are usually not included in the floor plan of apartments and private homes in Florida. The front door often leads straight into the living room or kitchen. The Scandinavian visitor would look around in vain for a place to dispose of his coat and kick off his shoes, were it not for the fact that in America the visitor keeps his shoes on, and that no true Scandinavian needs a coat in Florida.
Tea. Even very large supermarkets have no tea as we know it (tea leaves in loose weight or packaged into boxes). As with the yeast mentioned above, the inquiries for this product caused much bewilderment. When I asked for "tea", as opposed to tea bags, I was shown plastic canisters and metal cans with liquid cold tea, and "instant teas". The idea of loose tea leaves was alien. Furthermore, I visited an "African" shop, hoping to find some decent tea imported from Tanzania or Kenya. The shop had 30 different types of "tea" in tea bags. None of these contained any leaves of Camellia sinensis. Later we found some pretty dull Indian tea in a Lebanese shop.
TV antennas. With this I mean real rooftop antennas. Instead, Americans who don't have a cable TV contract or a satellite dish use so-called indoor antennas, or "rabbit ears", useless pieces of junk that demand constant tinkering with and give a very poor excuse for a picture.
Blood pudding, Janssons Frestelse (Swedish anchovy gratin), Arboga-type liver paste and several other types of good food.
Dirty words. Although words like "motherfucker" are incredibly prominent in some people's vocabulary, and Americans can't avoid hearing them quite often in the streets, they would be shocked to hear them on TV. Also milder curses as in "Useless piece of _____" (probably "shit") are silenced out from movies shown on TV. In the same movie, it is completely in order to show scores of people being shot, stabbed, strangled, burned alive and beaten to pulp - just as long as they say "ouch" rather than "fucking shit" when they get hurt. These dropouts in the soundtrack create a surrealistic feeling, and makes you wonder if Character #1 called Character #2 a cunt or a prick. Papers can't quote curses, either, but actually write "this bleeping bleep called me a bleep" when quoting somebody! Labour Union leader Stig Malm would never have been in any danger here, the papers could not have quoted his juicy comment about the feminists.
Germs. I wonder if Americans are not obsessed with "germs". Innumerable products are designed for their killing, a task that seems to be regarded as being of paramount importance. On TV commercials, threatening "germs" on floors and walls are depicted as squirming green worms and pulsating blobs that shrivel and disappear while turning a cool blue colour when the appropriate product is applied. The products for germ killing include lotions to rub into your palms after shaking hands with people, etc. Cleanliness is next to obsessive neurosis.
Sodium. As I don't believe in the dangers of intake of sodium ions, I find it odd that this particular element should be so carefully avoided by the same Americans who readily accept all other kinds of dubious elements and componds in their food, e.g., aluminium salts, which are routinely added to supermarket-quality bread.

(MANY OF THESE OBSERVATIONS MAY APPLY ONLY TO FLORIDA OR, IN SOME CASES, ONLY TO MIAMI.)

penline


No software from Microsoft has been used in creating this web page.

Back to previous page