Living in Spain for a year and a half offered me a new perspective of culture: the European type, absolutely, but also something I did not expect—our own. I have to admit, from an outside standpoint, sometimes we really did seem…well, weird. Here are seven things Americans are legitimately obsessed with.
“Oh no…,” I muttered under my breath.
“What?” the girl from Southern England asked.
“No knives.” I manage, pointing to the small blue sign to the left of the security checkpoint.
“You have a knife???” she choked out, eyes searching around rapidly, as if a police officer were likely to appear in any moment.
I explained that I carried a small pocket knife that my neighbor had given me as a going-away present. It had been in my checked luggage on the plane from the United States, but now that we were traveling by train, all the luggage had to go through security, and absolutely no size of blade was acceptable. Her eyes opened wider, as if baffled that this kind of situation would even occur. Eventually she just shook her head, whispering under her breath, “Americans…”
Fast forward a year and a half later, to my first weekend home with my family. My older brother suggested we go shooting as a welcome home activity. Armed with pistols and small tin cans, before I knew it, we were on an excursion into the Arizona desert. Soon enough, I was handed the “Lavender Lady,” a feminized version of a .38 revolver. I had the chance at the first shot, and after hitting the target, I heard a holler of praise for my first “American” activity after returning home.
Americans currently own more guns per capita than any other nation in the world. Basically no matter where you travel in the world, you’ll never find a more large-scale culture of acceptance of weapons.
One night in Seville, I was teaching the advanced English class. One of the students asked me how my fiance and I had met. Glad to give them an opportunity to hear English out of the class’ typical vocabulary, I explained—we went paddle boating at the creek with his family, cliff jumped and lit off paper lanterns into the night sky—I finished the story, writing down unfamiliar words on the board. One of the Peruvian teachers shook his head disapprovingly as I sat down. “You Americans with your boats and hiking and skiing…Your hobbies are all the same.” I laughed, silently wondering what else this guy did for fun. It’s true though, many Americans tend to enjoy the outdoors, maybe because we have a lot of it. Maybe because we get to shoot more guns out there.
Large Living Spaces
Visiting homes throughout Spain, it never ceased to surprise me how, well, small they seemed. Many of them were in high-rises, but even the houses were conservative in areas where Americans tend to space-splurge, for instance, the kitchen, living room, and master bedroom. I think the only houses with dining rooms I stepped into were the beach houses built for American Naval families stationed abroad. As far as living spaces go, they were close and intimate, with most of the furniture spaced close together, including the television set. Even middle-to-lower class American homes typically have the TV kept at about a ten foot distance, volume cranked loud to reach the dining room too.
Honestly, most Americans usually prefer extra room in general. I remember a Bolivian woman confiding in me one day, whispering, “Does that man hate me?” She was referring to the red-headed American who was participating in a study-abroad Master’s program. When she had entered the church, he hadn’t addressed her with the customary double besos or even extended a hand. In fact, he did not even acknowledge her besides a glance up. I assured her that he did not hate her, he just did not know her. It was just different with Americans…we don’t typically kiss people we don’t know. Impersonal relationships with strangers was something she could not understand. Why the “coldness?”
Greetings that don’t make sense
“Hi! How are you?”
“Good! How are you?”
How many times do we say or hear that greeting in a day? I tried to pay attention today; it is mid-afternoon and I have lost count. While we may not be the most physically friendly people in the world, definitely have our kind social greetings down…or do we? I remember a Norwegian friend asking me, “Why do you ask someone how they are doing as you walk by him/her?” She had a difficult time understanding how someone’s emotional status could be summarized into a two second statement:
“Hey. How are you?”
“Actually my dog just died. Oh you’re leaving, good to see you too! Bye!”
While the golden arches definitely make their presence known in America, I'm not referring to grease-stained paper bags or obesity rates here. Rather, fast food seems to reflect an ever-present urgency we often give our mealtimes. In Spain they have a cultural practice called sobremesa, which roughly translates to “table-talk,” implying the two-to-three hour conversation friends will have when they go to a café or bar together. The purpose of the meal is not to eat; it is to enjoy the meal together. During lunch breaks, I could never truly just relax and enjoy the sobremesa; I eat too fast (even when I take small bites). My food was gone. I had three other things I need to do, and as much as I loved my amiga I did not want to waste my afternoon chatting. Many people in America use meals as multi-tasking time (just took a bite of a sandwich) or choose to take the coffee or a bagel on the go. We’re not too into “wasting time."
Idealistic Career Expectations
I remember one blisteringly hot Seville evening I sat conversing with a Spaniard on the bus home. I noticed his jeans were dotted with white specks of paint and asked what he did for a living. He replied he’d been in the contracting business for five years, and, with a smile, told me he loved his job because he could work forty hours a week. I was surprised. If working full-time were the only qualification for a satisfactory occupation, then I had peaked before my career even began. Especially with rising generations, there is often the illusion of making lots of dinero with flexible hours, paid vacations and the option for early retirement. Unrealistic career expectations was not a not a common mentality I personally saw with Spaniards; it felt more like a nice illusion for them, artificial and impossible.
Americans stand out more than we know in comparison to the rest of the world considering our social customs, interests, and expectations for the future. With all the “weirdness” surrounding our society, it is exciting to think just how different we may be. I am grateful for my american heritage but am also glad to have experienced distinct ways of viewing the world. Just for the record, I am still on the lookout for opportunities to adopt some other “weird” things, as well—see how “weird” the rest of the world is, you know?