14 common American things that surprise people from other countries

Martha SorrenCoffee culture in America is rooted in a ‘grab-and-go’ philosophy.
  • Some things Americans find commonplace don’t necessarily exist outside of the US.
  • For example, you won’t see yellow school buses anywhere else.
  • Garbage disposals are a rarity outside of the US.
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There are some American customs that outsiders choose to eschew as a matter of personal taste – the supposedly questionable foods, for example, or the ratio of liquid to ice in drinks.

But some of the things US citizens consider to be commonplace are actually pretty unique to the states.

From bright yellow school buses to toilet stalls with inexplicably wide gaps, you’d be hard-pressed to spot these 14 everyday American things outside of the US.


Non-Americans just don’t understand fake cheese.

AmazonCheese in a can.

Be it plastic-y orange cheese squares or sprayable cheese from a can, foreigners just don’t get the whole processed cheese thing.

British Quora users shared which American food items they just don’t understand, and processed cheese topped their list more than once.

“Orange ‘cheese’ squares and/or Cheez Whiz. Just no.” – Quora user Adam M. Steiner.

“That peculiar, bright yellow and wholly unnatural looking thing called ‘processed cheese.’ It’s clearly not the work of anything natural.”- Quora user Steve Jones.


It’s customary to tip 20% in the US — but not elsewhere.

tartanparty/ShutterstockGratuity isn’t expected in all countries.

When someone working in the service industry assists you – such as a hairdresser, waitress, or concierge – in North America, it’s customary to leave them a tip. And not just any amount – a whopping 20%.

Tipping isn’t commonplace in countries such as French Polynesia, Belgium, or Switzerland. More often than not, tipping in other countries simply comprises rounding up the bill. In places such as Japan and Hong Kong, a tip can even be seen as impolite.


Tourists visiting the US notice large gaps in bathroom stalls, between the door and the frame.

Mindscape studio/ShutterstockBathroom stalls.

OK, so wide-gapped toilet stalls probably do exist elsewhere, but nowhere are they as common and pervasive as in the US.

The question of why American bathroom stalls have gaps between the individual stall doors and the frames is one that has beleaguered visiting tourists not once, and not twice, but a seemingly endless amount of times.

NBC once aired a segment of various news anchors participating in the debate; even The Onion has gotten in on the fun.

Prevailing theories include that way back when, US bathrooms were purposely designed to be somewhat revealing, because authorities feared the hijinks people would get into (such as doing drugs or having sex) if they had utter privacy.


Yellow school buses aren’t found outside the US.

Francis Dean/Corbis via Getty ImagesA school bus.

Buses that exist solely to schlep students to and from school – aka “school buses” – can be found outside of the United States, but the only place you’ll see them painted bright yellow is in North America.

“School Bus Glossy Yellow” is a colour that was specifically formulated in 1939 for use on North American school buses. Originally called “National School Bus Chrome,” the shade was designed to quickly attract attention.


Direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising is not legal in most other countries in the world.

Getty ImagesA pharmacy in Walgreens.

Pharmaceutical ads are a dime a dozen in the US – and because this form of health communication is so ubiquitous, American patients regularly suggest treatment plans and recommend drugs to medical professionals, rather than the other way around.

This “direct-to-consumer” pharmaceutical advertising is only legal in the United States and New Zealand.


The US is home to extremely long highways, the likes of which are not easily found elsewhere.

Doug Meek/ShutterstockThe Pacific Coast highway.

Five out of ten of the world’s ten longest highways are located in the US, and while Australia, India, China, and Russia all also have at least one highway in the top 10, America essentially dominates the competition.

The longest numbered road in the United Kingdom, for instance, is the A1, a 410 mile-long motorway that spans from London to Edinburgh. Compare that to America’s longest road, the U.S. Route 20, a 3,365 mile stretch that goes from Boston, Massachusetts, to Newport, Oregon, and crosses through 12 different states.

If you’re a fan of long drives, check out the best route for your next epic cross-country road trip.


Garbage disposals are common in the US, but not other places.

Tolikoff Photography/ShutterstockAn in-sink garbage disposal.

In-sink kitchen garbage disposals are common amenities in many US homes, but they’re controversial in many parts of the world for their negative environment impact. In fact, they are banned in most European countries.


Grape-flavored skittles can’t be found everywhere.

Amelia KosciulekA Skittles factory.

In Europe, the purple skittles are black currant flavored.


Often in the US, you won’t know the final price of an item before checkout.

Adam Melnyk/ShutterstockGrocery shopping.

Most states in the US don’t factor sales tax into the price tag reflected on shelf items – so, even if an item is marked at $US1.99, you’ll end up paying just over $US2 at the register.

When you buy goods or services in the EU, however, the total price, including all taxes and additional charges, is published on the price tag.


Getting coffee to go is not the culture in other countries.

ShutterstockA woman with coffee on the go.

Coffee culture in America is rooted in a “grab-and-go” philosophy – large portions, plastic cups, and quick service.

But in countries like Italy, the birthplace of espresso, drinking coffee is a sit-down affair to be enjoyed, sometimes for hours. Italian barista and coffee expert Giorgio Milos told The Atlantic that American baristas also need “more training” and are using too many unorthodox methods of preparation.


Large portion sizes often baffle visitors.

insiderA big burger.

There’s an ongoing joke that all Americans think “the bigger the better.” But this is undeniably true when it comes to the portion sizes of our food.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the portions doled out in American restaurants have doubled (possibly tripled) in the last 20 years – contributing greatly to the country’s obesity epidemic.

This couldn’t be farther from the case in places like France, where food portions are substantially smaller.


Other visitors have noted that Americans say “how are you?” instead of “hello.”

Shutterstock‘How are you?’ is used synonymously with ‘hello’ in the US.

In America, most people say “how are you?” instead of “hello.”

But when you think about it, “how are you?” is not a greeting – it should be a meaningful question that elicits an answer. And it does in other countries.

Quora user Todd Bartholomew speculates Americans use it this way for “diplomacy.” He writes, “It’s not an actual desire to see what your current state of being is; it just sounds nicer than ‘what do you want?'”


Non-Americans associated red Solo cups only with the US.

Shoshy Ciment/Business InsiderRed Solo cups are often used at parties.

Seen in almost every college movie ever, red Solo cups are an iconic American symbol – and they have been around since the 1970s, which explains their ubiquity.

According to Slate, the cup’s “opacity [is] a selling point for underage college and high-school drinkers who would prefer not to reveal exactly what they’re sipping.” Beyond that, the cups are something you just don’t see anywhere but America.

In fact, people around the world throw “American”-themed parties that revolve around – you guessed it – the trademark cups.


Attentive restaurant servers also catch visitors off guard.

ReutersIt’s often seen as ‘annoying’ in other countries for servers to constantly ask how your meal is going.

If you walk into any restaurant in America, you’ll notice that the servers are constantly stopping by tables to check on customers. Common interjections include: “How is everything?” and “Do you need a refill?” But this level of attentiveness is distinctly American.

In most countries, servers are there for one purpose: to serve food. Anything beyond the occasional topping of drinks is considered excessive and annoying.

According to Thrillist, it’s also quite common in Europe to relish your dining experience for as long as you wish – and the servers there won’t bother you about it.

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