Tell Me About America

Given the overwhelming volume of US culture and media content which has permeated the rest of the world, most of us non-Americans have a fairly broad knowledge of your country, society, and politics. But, without intimate local knowledge, our ability to separate SDMB-style fact from Hollywood movie style fiction may be occasionally found wanting.

So, my tame collection of Yank Dopers, here’s your chance to show off, apologize, explain, celebrate, or whatever. What “little things” should I know? Will I get mugged on the NYC subway? Does it rain in Southern California? I need to know stuff I won’t find out from movies or tourism brochures…

There really are people like the ones you might have seen in the movie Deliverance, Less Than Zero, Wall Street, On Golden Pond and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Okay, not really so many like those in the first one, but the rest…whoooie, let me tell you!

Where are you from, LoadedDog, and can you be a little more specific about what you want us to tell you about? I’ve known lots of people from outside the States, and the little things they find surprising about this place differ pretty widely.

[hijack] What’s your name supposed to mean, anyway? I’ve heard of loaded guns, loaded comments, and loaded freight, but I’ve never seen or heard any mention of loaded dogs, much less the loaded dog. How many barks do you fire per second? [/hijack]

Scribble, I’m Australian, but I guess what I’m after would be applicable to most foreigners. Apologies if the OP was kinda vague. My take on it is, “If I were American what would be the things I would be eager to clarify to foreigners who may have gotten the wrong information from exported US culture (particularly Hollywood)?” In a way, the US version of Australians having to tell people that, “No, sorry, you won’t see kangaroos hopping across the tarmac as your plane taxis in, and there is a distinct lack of crocodile wrestling in the arrivals hall”.

My nick, by the way, is from a short story called The Loaded Dog. by famous Australian author Henry Lawson, to whom I am distantly related.

I feel impelled to point out that (Hollywood notwithstanding) Americans cannot, if fact, fire an endless stream of bullets from a gun without reloading, nor can we walk through a hail of lead without getting shot.

Also, we use the toilet–even when we’re not in a comedy.


Some serious stuff:

Not everyone from Louisiana is a Cajun. Also, very few of us wrestle alligators. (You have my full sympathies on the croc wrestling bit, BTW.)

Texans do not all drawl, wear big ugly hats, and discriminate indiscriminately.

There are some very intelligent, well-educated people who choose to live in rural areas for various reasons. Not everyone in the sticks is a hick.

Shhhhhhhhhhhh! :eek:

OOPS! Sorry, Kayeby. I won’t mention the [sub]drop bears[/sub] either…


I was on vacation in Ireland earlier this year, and we ran into some Italians also on vacation. They didn’t speak Englih all that well and we spoke no Italian. But we managed to communicate quite well, when asked what their thoughts were of America they replied “Everything we know about America we learned from the A-team” :rolleyes:

NO ONE in New York dresses as badly as Sarah Jessica Parker in “Sex and the City.”

Most Southerners do not tawk lyak thee-us.
Most Southerners do not speak slowly, except when speaking to one from Alabama :slight_smile:
Most Southerners do not drive pick up trucks with Rebel flags and gun racks. However, there is a high rate of SUV’s.
It’s not the heat, it is the humidity.
There is more than one Peachtree Street.
Most Southerners do not leave the dogs outside, tied to a tree with a piece of rope.
Most Southerners are very polite and more than willing to help you out.
When the evening is over, and it’s time to go home, expect to sit in your car talking to your hosts for an additional 30 minutes before being allowed to leave. This is known as a “Southern Goodbye”.
If you order tea, it will be served sweetened, and with ice.
If you order a soft drink, you will get a Coke, with ice.
Most Southern women do not have “big hair”.
Not everyone in the South likes country music.

Want to know what Americans are like? Go to a middle-class residential area of Sydney. Or Tokyo. Or Cairo. Strip off the customs specific to the culture, and we’re about the same. Pretty dull, actually, which is why Hollywood ignores us (except to shake us down for money).

As stated above, it’s hard to answer your OP without some specifics. But in general, the US is neither as glamorous nor as ugly as portrayed. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get mugged in NYC, nor rained on in SoCal–nor in Seattle, this time of the year. Nor see a cowboy in a Texas metripolitan area.

(BTW, the issue is not restricted to people outside the US. I went to college in Montana, and one of my classmates [from Syracuse, New York] would regale his friends with stories about how hard it was to study while taking a turn on the stockade wall, watching for Indians. And they believed him. This was a number of years ago, and the mass media may have expanded cultural awareness. Somewhat.)

Anyway, if there are any specific questions you’ve been itching to get answered, go ahead and ask. The answer may be a little odd–these are Dopers, after all–but answered it will be.

You’ve not set us an easy task, now have you?

Just the facts
total: 9,629,091 sq km
Area - comparative: about one-half the size of Russia; about three-tenths the size of Africa; about one-half the size of South America (or slightly larger than Brazil); slightly larger than China; about two and one-half times the size of Western Europe.

Population: 275,562,673 (July 2000 est.)
OK, now for the rest (Or at least my poor stab at it):

This is a nation of contrasts. <-(understatement of the century!)
From third-world poor to the richest people on the planet; From ultra-modern to no electricity or indoor plumbing; From Stacked-on-top-of-each-other crowded to where-the-hell-is-everybody deserted; we’ve got it all.

In general: Our cities tend to sprawl, where they can. Americans in general don’t like crowding, but tollerate it to the degree that it’s necessary. In some areas (NYC comes to mind), geography or land values limit the ability to sprawl, and the cities go up and up. Most smaller cities sprawl like no one’s business, and you get results like the Boston-Washington corridor, where it’s more urban than not for hundreds of miles. Mind you, this is clustered along the main drag, Interstate-95 (The Interstate System is a Federally funded highway system, even-numbers going east-west, odd-numbers going north-south, lowest numbers starting in the southwest). Outside of the cities and the heavily occupied urban areas, the sub-urban areas sprawl like cities never dreamed of sprawling. The Los Angeles basin is the biggest example of this. One old joke was that the LA basin was “19 cities seeking metropolis”. The entire basin is covered in city or suburb. No joke.

Away from the cities, America is mostly agricultural, with all that entails: Low population density, small towns, miles and miles of corn, wheat, soy, cattle, and whatever else. Cities tend to be liberal, politically (although this is by no means an iron-clad rule!), and the countryside tends to be more conservative (again, this is not always the case). Complicating this, large industries like to set up plants in the middle of nowhere, where the local town is greatful for the hedge against a bad harvest, and the locals are greatful for something other than farming for work, and the company are greatful for low labor costs, taxbreaks, cheap land, and inexpensive utilities. Of course, if the industy happens to be blue collar, this means unions, which, while conservative as all hell, tend to vote Democrat in the overwhelming majority.

Some areas have so little going for them that they have become back-waters. West Virginia and Arkansas come to mind: Fine places to live, but they’re perenially looked-down on as being places where nothing ever happens, and the economic choices are limited. Other places, like Alaska, are so divorced from the “lower 48” as to almost be another country. There are parts of the lower 48 that are so isolated as to be in another century, much less another country.

General education is quite decent, but is often lacking in any kind of focus. The suburbs tend to be the best educated on the whole, combining the best combination of resource and cultural concern for education, but don’t count out either the city or the country. Cities collect very well-educated people, while modern farming requires a vast and speciallized body of knowledge.

Now, lay across all that a vast patchwork of ethnicity, religion, and culture. Immigrants arrived in waves, and initially, they created enclaves where they felt at home. From those enclacves, they’ve spread-out, creating a wide diasporra, and also smaller enclaves. Immigration is also a constant flow, blurring the edges of the various enclaves, adding a savor to the mix that one never quite expects.

Americans are, by-and-large, proud, argumentative, self-confident, self-reliant, friendly, generous, self-centered, and arrogant. They don’t much care for the government, except as a necessary evil, and they don’t really care much about the rest of the world, one way or another. That said, show a worthy cause, and there’ll be a whole slew of Americans lining up to support it. We give out of our own pockets readily and generously. But mostly, Americans are proud.

What you get is really beyond description, though many have tried. You’ve got to come here, and spend a year or two moving about to really get the totallity of it. Hell, even most Americans don’t really know that much about the country. It’s too huge and diverse to grasp from education, you’ve got to live it.

I think we need hedra in here. She’s a geographer, and probably one of the better qualified to answer the question.

Hey Lyllyan, I live in the part of Alabama where people do ‘tawk lyak thee-us’. There’s a weird pocket of it here, just west of the border with GA. When I first moved back here, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing at the girl a few cubes down from me in the office whenever she was on the phone. (My folks is Yankees, is how I never picked up the accent, plus I grew up one county over from the worst offenders, which limited my exposure.) Incidentally, we have a high rate of pickup trucks, rebel flags, dogs tied to trees, country music, barbequed pork, inbreeding, and big hair. And mobile homes. Lots of mobile (MO-BILE, not Mo-buhl) homes.

On the other hand, that is balanced by plenty of well-educated and well-spoken, professional, groomed, shod, and bill-paying people. Lots of nice people live here, who vote, care about their neighbors, support local charities, and keep their lawns mowed. Much of our population goes to work at professional or skilled jobs, and area industry recruits worldwide (and people come here from all over). We have area resorts, parks, city ordinances, healthcare, functioning school systems, a performing arts community, and pretty much the same things people find in any small to medium sized town anywhere around the country (and presumably around the world). You can buy mangoes in the grocery store here. I’ve been to small towns all over the US, and it’s pretty much the like it is here - the good, the bad, and the ugly of Generic American Life.

One thing about the South (yes, it’s always capitalized) in particular: as paradoxical and contrary as it may seem, race relations are better here than in much of the rest of the country. Why? My Sociological Therory: Here, people of all races have traditionally lived fairly close to each other, so culturally, we’re more ‘used to it’, whereas in the north and out west, different groups tended to isolate from each other geographically in a way that did not happen here. Especially for the younger (post-segregation era) people, we have known and been friends with members of other races all our lives, and unless told otherwise by our families, see everyone as pretty much the same. At least, that’s been my experience. Of course, YMMV.

Thank you all for explaining.

There’s one thing I notice and admire * though don’t understand,* about Americans; Their desire to win.

Whether it be wars, a match or simply a silly game.

I saw Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France, I saw other athletes go to extremes to be first.

Even playing a silly game like charades, my American friends have to win.

I also notice our sportsmans. If they can’t win, there’s always some damn excuse, or they simply give up.

I remember my mama saying; never mind dear, if you’re tired, take it easy. :stuck_out_tongue:

Is it something you were brought up with?

“Is it something you were brought up with?”

—Goodness, yes; HUGELY competitive society, and it makes our childhoods HELL. “Winners never quit, quitters never win.” We have to be FIRST in our careers, our love lives, our looks, our possessions. As annoying as it may look from the outside, imagine how exhausting it is to LIVE it.

daffodil, it all has to do with the Protestant work ethic. Remember, this country was founded by religious zealots. We are still very much one nation under God, and God doesn’t like loosers or quitters (kidding).

People in the south tend to say please and thank you frequently. Do not think this weird. It’s just our way.

Probaly the necessity to win comes from our early History as a nation when, in order to gain the respect of the more powerful nations, we had to WIN.

Today, however, I chalk it up to American arrogance and the whole “We’ve never lost(Vietnam not withstanding), and by God, we won’t start now!”

This thread brings back fond memories of my trip to London, when I watched a Covent Garden street performer instruct his audience to “cheer really loud, and all the Americans will hear and think there’s been a shooting.”

Anyway, I refer you to the following webpage:

So, Tranquilis called my name, huh?

Unfortunately, my geographic specialty is NOT America. I just live here! :wink:

Win? You all must not be descended from the Quakers… Anyway, I’d call the urge to WIN a result of several things, among them:

  1. The kind of migrants who arrived early enough to establish the ‘dominant culture’ - often underdogs/persecuted at home, so having that ‘Nya-Nya, we’re right, and you’re not, so THERE’ attitude…

  2. After the first immigrant waves become established, further immigrants coming in new to be underdogs even HERE, leading to a major inferiority problem.

  3. The sense of opportunity being open (especially early) - if you lose HERE, you REALLY are a loser, because you got a fresh chance and still blew it. Losing becomes very very very bad. (Americans hate to LOSE far more than they love to WIN, IMHO)

  4. Independant survival - because the culture developed with a fairly weak sense of community interdependance (small pockets highly interdependant, larger community largely stratified), competition for survival became a very important trait. Politically, socially, economically, and just plain physically, you had to be the best to help yourself and your family and your little pocket of connections. The weak could not take advantage of the best things that the new land had to offer, leaving the small community vulnerable, where strong/winning individuals helped their community significantly.

Combine those into a kind of pathological arrogance/inadequacy complex, and BOOM, you’ve got competition all over the place. Winning is very valued, and losing is mortifyingly shameful and too humiliating to bear. Americans will hedge all over to avoid defining themselves as on the losing team even if they clearly didn’t WIN, because of the really BAD reaction we get to being losers/last/bottom/worst. And the more vulnerable we feel about a topic, the more we have to be at the top to not feel like we’re at the bottom.

Childrearing is the place I see this most, right now - because parenting has become so insecure (at the extreme: what if OUR child is the next mass-murdering-pre-adolescent, and they blame US?) our kids have to be best best best best best. Nothing less than exceptional will do. And rather than have you think for a moment that I don’t know if I’m screwing up and turning my child into a monster, I’ll flaunt my child’s perfection all over the place until you are sick of me… Look, I win at parenting, my child is more perfect than YOUR child!

I don’t subscribe to that attitude myself, but I think that fundamental insecurity/vulnerablilty/arrogance is behind some of the odder forms of competition in the US. This all, however, is just ‘IMHO’ not some standard geographer philosophy. :slight_smile:

As for what I’d tell you about America/Americans? Having traveled a bit, here are the things that seem to make people go, “OH!”…

I’m not terrified to walk on a crowded city street in a racially/ethnically diverse area. (I’ve been told I was BRAVE to live within an hour of Philadelphia… you know, all that racial violence!) Not everyone has absurdly large houses in nice neighborhoods (though IMHO, far too many people buy absurdly large houses, but that’s another thread…). We aren’t all rich, and we aren’t all poor - there’s a sizable chunk in the middle. All our land is not: cityscape, floodplains, rich suburbs, barren/empty wilderness, or slums. We’re good at being friendly at even the basic contact level, but you usually have to have a deeper connection to us to really become “friends”. We don’t all talk loudly, or slowly, or with strange accents, but local variations do certainly exist. We will offer our real opinion if asked in such as way that we think you WANT our real opinion (even if we never formulated an opinion on the subject before) - some call us ‘frank’, but IMHO, we just like being listened to and taken seriously (maybe more of that arrogance/insecurity). Most of us are interested in other places (especially foreign places), even if we have no background or understanding of that place - but we tend not to delve a lot unless something really catches our imagination. Style, attitude, and approach differ vastly by region - in one place, it would be rude not to make eye contact, nod and say hello to people you pass on the street, in another place, it is a faux-pas to make eye contact at all. The Mountain States are not still full of gunslinging fighters and Indian raids (another question I was honestly asked while traveling - ‘Do the Indians ever raid your town?’).

Americans like to feel that they are getting a bargain. Most will readily spend large amounts of money, but not if they don’t think they’re getting a good deal. This is one of the reasons why large sized items are so popular in the US – larger size usually means better value. Also, Americans just like big things.