I can't help but agree..
Normally, after I spend considerable time in a country/city, I like to summarise my cultural experience there and tend to put a positive spin on it, as I did with Germany, Amsterdam, Brazil, and even Paris, which was actually a negative experience for me.
This time Iâ€™m not doing that.
This post is my rant about America because of all the places Iâ€™ve been, the people who always complain the most about the local country are travelling Americans. It has annoyed me so much over the years that I honestly feel like a lot of you need to hear a foreigner complain about YOUR country.
Note that Iâ€™ve actually really enjoyed my last three months in the states, but there have been too many things that confirm that this really is not the place for me.
Iâ€™m not interested in whining about foreign policy, economics or politics. This is entirely about my frustrations with day to day life in America. The United States is a huge country, and itâ€™s impossible to generalise all 300 million of you, but the points below are my observations after spending:
3 months in upstate New York, 4 months in La Jolla/San Diego, 1 month in Chicago, 1 month in Nevada, 6 weeks in San Francisco, 1 month in Austin, 2 weeks in New Orleans, 2 weeks in Los Angeles, as well as several days among other cities like Portland (OR), San Antonio, Houston, Durham (NC) â€¦ (and visiting sites like the Grand Canyon). Over a year in total, most of which was in trying to live as a local rather than staying in tourist accommodation.
Right now Iâ€™m back outside the USA (in Peru on another language learning mission; Quechua) and I feel like itâ€™s such an improvement in so many ways when I see things Iâ€™ve been missing over the last months travelling in the states.
While technically Iâ€™ve already â€œlivedâ€ in America [edit for clarity: when I say America in this post and in comments, I mean USA of course], each time was always a temporary visit. And when you read the conclusion, youâ€™ll see that Iâ€™ll definitely be back. But when I do finally settle down it will not be in the United States and this post explains the many reasons why.
Sorry if you find this post offensive, but I expect you to becauseâ€¦
1. Americans are way too sensitive
Sometimes I wonder if political correctness is in your constitution. I found out very quickly in my first visit that I had to bite my tongue pretty much all the time, and (more annoyingly) that nobody was ever straight with me.
It seems that speaking your mind to individuals is a major taboo. You canâ€™t tell a friend straight when he has f***ed up, nobody will ever tell you that you look fat (oversensitivity with not telling obese people to get their act together is a major contributor in my opinion to why there are so many of them in the states), and thereâ€™s way too much euphemism to avoid the hard truth.
To a certain extent, I can understand it â€“ America generally does a great job of preventing people from singling out ethnic groups and toning down hate speech. But it waters it down far too much at the individual level.
A lot of Americans I met feel very lonely, and I feel this is a major reason. You may never find a boy/girlfriend if a friend who knows you well and supposedly cares about you, doesnâ€™t tell you the hard facts of what makes you so damn annoyingâ€¦ so that you can change it! Being insulting for the sake of it is needless aggression. But constructive criticism is what friends are for.
The one time in my entire last three months that someone was straight with me was when my friend Karol Gajda gave me some tips to improve my presentation in future after I gave a TEDx talk, while everyone else was doing nothing but massaging my ego. It was really useful advice but it caught me off guard because I was used to months ofâ€¦
2. Everything is â€œawesomeâ€!
I really hate the word awesome. It used to mean â€œthat which inspires aweâ€, but in the states it means nothing! It doesnâ€™t even mean good - itâ€™s just a word â€“ a filler, like â€œumâ€ or â€œyâ€™knowâ€.
This is the stereotypical American cheesy word, and I heard it until my ears started to bleed. Too many over-the-top positive adjectives like this get thrown around so much that they really mean nothing.
And when you ask someone â€œHow are you?â€ the answer will inevitably be â€œgreat!â€ even if they are far from it.
When you start using excessive positivity it waters down the meaning, and those words become neutral. Then what do you do when you need to express true positivity? Of course, when someone says they are â€œOK, I guessâ€ then you know things are pear shaped! I donâ€™t think â€œbadâ€ is in Americaâ€™s vocabulary.
But nothing beats Americaâ€™s over-positivity more than this:
3. Smiles mean NOTHING
When I meet Americans abroad, one of their biggest complaints are along the lines of â€œnobody smiles on Pragueâ€™s trams!â€ â€œThat waitress was so rude to me! She didnâ€™t even smile!â€
Goddamnit America â€“ I have the opposite complaint for you. You guys smile way too much. Itâ€™s f***ing annoying! How can you tell when someone means it? And why the hell would a stranger doing a crossword puzzle on public transport want to look giddy?
When people smile in Europe it means something. For example, because Germans donâ€™t go around looking like an American toothpaste commercial when I was with them and they smiled, it lit up the room â€“ you know itâ€™s genuine and you canâ€™t help but smile back, because you are genuinely happy. Youâ€™ve shared a joke, or a funny story or you are in love etc.
But all the time? When you smile all the time in public it means nothing. Apparently a smile releases endorphins, but if your face is stuck that way Iâ€™m sure your dreams of a natural high will fade soon. Iâ€™d rather focus on trying to make my life better and have reasons to smile than lie to myself and the world.
Despite how surly I sound in this post, because complaining is the theme of the article, the fact that I vent when I mean it, means that when you see me happy you know Iâ€™m truly happy. And that is indeed a lot of the time But not all of it!
While itâ€™s a perk for most of you, for me it was terribly annoying to be in restaurants and having a waitress interrupt me every 3 minutes asking me if everything is OK. Iâ€™d have to feign a smile and thumbs up to make her go away since my mouth was always full. I really donâ€™t see the point â€“ if youâ€™ve given me the wrong order or if I suddenly realise Iâ€™m dying from an allergic reaction to your food, youâ€™ll know it long before those 3 minutes are up.
Eating out is always an annoying experience because of this. In the rest of the world we call the server over when we need something. If this was genuine interest, or if the person was trying to be friendly that would be cool, but thatâ€™s not what itâ€™s about. In fact, itâ€™s all down to â€œsubtleâ€ reminders that this person wants you to tip them.
This drove me crazy â€“ I really think tipping as a means of waitresses and others earning the vast majority of their living is ridiculous. If I have to pay, say 15% anyway, then include it in the bill! Itâ€™s not a bloody tip if itâ€™s mandatory!!!
Once again, one huge complaint I hear in other countries is how rude waitresses are, and Americans claim itâ€™s because they arenâ€™t tipped. Instead of getting tipped they earn a wage like everyone else, and do their job and if they do it bad enough theyâ€™ll get fired. But apparently not pestering you every minute and not smiling like you are in a Ms. World competition means you are â€œrudeâ€.
I think the basic concept of tipping is nice â€“ if someone does a top-notch job, sure, throw them an extra few cents or a dollar â€“ but I just see it as a complex system of tax evasion for both restaurants and workers in the states. Some people ludicrously suggest that it makes it cheaper that the restaurant doesnâ€™t have to charge more, but youâ€™re paying the difference anyway. What it does contribute to is clear though:
5. False prices on everything
Tipping is just the peak of the iceberg.
Itâ€™s all one big marketing scam to make people feel like they are paying less. The price you see on a menu is nothing compared to what youâ€™ll actually pay. Apart from tipping, you have to of course pay taxes.
Now taxes are things that you simply have to pay on items you purchase â€“ itâ€™s how governments work all around the world. So why hide it from us? It boggles my mind that places refuse to include the tax in prices. The price they state is pretty much useless. Itâ€™s just saying â€œthis is how much we get from what you pay, but youâ€™ll actually pay moreâ€.
I donâ€™t give a flying toss how much YOU get, I want to know how much I have to pay! How much moneyâ€¦ do you want meâ€¦ to hand to you? Do I really have to spell this out?
The most laughable of all of these is the â€œdollar storeâ€. We have this thing in Ireland called the â‚¬2 shop. You can walk in with a single â‚¬2 coin and walk out with something. If you have a single dollar, you will be turned away from a â€œdollarâ€ store though. Itâ€™s a dollarâ€¦ that they earn not that you pay. Do you follow? The only thing that matters is the businessâ€™s perspective.
Airlines are the worst of all though. While in Europe some airlines are pretty bad with added fees, at least youâ€™ll see them when itâ€™s time to pay. The crazy thing for me flying in the states (since I have check-in luggage) was that I would payâ€¦ and then Iâ€™d pay again later.
Itâ€™s nothing but a large scale marketing scam. Make the price seem cheaper, which is lying to people. One great way to get people in more debt is to make them feel like they are spending less, but add the rest when it comes time to hand over the cash. This is one big part ofâ€¦.
6. Cheesy in-your-face marketing
I feel like scraping out my eyes with toothpicks when Iâ€™m forced to endure advertising in America. Make it stop.
Most Americans arenâ€™t even aware of it â€“ itâ€™s on all the time so much that it becomes nothing more than background noise. And this means that advertisers have to be even louder to get through to people. Itâ€™s a vicious circle that drives any non-American not used to it bonkers.
BUT WAIT THEREâ€™S MORE!
I decided to watch an episode of House one evening on TV. Up until then I had only really seen American shows online with advertising removed or back in Europe with European advertising inserted.
Every few minutes you get torn out of the show and bombarded with irrelevant spam, and â€œawesomeâ€ images of people who practically experience orgasms as soon as they buy product X, that is (of course) on special offer just right now. And if itâ€™s anything medical you get a super fast voice spur every kind of medical complaint you can imagine that his product will create as a side-effect. But at least the cheesy model is still happy, so itâ€™s probably not so important.
Some of my American blogger friends apply this to the online world and cover their site with flashing or aggressive banners, and a writing style that is psychologically very effective to make a sale, but damn is it annoying. One online pet-peeve of mine is email pop-up sign-up forms, which you can justify with marketing stats, as long as you ignore how much you piss off people you donâ€™t â€œconvertâ€. Iâ€™d recommend you install Randyâ€˜s Stoppity plugin for Firefox or Chrome to turn those off.
And hereâ€™s the thing: Americans are marketing geniuses. This can never be disputed. Every time I went to buy just a carton of milk, something about the supermarket thatâ€™s different to what Iâ€™m used to gravitated me towards some expensive garbage I didnâ€™t need and I almost bought it, or did buy it, feeling very stupid as I walked out.
If you are in Las Vegas youâ€™ll see how skilled they are at this manipulation by how they design the casinos. No windows, no clocks, impossible to find exits, no way to get where you want to go without walking through slot machines, the slot machines themselves have lots of shiny lights and bouncy music to entice you. You feel like you are being hypnotised. They know exactly what they are doing and have the billions of dollars to prove it.
But itâ€™s still manipulation, and to those of us not used to the loudness itâ€™s plain cheesy. Every corner of America is plastered with some kind of advertising or sponsorship, and I feel so at peace now that Iâ€™ve left. No more random phonecalls on any landline (including hotels I was paying for) with a recorded voice to try to pitch me something and no more spam promotional brochures taking over my physical mailbox.
7. Wasteful consumerism
Some of the consumerism is difficult to avoid when you are flooded with advertising, but some of it really is entirely the personâ€™s own fault for being so wasteful.
The best example I can think of by far is Apple fanboyism. So many Americans waste so much cash to have the latest iteration of Appleâ€™s iPhone, iPad, or Macbook. When you buy one thatâ€™s fine â€“ I personally donâ€™t like Apple products (I find the operating system too restrictive), but there are many good arguments for why it could be better. I also like to have a good smartphone and laptop for example, and Iâ€™m as much a consumer as you if you happen to have an Apple equivalent.
The problem is when you replace your iPhone 4 with an iPhone 4S, and do it along with an army of millions of other sheep for no good reason. Itâ€™s pointless and wasteful consumerism at its best.
I actually took advantage of this when I was in Austin this year. I waited until the day the iPad 2 was announced and as I predicted there were 20 new ads per minute on Craigslist in that city alone from desperate fanboys trying to sell their iPad 1. Since my laptop is so big (I consider it a portable desktop), it was worth my while to invest in a tablet and I convinced one idiot to sell me his with a bluetooth keyboard case for $250. (Iâ€™ve written a few blog posts on it in cafÃ©s so it was worth my investment) He was so desperate to have the latest version that was ever so slightly thinner and faster, and with a camera that makes you look like an idiot when you point your iPad at something, but otherwise basically exactly the same.
Personally I only replace my smartphone when I break the other one from travel stress or dropping it in an ocean etc. Iâ€™m also a consumer though, and will occasionally buy stuff that I donâ€™t need, but replacing something I have for something marginally better for a large price is something I can never understand.
What makes it worse is that these people sometimes claim to not have much money and Apple products are added to their â€œnecessitiesâ€ list. The gobshite I bought my iPad from sighed when I told him what I do, and he said that he wished he had the money to travel. I wish he had the common sense to realise that if he stopped wasting his money heâ€™d have plenty left over.
8. Idiotic American stereotypes of other countries
Many of us have seen videos online of Americans arsing up basic questions of international geography. I went out of my way to avoid people that stupid â€“ my beef is with the supposedly educated ones.
Luckily, Americans you meet abroad tend to be much cleverer, but meeting those who havenâ€™t travelled made my head hurt with the amount of facepalms Iâ€™d have to do.
Now, I know there are 300 million of you, but I have had this exact same conversation on both the east and west coast, and in the mid-west and south:
â€œHi, Iâ€™m Bennyâ€
â€œAwesome! Iâ€™m X. Where are you from?â€
â€œWow! You guys certainly know how to drink!â€
â€œActually, I donâ€™t drinkâ€
â€œOh, youâ€™re not really Irish then, are you!â€
Again, and again and againâ€¦ and again. The same idiotic script â€“ I knew it was coming every time. They demanded to see my passport, said that Iâ€™m the only Irish guy theyâ€™ve ever met who doesnâ€™t drink (and very stupidly then admitted that I was the ONLY Irish guy they ever met!!) or had visited Ireland and spent all their time in Temple Bar (not even leaving Dublin), confirming that all Irish people are drunkards.
This is just one of the many idiotic things they would say, which of course annoyed me the most.
A few others Iâ€™ve gotten include:
How was the boat ride over here? [Surprised that we have airports in Ireland - I must have arrived in rags in New York harbour of course]
Too many people insisting that Ireland was part of the UK. They actually argued it with me!!
Did I have to check my car for IRA bombs when I was growing up? (there were so many things wrong with this)
Surprised that I knew more about technology than they did. Arenâ€™t we all potato farmers in Ireland?
Whenever someone said anything about Ireland Iâ€™d always try to change the subject immediately or theyâ€™d quickly find out how blunt I can be.
Edit: If you think this is hypocritical, Iâ€™d argue that this post is NOT filled with stereotypes because itâ€™s based on my actual experience in hanging out with thousands of you. Americans who stereotype us Irish (and other nationalities) have generally never been there, or at best â€œseenâ€ (not spent time with) a couple of tourists. Stereotyping is based on hearsay and misinformation, and almost always from total lack of contact, or only superficial contact with the people you stereotype.
Iâ€™m not talking about Americans being all loud and war mongers and only eating at McDonaldâ€™s and all being stupid etc. (typical American stereotypes), because these just arenâ€™t true for many people. Iâ€™m talking about what Iâ€™ve actually experienced from normal people in every day situations after an entire year of living and working in America.
Every American you meet is not actually American. They are a fourth Polish, 3/17 Italian, ten other random countries, and then of course half Irish. Since Ireland is more homogenous, itâ€™s hard for me to appreciate this, so honestly I donâ€™t really care if your great grandfatherâ€™s dog walkerâ€™s best friendâ€™s roommate was Irish. I really donâ€™t.
The amount of â€œOh my gaaawwwd, me too!!â€ retorts I heard when I said I was Irish is quite silly. I use country adjectives more restrictively than Americans do, so this was quite the pet peeve of mine. I finally learned that â€œIâ€™m from Irelandâ€ means what I wanted to say to them better than â€œIâ€™m Irishâ€ does.
I donâ€™t want to say I donâ€™t respect peopleâ€™s rich heritage (a nice mixture makes a country more interesting; the melting pot of cultures and skin colours is one reason why Brazil is my favourite country for example), but when people start talking about it as if it were genetics and their Italian part makes them more passionate and their Irish part makes them good drinkers I really do have to roll my eyes.
Edit: Commenters keep pointing out that itâ€™s a language difference, so â€œIrishâ€ actually means â€œIrish Americanâ€ as Iâ€™d understand it. Thatâ€™s fine, but Iâ€™m trying to convey that foreigners find this annoying. There is no right or wrong, but itâ€™s important to realise that rephrasing it or saying â€œI have Irish/Italian heritageâ€ may be more appropriate if you are talking to someone from that country. This is especially true if speaking other languages.
10. ID checks & stupid drinking laws
Seriously, I promise Iâ€™m not 12. Please let me into the nightclub!
Iâ€™ve even seen 60 year olds get IDed. Nowhere else in the world do they ID me now that Iâ€™m clearly in my late 20s. A few times I havenâ€™t had my passport (the most important document I own that I really donâ€™t want to get beer spilled over) in my jeans pocket and have simply been refused entry.
I find it incredible that drinking age is 21, but you give 16 year olds licenses to drive cars and you can buy a rifle at age 18. And you canâ€™t walk around outside with an open drink in most states (but apparently putting it in a brown bag while you drink it makes it OK). I donâ€™t even drink, and I find these laws nonsensical.
11. Religious Americans
Look â€“ I grew up in a religious town in Ireland, went to an all boys Catholic school, and some of my friends in Europe are religious. Even if Iâ€™m not religious myself, itâ€™s up to everyone to decide what they believe in. I find religious people in Europe to be NORMAL â€“ itâ€™s a spiritual thing, or something they tend to keep to themselves, and are very modern people with a great balance of religion and modernism.
But I canâ€™t stand certain Christian affiliations of religious Americans. Itâ€™s Jesus this and Jesus that all the bloody time. You really canâ€™t have a normal conversation with them. Itâ€™s in your face religion, and they replace hard science with scripture in the classroom. They really need to tone it down.
12. Corporations win all the time, not small businesses
While there are many arguments against everything working towards there simply being a bunch of large corporations competing with one another, my biggest problem is in terms of availability.
When you get your food from Walmart or Wholefoods, and nowhere else, these places grow and will be separated by a reasonable driving distance for greatest scope. But between them? Itâ€™s a wasteland.
I was in downtown Chicago one day and wanted to simply get a bite to eat, but after walking around for an hour the only affordable option I could find was Dunkin Donuts. There are plenty of excellent cheap places to eat in Chicago, but you need to drive to them, or be in a specific part of the city with lots of restaurants. Thereâ€™s too much competition between the big guys for a large number of little guys to sprinkle themselves conveniently throughout cities.
If you plonk me in any major city in Europe, Iâ€™ll find food in minutes. If you do the same in America, even downtown and presuming it isnâ€™t a specific restaurant district, and donâ€™t give me a cell phone or a car, I could starve to death.
And this is a major contributor to what I feel is one of the biggest problems in America:
13. A country designed for cars, not humans
One of my biggest issues in the states has been how terrible a place it is for pedestrians. Itâ€™s the worst place in the entire world to live in if you donâ€™t own a car.
On previous trips to the states Iâ€™ve had it rough â€“ relying on sub-par public transport (which is at least workable in certain major cities, but almost never first world standard in my opinion), or relying on a friend the entire time. You canâ€™t do anything without a car in most cases. With rare exceptions (like San Francisco), all shops, affordable restaurants, supermarkets, electronics etc. are miles away. You rarely have corner shops (and if you do they are way more expensive than supermarkets).
I find it laughable that Austin is rated as among the most â€œwalkableâ€ cities in the states. Living just outside the centre, but within walking distance, meant that I had a stretch of my path with no pavement, and a little further out I had to walk on grass to get to a bus stop.
What struck me as the most eerie thing of all is that I felt very much alone when walking in any American city. In many cases Iâ€™d be the only pedestrian in the entire block, even if it was in the middle of the week downtown! The country is really designed to get in your car, drive to your destination and get out there. No walk-abouts.
Going for a walk to find food serendipitously (as I would in any European city) was a terrible idea every time without checking Yelp.com in advance.
For this last trip, I did actually rent a car for most of my stay (I didnâ€™t even have a driving license before this trip, which most Americans find hard to grasp), and everything was so much more convenient, but I really did feel like I was only ever using my feet to work the gas pedal, and I will not miss it at all.
14. Always in a hurry
So many things in America are rushed far too much my liking. Fast food is something we have all around the world now (thanks Americaâ€¦) but even in a posh sit-down restaurant your food will usually come out in less than five minutes after ordering! There are also obsessions with get-rich-quick and lose-fat-quick schemes, pills that solve all your problems after a single swallow, people cutting to the chase in casual conversations far too quickly (after the customary empty â€œHow are you? Great!â€)
People donâ€™t seem to have the patience to invest time to slowly improve things, unless it involves some kind of monetary investment.
Americans are also very punctual, because of course time is money. So many of them could do with stopping to smell the roses, and arriving late because they took their time.
Despite all the false positivity, I find Americans to be generally the most stressed out and unhappiest people on the planet. Despite all the resources, and all the money they have, they are sadder than people I know who can barely make ends meet in other countries, but still know how to live in the moment.
This rush to the finish line, to have your book published, or to have a million dollars in your bank account or to get that promotion, and to have that consume your life is something I find really sad.
15. Obsession with money
I met far too many people who were more interested in their bank balance than their quality of life. People richer than I can possibly imagine, who are depressed. More money seems to be the only way they understand of solving problems. They donâ€™t travel because they think they need tens of thousands of dollars, and they donâ€™t enjoy their day because they may miss out on a business opportunity.
16. Unhealthy portions
Apart from people not being frank with those who are overweight, the biggest problem is that portions in restaurants are grossly overgenerous. Any time I ordered even a small portion Iâ€™d be totally full. Small means something completely different to me than it does to Americans. If you sit down in most places and order anything but an appetiser or a salad, you will eat more than you should.
I was brought up being reminded of starving children in Africa, so I feel guilty if I donâ€™t clear my plate. This has been disastrous over the last few months and Iâ€™ve put on weight because of it! I should have asked for a â€œdoggy bagâ€ nearly all the time.
Iâ€™ve learned to stop ordering a soda entirely, because when places give you free refills, I feel like I should drink moreâ€¦ itâ€™s free after all! Ugh.
17. Thinking America is the best
Finally, one thing I find annoying is the warped view of Americaâ€™s situation in the world.
Americans ask me all the time if Iâ€™m scared to be travelling in South America. I found it way scarier to walk around certain parts of downtown San Francisco or Chicago at night than I did even in downtown Recife (apparently one of the most dangerous cities in South America) â€“ because at least there are people there. And I find it pretty scary to be in a country where pretty much anyone can legally buy a revolver.
I also keep hearing about America being the land of the free â€“ it certainly wasâ€¦ 200 years ago. Most of western Europe is as free or more free, with opportunities for people at all levels. America is indeed a better place with a higher standard of living than most of the world, but free speech and tolerance for all is the norm in the western world as a rule, not just in America.
There is no best country. But those who go on about how America is number one, tend to be those who have never travelled or lightly travelled.
How about saying America is great or â€œawesomeâ€? I think patriotism is an excellent quality to have, and we should all be proud of where we were born. But nationalism (believing other countries are inferior) is a terrible quality.
What I love about Americans
Since this post has been a bit of a downer, I will balance it out a bit by saying what I love about Americans
Itâ€™s been a frustrating three months, but I will indeed happily go back to America to visit for a few weeks next year. There are many reasons for this, including:
So well connected; social networking and apps are so well integrated into America compared to other places Iâ€™ve been. Meetup.com is super active, and there is free wifi and apps made for your city nearly all the time. I love how much America has embraced the Internet to so many levels, and I hope we catch up in other countries.
Conferences and conventions; while we do have some in Europe, we cannot dream of competing with the states in terms of sheer numbers of people with very specific niche interests gathering together. Itâ€™s been fantastic for me to attend blogging and travel conferences, and even a Star Trek convention! You have such specific conversations there with large numbers of people that you canâ€™t normally do.
American girls: While I find American girls to be a bit less feminine than they are in most countries, I do enjoy the male-female dynamic, and itâ€™s even nicer for me since they have a thing for Irish accentsâ€¦
Many friends: What will always make sure that I keep coming back is that Iâ€™ve made some lifelong friends with so many people that I never would have been able to elsewhere in the world.
Countryside diversity and so much to do: As well as some great people, there are some incredible sites â€“ and you can get a whole world of climates within America. To this day, the Grand Canyon remains one of the most impressive sites Iâ€™ve ever seen. Itâ€™s also so much fun to visit any city â€“ if you know the right people or even use websites like those I mention above, youâ€™ll always have plenty to keep you busy!
Open mindedness and diversity: Despite what Iâ€™ve said in this post, America is a very special country with so much going for it! I thoroughly enjoy my conversations with people there, and itâ€™s one of the few places that I could write a post like this and still be welcome to come back later And I will!