10 Things Americans Get Wrong About America

In the last 12 months I have had an opportunity to travel the world. Through out Italy, Iceland, Australia, through out Canada and most recently Brazil. When people ask if I am American, I pause. Not sure is this is a good thing anymore. I was on the very first commercial flight to land in Europe following 9/11. I have represented the USA in International competitions. I have always been proud of being an American. But lately, we are a little ridiculous.

I know that’s harsh, but I really feel my home country is not in a good place these days. That’s not a socioeconomic statement (although that’s on the decline as well), but rather a cultural one.
I realize it’s going to be impossible to write sentences like the ones above without coming across as a raging prick, so let me try to soften the blow to my American readers with an analogy:

You know when you move out of your parents’ house and live on your own, how you start hanging out with your friends’ families and you realize that actually, your family was a little screwed up? As it turns out, stuff you always assumed was normal your entire childhood was pretty weird and may have actually fucked you up a little bit.

The point is we don’t really get perspective on what’s close to us until we spend time away from it. Just like you didn’t realize the weird quirks and nuances of your family until you left and spent time with others, the same is true for country and culture. You often don’t see what’s messed up about your country and culture until you step outside of it.
And so even though this article is going to come across as fairly scathing, I want my American readers to know this: some of the stuff we do, some of the stuff that we always assumed was normal, it’s kind of screwed up. And that’s OK. Because that’s true with every culture. It’s just easier to spot it in others! so we don’t always notice it in ourselves. So as you read this article, know that I’m saying everything with tough love, the same tough love with which I’d sit down and lecture an alcoholic family member. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It doesn’t mean there aren’t some awesome things about you (BRO, THAT’S AWESOME!!!). And it doesn’t mean I’m some saint either, because god knows I’m pretty screwed up (I’m American, after all). There are just a few things you need to hear. And as a friend, I’m going to tell them to you.
And to my foreign readers, get your necks ready, because this is going to be a nod-a-thon.
OK, we’re ready now. 10 things Americans don’t know about America.
1. Few people are impressed by us

Unless you’re speaking with a real estate agent or a prostitute, chances are they’re not going to be excited that you’re American. It’s not some badge of honor we get to parade around. Yes, we had Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, but unless you actually are Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison (which is unlikely), then most people around the world are simply not going to care. There are exceptions of course.

As Americans, we’re brought up our entire lives being taught that we’re the best, we did everything first and that the rest of the world follows our lead. Not only is this not true, but people get irritated when you bring it to their country with you. So don’t.

2. Few people hate us

Despite the occasional eye-rolling, and complete inability to understand why anyone would vote for George W. Bush (twice), people from other countries don’t hate us either. In fact — and I know this is a really sobering realization for us — most people in the world don’t really think about us or care about us. I know, that sounds absurd, especially with CNN and Fox News showing the same 20 angry Arab men on repeat for ten years straight. But unless we’re invading someone’s country or threatening to invade someone’s country (which is likely), then there’s a 99.99% chance they don’t care about us. Just like we rarely think about the people in Bolivia or Mongolia, most people don’t think about us much. They have jobs, kids, house payments—you know, those things called lives—to worry about. Kind of like us.

Americans tend to assume that the rest of the world either loves us or hates us (this is actually a good litmus test to tell if someone is conservative or liberal). The fact is, most people feel neither. Most people don’t think much about us.

Remember that immature girl in high school, how every little thing that happened to her meant that someone either hated her or was obsessed with her; who thought every teacher who ever gave her a bad grade was being totally unfair and everything good that happened to her was because of how amazing she was? Yeah, we’re that immature high school girl.

3. We know nothing about the rest of the world

For all of our talk about being global leaders and how everyone follows us, we don’t seem to know much about our supposed “followers.” They often have completely different takes on history than we do. Here were some brain-stumpers for me: the Vietnamese were more concerned with independence (not us), Hitler was primarily defeated by the Soviet Union (not us), there is evidence that Native Americans were wiped out largely by disease and plague BEFORE Europeans arrived and not just after, and the American Revolution was partly “won” because the British invested more of their resources in fighting France (not us). Notice a running theme here?
(Hint: It’s not all about us. The world is more complicated.)

We did not invent democracy. We didn’t even invent modern democracy. There were parliamentary systems in England and other parts of Europe over a hundred years before we created a government. In a recent survey of young Americans, 63% could not find Iraq on a map (despite being at war with them), and 54% did not know Sudan was a country in Africa. Yet, somehow we’re positive that everyone else looks up to us.

4. We are poor at expressing gratitude and affection

There’s a saying about English-speakers. We say “Go fuck yourself,” when we really mean “I like you,” and we say “I like you,” when we really mean “Go fuck yourself.”
Outside of getting shit-housed drunk and screaming “I LOVE YOU, MAN!”, open displays of affection in American culture are tepid and rare. Latin and some European cultures describe us as “cold” and “passionless” and for good reason. In our social lives we don’t say what we mean and we don’t mean what we say.
In our culture, appreciation and affection are implied rather than spoken outright. Two guy friends call each other names to reinforce their friendship; men and women tease and make fun of each other to imply interest. Feelings are almost never shared openly and freely. Consumer culture has cheapened our language of gratitude. Something like, “It’s so good to see you” is empty now because it’s expected and heard from everybody.
When I was dating, when I found a woman attractive, I would almost always walk right up to her and tell her that a) I wanted to meet her, and b) she’s beautiful. In America, women usually get incredibly nervous and confused when I did this. They’ll make jokes to defuse the situation or sometimes ask me if I’m part of a TV show or something playing a prank. Even when they’re interested and go on dates with me, they get a bit disoriented when I’m so blunt with my interest. Whereas, in almost every other culture approaching women this way is met with a confident smile and a “Thank you.”

5. The quality of life for the average american is not that great

If you’re extremely talented or intelligent, the US is probably the best place in the world to live. The system is stacked heavily to allow people of talent and advantage to rise to the top quickly.
The problem with the US is that EVERYONE thinks they are of talent and advantage. As John Steinbeck famously said, the problem with poor Americans is that “they don’t believe they’re poor, but rather temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” It’s this culture of self-delusion that allows America to continue to innovate and churn out new industry more than anyone else in the world. But this shared delusion also unfortunately keeps perpetuating large social inequalities and the quality of life for the average citizen lower than most other developed countries. It’s the price we pay to maintain our growth and economic dominance.

To me, being wealthy is having the freedom to maximize one’s life experiences. In those terms, despite the average American having more material wealth than citizens of most other countries (more cars, bigger houses, nicer televisions), their overall quality of life suffers in my opinion. There is a saying in Italy, “In Italy- we work to live. In America you live to work.” American people on average work more hours with less vacation, spend more time commuting every day, and are saddled with over $10,000 of debt. That’s a lot of time spent working and buying crap and little time or disposable income for relationships, activities or new experiences.

6. The rest of the world is not a slum-ridden shithole compared to us

I had a friend who in 2010 got into a taxi in Bangkok to take him to a new six-story cineplex. It was accessible by metro, but he chose a taxi instead. On the seat in front of him was a sign with a wifi password. Wait, what? He asked the driver if he had wifi in his taxi. He flashed a huge smile. The squat Thai man, with his pidgin English, explained that he had installed it himself. He then turned on his new sound system and disco lights. His taxi instantly became a cheesy nightclub on wheels… with free wifi.
If there’s one constant in my travels over the past three years, it has been that almost every place I’ve visited  is much nicer and safer than I expected it to be. Iceland is pristine. Sao Paulo makes Manhattan look like a suburb. My neighborhood in Italy is nicer than the one I lived in Dover (and cheaper).

As Americans, we have this naïve assumption that people all over the world are struggling and way behind us. They’re not. Sweden and South Korea have more advanced high speed internet networks. Japan has the most advanced trains and transportation systems. Norwegians—along with Swedes, Luxembourgers, the Dutch and Finns—make more money. The biggest and most advanced plane in the world is flown out of Singapore. The tallest buildings in the world are now in Dubai and Shanghai (and soon to be Saudi Arabia). Meanwhile, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

IMG_2058.JPGWhat’s so surprising about the world is how unsurprising most of it is. I spent a great deal of time in Iceland last year. You know what their biggest concerns were? Paying for school, getting to work on time, and what their friends were saying about them. In Brazil, people have debt problems, hate getting stuck in traffic and complain about their overbearing mothers. Every country thinks they have the worst drivers. Every country thinks their weather is unpredictable. The world becomes, err… predictable.

7. We’re paranoid

Not only are we emotionally insecure as a culture, but I’ve come to realize how paranoid we are about our physical security. You don’t have to watch Fox News or CNN for more than 10 minutes to hear about how our drinking water is going to kill us, our neighbor is going to rape our children, some terrorist in Yemen is going to kill us because we didn’t torture him, Mexicans are going to kill us, or some virus from a bird is going to kill us. There’s a reason we have nearly as many guns as people.
In the US, security trumps everything, even liberty. We’re paranoid.
I’ve probably been to 10 countries now that friends and family back home told me explicitly not to go because someone was going to kill me, kidnap me, stab me, rob me, rape me, sell my children into sex trade, give me HIV, or whatever else. None of that has happened.
In fact, the experience has been the opposite. In many countries  people were so honest and open with me, it actually scared me.  In Trinidad and Tobago the bus driver invited me to his house for a dinner with his family, a random person on the street would offer to show me around and give me directions to a store I was trying to find. My American instincts were always that, “Wait, this guy is going to try to rob me or kill me,” but they never did. They were just insanely friendly. The seacoast of New Hampshire is a very touristy area. When ever I see a tourist with a map and a confused expression I stop and see if I can help. Know what? People in other countries are the same.

8. We’re status-obsessed and seek attention

I’ve noticed that the way we Americans communicate is usually designed to create a lot of attention and hype.  I am totally guilty of this. Again, I think this is a product of our consumer culture: the belief that something isn’t worthwhile or important unless it’s perceived to be the best (BEST EVER!!!) or unless it gets a lot of attention (see: every reality-television show ever made).
This is why Americans have a peculiar habit of thinking everything is “totally awesome,” and even the most mundane activities were “the best thing ever!” It’s the unconscious drive we share for importance and significance, this unmentioned belief, socially beaten into us since birth that if we’re not the best at something, then we don’t matter.
We’re status-obsessed. Our culture is built around achievement, production and being exceptional. Therefore comparing ourselves and attempting to out-do one another has infiltrated our social relationships as well. Who can slam the most beers first? Who can get reservations at the best restaurant? Who knows the promoter to the club? Who dated a girl on the cheerleading squad? Socializing becomes objectified and turned into a competition. And if you’re not winning, the implication is that you are not important and no one will like you.

9. We are very unhealthy

Unless you have cancer or something equally dire, the health care system in the US sucks. The World Health Organization ranked the US 37th in the world for health care, despite the fact that we spend the most per capita by a large margin.
The hospitals are nicer in Asia (with European-educated doctors and nurses) and cost a tenth as much. Something as routine as a vaccination costs multiple hundreds of dollars in the US and less than $10 in Colombia. And before you make fun of Colombian hospitals, Colombia is 28th in the world on that WHO list, nine spots higher than us.
A routine STD test that can run you over $200 in the US is free in many countries to anyone, citizen or not.
But this isn’t really getting into the real problems of our health. Our food is killing us. I’m not going to go crazy with the details, but we eat chemically-laced crap because it’s cheaper and tastes better (profit, profit). Our portion sizes are absurd (more profit). And we’re by far the most prescribed nation in the world AND our drugs cost five to ten times more than they do even in Canada (ohhhhhhh, profit, you sexy bitch).
In terms of life expectancy, despite being the richest country in the world, we come in a paltry 35th—tied with Costa Rica and right behind Slovenia, and slightly ahead of Chile, Denmark, and Cuba. Enjoy your Big Mac.

10. We mistake comfort for happiness

The United States is a country built on the exaltation of economic growth and personal ingenuity. Small businesses and constant growth are celebrated and supported above all else—above affordable health care, above respectable education, above everything. Americans believe it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and make something of yourself, not the state’s, not your community’s, not even your friend’s or family’s in some instances.
Comfort sells easier than happiness. Comfort is easy. It requires no effort and no work. Happiness takes effort. It requires being proactive, confronting fears, facing difficult situations, and having unpleasant conversations.
Comfort equals sales. We’ve been sold comfort for generations, and for generations we bought bigger houses, separated further and further out into the suburbs, along with bigger TV’s, more movies, and take-out. The American public is becoming docile and complacent. We’re obese and entitled. When we travel, we look for giant hotels that will insulate us and pamper us rather than for legitimate cultural experiences that may challenge our perspectives or help us grow as individuals.
Depression and anxiety disorders are soaring within the US. Our inability to confront anything unpleasant around us has not only created a national sense of entitlement, but it’s disconnected us from what actually drives happiness: relationships, unique experiences, feeling self-validated, achieving personal goals. It’s easier to watch a NASCAR race on television and tweet about it than to actually get out and try something new with a friend.
Unfortunately, a by-product of our massive commercial success is that we’re able to avoid the necessary emotional struggles of life and instead indulge in easy, superficial pleasures.

Throughout history, every dominant civilization eventually collapsed because it became TOO successful. What made it powerful and unique grows out of proportion and consumes its society. I think this is true for American society. We’re complacent, entitled and unhealthy. My generation is the first generation of Americans who will be worse off than their parents, economically, physically and emotionally. And this is not due to a lack of resources, to a lack of education or to a lack of ingenuity. It’s corruption and complacency. The corruption from the massive industries that control our government’s policies, and the fat complacency of the people to sit around and let it happen.

There ARE SO  MANY things I love about my country. I don’t hate the USA- I am just not particularly proud of our recent path. But I think the greatest flaw of American culture is our blind self-absorption. In the past it only hurt other countries. But now it’s starting to hurt ourselves.

I imagine this will fall on deaf ears, but it’s the most I can do for now. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some funny cat pictures to look at.

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About tretrosi2013

Gymnastics Coach, Gymnastics Educator, Part time stand up comic.
This entry was posted in Politics, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 10 Things Americans Get Wrong About America

  1. carlos says:

    Wow tonny this is the most amazing post I ever read …not counting the drugs industry and all the kids under medication….everything what you saying is so true….personal life call privacy is never share ….you have to be successful you have to be productive you are bully, that’s not nice , all those words are part of the diary vocabulary….since I came to usa I noticed those problems on the society, like college as a luxury of education and not as a right of freedom…the media have done a good job as a brain washer…oil industry using usa army to fight for their interest making the usa people believe that is for their safety because terrorism will happens ….there is so much problem at the society and this post have so much reflection on it….Thank you and count with me if you thinking to do something else like a progressive movement or something to try to change this situation…..

    • tretrosi2013 says:

      Thank you for the kind words. I am glad that my words “spoke to you”. With out making too many generalizations I think an over all problem is lack of exposure to other parts of the USA and to the world.
      If you live your entire life in your own little yard then your perspective is too narrow. No matter where you live there are certain needs we all have. A safe place to live, love of another, etc (maslows hierarchy of needs). We want our children to be healthy.
      Regardless of religion or nationality we come into the world the same way, we leave the same way.
      I want my life to focus on our similarities not the differences.
      Tony

  2. Marc Yancey says:

    Well Tony, you have managed to write a truly valid critique of our national culture and mindset. Thanks for the thoughtful and fair analysis. I think it’s important for us to talk about these things. True, many will reject even the possibility that you have valid points, but a few might read this and re-think their perspective and attitudes- they might even be led to travel to other countries as you suggest and discover that what you say is very true. It might lead a few to recognize the problem with how so many of us view our world and our exceptionalism. You have to recognize a problem before you can correct it, so thanks god friend for sharing this!

  3. Steve Hass says:

    A well written and extremely honest appraisal of the current situation that we as Americans face. I actually agree with what you have said. I also wish that you had touched upon the ridiculously, circular arguements regarding our environment and climate change. It’s not a political problem, but a REAL one. Regardless of the cause, man made or not, Mother Earth is changing. There are consequences for all of our thoughts and actions.

    I’m sure that some will see your diatribe as anti-something, but everyone should pause, digest, and really think about what you have written. Thanks for taking the time to write this and share this!

    PS – when are you running for political office? I’d vote for you!

    • tretrosi2013 says:

      No intentions of running for political office (yet?) I will leave that for people smarter than me.
      Thank you for your comments and support!
      By the way, I will be the new chairman of USECA.

      Tony

  4. David Cancel says:

    I can’t begin to express how your post left feeling. First let me say that you calmly, rationally and reasonably expressed all the views that I tend to scream at the top of lungs towards the heavens. I also want to say that I am a product and victim of the “Fast Food Nation” mentally that pervades the life of many Americans. As you know, Diabetes is only one of the conditions I have to deal with because of the way this country processes and mass produces food. Consuming pesticide-laden, genetically modified foods that have had all their nutritional value leached out of them have contributed to the development the other conditions I am forced to deal with. Before I continue, I have to take 100% for having all the information to make an informed decision and still I chose to ignore what I knew and eat those foods that may have made me ill. I am a product of the comfort mentally that most Americans have mistaken for happiness. Now, having to deal with consequences of my choices and not having the opportunity to choose differently, I find that it still takes commitment to make the changes in my life that are needed to live and eat healthy. I have been aware for a while that I personally have trouble confronting unpleasant situations but when your life is on the line all the pretenses tend to fall away. Luckily for me, I am a product of a mixture two cultures one of which encourages showing your love and gratitude towards you friends and family. It’s with that in mind that I want to thank you for your friendship, that I am lucky to see the man you have grown up to become and to tell you that I love you not only for your friendship and support but for being an example of what a man who takes action can achieve without compromising his integrity.

    https://www.gofundme.com/qctqfg

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