Among Canadian mortgage brokers, women are well represented, however, executive posts largely remain an old boys’ club. That doesn’t mean there aren’t

What are some peculiarities of American culture which are not easily understood by foreigners?

I’ll give a Dutch perspective. I won’t pretend to give a pan-European perspective, as many people who do so tend to comment on things that actually vary within Europe, also.

American culture is in many ways very similar to Dutch culture. After all, the Dutch and the British started the first colonies, and while each wave of immigrants after that has left its mark on the general American culture, those that came first still set the tone. In fact, some of the most distinctive differences between Dutch and American culture are things where the Dutch have changed and the Americans have stayed the same!

In keeping with the question, I want to restrict myself to issues that are hard to understand, i.e., where a Dutch person might initially be puzzled by the difference. If I had to list every single subtle difference, I’d never stop. Medicines are dispensed by pharmacies in bottles instead of blister packs, but that never caused me any great puzzlement; I always assumed the two methods were about a wash for practicality, the choice was essentially arbitrary, and happened to come down on different sides. The fact that Americans are so religious, though, often puzzles Dutch people, so that one is going to be discussed. First, as a matter of fact.

Religion

Americans are more religious than most other Western nations, and certainly more religious than the Dutch. More of them belong to one religious community or another, more of them actually attend services, and they belong to more different religions: a town with two Americans, it seems, needs at least three churches. In fact, the best explanation I have heard for why Americans are so religious is that American religion is so diverse, or, as we economists like to say, so competitive. In many Western European countries, you can see the remnants of the old principle of cuius regio eius religio, that is, “who controls the government controls the religion”. It was common from the period when the Roman Catholic Church had to acknowledge it faced competition from the new protestant denominations until well into the 19th, and in some places the 20th century that religious diversity proceeded on the level of granularity of entire nation-states. The king chose a religion, and everyone else was expected to go along. This is no longer the case, of course, but in most places there is still one dominant religion or another, and many countries that have different religions in different regions trace their roots back to times when borders were drawn differently. With only one church to compete for your soul, once the culture opens up to the point where not being an active and devout member of that church becomes a possibility, that becomes the only thing for you to do if you don’t like what the church has to offer. If there is a diversity of churches, you can simply find one that best fits your preferences. This explains not only the popularity of religion in the US. There are parts of The Netherlands where religion still plays a dominant role in people’s lives the way it did in the days when the Calvin/Arminius debate (with Calvin being represented by his local proxy Gommer) was a matter of national politics. These are the, mostly rural, areas where a particularly orthodox for of Calvinism had taken root that emphasized the need for absolute doctrinal correctness as necessary for salvation through Christ, and where the churches had long been very fractious. Areas where the Catholics, or the big-tent “Gereformeerde” and “Hervormde” Calvinist churches were dominant, churches emptied fast. In fact, the two Calvinist factions were pretty much forced to merge with not only each other but also the Lutheran church to survive, in the process shedding their most conservative congregations that joined the ranks of the myriad existing small fire-and-brimstone Calvinist communities in the Dutch Bible Belt.

As a consequence of widespread religiosity and religious diversity, Americans also have developed social norms about talking about religion in mixed company (don’t) and odd ideas about the importance of faith in the abstract regardless of what the faith is actually about (“I think it’s important for everybody to be strong in their religion whatever it is” is a perfectly normal thing for an American to see that sounds positively absurd to many Dutch ears). Despite protestations of not having an established religion in the constitution, it is also common to have generically-Christian benedictions at certain public events, moments of prayer before the meetings of certain government bodies, and so on. That is of course to be expected given that so many people are religious, and they expect some religious element to be associated with any occasion that rises above a certain level of ceremoniousness.

Urban planning

American cities are laid out very spatiously, with multi-lane roads everywhere. Suburban lots are very large, zoning codes often cap density, and detached houses are common. This is almost the exact opposite of Dutch land use policy, which is all about the preservation of recreational and agricultural land and limiting the growth of cities. It’s easy for a Dutch visitor to understand some of the differences in terms of the availability of more space, but some things still boggle the mind. Residential streets with no traffic are sometimes 4 times as wide as needed for cars to pass each other. I suppose there might be some desire to build the houses far apart from each other, but why pave all of the intervening space?

Real estate

Apartments in the US usually rent in a condition that the Dutch would consider almost furnished. A Dutch rental apartment can be little more a concrete shell. American apartments always come with flooring (usually carpet, wood, or pergo), some sort of window covering (usually blinds), painted walls, light fixtures, a fridge, a stove, and oven, sometimes a dishwasher, and usually bulit-in closets. Americans almost universally appreciate this, as they would be annoyed to have go out and buy and install all of these things for a place they may not stay for long, but Dutch people often appreciate our system, because they like being able to pick out their own carpet, their own light fixtures, and so on, to make their place more personal. As for the way houses are sold, there are differences, but they all seem like quaint local variation in bureaucratic procedures, nothing profound.

Consumer credit

In The Netherlands, if you are underwater on your mortgage, the bank can and will come after you for the difference after they sell your home. It was a huge political controversy even to make the interest on those “remainder loan” payments tax deductible, since they are strictly no longer mortgage interest, and non-mortgage interest is not deductible. There is such a thing personal bankruptcy, but it is much harder to access and much less forgiving. We are suspicious of the American attitude to consumer credit, where it is given as liberally as any individual bank thinks they can afford to, based on some statistical model computed over how often you are late on your cell phone bills, and where you can pretty much decide to pretend you were only born yesterday and nothing ever happened. Favoring strict enforcement of debts is not thought of as a right-wing thing in The Netherlands the way it is in the US. Of course, here too, there are some explanations. The bankruptcy system is a really an unfunded privately run program of assistance to the indigent in a country where the government is much less generous with direct subsidies to the poor. I’m not saying it’s an efficient or targeted way to subsidize the poor, but neither is the Dutch welfare system, really. The amazing thing is that American banks seem to be so good at credit scoring that they lend more generously than Dutch banks despite being much less able to collect on bad debts!

Juries

I don’t know if I speak for all Dutch people, but when I first heard about juries, I was confused. You have a complex and sophisticated legal system similar to ours where you go through similar procedures all the way up to the final point, where you throw the preliminary results at a bunch of legally untrained amateurs and they actually make the decision? It seems positively uncivilized if you put it like that. Mob rule. Dutch people also tend to think of the jury system as possibly convicting innocent people who incur the fury of the public more than they think of it as a check on the judicial system. They often don’t know that juries have to be unanimous in criminal cases, or that they are thought of as a check on the system. Disdain of the jury system is often paired with disgust at the death penalty.

Respect mah authoritah!

And then there’s the tendency for American law to sometimes be a bit aggressive and top-down, demanding a lot of respect for raw authority––a type of respect that was severely damaged in The Netherlands by 5 years of nazi occupation. The San Franscisco MUNI bus signs telling you to yield your seat to the disabled because “IT’S THE LAW” would not fly in Holland. People would be offended by it. They’d say, “don’t you tell me what to do”. Our signs say “standing up for someone else is never an indecent thing to do” or, in a newer, less stilted version, “wanna sit? I can stand!”.

“Americans are superficial”

The complaint is often heard. Americans are frightfully polite and love to use lots of exaggerated superlatives to express their sincerity, appreciation, gratitude, and so on. They introduce a speaker by saying they’re “extremely honored to be joined today by our most treasured member” without pausing to ponder that it is odd to be extremely honored by every single guest.

It’s the same impression that non-Southern Americans have of Southerners. And just like with the Southerners, it’s just a matter of customs, as far as I can tell.

The problem is that we are so similar that when somebody says they are “extremely honored”, we readily map that onto something in our culture that we then conclude is over the top. If we are in a completely different culture and somebody says “wipata chonglili pingpong” to introduce a speaker, we have value judgment; we just assume that’s how you introduce speakers in Pingpongstan. It’s the deceptively similar cultures that lead to this sort of misunderstanding. Also, The Netherlands being a small and relatively homogeneous country, social interactions need less verbal lubrication.

Nationalism and militarism

This one is simple. Nationalist symbolism in the US, including flags everywhere, images of eagles, military parades, the pledge of allegiance, and so on, are identified with Freedom and the Constitution and other Good Things.

Nationalist imagery in The Netherlands is associated with the nazi occupation; unlike other occupied territories, the Dutch were considered Aryan and were to be proud of the Pure Dutch Race and the Role it could play within the Third Reich. All of that came with lots of nationalist and militarist symbolism.

The one exception is the royal family and everything associated with them, since they were symbols of the resistance and the eventual liberation. I do include this item because the Dutch, even though the explanation for the cultural difference is obvious, often don’t understand it. Especially the pledge of allegiance looks like a creepy nazi ritual to us.

Of course, guns

In The Netherlands, if the police cannot quite prove a murder but instead gets the suspect on an arms possession charge and gets them locked up for nearly the same amount of time, that is considered perfectly normal. After all, if they did posses firearms, everybody would consider that clear evidence that they at least intended to shoot somebody. Why else would you own a gun? Of all the policy differences, this is probably the hardest one to explain either country’s attitude to inhabitants of the other. I don’t understand the details well enough and if I did it would take way too much time go into them, but you may want to read The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker; I’m reading it at the moment and it goes into a lot of these sorts of questions.

Americans are workaholics

Americans work longer hours and take less vacation. American families are more likely to have two breadwinners, and it is more likely for both breadwinners to work full time. The Dutch actually have very low female labor market participation rates. Many women do work, but only part time. For an economist, the explanation for the difference in the amount of time spent working is obvious: it’s the marginal tax rate, stupid. Now even economists acknowledge that the obvious explanation is not always right, and to know for sure you have to actually look at whether the magnitude of the effect is consistent with the hypothesis. I don’t know enough about comparative labor economics to pull the relevant facts out of my hat. I do think the marginal tax rate hypothesis is at least plausible. But most Dutch people, not being economists, have no hypothesis at all, instead simply noting a difference in culture that they have trouble understanding.

National introversion

The Netherlands is a small country. It is perfectly normal for every Dutch schoolchild to learn at least some English, some German, and some French. Especially English is usually mandatory for many years, with the other languages being taught to varying degrees based on what courses you choose and what type of school you are in. Our newspapers and radio and TV news reports emphasize international issues much more than most US media.

Especially the network TV news is shocking to Dutch people. It doesn’t even cover current events in the US! It’s all fluff, all human interest, and all local. Russia could declare war on China and NBC local news would still prefer to report that the Chowahootchee Volunteer Fire Brigade rescued a cat from a tree.

Of course the explanation is trivially simple. The US is big. The Netherlands is small. On top of that, The Netherlands derives a vastly disproportionate amount of its income from international trade, serving as the headquarters or European distribution center for multinational corporations, providing services across borders, providing services locally to foreigners, and so on and so forth. No wonder we are more internationally oriented than a superpower spanning a continent.

Style and design

I won’t claim to be able to parse the differences in design sensibility precisely into their constituent components, but I will highlight what I think are the two most obvious elements. Now I’ve often had trouble explaining to Americans not professionally engaged in design what the difference in sensibility even is, let alone where it comes from, so maybe some time I should try a more elaborate blog post or Quora answer with pictures to illustrate, but for now I’ll just do my best with words.

When modernism swept the world, it seems to have bypassed American suburbia. Americans outside of the most sophisticated, artsy, and urban circles have a taste for the highly decorative. This is combined with a ready acceptance of low-quality facsimiles of antique styles, where the Dutch might be more inclined to prefer either the real, hand-made, antique decorative thing, or alternatively a simple functional design. The most striking example I know is still the story of my father visiting a colleague who had a house in the Atlanta suburbs. The house, like virtually all of American suburbia, was built of 2x4s with plywood nailed to the outside, but he had decided to make it look like it had all sorts of decorative stonework. This was accomplished using prefab elements glued to the facade and painted. The prefab elements were made of… styrofoam! For Dutch listeners to the anecdote, the word styrofoam was the punchline in a joke. To us, that made his architectural efforts the pinnacle of snobbery, the ridiculous effort of a vain middle class man to portray himself as the Lord of the Manor. To the man from Atlanta, of course, it just seemed the most cost-effective way of getting his home to look pretty.

That also reveals why the whole thing about style is so hard to explain to Americans. It’s intricately tied up with the class structure of European society. Notwithstanding the fact that American society is far from classless, it is stratified, with very few exceptions, in a fundamentally different way. Class, to Americans, is simply synonymous with wealth. To be sure, there are distinctions between “old money” and “new money”, but the difference can be washed away in a generation by sending your kids to the right schools. But I digress.

The second thing about design and style is that Americans just care less. The easiest practical example is government documents, especially from local governments. It is very common for these to be produced by an administrative official with absolutely no knowledge or sense of typography. Graphic design and typography in The Netherlands is highly valued. As a country, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of industrial and graphic design, and in general of the interface between art and practicality. Presenting a new visual house style for the National Government was deemed worthy of some pretty high-up government officials’ time. I still chuckle when I get an official notice from the City of Redwood City Authority of Authoritative Authorities or some such that looks like it was designed by a 12-year old with a word processor. America does produce some of the world’s best visual design, but the general population just doesn’t seem to care about it. Recent trends in web design are a refreshing exception.

Alcohol

Americans have a weird relationship with alcohol. To understand the 21 drinking age or the strange idea that it is improper to drink, even in moderation, in front of children, you have to go back all the way to prohibition. Without that context, it’s just whacko.