A BBC Correspondant Reflects on Three Years in the USA
December 20, 2010 1:40 PM   Subscribe

A Foreigner's Guide to American Culture After De Tocqueville, just about every European sent to the United States has treated the posting as an invitation to help diagnose the country's faults and suggest ways in which they might be fixed.
posted by modernnomad (162 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 


Culture Shock: USA is my favorite guide to American culture. It's a book designed to acquaint recent emigrés with the many traditions and cultural quirks of the US. A shame that it appears to be a bit outdated, but alas. It's great to read especially if you're already American born-and-raised.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:55 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Best quote from the article:

And they could speed up their journeys to work by not insisting on holding every elevator for everyone who wants to catch it as though it was one of the last helicopters leaving the roof of the Saigon embassy in 1975.
posted by euphorb at 1:57 PM on December 20, 2010 [12 favorites]


All that to say "They're Numer 1!"? He really isn't an American is he.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:59 PM on December 20, 2010


The pretzel is the twisty one. It's usually salty. The bagel is the breakfast one. It's usually not. America: what Brits think of when they encounter Central European foods.
posted by kittyprecious at 2:00 PM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Steaks the size of elephant ears? They should see the size of the schnitzel I got in Austria.
posted by demiurge at 2:02 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised to see so little about race. I can't imagine understanding the Tea Party, migration or even American music without understanding race.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:04 PM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


Mmmm elephant ear steak. The best part of being an American.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:04 PM on December 20, 2010


Diplomatic posting? Hell every European I know with an internet account has used the opportunity to diagnose the U.S.'s faults and suggest ways in which they might be fixed.

Like Germans; is there ANYONE from that tiny little country that isn't totally smug about their rapid transit system that makes cars totally unnecessary? And who doesn't feel it would be easy for Americans to completely reshape their cities and living patterns so we can reduce our reliance on cars? Because I've yet to meet one that won't take the time to say how superior their transit system is.

(OK, so I was totally impressed with the Netherland's transit system when I visited. Still.)
posted by happyroach at 2:09 PM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


And they could speed up their journeys to work by not insisting on holding every elevator for everyone who wants to catch it as though it was one of the last helicopters leaving the roof of the Saigon embassy in 1975.

I literally cannot imagine not doing this. It seems inconceivably rude not to. Do people in other countries not hold the doors? Seriously?
posted by Navelgazer at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2010 [18 favorites]


I finished the article so I could say:

Metafilter: But there are, of course, irritations to living anywhere, and it is the job of the irritable to find them.

But the play between the anecdote about the old couple giving him a ride and the rest of the story being mostly, "this is weird, this is weird, I don't know what this is, these guys are crazy..." really does sum this place up pretty well.
posted by cmoj at 2:16 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Demiurge, if your schnitzel was anything like the ones that I had in Vienna, it was probably the size of a car's hubcap, but it was also hammered so thin you could read the newspaper through it. There might have been 100-150g of meat there.


Mmmmmm, schnitzel.
posted by deadmessenger at 2:18 PM on December 20, 2010


I literally cannot imagine not doing this. It seems inconceivably rude not to. Do people in other countries not hold the doors? Seriously?

You know what's really rude? Yelling "hold the elevator!" from 25 feet away.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:19 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Navelgazer, just avoid eye contact, pretend you didn't see them, and away you go!
posted by coraline at 2:20 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Do people in other countries not hold the doors? Seriously?

You know what the really funny thing is? They say goodbye to each other when they get off the elevator. This is for acquaintances as well as complete strangers! "Oh, goodbye complete stranger! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful elevator experience with me!" It's incredibly off-putting. For Europeans who don't understand what I'm talking about, imagine if every time you called a customer service phone number they said "I love you" at the end of the call. That'd start to make you feel kinda' icky after a while, wouldn't it?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:21 PM on December 20, 2010 [13 favorites]


Because it is a country at war, young men and women in uniform are a common sight on internal flights around the country.

It is curiously moving to see them sitting looking a little embarrassed as a pilot or flight attendant calls on their fellow passengers to give their service and sacrifice a standing ovation.


I haven't flown in years and have never flown frequently — does this actually happen? Regularly? Good god.
posted by enn at 2:21 PM on December 20, 2010


It is in fact wrong to say that it could speed up journeys. any person left behind is another person the elevator needs to return to pick up, so it needs to make more journeys. So more people will have to wait for the elevator. So collectively speaking holding the doors reduces the average waiting time.
posted by Catfry at 2:21 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


And who doesn't feel it would be easy for Americans to completely reshape their cities and living patterns so we can reduce our reliance on cars?

"We choose to... do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." - ein Berliner
posted by entropicamericana at 2:21 PM on December 20, 2010


I haven't flown in years and have never flown frequently — does this actually happen? Regularly? Good god.

I fly all the time and no. As far as it goes is that sometimes they have a "special pre-boarding for our active servicemen and -women in uniform". Emphasis mine.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:23 PM on December 20, 2010


Kind of hard to generalize about a place so large that even the natives feel like they're in a foreign country when they travel a few hours, isn't it? The first time I went through Virginia from New England I was stunned by the differences, even.
posted by theredpen at 2:28 PM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


I liked this paragraph:

The Tea Party movement is successful because it taps into the deep American suspicion that all federal government apart from defence spending, is a kind of bureaucratic boondoggle, dreamed up by larcenous conspiracists in Washington to allow them to line their pockets by picking ours.

If the Tea Party, and conservatives in general, would just figure out that defense spending is exactly the same thing, but written in upper case, we'd start to get somewhere.
posted by Malor at 2:29 PM on December 20, 2010 [22 favorites]


enn:

I haven't seen a standing ovation, but I can see where he's coming from on the embarrassed aspect - they just seem embarrassed because most of them are teenagers. I think that's just what all teenagers look like when a crowd of people looks at them.
posted by mike_bling at 2:29 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


For Europeans who don't understand what I'm talking about, imagine if every time you called a customer service phone number they said "I love you" at the end of the call. That'd start to make you feel kinda' icky after a while, wouldn't it?

Welcome to CostCo ...
posted by joe lisboa at 2:32 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Third party aside about the kids-travelling-in-uniform thing; this may look especially weird to British eyes (such as Justin Webb's) because until about five years ago, for a period of three decades, British soldiers were forbidden to travel in uniform on public transport. Because we had an ongoing terrorism problem, and uniforms were targets.
posted by cstross at 2:35 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


joe lisboa: we have CostCo in the UK. (And they have CostCo in Japan.) It's identical except for the prices and labeling. Even the layout of the stores is the same.
posted by cstross at 2:36 PM on December 20, 2010


It is in fact wrong to say that it could speed up journeys. any person left behind is another person the elevator needs to return to pick up, so it needs to make more journeys.
This assumes there's only one elevator. Where I work, there are several banks of four. But you still get the guy who, ostensibly to be nice, holds the door until the car is quite full. While it may be considerate to the folks just getting on, it's not so much to the poor fellow who got on first. It's like the codger at the 4-way stop sign waving everyone else through--what about the guy behind him?
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:39 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"This is America son," he told me, "We help each other out."

Nothing that happened in the three years that followed was to undermine that first impression of friendliness and hospitality.


This reminds me of any time I've been to Colorado.
posted by Avenger50 at 2:41 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ha, joe lisboa beat me to it. cstross: you have to watch the video, it's the joke.
posted by statolith at 2:41 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Navelgazer, just avoid eye contact, pretend you didn't see them, and away you go!

I prefer to push the "Close door" button repeatedly and look down at the button and look up at them with a panicked look on my face like "Oh no! My carefully laid plans ruined!" and pretend the tense situation has caused me to panic and be unable to think to just stick my hand out and prevent the door from closing and say "I'm . . .I'm pushing the button!" and then as the doors close and I float away I think "Ha! I didn't say which button sucker." I love it! I wish I could ride elevators all the time just to be able to do it more often.
posted by ND¢ at 2:42 PM on December 20, 2010 [27 favorites]


I haven't flown in years and have never flown frequently — does this actually happen? Regularly? Good god.

I fly frequently, and while I've seen this happen a couple of times, it only happens occasionally. Probably on one or two flights out of a hundred or so, and only when there are a LOT of military folks on a commercial flight (like half the plane or something).
posted by deadmessenger at 2:46 PM on December 20, 2010


If the Tea Party, and conservatives in general, would just figure out that defense spending is exactly the same thing, but written in upper case, we'd start to get somewhere.*

See: Ron Paul & Barney Frank.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:48 PM on December 20, 2010


Article in radio form.
posted by clorox at 2:56 PM on December 20, 2010


But the rejoinder "you're welcome", which once greeted almost any expression of thanks in America, is in retreat.


I have noticed this, and had caught myself doing the indistinct "mmhhhmm" thing he mentions. It sounded dismissive and annoying to my own ears. So for the last couple of years, I have made it my personal etiquette mission to say "you're welcome" when I am thanked.

It's sincere, too. Because if you're the sort of person who thanks me, then of course, you are welcome.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:02 PM on December 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


I see a noticeable amount of uniformed military every time I fly (especially during layovers, but then I imagine that's because layovers happen at big hubs, and lots of military folks are flying to and from remote places that necessarily involve layovers). I've definitely heard the special early boarding for uniformed military. I've never seen the standing ovation thing, though. I'm sure it's happened - and it may have been more common a few years ago when the crazy was especially ramped up - but I've never personally seen it.

What I haven't heard of, though, is this saying goodbye when you exit the elevator. Maybe in very small towns? I grew up in a town with maybe 5 buildings tall enough to require riding in an elevator, so it was a very unusual thing to do. I can see people there saying hi and bye in that situation, the same way that every. single. driver honks and/or waves when I go for a jog. It's just a huge novelty for them to see a person outdoors without the shelter of a vehicle.
posted by Sara C. at 3:02 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I haven't flown in years and have never flown frequently — does this actually happen? Regularly? Good god.

This happens at least once nearly every time I fly, but I fly into and out of National, which is walking distance from the Pentagon, so that's probably skewing my results some.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:09 PM on December 20, 2010



Best quote from the article:

"And they could speed up their journeys to work by not insisting on holding every elevator for everyone who wants to catch it as though it was one of the last helicopters leaving the roof of the Saigon embassy in 1975."


Dave Barry actually used this analogy in the late 80's (except it was people throwing themselves into closing subway doors).

Total coincidence or unconscious lifting I'm sure. But he's not the first to use it. I've even "borrowed" this myself after barging into a closing elevator at work that I assumed was empty. As in "I didn't know anyone was in here. Sorry to act like it's the last helicopter out of Saigon."

Hey kids, it seems impossible, but at one point Dave Barry was worth ripping off.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:19 PM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Wow... awesome catch Mayor
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 3:27 PM on December 20, 2010


They say goodbye to each other when they get off the elevator.

I worked in a huge office tower in the Netherlands for a while, and this was one of the few things I couldn't get used to. Why are you saying "goodbye" to me? Did we just complete some sort of epic voyage that requires a coda at the end just to emphasize the finality of this trip, as life itself is finite?
posted by 1adam12 at 3:30 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know what the really funny thing is? They say goodbye to each other when they get off the elevator. This is for acquaintances as well as complete strangers! "Oh, goodbye complete stranger! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful elevator experience with me!" It's incredibly off-putting.

Wait, I don't understand--I live in DC and take the elevator to work every day and I'd say that I say "hello" and "goodbye" (or more commonly "have a good morning!") about half of the time that I share an elevator with a stranger. Others have done the same to me. Are you saying you would find this weird?

I suspect that this is a regional thing; it wouldn't surprise me if folks up in the northeast studiously ignore each other in the elevator but anybody raised in the midwest or out west might find it a bit strange to be in such close quarters with someone for a minute or two without a greeting, even if they are a stranger. Hell, it took me a long time to break myself of the habit (picked up during my childhood and teen years in a relatively rural part of Colorado) of waving hello to passing cars when I was walking down the street.
posted by iminurmefi at 3:32 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I have a different take on the "you're welcome" issue. What I've noticed is that there are people who way overuse "you're welcome". For instance if the checkout clerk hopes I stay warm on my walk home I might say "thanks" but this does not require a "you're welcome" in return. In fact I find it rather awkward and leaves me uncomfortable. Likewise if someone says "thank you" when I do something as insignificant as above instead of saying "you're welcome", which feels completely out-of-place, I might do the "mmmhhhmmm" thing along with a nod and a smile to acknowledge the pleasantry exchanged.

I guess that telling someone they are welcome means that the person has put you out in some manner but in cases where no work has been done, other than the exchange of a pleasantry, then you really haven't been put out. It's like "you're welcome" means "yes, I did do something significant for you and do deserve your thanks. But I do sincerely mean that I did not mind doing it and it is likely that I would do it for you again in the future." Sometimes the service provided doesn't really justify all that baggage.
posted by bfootdav at 3:34 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


it wouldn't surprise me if folks up in the northeast studiously ignore each other

I would respond to this comment but I am too busy pretending to stare at something off in the distance.
posted by elizardbits at 3:34 PM on December 20, 2010 [12 favorites]


I thank my bus drivers and also people who tend the counter when I leave a shop. I always have. Depending on where I am in the country, the response is usually unsurprised or utterly bewildered.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:39 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


When the writer says "after DeToqueville," I bet, know, that he has not read what that great writer had to say after he had written his classic work on America. In fact, he was much less
smitten by what he saw when he considered the slavery issue fully, as noted in his letters.
posted by Postroad at 3:41 PM on December 20, 2010


"Mmm-hmm" instead of "You're welcome" of a "Thank *you*" in return rankles as a pointlessly rude response that takes just as much effort as the polite form. I try and be magnanimous about "Have a blessed day" but "Have a safe day" (common in my metro area) creeps me out.

I can't fault people for holding the door but if I'm far away and then feel compelled to run, that is non-ideal.
posted by Morrigan at 3:41 PM on December 20, 2010


I wish I could ride elevators all the time just to be able to do it more often.

ND¢ is my hero
posted by theredpen at 3:48 PM on December 20, 2010


The "Have a blessed day" thing . . . really? Really? I'm enjoying thinking up atheist-flavored versions and responses. Also I am now even more terrified to visit the Bible belt right now in case I have to hear this.
posted by theredpen at 3:50 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Its newspapers - with one or two exceptions - are awful.

This.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 3:57 PM on December 20, 2010


Astro Zombie: "I thank my bus drivers and also people who tend the counter when I leave a shop. I always have. Depending on where I am in the country, the response is usually unsurprised or utterly bewildered"

People out here in the almost mid-west always thank the bus driver/shop keeper/ticket taker/etc but I usually get funny looks when I do that back east in the NJ/NYC area. Bus drivers here always say "watch your step, be careful, have a great weekend". Is it in New York where the buses have signs that say, "Don't talk to the driver"?
posted by octothorpe at 3:57 PM on December 20, 2010


The "Have a blessed day" thing . . . really? Really?

I am almost 100% positive that this sort of thing is the reason some atheists are so virulent about things. I'm agnostic and generally friendly to non-fundamentalist religion, and it makes my skin crawl.

Re thanking service personnel - I live in New York and do it without fail. So do most/all of my friends. I thought that was the default behavior in the NY/NJ/CT area. In fact, I find that people back home don't do it unless they have a personal relationship with the worker. For instance my mom will chat a blue streak with the woman who does her nails, but the woman ringing her up at Target gets nothing.
posted by Sara C. at 4:05 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is it in New York where the buses have signs that say, "Don't talk to the driver"?

This does not mean "don't say hi to do the driver," it means, like, don't sit in the very front seat and gab at the driver nonstop. It's not social hour, the driver is trying to concentrate and do his job.

I have said "good morning", "thanks", "have a good one", "happy holidays", etc. to my bus driver every morning for years, and have not been ticketed yet.
posted by Sara C. at 4:08 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


In all my many years of living in the South (Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia), I don't think that more than a handful of times have I heard "have a blessed day". Maybe it's all the city living? Also, I do always thank the bus driver but I don't expect an "you're welcome" in return.
posted by bfootdav at 4:12 PM on December 20, 2010


Yes, really. I am just south of the Mason-Dixon line and don't know if it is more common in the Bible Belt. It is not as obnoxious as it may seem; in my metro area (DC), the phrase is usually used by low-income people in high-crime neighborhoods, much like "Have a safe day." Although not a believer, I'm inclined to give them a break.
posted by Morrigan at 4:14 PM on December 20, 2010


Even in my little liberal island in Georgia, "Have a blessed day" is pretty common.

It's usually from smiling lower-middle class ladies who are at least 40 years old. I don't know if that will make you more or less likely to fire off some sarcastic declaration of athiesm.
posted by keratacon at 4:15 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I work in NYC so the elevator talk? Not so much.

I just read somewhere that the blessed day thing is pretty common in parts of he South.

A fairly amusing article all around.
posted by freakazoid at 4:16 PM on December 20, 2010


The "Have a blessed day" thing . . . really? Really?
posted by theredpen at 5:50 PM on December 20


At my workplace in downtown Nashville, the guy who directs traffic at the parking garage says this all the time. He also regularly tells the women they're beautiful and he loves them, and fist-bumps the guys. In anybody else it would be creepy and wrong, but somehow, from this particular guy, it's awesome.

I've also heard this from the receptionist at my dentist's, where as you leave they hand you a slip of paper with a Bible verse on it along with your credit card receipt.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:22 PM on December 20, 2010


...imagine if every time you called a customer service phone number they said "I love you" at the end of the call. That'd start to make you feel kinda' icky after a while, wouldn't it?

No. ::sniff::
posted by Splunge at 4:24 PM on December 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


Stop being so gosh-darned friendly America! It distracts from all the crazy you've got going on.
posted by diogenetic at 4:25 PM on December 20, 2010


When I get "Have a blessed day", I usually reply with إن شاء الله ("Insha'Allah"). Sometimes people ask what it means, and I just say "God willing" and سيرا على الأقدام سريع
posted by sidereal at 4:26 PM on December 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


The "Have a blessed day" thing . . . really? Really?
I'm not in the Bible Belt, but I've heard this a fair amount, pretty much exclusively from black people.
posted by craichead at 4:28 PM on December 20, 2010


I hear the blessed day thing probably once a month on average, usually from little old black ladies that most likely wear funny hats to church. It's a little annoying, but so are a million other things that you, me and everybody else let's go everyday.
posted by ND¢ at 4:29 PM on December 20, 2010


I literally cannot imagine not doing this. It seems inconceivably rude not to. Do people in other countries not hold the doors? Seriously?
This explains the bewildered and hurt faces at Heathrow.

imagine if every time you called a customer service phone number they said "I love you" at the end of the call
Or they instructed me to "have a nice day"? This is in fact still unsettling to me, but not as much as always being asked how I am. They are both nothing next to "mmmhmmm", though, which at first sounded as rude as all hell.
posted by bonaldi at 4:31 PM on December 20, 2010


I'm not sure if this would be a Canadian thing, but I find I rarely say you're welcome when people thank me. I feel like it can be slightly sanctimonious.

To you're welcome to me really means, "I've done something significant for you, and I'm happy to have done this for you." If I help someone move out of their house, I'll give them a you're welcome after a sincere thank you.

But if I don't feel like I've gone out of my way for someone, either no response or a "No worries" is much more likely. Mmmm-hmmm sounds very irritating though.

Anyway, caveat: I might be an asshole.
posted by Alex404 at 4:47 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the motormen on the Chicago Red Line likes to announce over the PA, "Welcome aboard the blessed train, the blessed train is the best train. Please check for your belongings before exiting, and have a blessed day." I haven't heard him in a while, though.
posted by enn at 4:51 PM on December 20, 2010


haven't flown in years and have never flown frequently — does this actually happen? Regularly? Good god.

Not in my experience. On the other hand, remember that a lot of pilots are ex-military.

The thank you thing - I sometimes hear the thankee responding with their own
"thank you" in a sort of Alfonse and Gaston kind of way. DeToqueville would have approved.

And speaking of as others see us- Alistair Cooke tried to explain America to Britain for nearly six decades. His final Letter From America is from 2004 and worth listening to.

He died at age 95.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:52 PM on December 20, 2010


Navelgazer, just avoid eye contact, pretend you didn't see them, and away you go!

The elevator at my job for my floor is in a corner facing a huge bank of windows across from the hall into which the elevator empties. So everyone has to take a sharp right to get to the elevator. The angles are such that if someone stands in the extreme front-left corner of the elevator, they are a NINJA and can push the button to close the elevator without anyone seeing the rudeness that is jabbing the button and ignoring the people pattering up to the door.

I am, in this one limited sense, a NINJA. But I've gotten in the habit of standing in that corner even when other people are in the elevator, and the other day someone I must assume is also a NINJA called me out on it, just from the fact that I immediately lunged into that front-left corner and leaned into the wall. They did not wish me a blessed day.
posted by winna at 4:53 PM on December 20, 2010


"You're welcome" is sanctimonious? It's just polite acknowledgement.

These are not:

Silence
"Yeah"
"Sure"
"Whatever"
"Huh"

I was paying for my sandwich (dressed in my motorcycle gear) and the woman wished me to "have a nice ride." My reply of "Thanks, you do the same" was a touch inappropriate.
posted by maxwelton at 5:11 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't believe in God, nor do I live in a part of the country where "have a blessed day" is normal speech, but I find it slightly cute when occasionally I hear it. Usually older women would say that. It's well intentioned. It can't hurt, can it?
posted by knoyers at 5:29 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The one thing that bewilders most Europeans who've visited American that I've spoken to has been being asked "How are you?" by clerks and sales people. "They don't really care how I am, do they? Why are they asking? What if I told them the truth?" With time, and condition, they learn to just say "Fine thanks you" and nod at whatever is said in response to this.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:34 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Or they instructed me to "have a nice day"?

Jesus. They are wishing a nice day for you (as in "I hope you have..."). It's meant as a kindness, dammit.

Re elevator behavior, one thing I've been surprised about since moving to DC is that no one will ask you to push their button for them; everyone always insists on reaching over and pushing their desired floor themselves, which means if you're standing by the button panel in a crowded elevator that there are all sorts of arms snaking around you. Gives me the heebie-jeebies it does. And yes, I'm one of the Americans that Connolly will hate for insisting on excessive personal space.
posted by kittyprecious at 5:36 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm fairly misanthropic, top 'o the water tower kinda guy at heart. Extending a friendly no-strings greeting to acknowlege someones mere existence is about the only balance I have. If ignored, I am not diminished, if met with even the slightest recognition, it's a small but real lift for that moment. Maybe the cold, industrial, high population density of metro areas gives some a need for insulation. Maybe it's a fear of strangers taken to counterproductive depths. Seems to me that much of our social strife stems from a lack of communication across barriers. Barriers whose roots are in these tiny snubs that some folks here almost seem to take pride in. It doesn't cost anything to extend a few polite sounds out of your mouth. Same effort as being rude or cold and distant. Communication takes practice. If you get good at it you might be able to carry some of your high minded superior philosophy to someone with a different outlook and make the world a better place. Get that practice where you can, because someones life my hang in the balance. Some days that water tower calls really loud
posted by Redhush at 5:56 PM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


Unless it's something really momentous (saving a puppy from a speeding train, leaving a thousand dollar tip on Christmas Eve, getting someone a great deal on their car insurance) I just say "yeah, no problem" or when I worked retail "sure, have a good one."

When I delivered for a bakery, it was "no problem, they pay me," or something similarly cheesy about the weather or whatever national holiday was nearest. I don't know why, but I felt obligated to provide a quick dose of folksy non-humor and mindless goodwill when I was driving a truck and wearing a white apron, rolling in a rack of bagels and bread. I also needed something to say during the exchange where I handed over the clipboard for them to sign off on the delivery.

Anyway, I've always though "you're welcome" should be reserved for times when you are doing something you didn't have to do (like the puppy and the speeding train), and the "thank you" is very sincere. A "thanks" for ringing up someone's groceries doesn't warrant a "you're welcome." I'm not welcome. I'm the customer, the reason you hate this crappy dead-end job. I know and have been there.

Also, back on the American exceptionalism front, I always thought it was part of the American character to be accommodating and helpful to one's neighbors, but without a lot of fanfare. Holding the elevator is a good example. You hold it, there's a nod, and you never talk to that person again. You held it for him, but it's no biggie, because he would have done the same for you, even if you were J. Edgar Hoover and he was John Dillinger.
posted by LiteOpera at 6:01 PM on December 20, 2010


I've spent a lot of time in the 60s to 80s in fairly hardscrabble parts of East Texas and SW Louisiana, and have relatives there, and I don't ever remember anyone telling me to "have a blessed day", ever. I'm open to the suggestion that it might be a more recent trend.

(Or, frankly, an African-American thing--we're not as integrated a society as we pretend to be sometimes.)
posted by gimonca at 6:03 PM on December 20, 2010


The thing that most confused me upon moving to DC was the men standing aside to let women enter/exit elevators first (even if they were the ones closest to the door). Annoying, as I just want to get on/off the damn thing as efficiently as possible, and I can't since I always have to figure out if this is one of the few times where the guy won't wait for me to get on/off first.
posted by longdaysjourney at 6:04 PM on December 20, 2010


In the last few years as I've stopped spending so much of my personal income on vending machines and bought more and more stuff from actual humans, I have found it very difficult to remember to not say "thank you" to the rare vending machines I do interact with. People here would think you're a freak for not saying "have a nice day" and "thanks" and about eighty other social grease catchphrases at every opportunity.

I said "oh, you're welcome" at least fifteen times today, asked not less than six people how they were doing, and pride myself on only having to choke out one superfast "finethanksandyou?" in passing to someone who waited till the last second to ask me how I was in the hallway. Usually it's more like eight or nine of those.

And I'm a loner, and three fourths of the building is on vacation this week.

I do the "oops wrong button thing" sometimes, too.
posted by SMPA at 6:06 PM on December 20, 2010


In my ideal world entry/exit would be dictated by whoever was closest to the door.
posted by longdaysjourney at 6:06 PM on December 20, 2010


I wonder if Americans are even more friendly to visiting British journalists than they are to other Americans.
posted by subdee at 6:18 PM on December 20, 2010


I try to be as friendly as possible without crossing the Ned Flanders barrier when dealing with strangers. I love living on the east coast, but there's a kind of endemic alienation about it, and I've felt that enough that genuine friendliness/appreciation for someone doing something for me, even if it is their job, can't help but make that load a little lighter. Also it makes me feel happier, so, you know, good all around. The thought process goes like this:

If you're in the service industry you either love your job, or you're just doing it because you need a job. Most likely the second. If it's the first case, then appreciation only would help to add to one's enthusiasm, I would think. In the second case, why not help a person feel a little more human during the course of a day of drudgery. I didn't know there were people who resented it or felt creeped out by it.

I too was surprised to see no discussion of race here, nor about the gulf of difference between the East Coast and Middle America (save for "Have a Blessed Day," which I may have only heard once in my life.)
posted by Navelgazer at 6:30 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rural East Texas. I get "have a blessed day" and "God bless you" and the occasional "Jesus loves you!" (seriously) as a parting shot as I'm on my way out the door from stores and such. I usually don't respond at all. If we're still face-to-face I'll do the obligatory "you too;" if silence would be rude but I can get away with it, I just give the mildly-assenting "mmhmm." I know they mean well but it irks me.

I did recently have a rather amusing incident where the "Jesus loves you!" got a mild "oh mmhmm" with blank automatic half-smile and the girl who'd said it paused a moment and then said, rather hesitantly, "Happy Hannukah?"

I wished her a Merry Christmas and left.

(I'm not Jewish either.)
posted by titus n. owl at 6:35 PM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


Even in my little liberal island in Georgia, "Have a blessed day" is pretty common.

And much less insane-seeming than 'Angels on your shoulder'.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:39 PM on December 20, 2010


On the "have a blessed day" thing... I've only heard it from friends and acquaintances of mine who are "crystals and chakras" kind'a spiritual, not so much the "Jesus" kind'a spiritual. And I never here it when I go to visit family in Oklahoma.

But really, that pisses people off? I'm an atheist but, sheee-ish.
posted by Kloryne at 6:41 PM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


...never "hear" it. blech.
posted by Kloryne at 6:41 PM on December 20, 2010


Kloryne, it doesn't piss me off every single time it happens because I find the phrase personally offensive or something. It irks me when I hear it all the time and it builds up and I realize that everyone just assumes that everyone else is Christian and aaaaaugh.

So: no, it's not annoying in and of itself, especially since I know damn well they mean well by it, but it gets annoying in aggregate.
posted by titus n. owl at 6:43 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've spent a lot of time in the 60s to 80s in fairly hardscrabble parts of East Texas and SW Louisiana, and have relatives there, and I don't ever remember anyone telling me to "have a blessed day", ever. I'm open to the suggestion that it might be a more recent trend.

I think it is - I grew up in SE Louisiana and never really heard it until friends and family went born-again in the last 10-15 years.
posted by Sara C. at 6:45 PM on December 20, 2010


The broad brush this guy uses is rather annoying.

In the Bible-belt, you will be wished a "blessed day" for example.

I grew up in Arkansas and can't remember ever hearing this. Except for a Wiccan friend who would greet and depart with the phrase "Blessed be."

Its newspapers - with one or two exceptions - are awful.

Just what are those exceptions? He attacks but leaves himself some wiggle room--lame.
posted by zardoz at 6:48 PM on December 20, 2010


Actually, you know what? I think I've figured out why getting "God Bless"ed all the time annoys me.

It's othering.

I know they mean well by it so I take it with the goodwill they're intending, but it's othering. It's assuming that everyone is Christian and will welcome a Christian blessing; every single instance of it reminds me that I am considered abnormal here because I do not share their faith. Do they mean to do that? Certainly not consciously! But that doesn't mean it's not what's being done.
posted by titus n. owl at 6:50 PM on December 20, 2010 [14 favorites]


Metafilter: have a cursed day.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:53 PM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


titus n. owl. I feel your pain, believe me. I grew up in a small religious town and never caught the bible fever. But I guess I just look at it like, "Well there's another person who says things I would never say." Like, "Happy hump-day!" "You workin' hard or hardly workin'?" or "That's what SHE said!" That sort of deal. The religious aspect never occurs to me. I'm too busy working on trying to not feel superior to them because they would utter such a dorky statement.
posted by Kloryne at 6:53 PM on December 20, 2010


everyone just assumes that everyone else is Christian

I don't see the phrase that way. Saying "have a blessed day" indicates that the speaker believes in God, but doesn't indicate they think the person they're speaking to does. Same with "Jesus loves you" or whatever. It's a statement of _their_ belief/hope/wish whatever.

But then again, growing up as an atheist in the South I guess it was either adopt a don't care attitude or be pissed off all the time, and I'll always take the former.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:58 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't think people say "Have a blessed day" as a challenge to see if someone will respond appropriately. I certainly hope not. If they are, then they can have a big ol' "Hail Satan" or whatever right in the face.
posted by Kloryne at 6:58 PM on December 20, 2010


Probably the weirdest thing I noticed in America* was how stores always displayed the prices of everything minus the tax, so you had no idea what something would actually cost until you got to the checkout & the tax was added on.

Or do people learn over time to mentally calculate the tax percentage in their head?

It seemed to me like some kind of propaganda on the part of the stores, like "Hey, *we* only charge you $7.50 for this item, but that gosh-darned big govmint adds on more!". Either that, or some political lobby group sometime enforced the rule, presumably for the exact same reason.

Jebus, just display the full price, USians! If I've only got a $20 in my wallet, I wanna know what I can get for it without fartassing around trying to guess the tax rate.

* Well, NYC at least. I have no idea if this is common practice elsewhere.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:17 PM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


I don't believe in God, nor do I live in a part of the country where "have a blessed day" is normal speech, but I find it slightly cute when occasionally I hear it. Usually older women would say that. It's well intentioned. It can't hurt, can it?
Agreed.


Actually, you know what? I think I've figured out why getting "God Bless"ed all the time annoys me.

It's othering.

I know they mean well by it so I take it with the goodwill they're intending, but it's othering. It's assuming that everyone is Christian and will welcome a Christian blessing; every single instance of it reminds me that I am considered abnormal here because I do not share their faith. Do they mean to do that? Certainly not consciously! But that doesn't mean it's not what's being done.
That is possibly the most misanthropic interpretation possible. They are wishing you the absolute best thing they could possibly wish you! They aren't othering you, they are welcoming you.

(I think the blessed day thing is a Baptist thing- maybe even a specific type of Baptist. Here in Chicago-land, I only hear it from people of African-American culture.)
I love living on the east coast, but there's a kind of endemic alienation about it
I remember noticing the same thing! Nobody looks at anyone else. Same thing happens in downtown Chicago too, however.
posted by gjc at 7:28 PM on December 20, 2010


Ubu, I assume that's because taxes are different in different states/cities/counties and stores don't want to have to reprice everything depending on where you buy it. So if Best Buy advertises something at $79, it's going to have a 7% tax rate if you buy in my county but in the next county over it's only 6% and if you drive 30 miles to the Ohio border, it would only be 5.5% there.
posted by octothorpe at 7:29 PM on December 20, 2010


There's no point in outsiders critiquing the US, because Americans actually do a much better job of it themselves.

Regarding "you're welcome", I've actually tired of hearing myself say it and started experimenting with alternatives. Grunting an acknowledgement seems rude. So instead I'm trying out "it's nothing". Because, it really is nothing, and it's politely self-effacing. If I'm feeling like a cool cat (i.e. wanker) that day I might say "de nada" instead.
posted by Ritchie at 7:33 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, that's a nationwide thing. As far as I know it's just a custom, with no ulterior motives. According to older/more conservative people I know, it's so you know how much you're paying in taxes. Which makes little sense to me, but whatever.

And, yes, there's an established sales tax rate for each city or county, so locals know what to expect. In my experience it's usually around 8-9% in major cities, a little less in less developed areas. So it's not usually all that much unless you're making a huge purchase. Which is probably why Europeans are so taken aback by it - you guys come to New York to shop. On a coffee you're going to pay an extra $0.15.
posted by Sara C. at 7:34 PM on December 20, 2010


Nobody looks at anyone else

This is because the big east coast cities and Chicago are dense urban areas where walking and public transit (and public life in general) are the norm. If I had to make eye contact and say hi to everyone I saw from my front door to the office, I would be halfway autistic by the time I got to work.

If you drive everywhere, you make contact with a minuscule number of strangers on a day to day basis. In that case eye contact and a polite greeting is no sacrifice.
posted by Sara C. at 7:38 PM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


Jebus, just display the full price, USians!
That's definitely the idea, but it also fits in line with our general tendency to make ourselves do mundance mathematical gymnastics almost constantly: using 12 hour time, so I can't the figure difference between times crossing noon without an extra mental step, the endless pints-quarts-gallons and ounces-pounds conversions when baking, measuring small things with ever-more-ludicrous power-of-two fractions of inches (64ths? Really? And don't even start me on fucking mills), the nonsense "metricized" liquor bottles so that two half-pints aren't a pint, and five fifths aren't a gallon.

We seem to be culturally compelled to make ourselves relive our grade school arithmetic lessons on a daily basis. Hell, it wasn't until the 90s that the New York Goddamn Stock Exchange stopped quoting their prices in eighths of a dollar, a side effect of cutting Spanish gold dollars into 8 "bits" (12 1/2 cents).
posted by LiteOpera at 7:40 PM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


One thing I've noticed is how America looks to me after I'd been away a few years. When I left my hometown, it struck me as a hard, unforgiving place. Six years later, I return for a visit and suddenly everyone is really friendly and open. A bit of nostalgic color was added, maybe, or because I knew I'd be leaving again. Maybe other expats have had a similar experience.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:44 PM on December 20, 2010


sidereal: "When I get "Have a blessed day", I usually reply with إن شاء الله ("Insha'Allah"). Sometimes people ask what it means, and I just say "God willing" and سيرا على الأقدام سريع"

And if you ever find yourself down South, you can easily adapt that into وشاء الرب خور عدم ارتفاع.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:46 PM on December 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


Thanks, octothorpe & Sara C.

It's just a niggling frustration, because quite often I'll try to spend to what I have, eg to get rid of excess coins, or to avoid breaking a large note. Also, it's handy to know the exact price beforehand, so you can get your change ready before paying & therefore make the transaction more efficient all round.

And there I was thinking that New Yorkers punch you in the back of the head if you take too long fiddling around with coins at the checkout. I suppose it's one way of getting people into the habit of rounding up all the time to leave a tip,
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:46 PM on December 20, 2010


The one thing that bewilders most Europeans who've visited American that I've spoken to has been being asked "How are you?" by clerks and sales people. "They don't really care how I am, do they? Why are they asking? What if I told them the truth?" With time, and condition, they learn to just say "Fine thanks you" and nod at whatever is said in response to this.

This is true. On one of my first visits to the US, I walked into a store in NYC and had the following conversation:

"How are you?..."

[I look around the store trying to locate her co-worker]

"Sir, I was talking to you, how are you?"

"Ummm... alright thanks... err... How are you?"

"I'm well, thank you."

"Good. By the way, I'm not going to buy anything. I hope that's OK."

"That's fine sir."

Later on that day I went into a bar by myself and ended up talking to the bartender and his friends for hours because they struck up conversation with me. Between these two things, I went back to Europe telling everyone how unbelievably friendly New Yorkers were. I've lived in the states for years now, and I still find this to be true.
posted by ob at 7:54 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Vox pop" or light news fluff pieces are unusually popular with Euro media, especially Anglo speakers (and, surprisingly, increasingly popular with al-Jazeera). They use these segments to run, basically, twaffle that confirms how *strange* those Americans really are. Louis Theroux started his entire career with this sort of thing. The Day Today always had a "And now, America" segment to make fun of this: 1 2.
posted by meehawl at 7:54 PM on December 20, 2010


Sara C.: I lived in Brooklyn for a long time, and hope to move back there at the first given opportunity, as no place else has ever felt as much like home to me. Still, Brooklyn (NYC in general, really) is a little different on the "alienation factor" thing I'm talking about. Because yes, you're walking everywhere and so is everyone else. People naturally need to have assurances that their transit time will be able to double as "alone time," and as has been noted above, once you're indoors, New Yorkers are relentlessly friendly and talkative. I kind of love the national stereotype of New Yorker rudeness, because from the other side what it really seems to refer to is a more abrupt, up-front friendliness, with a more Jewish or Italian-American accent than those in the south or midwest are used to.

What I'm thinking about is DC, and the surrounding metro area. It's a place where the general population that most of, well, us would expect to interact with, is transient movers and shakers making a good living for the time being, but few of whom consider it "home." This is surrounded by the actual residents, who are either 1. a small percentage of enormously wealthy individuals who have set up shop permanently in order to feed off of the government money, or 2. the majority population of middle-class to impoverished African-Americans who live and work completely apart from the city's sole industry. You end up with basically two separate cities and one secret club, and most interactions are with the transient movers-and-shakers who all know how to network but who haven't formed a community of their own in the way that other cities tend to do so.

So you end up with situations like earlier today, when I went downstairs to check my mail, and made a point not to make eye-contact with the maintenance guy I passed, lest he be weirded out, and then he braves the exchange, saying "Hey, how're you doing?" and I respond but feel like the asshole upholding the code of "no-friendliness," when I'd been hoping I could say "Hi" to him as well.

That's the type of alienation I'm talking about.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:27 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Navelgazer, just start saying hi to people. It might be that somebody just needs to break the ice. Also, if your friends see you being friendly with acquaintances and service workers, they might start doing it too. I have no illusions about you changing the entire climate of DC forever, but it surely couldn't hurt anything.

By the way, your apartment janitor should fall into the category of "people whose presence you universally acknowledge". That's not the same thing at all as a stranger on the street.
posted by Sara C. at 8:42 PM on December 20, 2010


Augh, the hummy thing in response to "Thank you", I hate it. If you just can't say "you're welcome" there's lots of alternatives: "no problem", "no worries", "my pleasure" - heck, even the nonsensical reciprocation: "thank you" or "you too!"

Do not get me started on the people who hum in response to "excuse me (I would like to look at that book/acquire a vegetable from that display/go through the door you are blocking before the tram pulls away)".
posted by gingerest at 8:43 PM on December 20, 2010


I have noticed this, and had caught myself doing the indistinct "mmhhhmm" thing he mentions. It sounded dismissive and annoying to my own ears. So for the last couple of years, I have made it my personal etiquette mission to say "you're welcome" when I am thanked.

I had a job at a large cancer research hospital and we were specifically instructed to say you're welcome when thanked, and absolutely NOT "No problem" or anything else dismissive.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:47 PM on December 20, 2010


Sara C.: I agree, but I live in a massive apartment complex in Alexandria with a very large maintenance staff. When one comes to my door to deal with my heat being off or something, I'll offer coffee and try to help with whatever they're doing, but I don't know who all of them are by a long-shot.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:47 PM on December 20, 2010


I don't see the phrase that way. Saying "have a blessed day" indicates that the speaker believes in God, but doesn't indicate they think the person they're speaking to does. Same with "Jesus loves you" or whatever. It's a statement of _their_ belief/hope/wish whatever.

That is possibly the most misanthropic interpretation possible. They are wishing you the absolute best thing they could possibly wish you! They aren't othering you, they are welcoming you.

Yes yes I know this and that is why I said:

Do they mean to do that? Certainly not consciously! But that doesn't mean it's not what's being done.
posted by titus n. owl at 8:58 PM on December 20, 2010


once you're indoors, New Yorkers are relentlessly friendly and talkative.

If anything my friends who visit from abroad always mention how Americans in general in New Yorkers in particular, will just enter any conversation in earshot if they desire.

This desire jumps tenfold if they can argue about either the best way to get somewhere or the best restaurant in the area, but any conversation going on in semi-private space is fair game.
posted by The Whelk at 9:11 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


In re: "How are you?" as a greeting, I'm an American and have lived here all my life, and I cannot stand it, nor have I figured out how to deal with it. It's such a fundamentally dishonest sentence that any time I hear it, my mind recoils at the obvious disparity and I become so sad that someone would start our interaction with such a blatant lie. What an awful set of words.
posted by TypographicalError at 9:24 PM on December 20, 2010


As for the tax issue, three things occur to me.

1) I used to work in a grocery store as the IT dept. In that capacity I worked closely with bookkeeper for a variety of tasks. One was handling sales tax. The bookkeeper went to a seminar with the state sales tax people and came back with all sorts of useful/interesting information. Perhaps the most relevant bit I only remember dimly but it was something along the lines that the government wants its citizens to know exactly how much they are paying in taxes with each transaction. The example used was with how car dealers used to advertise that they'd pay the taxes on whatever car you bought. These dealers ended up getting in trouble with the feds and the practice ended. I don't remember the exact reason for this requirement but that it is in place. (This could be entirely wrong so more research should be done).

2) Like a couple of others have mentioned, tax rates vary from state to state, county to county, and even city to city. A national chain would have an impossible time advertising a sale price given how pissed off people would get when their $1,000 TV was actually $1,100.

3) People on food stamps do not pay sales tax on some food items. So that bag of rice that is listed at $.99 is really only $.99 for them. The shampoo, though, will be taxed at the full rate. A side note, most locales in the US have a different sales tax rate for food vs. non-food stuff. On top of that, what qualifies for food stamps is a subset of those food items (take-out food, for example, can't be paid for with food stamps). I don't know that this is a reason for leaving off the cost of sales tax but it is one more area for possible confusion.
posted by bfootdav at 9:27 PM on December 20, 2010


The Whelk: mention the Subway near any two New Yorkers displanted from the city, and all conversation will be dictated by that subject for at least an hour. I myself am particularly bad about this.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:28 PM on December 20, 2010


It's good that US correspondents report back to us that America and Americans are not so bad.

If only we could tweak your ideas about health care, soft drugs, capital punishment, international affaires, religion, bikes, sports shoes on non-sports occasions, .....
posted by joost de vries at 9:36 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


bfootdav: thanks for the further explanation.

From an IT perspective, though, surely you'd just have a base price, with a configurable % added for tax, no? This could even be configurable by stock keeping unit (SKU) so that if there are different taxes applicable to different items, they can be marked up separately.

For greater ease, you'd set up "product families" and add individual SKUs to those - say, if cosmetics were taxed differently to foodstuffs - and apply the respective tax rates to those product families globally.

Either way, there should be nothing preventing price tickets from displaying both the pre-tax (net) and the tax-added (gross) prices, and national chains could simply continue to advertise the net prices.

But now the weirdest thing about America has become food stamps. Seriously? Is it still 1942? Do people really pay for stuff using little sticky stamps?

(Governments here keep wanting to set up special debit cards for welfare recipients, that cannot be used for things like cigarettes or alcohol, because of the children. Obviously, that would just create a black economy of pawn shops that would buy their groceries in exchange for cash, with a hefty commission going to the pawnbroker. I'd be surprised if the exact same thing doesn't happen with these food stamps)
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:48 PM on December 20, 2010


"Food stamps" in Texas and most other states are, in fact, actually "special debit cards" (it's called EBT here - Electronic Benefit Transfer). I have never heard of a pawn shop buying groceries.
posted by titus n. owl at 10:01 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're right, both could be displayed. I'm guessing the reason for showing only one is that space can be limited. At the store I worked at I created some shelf tags that were half-width that only had the price on the them (no bar code or other information) for certain display areas. It's probably easier to just settle on a standard practice and let shoppers figure it out from there. And the thing is we Americans are so used to adding the tax in that it's really not an issue at all (though I totally get why people from other countries would think the whole thing crazy). Oh, and if the tax rate changes then you'd have to replace all the tags at once which would be a huge pain. Generally price changes happen in waves so it's easier to deal with.

Most states (all now?) don't use actual "food stamps". In fact it's not even called "food stamps" anymore, it's EBT (I used "food stamps" in my post figuring that not everyone would be aware of the change). Anyway, what most places use is a card that operates just like a debit card with a PIN. Not only is it an easier way to transfer funds (to the person's account) there's much less of a stigma attached to using one of these cards as opposed to the stamps of old.

Yes, there was a large black market for food stamps back in the day. It's less of a problem now because of the debit cards but it sill exists (you don't want to sell your EBT card so the process of getting cash out of it or paying for non-food items takes more effort).
posted by bfootdav at 10:11 PM on December 20, 2010


One practice that surprised me (and still makes me a bit uncomfortable) in London and a few other larger British cities was how total strangers will plop down at an empty seat at your table at, say, a crowded McDonald's without saying a word. I've never been to NYC, but I've been to lots of other major US cities and have never had anyone attempt such a thing without at least inquiring "Is this seat taken?" or "Do you mind if I sit here?".
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:17 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have never heard of a pawn shop buying groceries.

Maybe not a pawn shop, but there are always black markets available.

For example, plenty of shifty corner store operators would happily buy things like batteries or razor blades under the counter for resale. I once knew some junkies who would shoplift deodorant - of all things - for resale in exactly that manner.

Leaving stores aside altogether, I bet you could easily offload a turkey to your neighbours for $10 at this time of year. I understand that prime cuts of meat are often shoplifted for exactly that kind of reason.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:08 PM on December 20, 2010


Well, I don't see how that's an argument against allowing poor people and their kids to get assistance in buying food. Maybe I'm missing your point.
posted by titus n. owl at 11:40 PM on December 20, 2010


Food and consumer goods are too cheap to make a black market worthwhile.

There are also intense controls on what foods are eligible, anyway - there is basically zero chance that someone is going to be able to get enough instant noodles and powdered milk to start some kind of EBT -> meth exchange. As you yourself point out, it's probably easier to just resort to petty crime to get your drugs.
posted by Sara C. at 12:18 AM on December 21, 2010


I once had an English friend compliment me on the way I responded to being thanked. I said something like "Oh, you're welcome" in a passing tone when he thanked me for handing him something at the table. He told me most Americans he'd met (in a business setting) just seemed embarrassed & unsure of how to act when he said, "Thank you" to them. I thought it was really bizarre at the time, but I guess this could refer to the "Mmmhmmm" thing.
posted by bibliophibianj at 12:20 AM on December 21, 2010


I'm not sure the food stamp/EBT black market was ever very organized but back when stamps were the norm I would see people selling them for around $.50 on the dollar for cash which they would then use to buy alcohol, non-food stuff, and yes, even drugs. It was free money after all and for the purchaser a good deal (half-price food tax free!). With the new cards it's a more difficult proposition that often involves help from a friendly cashier but it can be done.
posted by bfootdav at 12:29 AM on December 21, 2010


Also, and I try not to make such a thing of this anymore, but could people please, PLEASE stop using the term "USian"? It's not only stupid-sounding, but honestly is insulting. Even if you don't mean for it to be derogatory, it is. Please don't do that anymore.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:31 AM on December 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Well, I don't see how that's an argument against allowing poor people and their kids to get assistance in buying food. Maybe I'm missing your point.

Oh, it's not at all. Just that people on welfare here currently just get money in their bank accounts to do whatever they like with.

I happened to be involved in a bid to take on the smartcard tender that would've allowed the government to restrict welfare benefits to the sale of food & similar domestic goods only (something that right-wingers just *love* the idea of) and those were some of the arguments against that kind of scheme.

Personally, I feel that if people want to spend money on booze & tobacco & gambling & meth or whatever, they're going to do it no matter what, and imposing restrictions on what they can buy in stores only creates a black market instead. That's all.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:32 AM on December 21, 2010


One practice that surprised me (and still makes me a bit uncomfortable) in London and a few other larger British cities was how total strangers will plop down at an empty seat at your table at, say, a crowded McDonald's without saying a word.

Every time I see that, I think of that Douglas Adams story:

This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person was me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train. I'd gotten the time of the train wrong.

I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table.

I want you to picture the scene. It's very important that you get this very clear in your mind.

Here's the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There's a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase.

It didn't look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There's nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies.

You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know. . . But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn't do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?

In the end I thought, nothing for it, I'll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, that settled him. But it hadn't because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie.

Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. "Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice . . ." I mean, it doesn't really work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away.

Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back. A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies.

The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who's had the same exact story, only he doesn't have the punch line.

(Excerpted from "The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time" by Douglas Adams)

posted by cmonkey at 1:08 AM on December 21, 2010 [32 favorites]


happyroach: "Like Germans; is there ANYONE from that tiny little country that isn't totally smug about their rapid transit system that makes cars totally unnecessary?"

Tiny little country? It's bigger than New Mexico and the population of California, Texas and New York (state) combined. And while cars aren't necessary in the bigger cities, there sure are a lot of them here.
posted by brokkr at 2:21 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Marisa:The one thing that bewilders most Europeans who've visited American that I've spoken to has been being asked "How are you?" by clerks and sales people. "They don't really care how I am, do they? Why are they asking? What if I told them the truth?" With time, and condition, they learn to just say "Fine thanks you" and nod at whatever is said in response to this.

A similar phenomenon is the common British greeting "are you alright?" (sometimes abbreviated to "you alright?" or "aiight?"). The first few times I encountered that, after moving to London from Australia, I wondered, slightly anxiously, whether there was something about my appearance or demeanour suggesting that I might not be alright.
posted by acb at 3:17 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't worry. The poms get the same treatment when they arrive down under, with people constantly saying to them "Giddy, mate?"
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:23 AM on December 21, 2010


I wrote one of these after my nearly-seven-years in NYC. I basically identified all the good and bad things about the entire USA. Unfortunately one of the bad things about the country is that Americans don't listen to great advice from me. And look what happened! The markets crashed! God, you guys.
posted by Decani at 4:09 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe the embarrassment people mention explains the odd thing I've noticed in the past decade, which is that people, mostly young ones, say "No problem" when I thank them.

I grew up assuming "Thank you" was an innocuous phatic necessity, along with its corollary "You're welcome." They are essentially meaningless statements. Nothing but politeness. "Thank you" doesn't imply an outstanding act, and "You're welcome" doesn't suggest arrogance. But I see that some other people want such statements to have Real Meaning, and are therefore feel not only astounded to be thanked but awkward about accepting it. What they're doing when they reject the meaningless is making it uncomfortable for both parties instead.

But the bus drivers in Philadelphia always say "You're welcome" when we thank them, thank goodness, and so I never get off the bus feeling as if I have just walked out of the middle of a conversation.
posted by Peach at 4:20 AM on December 21, 2010


being asked "How are you?" by clerks and sales people

Actually they've started doing this in Marks and Spencers recently; and/or they ask if you've had a good day. I tell them.
posted by Segundus at 4:28 AM on December 21, 2010


I have never heard of a pawn shop buying groceries.

I remember watching one of those 11 o'clock new exposes on the latest food stamp (yes, they're actualy little cards called EBT) scam - basically, people were buying out the entire store's supply of that fancy organic milk that comes in glass bottles with a 1-2 dollar deposit - the deposit was covered by the food stamp, et viola - free money!

I don't think that lasted too long or was too widespread however.
posted by fermezporte at 4:51 AM on December 21, 2010


The use of the "mmhhhuuuhh" is extremely annoying. It's almost always used by someone who doesn't have the common courtesy to make eye contact and I read it as disrespectful and dismissive. It used to drive me crazy when living in Texas.
Despite this, we found Texas to be extremely friendly even if somewhat crazy and we miss Houston now we've left.
posted by arcticseal at 5:23 AM on December 21, 2010


From an IT perspective, though, surely you'd just have a base price, with a configurable % added for tax, no? This could even be configurable by stock keeping unit (SKU) so that if there are different taxes applicable to different items, they can be marked up separately.

Wait, I am now confused. Isn't US sales tax calculated on the total purchase, and not on each individual item? I have no idea how this shit works, argh frustrating.


also, re: elevator ignorings - my mom used to live in a huge hi-rise building with hundreds and hundreds of residents, so saying hi to everyone you passed would soon become deeply exhausting. Anyway, one day when I was visiting, I came in through the lobby at the same time as she was coming up in the elevator from the parking garage. We, with no one joining us the entire time, shared an elevator for 25 whole creaky floors before we individually realized that the only other person in the elevator with us was the only living member of our immediate family. The only reason we even realized at all is because we both moved to get off at the same floor.

tl;dr disinterested narcissism apparently runs in the family.

posted by elizardbits at 5:39 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't US sales tax calculated on the total purchase, and not on each individual item?

Each item, because some items (ie non-restaurant food) might well have no sales tax. If you did it over the total, you might be imposing tax where there is no tax.

It doesn't appear as a separate line-item for each thing you buy. There's just a line at the end TAX: $2.98. But it's calculated over each individual item.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:54 AM on December 21, 2010


Wait, I am now confused. Isn't US sales tax calculated on the total purchase, and not on each individual item? I have no idea how this shit works, argh frustrating.

Ohhhhh, not even close.

(I had no idea that some states charge sales tax on food!)
posted by elsietheeel at 6:00 AM on December 21, 2010


I'm likewise annoyed at the "how are you?" throwaway question that begins most interactions in America. On a lark one time I decided to actually answer the question. My response wasn't particularly intimate in detail, but it put a stop to that question from that person.
posted by dgran at 6:07 AM on December 21, 2010


Yeah, in retrospect that should have been obvious. CAFFEINE TIEMS NOW.
posted by elizardbits at 6:24 AM on December 21, 2010


At least one state, and I don't recall which (most likely either Michigan or New York, the 2 where I've had the most experience dealing with such things), it is against state law to display prices with sales tax added on. I don't know why, but could speculate that it is only to assure that all such displays of prices are clear.

As for Europeans and others feeling they need to explain how America can improve, I'm surprised no one has yet pointed out that this could be simply compensation. Compensating for America's extraordinary, irritating and irrational attitude/belief that they are above criticism.

I'm an American Ex-pat. I've lived in 4 other countries than the US, and travelled to more. I've seen instances any number of times where something was done differently than I expected from American experience, and gosh if it didn't seem a whole lot better than the American way.

But you know what? I've had plenty of Americans jump on my case for daring to suggest that anything at all was in any way, better than the American version or method. As if I'd suggested that Jesus was a phony or something.

See, Americans have an ugly tendency to take Americana as some sort of sacrosanct 'Gospel'. It's all "rah rah! USA! USA!", all the time. This makes any constructive conversation essentially impossible.
posted by Goofyy at 6:34 AM on December 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


"This is America son," he told me, "We help each other out."
Nothing that happened in the three years that followed was to undermine that first impression of friendliness and hospitality.


Yeah, this is the one thing about Americans that really stands out for me after living and traveling to Europe on a regular basis - we're friendly as all fuck. It takes my Portuguese husband aback that we'll just TALK to each other, like, in line at the bank and tell each other DETAILS about our lives because - I guess - in Portugal, that's just not done.

Needless to say, it took his family a while to get used to me because I talk a lot - even for an American. They think I'm kind of charming in my own quirky little way, but it's a very different kind of attitude than the intense privacy and slight skepticism that the Portuguese have going on. They're very family focused and INCREDIBLY social within their own circle, but not so much with the kindness of/to strangers.

Kind of hard to generalize about a place so large that even the natives feel like they're in a foreign country when they travel a few hours, isn't it?

Eh, yes and no. But yeah, I'm a Vermonster who grew up in a family of Scandihoovian origin and Iceland totally felt less foreign to me than Texas did.
posted by sonika at 7:30 AM on December 21, 2010


The open friendliness of Americans is the part which I miss the most, living in Europe. Some of it, I suspect, is Americans have a different sense about what ultimately doesn't matter, with a stranger. What does it matter if I explain some intimate detail to "some dude", if that dude doesn't know anyone I know? So we can talk about that sort of thing. Some of us even learn, strangers are the best people to talk about some things.
posted by Goofyy at 7:43 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I suspect that this is a regional thing; it wouldn't surprise me if folks up in the northeast studiously ignore each other in the elevator but anybody raised in the midwest or out west might find it a bit strange to be in such close quarters with someone for a minute or two without a greeting, even if they are a stranger.

I come from the midwest, born in Ohio and raised in Indiana.

I would never say "hello" or "goodbye" to someone on an elevator, unless I knew them. It would strike me as an odd thing to do, and as far as I remember this was shared by almost everyone I ever rode an elevator with.

If there is one thing I learned from this thread, it's that America is not as homogeneous as I remember it being.
posted by moonbiter at 7:49 AM on December 21, 2010


basically, people were buying out the entire store's supply of that fancy organic milk that comes in glass bottles with a 1-2 dollar deposit - the deposit was covered by the food stamp, et viola - free money!

Except that there's no way this could work efficiently. I'm sure someone with few critical thinking skills thought it up and tried it. And it definitely makes a great Three Minutes Hate on the local news.

But here's the math of it.

OK, so a quart of the fancy glass-bottle milk costs $4. And the store has maybe 20 bottles. So there's $100 of fancy milk. Which could be a significant portion of your entire EBT money for the month. You now have 5 gallons of fancy milk, with which you can do very little - even if you have a shit ton of kids to suck down 5 gallons of milk before it expires, you now have little or nothing else to feed said kids. But let's say you don't care if your kids starve or you have to dump all that milk. You've disposed of the milk, and now it's time to redeem the bottles. You get $20 for all that trouble. For which you've wasted $100 of money that could have been spent on food.

I guess $20 would buy a little Mad Dog or crack or something, but it's not really a sustainable setup.
posted by Sara C. at 10:46 AM on December 21, 2010


I think the assumption about these kinds of schemes is that the person doesn't need the money for food so it's still just free cash they need to launder. But at $.20 on the dollar it's still a pretty bad plan.
posted by bfootdav at 11:19 AM on December 21, 2010


The deposit scam for food stamps (yes, they're EBT cards, but almost everyone still calls them food stamps colloquially) is pure nonsense. There is no way that scam would be practical - it would be more practical to just wake up really early and take cans from the street to redeem en masse.

The "scam" probably arose when some bored pundit or local news journalist noticed that people with EBT cards didn't have to pay the deposit on their bottles and reverse-engineered a way that someone could use that to get $$$BIG-MONEY-RICH$$$. However, the whole thing is about as plausible as the grade school canard that you could get cocaine from Coca-Cola by, like, drinking 4,000 bottles.

It's also really, really weird to assume that people on food stamps don't already need the money for food. Maybe if you're ultra-wealthy and you have NO BANK ACCOUNTS AT ALL that could work, but in reality, you have to qualify for food stamps, and the government loves kicking people off for noncompliance.

The scam sounds about as plausible as people using Cash for Clunkers to get cars that they'll later sell for scrap metal.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:32 AM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


"it would be more practical to just wake up really early and take cans from the street to redeem en masse"

Ugh, I don't begrudge anyone making money of my waste, but I wish people wouldn't do this so early in the morning! It always sounds like a family of raccoons are slowly working their way down the street, knocking over every recycling bin and clinking every piece of glass against another piece of glass.

But whatever, I usually can get back to sleep.
posted by rosswald at 11:49 AM on December 21, 2010


The scam sounds about as plausible as people using Cash for Clunkers to get cars that they'll later sell for scrap metal.
Maybe it doesn't sound plausible, but it does happen. And it's not technically a crime, because the food stamp folks aren't allowed to discontinue benefits if a recipient spends their entire month's allotment on an item that is legally covered, even if they just pour it down the drain. Of course, the bottle deposit scam is small potatoes compared to the myriad of other types of food stamp fraud, about 50% of which for some reason occur in southeastern Michigan.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:31 PM on December 21, 2010


I lack a word, but there ought to be one. A word for the sort of people who are chronically scared to death that someone, some where, is going to sell a couple bucks worth of foodstamps and buy, um, toilet paper. Or shampoo. Or a beer.

I can't imagine how it would feel, to believe that this is something to get concerned about. To begrudge some small comfort to someone that has so little, it is sick.
posted by Goofyy at 1:59 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I completely agree. It's a horrible right-wing meme, spurred on by talkback radio hosts and the like. In a free society, people should be able to spend their money how best they see fit, and it's not up to others to judge - even if that money comes from the taxpayer.

People on welfare are already struggling to get by on minimal resources, and yet some others who are much wealthier are constantly jealously looking over their shoulders and saying "Humph. I wouldn't mind supporting people on welfare, if only we could ensure that they spend their money on [what I deem to be] worthwhile things [even though I would never allow my own choices to be restricted like that]! Won't somebody think of the children?!??"

The terms "churlish, niggardly, patronising, and holier-than-thou" spring to mind.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:22 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oriole, that sounds about like what I thought. A couple of exceedingly dumb people cook up a scheme that, in addition to not being economically worthwhile at all, also gets them immediately caught by the authorities. Which will cause them to lose eligibility at the very least. Yes, it's true, some people lack critical reasoning skills. This is not really a new discovery for humanity.

And, yes, this is more of that Lucky Ducky style thinking.
posted by Sara C. at 2:40 PM on December 21, 2010


Maybe it doesn't sound plausible, but it does happen.

Fair enough, it happens sometimes, two dudes from Augusta, ME totally got big dolla rich by wasting their food benefits on bottle deposits. I stand corrected that it's pure nonsense. It's still mostly nonsense. It's also unclear in what way this really constitutes "fraud" or a "scam" - they're buying legitimate items, but they're using those items in stupid, unintended ways. Would you be offended if they actually drank the water (or milk) and then pocketed the money from the deposit?

The reason this story sticks in my craw is because it just sounds like another "welfare queen" type of myth meant to demonize people on public benefits, depicting the lot of them as craven thieves. A handful of people might actually do this, there is no evidence that this is a particularly widespread or costly problem.

...

The other link about fraud in the Midwest sounds like much more of a problem, but isn't it something that that fraud only works with the express collusion of the stores.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:48 PM on December 21, 2010


about 50% of which for some reason occur in southeastern Michigan.

Whoa, dog-whistle much?
posted by joe lisboa at 3:47 PM on December 21, 2010


Sorry, Oriole. Have been giving exams all day and my lack-of-sleep-addled brain parsed SE Michigan as Detroit. I apologize for questioning your motives and I hope I am right in doing so.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:49 PM on December 21, 2010


Re-reading my original post in this thread, it kind of sounds like I'm joining the ranks of the omg-welfare-queens-stealing-my-baby's-organic-milk, where my intent was more to comment on the hokey nature of my local nightly news broadcast. However, I would like to bring it full circle and mention that Kevin Connolly's article didn't mention much the antipathy and suspicion many Americans feel about the recipients of social welfare programs.
posted by fermezporte at 9:20 PM on December 21, 2010


Back to Our Man in America, I always preferred Justin Webb's stint in the States to Kevin Connolly's. His reporting seemed to have more depth to it.
posted by arcticseal at 1:28 AM on December 22, 2010


Kevin Connolly's article didn't mention much the antipathy and suspicion many Americans feel about the recipients of social welfare programs.

Because it isn't distinctively american.
posted by Catfry at 5:13 AM on December 22, 2010


Because it isn't distinctively american.

Does Calvinism exist in such extreme forms outside of the US?
posted by acb at 5:20 AM on December 22, 2010


I don't know anything about calvinism. I do know that social assistance is a horror mark in many segments of the cultures I'm familiar with.
posted by Catfry at 5:43 AM on December 22, 2010


Theology isn't my strong suit, but it's not my impression that American Christians, including the fundie kind, are generally extreme Calvinists. The largest single Christian denomination in the US is Catholicism. (That's about 25% of the population.) So no Calvinists there. That's followed by Baptists, who as I understand it generally have some differences with Calvin. They're about 15% of the population. After that come Methodists, who are emphatically not Calvinist at all. They're about 7%. Next Lutherans: also not Calvinist. It's only then that you get to Presbyterians, the first Calvinist church on the list. They make up a whopping 3% of the American population.

So yeah. Religious nutjobs we may have, but I don't think they're mostly extreme Calvinists. Of course, you may just be using "extreme Calvinist" as code for "any Protestant who I think is a kook."
posted by craichead at 6:02 AM on December 22, 2010


happyroach: "Like Germans; is there ANYONE from that tiny little country that isn't totally smug about their rapid transit system that makes cars totally unnecessary?"

brokkr: Tiny little country? It's bigger than New Mexico and the population of California, Texas and New York (state) combined.


New Mexico is the fifth largest state in America.

New Mexico's area: 121,589 sq mi
America's total area: 3,794,101 sq mi

New Mexico's area is 3.2% of the area of the US as a whole.

Yeah, to most Americans, that's a "tiny little country".
posted by Lexica at 9:48 AM on December 24, 2010


It's OK, Germany. You're much bigger than Rhode Island.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:50 AM on December 24, 2010


"America's total area: 3,794,101 sq mi"

Conflating the United States of America with the continent of North America: Another annoying habit across the pond.
posted by brokkr at 5:45 PM on December 25, 2010


Good point, although I will point out that those figures are from Wikipedia, which is, in theory, international in origin and fact-checking.

This is a better comparison.
posted by Lexica at 10:34 PM on December 25, 2010


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