19 U.S. Practices That Foreigners Find Totally Strange

Written By Jill Taylor

The United States is known for its unique customs and practices, which often leave foreigners puzzled. American habits can be quite a culture shock for visitors from around the globe. Here are 19 U.S. practices that foreigners find totally strange.

Free Refills at Restaurants

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In many places, when you finish your drink, you need to buy another one. In the U.S., restaurants often give free refills on soda, coffee, and iced tea. According to Youth for Understand, free refills are used as a way to encourage their customers to spend more.

Tipping Culture

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When visiting the U.S., you should always ensure you leave a tip. It’s a big deal, with people usually leaving 15-20% for servers, taxi drivers, and hairdressers. This can be confusing for visitors from places where tips are small or already included.

Sales Tax Not Included in Prices

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In U.S. stores, prices don’t include sales tax, instead, it gets added at checkout. This can surprise international shoppers who expect the total price on the tag. The extra charge at the register can be a real shock and cause you to overspend.

Portion Sizes

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American portions are huge compared to other places. Restaurants serve meals big enough for two and it can be overwhelming. It can create a high amount of food waste when people are used to smaller servings.

Air Conditioning Everywhere

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One thing that may surprise visitors is that air conditioning is everywhere in the U.S. People from cooler countries may find it a little extreme, but it’s especially useful in the summer months. Stores, offices, and homes are often much cooler than the outside, sometimes even too chilly.

Drive-Thru Everything

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In the U.S., drive-thru services aren’t just for fast food. You can find them at pharmacies, banks, and even wedding chapels. As a foreigner, you may find that doing so many things from your car is over-the-top and weird, but it’s all about convenience.

Huge Gaps in Public Bathroom Stalls

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You would’ve noticed the big gaps in all bathroom stalls in the U.S. It can feel awkward going to the bathroom, but they’re designed like this for your safety.  However, these gaps can make people, especially visitors from other countries, feel exposed and uneasy.

Cheerleading and Marching Bands

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There’s so much excitement around cheerleading and marching bands at American schools and it’s even seen as something special. Fans show massive support for their sports teams with big routines and competitions. People from other countries, who don’t have these traditions, often think it’s a bit too much.

Excessive Use of Flags

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The American flag is seen everywhere. You’ve probably seen it on houses, public buildings, even clothes. This strong patriotism might shock visitors from other countries, as they’re not used to seeing their flag so often and in so many places.

Obsession with Ice

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If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s their drinks really cold. Restaurants will often pack their glasses with ice cubes, leaving little room for the actual drink. This can be surprising for foreigners  where drinks are usually served at room temperature or just a bit chilled.

Limited Vacation Time

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In the U.S., it’s common for employees to have only two weeks of vacation per year, which is much less than in many other countries. This limited time off can be shocking for foreigners who are used to longer vacations and a greater emphasis on work-life balance.

Constant Availability

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The expectation to be available and responsive at all times, especially via email and smartphones, is common in the U.S. Many foreigners may find this constant need to be available exhausting, espescially as personal time and boundaries are more respected in other countries.

Unique Breakfast Foods

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Foods such as pancakes with syrup, bacon, and eggs, or sugary cereals can seem unusual to those who start their day with lighter or more savory options. The hearty and sweet nature of American breakfasts can be quite an adjustment.

Pharmacies That Sell Everything

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You can do more than purchase your prescriptions at American pharmacies. They often resemble small supermarkets, selling everything from groceries to household items and medications. This all-in-one shopping experience can be surprising for those used to pharmacies that strictly sell health-related products.

24-Hour Stores

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Did you notice how late American stores stayed open?  Many never close and this can be astounding to visitors. In many countries, businesses operate on more limited schedules, and the idea of shopping for groceries or clothing in the middle of the night is unheard of.

Huge Variety of Choices

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American supermarkets and stores offer an enormous variety of products, often with multiple brands and variations of the same item. This overwhelming choice can be both exciting and confusing for foreigners used to a more limited selection.

Chatty Service Staff

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In the U.S., it’s common for service staff to engage in friendly small talk with customers. This level of friendliness and interaction can be surprising for visitors from cultures where such exchanges are more reserved or strictly business-like.

Personal Space

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If there’s one thing Americans value, it’s their personal space. They often maintain a larger physical distance when interacting with others. This can be noticeable and sometimes awkward for foreigners from countries where people are accustomed to closer proximity.

College Sports Fandom

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The intense passion and widespread support for college sports teams, especially football and basketball, are very American. The scale of college sports events, complete with packed stadiums and extensive media coverage, can be quite surprising for those from countries where professional sports dominate.

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