Convertible with American flag.

20 Things That Define American Life (But Most Americans Are Clueless About Them)

Some things are just so American. The irony, though, is that so many Americans are clueless about them.

During my over a decade of traveling and living abroad, I’ve learned a lot about not only other cultures but also my own.

These are some of the things that are classically American. How many of them did you know aren’t common in many other parts of the world?

1: Magic Money

Woman using an ATM
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The United States is home to over 500,000 ATMs, many of which are drive-through. However, drive-through ATMs aren’t a thing in most parts of the world. People need to get out of their cars and physically walk up to an ATM to take out their money, just like in the olden days.

2: Greek Life No-Go

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Going to college in the U.S. isn’t just about education. Social life matters, too. However, fraternities and sororities are almost exclusively an American thing. People from many other countries find the concept of Greek life odd.

3: Dessert for Breakfast

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Donuts, sugary cereal, and muffins aren’t breakfast material in many parts of the world, but these are standard morning staples for many Americans. Although the American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams of sugar per day and men 36 grams, Americans consume an average of 77 grams per day. Twenty-five percent of those grams come from breakfast alone.

4: Residency Mishaps

Map of the US with a magnifying glass.
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Americans tend to think it’s normal to say their state’s name when they’re traveling abroad and non-natives ask them where they’re from. But that’s not how most other foreigners talk with one another.

For example, when you ask a Canadian or Brazilian where they’re from, they’ll answer “Canada” and “Brazil.” However, an American will often lead by saying their state’s name rather than their country’s name.

5: City Mishaps

New York City skyline.
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Americans from big cities will often skip saying their state’s name altogether in favor of giving their city’s name. That’s usually not a big deal, as many foreigners are familiar with major U.S. cities. So, feel free to continue letting “New York City,” “Miami,” and the like roll off your tongue.

6: So Many Flags

String of American flags.
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Many Americans take patriotic pride seriously, and as such, it’s common for many to hang the American flag outside of their homes.

Foreigners have commented to me on this, but I have a different theory: It’s not that Americans necessarily hang more flags than other countries, but that our flags stand out more to foreigners because they aren’t accustomed to seeing their design. I often feel the same when traveling in a new country; the colors and patterns of flags I’m unfamiliar with seem to catch my attention more.

7: Free What?

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Here’s a harsh reality: Free refills at restaurants aren’t common outside the U.S. You can only imagine the eye-rolling that local restaurant workers must do when they serve American tourists who expect free drink refills.

8: Prescription Medicine Commercials

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It’s not the norm to see commercials for prescription medicine plastered across TVs in many countries. Prescription medicine ads are even illegal in England, although companies can advertise over-the-counter medicine.

9: Thanking Veterans

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In many countries, it isn’t common for residents to thank fellow citizens for serving in the military. Some of this could have to do with dozens of countries having mandatory military service laws, so it’s part of life.

10: Stranger No Danger

Woman at a restaurant.
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While it’s far less common now than in the past, some restaurant employees have to leave the table with a customer’s credit card to swipe it. That’s unsettling for some international tourists, who aren’t used to their credit cards leaving their sight in their home countries.

11: Driving

Driving across a bridge.
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Being dependent on a car is something that many foreigners believe is downright American. Using pick-up trucks to get around instead of carrying materials is also ultra-American.

12: Tax Ghost

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Displaying prices without the tax included is odd to many cultures. Some foreign tourists may even go so far as to feel it’s a cruel tactic played by the greedy, making the prices appear cheaper than they are. As someone who’s purchased items in many countries where the tax was already included, I can attest to how nice it is to know how much one owes upfront.

13: Christmas Cards With Photos

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Including a family photo in a Christmas card is the epitome of American. What makes some non-Americans laugh is that often the photos don’t even have a winter theme; family summer vacation pictures seem to be an American favorite.

14: Chump Change

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Paying money to have a baby at a hospital (and paying for medical treatment of any kind, for that matter) is very American to foreigners who come from countries where they don’t have to pay for healthcare. On several occasions, foreigners have told me how they were scared of becoming ill in the U.S. because of the costs that could come from it.

15: Canned Casseroles

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Dumping several different cans of food into a bowl, adding cheese, and mixing them together is considered cooking in many American households. That’s not so in many other countries.

16: Singing the National Anthem

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In many countries, singing the national anthem is common when other nations are involved, such as at a soccer game. But it’s quite American to sing the national anthem even when there’s no other country to compete with.

17: Air Conditioning

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While plenty of other countries have air conditioning, it’s the way Americans install and use air conditioners that deviates from the rest of the world. American homes have vents in every room for air conditioning; residents in many countries hang rectangular units from windows, and often, only some rooms have them.

18: Long Road Trips

Woman driving a car.
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Long road trips are an oh-so-American thing compared to many countries, in great part due our country’s large size. You can hop in your car and drive over 2,000 miles in one direction. Try doing that in Luxembourg.

19: Not Asking for the Bill

$5 tip.
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Millions of people around the world ask their server for the bill once they’re ready to pay. Not so in the United States. To us, flagging down a waiter for our bill feels uncomfortable. It normally just arrives, often while the customers are still eating.

20: Tipping

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Tipping restaurant servers, barbers, and more is not common — or at the very least expected — in other parts of the world. Even in places where tipping is acceptable and even expected, it’s typically not the outrageous percentage amounts that American culture expects, where 20% or more is now standard.

9 Countries Where Tipping Is Rude or Uncommon

A small tip on a plate.
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Since when did tipping your local coffee shop barista 20% become normal? If you’re tired of American tipping practices, you just might want to visit (and perhaps move to) one of these countries.

9 Countries Where Tipping Is Rude or Uncommon

10 Countries Americans Want To Relocate To

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Whether you’re reading this as an expatriate or you’re thinking about moving abroad, millions of Americans have been in your shoes. A study analyzed the most common countries Americans want to relocate to. Does the country you dream about living in make the cut?

10 Countries Americans Want To Relocate To

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