America gets a lot of flak. Part of this is because so much of it is broken (different parts, depending on who you ask), but it’s partly because expectations are higher for America. America is the world’s largest superpower, after all, so it draws attention. It’s like complaining about an iPhone or a Tesla.
But anyway, I don’t enjoy complaining. Instead, I want to focus on the things I remember that I love about America1 — sometimes known as the USA or the US — every time I visit roughly annually (from Australia, as I’m Australian) to see my extended family.
So here are the ten (I might update this later with more) things I most enjoy about America that are unique (or nearly unique) to the country. Some small, some huge, but all good.
1. Turning Right at Red Lights
I’ll start with an everyday thing I love about America: turning right on red.
In the US, at a red light, you can basically always turn right (in Australia/UK, the equivalent of left — you don’t cross across the lanes of traffic) if the traffic is clear. It’s permissible to do so by default — You don’t need a special sign.
In fact, “turn right on red” is the assumption. So in cases of exceptions, you will see signs saying you can’t turn right on red at certain intersections or at certain times.
There are some state-by-state variations on the “turn right on red” law, plus some extensions for one-way rules in most American states, but the above is generally universally true across all of the US. It saves time and sitting around doing nothing when the coast is clear and the risk is low.
Rarely do places in other countries get burgers right. I’ve had burgers in Europe, Asia, and Australia, trying to seek out the best. They tend to do one of two things: a) either load it with too much stuff, or b) try too hard to make a classic American burger and come off as inauthentic (too clean, or just too expensive).
I’m not saying you can’t get a good burger in places other than the US. There’s often a fancy place emulating an American burger. It’s just that abroad, the hit rate for a great burger is much lower.
But in America, you go to a random diner/bar and ask for a cheeseburger and fries and you are far less likely to be disappointed. They’ll ask you how you want it (usually medium rare is the default), and the meat will come out with a nice texture, well-cooked and flavourful. And they’ll have just the right combination of onions, cheese, relish, and whatever else. 😘👌!
In the US, “freedom” is essentially a cultural value. Freedom is also often described as “liberty” or “independence.” The USA is the country in the world that best captures the spirit of the statement “It’s a free country.”
In fact, I often hear Australians say “It’s a free country.” It is, relatively speaking. But compared to the way Americans talks about freedom, it really isn’t. Australia doesn’t have a constitutionally-enshrined bill of rights protecting various freedoms, for example.
In the US, the fundamental idea of a government that impinges on your rights is anathema to most people, regardless of politics (though the way it’s implemented varies).
4. Pecan (and other) Pie
Pecan pie is delicious. Thank you, America, for bringing this to the world’s attention.
I grew up on savoury pies and other sweet pies like apple or berry. But caramelised sweet pecans… Mmm!
Honorary second place goes to pumpkin or sweet potato pies. There are lots of variations on these, and they all work.
Yes, there are obviously other delicious foods (like this cake I’ve had to learn how to make, that you can only get at Tartine). This one is just my personal favourite. I’d be curious what your favourite food of American origin is! (No, “Mexican food” doesn’t count, unless you’re getting pedantic about what “America” is…)
Americans smile by default. It’s one reason that Americans often think people from European countries are grumpy or rude. Americans smile partly because it’s part of how they greet people and disarm them.
Smiling goes along with small talk, like asking how people are.
Honestly, though, sometimes it’s too much. I don’t know you, supermarket greeter dude, don’t ask how I’ve been since you saw me last week!
But hey, positivity always beats negativity, so I’ll take it.
6. Dreaming Big
In the culture where I grew up, it was immodest to dream big out loud. Australia has a big problem with “tall poppy syndrome” — it’s culturally taboo to make claims like you want to be a billionaire, to be the best at something, or to make it big in any way.
Not in America. Americans talk frequently about huge goals. People encourage you to talk of making hundreds of millions or billions. It’s encouraged and not taboo.
Alongside this, people in the US tend to support entrepreneurialism. In many parts of the world, getting a good job is seen as the priority, and starting a business is seen as a fallback. In the US, entrepreneurship and business ownership are revered, particularly if they create jobs for other people.
Similarly, in the US, you’re allowed to pitch yourself and talk yourself up. American CVs are grander, and American interviewees talk big about themselves.
I find the US culture of entrepreneurship inspiring. I find Australian/British professional culture, on the other hand, somewhat stifling.
7. Diversity of Nature
Coming from Australia, I first noticed all the things that America has that Australia doesn’t: Mountains (above 3,000 m or 10,000 feet) and snow in abundance. But these aren’t unique to the US.
What the US has is diversity of nature in one country: There are mountains, beaches, deserts, canyons, rivers, giant lakes, forests, wilderness, swamps, volcanoes, and probably more things. But that’s enough. It’s a lot for one country.
8. Music, Film, and Comedy
America leads the English-speaking world in the popular production of the arts. I’m getting older and I like old stuff better than new stuff, but still, all my favourite music, films, and comedians come from the US.
I can normally enjoy this from anywhere, but it’s pretty cool that in the US, you can go to a theatre and see world-famous actors, comedians, bands, and other artists on the regular. Everyone has a celebrity story, like seeing someone at a restaurant or meeting someone else at a motorcycle hangout and him being “really cool”.
Yes, this is more true in LA and New York, the places I go to the most, but it’s still more broadly unique to the US.
9. Water and Free Refills
In Europe, you pay for a bottle of water — although you don’t tip, at least, the price is the price. In Australia, you have to ask for water. In Asian countries, it’s usually expected that you buy plastic bottles of water, although sometimes they’ll give you hot water or tea.
Not in America. You sit down, they bring you water. It’s iced, it’s delicious, it’s free, and it’s topped up continuously.
Lastly, my favourite thing about the US is its optimism. People in the US are naturally risk-takers because everything will probably turn out for the best!
Americans, more than the people of any other country I’ve been to, really believe that things will improve and that they can make it.
It’s why so many people in America start businesses, re-start from scratch, or embark on endeavours that other people in the world think are crazy. The result is that a lot of innovation continues to come out of the US. It has been for many, many years.
Of course, a lot of places don’t deserve optimism. In countries with crazy bureaucracy, rampant corruption, or non-transparent economies, it’s hard to make it. Go to a post-Soviet country and you’ll hear expressions like “After every sunny day comes the rain.” Those places aren’t fair comparisons.
But compare Americans to Europeans, the British, or Australians and New Zealanders — all people with access to stable infrastructure and easy-to-navigate bureaucracy — and you’ll find much less entrepreneurship.
Luckily, optimism and positivity aren’t bound by geography. They’re a way of thinking that I’ve decided to steal.
When you ask Americans (I’m not American), one of the favourite things people often cite is that they have the liberty to criticise their country. This goes hand in hand with free speech in the Bill of Rights and is central to American culture, as I mentioned above.
Americans are usually the first to criticise their own country, government, and society. Half of it is at war with the other half on fundamental beliefs about how to live. Many Americans themselves think their country is “broken” in at least one way.
And alongside the constitutional right to express these opinions comes a culture that respects it. As long as you’re polite about it, you can believe anything you like in America, and it’s accepted.
This goes hand in hand with another often-cited favourite thing about America — that the people are friendly. I didn’t include it because people are friendly all over the world — they just express it differently (e.g. smiling less). So it’s not unique to the US by any means. Still, it’s true!
Finally, there are a few things that America has, of course, that are hard to get in other countries — but which didn’t come from America and that aren’t unique. For example, Mexican food. Needless to say, Mexican food is Mexican, not American! (I still enjoy it on every visit.)
- I call it “America” because that’s how English speakers refer to it. This is not contentious. In Spanish, Americans are often referred to as “estadounidenses” (even though there are other Latin American countries that are “United States of XYZ”). Most people from other countries are content with calling themselves people of their own countries, e.g. Argentinos, Chilenos, Venezolanos, Brasileiros, etc. I’ve met tons of people from the Americas, speaking Spanish, and never heard them once refer to themselves as “Americanos” — sometimes “Sudamericanos”, though. ↩︎