It’s been about 400 years since our Puritan forefathers first set buckled foot upon the soil that became the United States. Up until now, I’d laugh off the notion that Americans bear any resemblance to what Cotton Mather hoped to whip together with his seething sermons.
But after living in another part of the world for seven months and observing cultural norms, I think we may still have some traces of our Puritan roots – and not even realize it! Here I thought we were the cool new kid on the block who’s all “Anything goes mannnn,” when really we’ve got a little bit of strict school-marm vibe going on.
Caveat: Of course, I realize that I have my ‘adventure abroad’ blinders on. And people I’ve met here think of the U.S. as modern and forward thinking. So take it with a grain of salt.
Here’s why the U.S. is pruder than I realized:
1. You can’t drink outside
Why? Why can’t you enjoy a beer at a park on a nice, sunny day? If you’re not getting wasted, and you’re not making a scene, and you’re not littering your empties all over the place, then why?
If there is a perfectly good explanation, I’d like to know. But until I receive it, I will assume it came from the same crop of people who thought prohibition was an appropriate way to temper people’s behavior. You know, make them more appropriate and upright. That is, if you consider hiding 40s in a brown paper bag upright.
Elsewhere in the world, it’s not unusual to see extended families having a picnic by a lake with open bottles of wine. It’s quite common for bars to let patrons step outside for a smoke with their drinks still in hand. And it’s not illegal to enjoy an adult beverage as you sit on a beautiful overlook.
To be clear, there are 11 places in the United States where you can crack a beverage outside:
Taste the freedom, people!
2. Swearing gets you in ‘big trouble’
This is a bit speculative, because as I’ve made clear before on this blog: I do not really speak Spanish. (Don’t judge me!) But, if Google Translate is correct, then it seems like people swear all the time – young and old, in front of teachers and on TV.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this word uttered in classrooms. Kids who are like 10 years old say it within earshot of teachers, and no one bats an eye. No soap treatment. No embarrassing phone call home to your parents. Nada.
It’s possible this is a bad translation, and using this term it’s not quite as harsh as dropping an f-bomb. I’ve heard it compared to the equivalent of using an expression like “holy cow.”
But I suppose that’s the point. We give these terms so much power, and let them offend us, but we don’t have to. They’re just words, ways to express ourselves. They don’t need to be considered vulgar or profane. Using them doesn’t have to make to make you a bad person.
It seems especially fruitless to get up in arms about an f-bomb when you consider that back in the day, expressions like nincompoop and tarnation were the dirtiest of the dirty.
3. Nudity, in general, is seen as offensive
It doesn’t matter if you’re attractive or not, to be naked is to push the envelope. If you’re good-looking, then you’re being scandalous. If you’re not good-looking, then you’re being gross.
This cultural norm didn’t bother me that much ’til now. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of other people’s nakedness.
But I realized how silly it was when I read a German travel advisory that said you should avoid being nude on a beach in the United States. Considered indecent exposure, it’s unlikely you’ll be prosecuted for a violation, but it could wrinkle an otherwise peaceful vacation day. It added that women and little girls should avoid being topless at the beach because it’s considered indecent.
How could a topless kid at the beach be inappropriate? But I suppose it’s probably true. If I saw a girl older than two or three on beach who wasn’t wearing a swim suit top, I’d think it was weird.
Like this. I think this is totally weird. See, I’m totally a prude.
Beaches aside, nudity on TV isn’t as big of a deal in Europe as it is in the United States. Neither is learning about human biology. I’ve walked into classrooms of 11 year olds sketching pictures of the human anatomy for science class. (Look, I can’t even bring myself to write ‘sketching pictures of penises’ in my own blog. But there it is. That’s what they were actually doing.) In the daycare where I work, there are posters of a cartoon little girl and little boy that show the differences between the genders.
It surprised me at first because I’m not used to it, but I can appreciate that it eliminates some of the conjecture and mystery. There’s no secrecy. They don’t divide the classes into groups of girls and boys to talk about this dark and frightening thing. It’s just out in the open, and people don’t seem so ashamed of it.
4. Closing time at 2 a.m.
Unless you frequent New York City and Las Vegas, it’s a given that 2 o’clock is closing time for bars in the U.S.
This isn’t necessarily the case in other countries. Here in the small city of Logroño, Spain, discos (aka dance clubs) stay open until 6 or 7 in the morning. Or so I hear. I’ve never quite made it that long, because I turn into a sleep monster shortly after the clock strikes 12.
I know most moms frighten us into submission by saying that nothing good happens after midnight, but I think a lot of people here would beg to differ. Their nights START at 12 o’clock. I’m not a huge night life person. However, I don’t see why people who are into this kind of thing don’t have the option in major cities with good options for public transportation.
Who made these laws? Our moms?
5. When you have kids, your social life dies
A fun Friday night for most families in the U.S. involves pizza delivery, kids shows and perhaps a sleepover. But let’s say you want to, I don’t know, socialize with your other adult friends or see your family. You have to find a babysitter who isn’t a psycho, make sure they’re free when you need them, and then fork over your hard-earned cash.
Here in Spain, they have a better solution: Just bring the kids with you.
It’s normal to see someone wheeling a stroller into a bar at 10 or 11 p.m. on a Friday night to meet up with people. The baby is usually sleeping or being fawned over while its parents enjoy good food, wine, and conversation with their adult friends.
The prospect of bringing children to bars is a laughing matter in the U.S.
Think this is weird? Danish parents are famous for the practice of leaving their babies in strollers outside of shops and restaurants. Japanese kids are allowed to use public transportation alone. (See more interesting examples in this NPR article.)
In these other cultures, the world doesn’t stop turning as soon as you spawn. Having a healthy social life doesn’t make you a bad parent. You don’t have to sit inside watching Barney all day and night to raise decent, upstanding human beings.
I personally think it even sets a good example for kids. They learn how to behave in public spaces, how to co-habitate with adults. And from an early age, they see what acceptable social drinking looks like. Basically, they learn some chill.
So there it is. Sometimes, we can be a little bit of a goody two-shoes. As much as we like to be the free-wheeling, fun-loving, flip-flop wearing, corndog eating culture, we can be real stiffs every now and then.