Hey, you. Yeah, you, the dude reading this. Think you know America? We’re sure you do. You look like the sort of intelligent, handsome, perceptive person who really grasps the ins and outs of their home country. But what about the rest of the world. Think ya know it? Think again.
Polling shows 50% of Americans have never, ever been abroad. And while that’s easily done in a yuuuge country like the United States, it also means half of all Americans are missing out on some important, firsthand experience of the rest of world. That means a lot of stuff about humanity Americans know only comes through TV, books and YouTube. While you might think that’s enough to get a clear picture, other countries respectfully disagree. Here are the top 10 things Americans who don’t travel probably don’t get about the rest of our big, beautiful world.
10. Even the Most Gun-Friendly Nations Have Far Fewer Guns
The American love of guns is like the love between Romeo and Juliet: intense, all-consuming, and involving far more death than your average romantic affair. But even the biggest gun-toting Texan is probably aware not all other countries share the USA’s passion. Still, Americans may not know just how much of an outlier their nation is. Go abroad, and even the gun friendliest nations have far fewer guns than the United States.
The US has 112.6 guns per 100 residents, which means there are more guns in America than actual Americans. Literally no other country on Earth has more guns than citizens. The closest is Serbia, which became awash with guns after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and now has 75.6 guns per 100 residents. To find a rich nation with high ownership levels, you have to go to Switzerland, which has a paltry 45.7.
The culture surrounding guns is different in other pro-gun countries, too. In 2014, Guns and Ammo magazine named the Czech Republic the gun-friendliest non-American nation on Earth. But go the Czech Republic expecting the sort of gun fairs and 2nd Amendment love-ins you find in the US and you’ll be sorely disappointed. Czechs regard their guns as tools for hunting and nothing more. To them, the idea of treating their guns as Americans do would be utterly bizarre.
9. Freedom of Speech Isn’t a Thing in Most Democracies
You gotta love freedom of speech. The First Amendment is what separates us from places like China and Soviet Russia, right? You simply can’t have democracy without free speech.
Or so we’re often told. If that were true, it would mean the USA was the only democracy on Earth. Why? Because the vast majority of other democratic nations don’t have free speech in the sense that Americans understand it. By US standards, they’re heavily censored.
In the US, for example, you are free to say anything that does not incite immediate violence. If you want to burn an American flag while drawing a picture of Mohammed, no-one can stop you. Remember that scene in Die Hard With a Vengeance (NSFW) when Bruce Willis walks around a black neighborhood wearing a placard covered in racist slurs? In the US, he’d get beaten up. In European democracies, he’d be jailed for hate speech.
In France, for example, it’s against the law to deny the Armenian Genocide. In Germany, you can go to jail for displaying a Nazi flag. In the UK, you can be fined for calling homosexuality a sin. There are still blasphemy laws in some democracies, something your average untraveled American would likely consider lunacy.
8. Trial by Jury Also Isn’t a Thing in Most Democracies
That’s right. One of those other things you thought was an essential pillar of democracy isn’t. Trial by jury is so rare in the rest of the world as to be effectively non-existent. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, around 90 percent of the globe’s jury trials happen in the USA. This isn’t because everyone else’s criminals are better behaved, but because most democracies ditched trial by jury decades ago.
In France, for example, you will almost certainly just be plonked in front of judges and given a sentence. In the UK, only the highest-profile cases get jury trials. Since these are the ones everyone hears about, it gives a false impression that the British legal system is like the US, but it really isn’t. Only about 2 percent of UK criminal cases end in a jury trial, and that’s still high compared to most of Europe. In some countries, jury trials are actually seen as a hindrance to justice being done. After Japan reintroduced a hybrid system of “lay judges” in 2009, there was an outcry about the emotional burden placed on jurors who were compelled to recommend the death penalty.
7. Brits Barely Remember the Revolutionary War
If you went to an American school, a big part of your education likely involved learning about the Revolutionary War. Since it lead directly to the creation of the world’s only current superpower, you might have assumed everyone else learned about it, too.
Well, prepare to have your view of the world flipped on its head. Most education systems in most countries either only teach the Revolutionary War as a footnote, or don’t mention it at all. In Britain, they barely remember it happening, and can’t figure out why Americans hate King George III as much as they do the Kaiser. The average European, Australian, African, South American and Asian probably can’t even tell you what decade it took place in.
There’s a good reason for this. Historically, the Revolutionary War was important, but nowhere near as important as what came next. The French Revolution shook Europe to its core, and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars took those shook-up remains and shook them even further. Europeans (and Russians) mostly see the birth of America as a kind of prelude to that exceptionally turbulent time, and teach it accordingly. Since the French Revolution inspired Latin America’s Bolivarian Revolutions, South American schools do likewise.
6. Literally Everyone Else Thinks in Grams, Celsius and Meters
You’ve probably heard of the metric system, with its bizarre insistence on ditching Fahrenheit for Celsius, feet for meters, and pints for liters. Confusing, huh? Like, what does 52 kilometers even mean? (31 miles, if you’re interested). Well, here’s something any American who has been abroad will already know: 99% of countries use this “confusing” system. From their point of view, it’s the USA’s instance on imperial measurements that’s insane.
There are only three countries that officially use the imperial system: the USA, Liberia, and Myanmar (AKA Burma). The UK uses a confusing mishmash, whereby everyone thinks of height in terms of feet and inches, but heat in terms of Celsius. Oh, and a UK imperial pint is different to a US imperial pint, just to make your London vacation really confusing.
To be fair, this embracing of the metric system is only at a governmental level. Many former countries of the British Empire (and, boy, are there a lot of those) still understand imperial units, even if they officially use metric. But when you talk about cruising at 55 while enjoying the 82 degree heat, most people on Earth are imagining your loser-mobile crawling along while you roast in a heatwave almost hot enough to boil water.
5. Not Everyone Thinks You Saved Their Ass in WWII
Where would Europe be without America, huh? Twice, the US had to go and kick German hintern and save plenty of British arses and French derrieres in the process.
Well, it might come as a surprise to passport-less Americans that not everyone else sees it this way. In fact, a whole lot of the countries America “saved” see the US Army less as saviors, and more like guys who came to the party late, then tried to claim all the credit.
The British, for example, think they were the heroes of WWII. The entire national myth is built upon one plucky little island holding out alone against the might of Hitler; keeping up a cheerful spirit even as bombs rained on London. Without the Brits, the British version of events goes, Hitler would’ve run rampant across Europe and been unstoppable.
The Russians, too, think they were the real heroes. The Russian legend of WWII is about the supreme sacrifice of 20 million citizens to defend the motherland from German barbarism, with the entire European theatre essentially a backdrop to this painful struggle. Even the French prefer to talk about their near-mythical resistance rather than the painful wait for American liberators to arrive.
4. Other Continents are Bigger and More Varied Than You Think
Mention “Africa” to a stay-at-home American, and they’ll likely have a specific image in their mind involving elephants, savannah, and uplifting songs about the Circle of Life. The well-traveled American would laugh at such an idea. Despite what US media tells you, other continents are way, way more varied and way, way bigger than you think.
Take Africa. Know the distance between, say, Senegal and Somalia? 4,542 miles. That’s almost the distance from New York City to Honolulu. And that’s just straight across the middle of Africa. What about the distance from, say, Morocco to Madagascar? That’s over 5,000 miles; equivalent to the distance separating Maine from Nigeria. That one word “Africa” encompasses unimaginable distances; between 54-57 countries (depending on if you count unrecognized states like Somaliland and Western Sahara); over 1,500 languages; a huge variety of legal and social systems and histories; terrain ranging from jungle to swamp to mountaintop to desert to forest to grassland; hundreds of cities as complex and varied as the one you live in; and 1.2 billion lives.
And then there’s Europe. Most Americans who haven’t been there think of Europe as a place of quaint old buildings that are much the same, but the variety there is staggering. In a tiny space, Europe fits in so many different architectural styles, philosophical outlooks, histories and people that visiting is like opening a variety box of chocolates designed by Willy Wonka. Americans might tend to think of the rest of the world in monolithic blocks. The residents of those “blocks” know how unique their often-tiny countries are.
3. It’s Far More Routine to Visit Other Countries
So, we’ve established that it’s not super, super common for Americans to visit other countries. We may not have established quite how unusual that is. Americans who pride themselves on never leaving the country would probably be surprised to hear just how rare such isolation is in many other parts of the world. Elsewhere, people are hopping between countries just as part of their commute to work.
We’re not exaggerating. In France alone, nearly half a million commute across the border every single workday. In the whole of the EU, around 4.5 million work as cross-border commuters, while nearly 20 million live in a different EU state to the one they were born in. Look at Britain, and a huge chunk of the population considers “vacationing” synonymous with “going abroad.” In 2014 alone, Brits made 13 million visits to Spain and 8.8 million to France. Within the EU’s open-borders Schengen Area, the number of cross-border vacations is so high nobody even bothers to count them anymore.
It’s not just Europe. You may not have heard of ECOWAS, the West-African version of the EU. A collection of 15 African states (with more joining), residents have the right to work and reside in any other ECOWAS country, and you better believe they use it. Millions of ECOWAS residents hop abroad at the drop of a hat, and we can’t say we blame them.
2. Multiculturalism Looks Very Different Abroad
America is a country built on immigrants. There are huge Irish, Scottish, German, French, Italian, English, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Jewish descended populations in the USA, plus many more we don’t have space to list here. That’s not even including the large Hispanic, Native American and African-American populations. While America actually ranks around the middle in terms of countries by diversity, it’s still a pretty multicultural place.
But there’s multicultural, and then there’s multicultural. Go abroad, and diversity elsewhere can look interestingly different to US diversity.
For example, the US has the second-highest black population in the world outside of Africa. While Britain and France both also have large black populations, plenty of other Western nations don’t. Most of central Europe has almost non-existent black communities, and seeing a dark-skinned person in Japan is so unusual that locals will openly stare.
Jews are hugely underrepresented in other diverse societies, too. Between them, multicultural France and Britain barely have 700,000 Jewish residents, compared to over 6 million in the US. Sweden, long a haven for multiculturalism, has a mere 15,000. There are historic reasons for all of this of course, but it does show that a diverse city looks very different in the USA to a diverse city in other parts of the world.
1. The Rest of the World Has Some Poor Opinion about Americans
Let’s pose a quick rhetorical question. What qualities do you think the rest of the world sees in Americans? If you said “optimistic and hardworking” you win the prize. According to a PEW Research poll, majorities in most major countries consider those traits as American as apple pie and drunken barfights. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are some other traits people associate with citizens of the USA, and you might not want to hear them.
Majorities in countries across the globe consider Americans arrogant, greedy, and violent, traits so undesirable the Old Testament felt it necessary to warn against them. Those who think this, by the way, are some of America’s staunchest allies. 64% of UK respondents, 69% of Canadians and Australians, 50% of Japanese, and 58% of French thought Americans were smug and self-satisfied, possibly because they were just fed up with being told the US saved their asses in WWII (see entry #5).
Then there’s the president. Without taking sides, it’s fair to say that other nations just don’t get President Trump at all. Over 60% of Brits and Germans, and over 50% of French think the current US administration is actively making the world a dangerous place. In Germany, the White House under Trump is as (un)popular as Russia under Putin. Whether it’s the rest of the world that’s weird in this case, or Americans themselves, we’ll leave for you to decide.