I'm not saying I will move away from North America anytime soon, but if I did, I'd know exactly why. Just last week, I completed 10 years as a full-time resident in North America across 4 major cities. I therefore think I've given NA a fair shot before jumping to hasty conclusions.
Now don't get me wrong. There's tons of great things with NA compared to other places in the world. We as NA denizens already know most if not all of them, so you don't need me to enumerate them. This post is dedicated to only pointing out the bad things. In particular, the bad things that displease me the most. It doesn't mean that NA is a bad place to live. It just means that if I do choose to move away from NA one day, it will probably be to a place that doesn't have one or more of the following characteristics.
I think a lot of, if not all, North Americans are obsessed with a few nonsensical things. Let's take a close look at them one-by-one, shall we?
North Americans seem obsessed with smoking, cigarettes, and tobacco. And I find it pretty hard to work with these guys (and girls) since they take breaks so often and they always have a foul smell of smoke around them in addition to their bad breath, not to mention their bad teeth. The culture doesn't shun smokers as much as they should or as much as they are shunned in other places and other cultures.
A culture that doesn't shun smoking yields a culture of rabid second hand smokers. And that's the worst part of it all. People like me who'd rather stay away from all the smoke have a heck of a time avoiding it. At least if the nicotine was injected intravenously, it would spare everyone else the trouble of involuntarily consuming the nicotine-riddled smoke. There are several rules around smoking near building entrances and how you're required to maintain a minimum 5-10 meter distance from the entrance, but that's hardly enforced, if ever.
The truth about smoking is plain and clear: a) nicotine isn't required by the body like water is, so its consumption is already questionable, b) the perceived positive effects of nicotine are fairly short-term and are extremely short-lived, c) the "crash" experienced after a cigarette or two is far worse than the original problem it was trying to solve, d) productivity of smokers on average is lower, often significantly so, than non-smokers largely due to their periodic smoke breaks, their frequent "crashes", and their inability to deal with pressure or stay focused for extended periods of time, e) smokers are some of the most unhealthiest people of our generation, f) smoking has been irrevocably linked to higher likelihood of not just heart disease, but also lung, throat, mouth, and esophageal cancer, and g) smokers are taking up valuable spots at the doctor's office in front of other people who have legitimate lung and heart issues.
So this begs the question: why do it at all? If you think it is cool to smoke, I can assure you it is not. I think you'll have a higher chance of being cool with nice, white teeth and good breath. If you feel compelled to smoke because you want to fit in, perhaps it's time to reconsider your circle of friends. Fortunately, non-smokers are still in the majority at least here in NA, so you should be able to make new and hopefully healthier friends pretty soon.
The only counter-argument I've heard is that smoking brings in an appreciable amount of income to the government in the form of taxes, and banning it will only kick start an underground economy like what happened with alcohol during the days of prohibition. I think the increased productivity of these people will quickly make up for the lost taxes in the form of increased GDP.
Rather than banning cigarettes, what if we took a more socio-cultural or socio-economic approach instead? What if we made it legal to reject interview candidates and fire existing employees based on their smoking preferences? This is probably already being done under the covers on the pretext of lost productivity. What if smokers were made to pay higher income taxes than non-smokers? What if fines related to smoking too close to building entrances were actually enforced and grew exponentially with the number of incidents?
There are several ways of injecting taboos into what we call societal norms — let's take advantage of them.
North Americans seem obsessed with coffee, its friends, and all associated beverages. This is evident by the sheer number of Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Second Cups and Peets coffee shops visible in any major North American city. When I meet people for "coffee", I am considered a weirdo if I just order some water. Let's get this straight: water is the most important and fundamental beverage of our life. It is the only liquid mandated by nature as required for consumption. Every other liquid is just superfluous and unnecessary to the human body.
Almost every dentist I've ever seen has said that coffee and smoking are among the biggest unnatural causes of bad teeth. It's why dentally healthy people like myself have to often wait a week to get an appointment with my preferred dentist instead of being able to see them the next day, even if it's just for a regular checkup.
It seems to me that North Americans cannot and do not know how to have a fun time without somehow involving alcohol in one form or the other. The huge line-ups at Canadian LCBO stores on Friday and Saturday nights prove my point. Having a fun time without involving alcohol is actually quite doable as I've myself proven several times. Alcohol is so ingrained into the culture that it doesn't even strike people as a problem until an outsider like me comes in and blatantly points it out to them. Even then, the outsider will be able to hold his stance only until the following Friday night.
The fundamental premise of minimalism is to consume only what is absolutely necessary by the body to perform its everyday activities. Holding this definition as gospel, the only liquid that needs to be consumed is the increasingly-elusive H2O. The greatest irony of an alcohol-indebted culture is that the best remedy for a bad hangover is water. This is the body's way of gently reminding us that anything else besides water will be processed like a terrorist who's somehow managed to make his way into America.
Unfortunately, fridges and vending machines today are being stocked with beer first, and if there's any room left, some water.
North Americans seem obsessed with meat. To the point where not including meat in a meal makes it a non-meal. Or having a sandwich or a burger without meat in it doesn't qualify as a sandwich or a burger. Take a look at the number of McDonalds, KFCs, and Burger Kings around you. Ask yourself why the In-N-Out chain is so popular. Count the number of barbecue places in any Texan city of your choosing.
There are so many places around the world where eating the occasional vegetarian meal isn't considered abnormal. The fact that McDonalds, one of America's largest chains, has 0 vegetarian items on their menu except for ice cream and a god-awful salad is testament to the fact that the culture doesn't just consider over-eating of meat a non-problem — it actively encourages it.
These days, since it is clear that meat is non-essential to a normal and healthy diet, the fundamental premise of minimalism dictates eliminating meat from your diet altogether. Of course, we don't need to go that far: simply minimizing your meat intake would be a good start.
The tipping culture is at the forefront of all North American cultural problems. It doesn't seem like a big deal at first, but sooner or later, you realize what a big pain in the ass it really is. Tips today have become as mandatory as paying for the actual item/service itself. The phrase "mandatory tip" sounds as oxymoronic as the phrase "authentic replica" or "athletic scholarship" do.
Gone are the days when tips were used to signal out-of-the-ordinary service. Today, most of us tip vastly out of fear rather than gratitude. If tips were so mandatory, include them in the damn price! At least I'll have less math to do in my head, especially after a coma-induced full stomach.
I think tipping only became an issue when it became pseudo-mandatory, and it only became pseudo-mandatory because several state and provincial governments reduced the minimum wage of waiters at one point with the justification that they would make up that lost portion in tips. Once minimum wage became a function of profession, it opened up a whole big can of worms.
What we need is big glaring signs in restaurants and on bills (invoices) saying "Waiters are paid full minimum wage here — tipping is strictly optional." If I started a restaurant, I'd run this line as an experiment to see what happened. I might have a tough time recruiting waiters I guess.
The biggest comedy of our times is pre-added tips. Pre-added tips are as absurd as adding a "travel tax" on my plane ticket. Neither make any sense to me whatsoever. But I guess this is better than the alternative of dynamically pricing menu items based on the number of people in your party. But if you're going to pre-add tips, make it conspicuous on the bill! And make sure the credit card machine doesn't prompt for additional tips because that is borderline fraud.
Since tips must be computed on the sub-total and not the grand total which includes taxes, it should be made illegal to not print the sub-total on the bill. Several sneaky restaurants will re-work their POS system to hide the sub-total on the bill so customers will accidentally compute the tips against the grand total which already includes another 12%-13% in taxes.
I didn't see what a big pain the whole concept of tips really were until I spent 2 months in western Europe where the tipping culture is virtually non-existent. When I returned to North America, I realized what a big scam tipping really was. It takes longer to pay the bill, and I don't really know who the tips eventually go to: the restaurant owner, my own waiter, or all waiters equally.
Tipping is so pervasive and endemic to North American culture that it is almost impossible to notice the issue unless you travel for an extended period of time outside the continent. But when you do, it will hit you like a baseball bat. Slowly, but surely.
Fortunately today I live comfortably enough that I don't need to worry about such micro-optimizations as tips. But that doesn't mean tipping wasn't a major pain the last 5 years. There are still a ton of people for who tips increase their overall food budget by a substantial percentage of their wages.
Tipping is just the icing on the cake when it comes to the larger and more-disguised problem known as hidden fees. The price you see on the menu or inventory list is nowhere close to what you'll actually end up paying. Hmm, let's see. They'll perhaps add tips on your behalf. They might add a "food fee" for you depending on your city. They'll certainly add an "environment fee" in some other cities. Maybe even a "sit-in" fee (waived on take-outs) or a "city fee".
But it doesn't end there. They'll probably add some federal sales taxes for you. They'll also add some provincial sales taxes for you. Sometimes they'll add one but not the other. Sometimes they'll combine both sales taxes into one harmonized tax. But other times you'll see the same harmonized tax appear twice on your bill with two different percentages. At some businesses, they'll add other fees they didn't warn you about because you exceeded some kind of arbitrary limit. They're really praying you won't notice it on the bill. But if they subtract a cent off, and make it end with $.99, perhaps you won't.
In the midst of all this chaos, you'll have to figure out the sub-total, check for pre-added tips, do some quick mental math, and then figure out the total yourself — all this when math is the last thing you want to do after a slumber-inducing delicious meal.
Hidden fees is a problem because it makes consumers have to do all sorts of mathematical acrobatics in their head every time a purchase is made. It definitely makes personal accounting and budgeting a pain. Why not simply pre-include all these fees into the original menu price in the first place! Ah, don't we all know the answer to that one.
The crux of the problem is that all business owners want to make their price seem as minimal as possible on the menu or inventory list to try and appear competitive. But when they actually charge your credit card, they have this sneaky smirk on their face that goes: "Haha, I got you, you sucker!" And if you ask about it, it's fairly easy for restaurant and business owners to pretend this is the norm around the world. They look at you crazy and maybe even roll their eyes a bit as they gleefully process your credit card.
I think the fundamental problem is that what's really worshipped isn't the consumers' end interests. But instead, the system is so hyper-optimized to squeeze every penny out of the consumer, hopefully without him noticing.
I wonder how much money Tim Hortons squeezed out of consumers who accidentally ordered one size larger than they intended when the franchise offset their sizes recently? I once ordered a small cappuccino within a month of them offsetting their sizes, and I was issued no confirmation whatsoever of my drink size. What does this tell you?
North Americans, for the most part, seem to be okay knowing just one language. They walk about with this innate assumption that English is the only language in the world. I find it hard to truly like monolingual people for the same reasons that I would hate working with, and maybe even look down upon software engineers who only knew one programming language, and were deeply hesitant to learn a new one.
The problem is partially masked with the large influx of immigrants into North America. But third and higher generation immigrants are still going to be faced with this problem if the cultural indifference to monolinguism isn't resolved soon. Public schools need to take a new stab at how they teach foreign languages because the current way clearly isn't working at all.
North Americans seem obsessed with consuming things. And that too as fast as possible. It's like you're in a life-long competition with everyone around you about who can consume the most in the shortest period of time. This is evident by the size of crowds flocking to Costco and Walmart every day, and the length of line-ups at stores before Black Friday and Boxing Day.
Food takes the prize when it comes to over-consumption. Look around you and count the number of fat and obese people. You might not have enough fingers and toes to do that. And what's worse is that it's largely these people, along with the chain smokers and alcohol addicts, that are in front of you in line when you're waiting to see the doctor.
There is no concept of minimalism emphasized anywhere. One could argue consumption is better for the short-term economy, and it is in many aspects, but minimalism is an argument for a more sustainable long-term economy. North Americans purchase or consume more water, food, meat, coffee, alcohol, plastic, gas, electronics, and household items per capita than anywhere else in the world. Except maybe Dubai which ironically is where I grew up. Another reason why I'd have a tough time relocating back there too.
Don't get me wrong. North America is a fantastic place for living a quiet, peaceful, no-nonsense life where things get done faster than other places around the world. You don't have to rely on others too much to live your life or get things done here which means you can lead a fairly independent and self-sufficient life. Things are mostly fair and logical. You can be a sole man living alone and still enjoy almost all the comforts this continent has to offer. But no habitat is perfect, and discussing the ill-sides of any habitat doesn't make it any less habitable.
If I were to ever leave North America, I can guarantee you it will be because of one or more of these characteristics. These characteristics fully capture the 8-most pressing cultural issues of our time here in North America.
There isn't going to be any one culture that fully satisfies all 8 characteristics simultaneously unless I go live in the Himalayas, but I can easily find one that resolves maybe 2 or 3 of them without introducing any further major issues. Western Europe and Singapore are my biggest bets right now. Some of my friends have suggested Taiwan and Hong Kong as other possible candidates, but I'll want to go check them out myself first.
This post is heavily inspired by "17 cultural reasons why this European never wants to live in America" by Benny Lewis. Any similarities are wholly my fault. If you're still with me up to this point, take a few minutes and read that post too if you haven't already. It might get you thinking more than you wished for.