“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” -Gilbert K. Chesterton

I stopped by the local organic grocery store on my way home from work the other day and, as I was browsing for brown rice, I overheard people speaking in English. Specifically, American English.

It was three women, in their mid-thirties, discussing potential purchases. Hearing English, even American English, isn’t wholly unusual. Delft has a big university and there are a lot of internationals here. However, these women clearly weren’t students. Nor were they especially accustomed to life outside the US.

As I moved on from rice to white beans, I heard them discussing how the grocery store doesn’t accept “cards.” This is pretty standard Dutch business culture. Essentially no one, outside of big hotel chains and Ikea, accepts credit cards. Typically most places accept “pinnen,” the Dutch equivalent of a debit card, and cash. As an American who is used to swiping everywhere and as a person who is loath to carry cash, I understand the frustration. However, when in Rome and all that…

When I joined the check out line, I found myself behind the trio. They were discussing (loudly, of course) how weird it is that a grocery store doesn’t accept credit cards. The first woman was rung up, paid in cash, and then stared at the groceries that had accumulated on the belt. She looked at the teenage cashier and asked “Oh, do I have to bag these myself?” The kid, confused (because you have to bag your own groceries in every fucking grocery store in Holland), assumed she was asking about purchasing a bag and said “Yes” and pointed at the bags for sale. The woman, who thankfully wasn’t utterly clueless, realized that not only must she bag her own groceries, but if she wanted a bag in which to put them, she must buy one.

Aside from the stereotypical boorish American behavior, what I found most frustrating about this situation was the utter lack of observation these women engaged in. Others had checked out ahead of us. There were other checkout lines. Simply watching what everyone else in line was doing would have given a clue as to how you should behave.

Americans seem to assume that everyone else on the planet will do things exactly as it is done in the homeland. They seem to lack understanding that norms may be different in other parts of the world and you will be expected to abide by them.


  1. Katie

    Did I ever tell you about the trip with my (ex) in laws to Jamaica?  If it was possible to die of embarrassment, I would have on that trip.

  2. I think that being a terrible introvert will come in handy for me in these situations. My husband and I are both overly cautious and we go out of our way to figure out how things are “done” wherever we are (even if it’s simply a restaurant we’ve never been to and we don’t know if you pay the waitress or you go up front) by watching quietly. Could we politely ask? Sure. Occasionally I will get up the nerve to do that. But for us it’s an introverted “don’t look at me” desire to not attract attention as much as it is a desire to not be an idiotic rude asshole.

  3. I think asking is generally perfectly acceptable and would have been perfectly acceptable in this situation. However, I think it’s often easier on you, the people around you, employees, etc. if you asses what’s going on around you instead of barging in. I think you also learn more, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar place. 

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