Explanations to Some North American Customs

There are many trivial questions about why some North American customs appear a certain way or are processed in an odd way. Basically most of these explanations are applicable to Canada as well (hence the title.) Disclaimer: the title just generalizes explanations to common cultural observations, (some from personal curiosity and from foreigners’ questions) not necessarily claiming any ownership towards anything, as many of these listed explanations are sometimes found elsewhere. Despite the spontaneity of the questions, the answers are still interesting. Some trivial questions are simply about the specific color of objects. Some are more generally about culture, lifestyle, and the history behind them, which mostly and obviously originate from elsewhere. In all honesty, I learned a lot about these answers while researching these rather amusing questions. Now, with that being said, what questions are we exactly discussing?

Why are barns red?

I’ve never fully considered the question and just accepted that sometimes they were red. But why just why are they red? Barns are red for durability. That in short sounds sensible, as anyone could guess, however originally, early barns were not painted at all. Paint was considered more of an ornament to the early New England farmers, as they did not have the resources to paint their barns as it would be costly. However, roughly around the late 18th century, these farmers began to experiment with various substances in order to create paint. Most of these farmers obviously immigrated from all around Europe, so the red style originates from there (basically Scandinavia), and was brought to North America. Falu red, is an example of Swedish pigment that was considered to be the roots of the red style. Not to mention the Finnish also used Falu red for their barns so did others. That paint mixture began as “A recipe consisting of skimmed milk, lime and red iron oxide created a rusty-colored mixture that became popular among farmers because it was cheap to make and lasted for years.” These farmers also experimented with other substances to create some sealant (linseed oil)  that would protect the wood material from rotting. “As for the all-important Falu red, that helps protect the wood from fungal infestation and harsh weather conditions. On top of that, the pigment from the red colour absorbs a large amount of UV-rays, so the paint lasts for longer. Perhaps even a few hundred years. “ Not to mention, the red was not as pigmented as it is now, it was actually a shade that was less saturated and more orangey. Others theorize that the red pigment in combination with some other substance could have been blood from slaughtered animals. Namely, the oxide or the rust collectively with the other materials are thought to retain temperatures, which is beneficial especially for winters. So to speak, eventually the traditional red color lost its prominence and people now have an abundance of barn colors, styles and such considering the mixture of other cultures as well.

Why are school buses yellow?

A yellow school bus, as seen probably in those stereotypical movies, and basically all North American TV shows. Why are they yellowish orange out of all possible colors? (Now as recognized, National School Bus Glossy Yellow), bright and easily recognized by many. Popular in North American culture, the standardization of school buses began in the mid 20th century, as children took a variety of transportation in many colors and it was difficult to recognize and discern vehicles from each other. So in 1939, a planning committee met and discussed the standardization of a school bus model. Thank (Frank Cyr for this), this would also address a safety concern for precautions regarding the transportation of school children in the midst of traffic with other vehicles. Apparently the specific shade of yellow is meant to stimulate the ‘photoreceptors’, which make the vibrant color especially noticeable considering its ‘wavelength.’ School buses don’t have to be yellow, but it is highly recommended. (as if this piece is relevant.) In short, yellow school buses can be seen from a galaxy far, far away… and are used by roughly 26 million students.

Why are pencils yellow?

Here is another example of something  yellowish orange. The origins behind the yellowish orange shade can be firstly explained by Chinese color associations. Originally, yellow is thought especially in the Ming dynasty to be a color of nobility, namely, an imperial color worn by emperors in hierarchical standards. Chinese graphite was also considered of great quality. Later, a Czech pencil manufacturing company (Hardtmuth) in the late 19th century painted their pencils yellow to associate with the regality and quality of Chinese graphite they imported. These pencils were then named Koh-I-Noor-Hardtmuth. The reason being, Koh I Noor diamonds were part of the popular British crown jewels, and accentuated the luxurious appeal.

Then the luxurious appeal became more of a commonality, as well in North America.

So yes, basically we copied and everything screams patriotism.

Why do we engage in small talk?

Regarding social culture, small talk is found almost everywhere in order to fill gaps of silence among strangers. Many people seem uncomfortable with silence, with the constant commotion of the day, some overcompensate to fill in the bursts of silence. This can include trivial conversations about topics like the weather or some sports game. Small talk is used to ‘break the ice’ and maintain an idea of friendliness, to break cold air. Sometimes a random person may compliment your clothing and might ask you where you bought it from (the same gender). It is not unusual for someone to walk up to you asking if they met you once somewhere, or act as if you have known them for a long time despite having just met them. Sometimes the overconfidence or factitious seeming friendliness produces some sort of skepticism among the  foreigners who prefer not to engage in typically banal conversations with strangers about how their weekends went. But if you come for a visit I highly suggest you try to go with the improvisation, if approached, otherwise you might appear cold. Generally,  people also randomly engage in small talking because they are curious or nosy and would like to know more about people, (with good intentions) so they simply ask, even if  they are not so much as interested in establishing long term bonds with these people. That is, from a Washingtonian perspective, which some consider stereotypically standoffish, than perhaps a Californian one. So if you have a noticeable foreign accent people tend to be enthusiastic, and may overwhelm you with curious questions leading to the anecdote of your personal biography, and pronunciation of specific words for adoration, enjoy the limelight!

Why the ice obsession?

Most North Americans love to put lots of ice cubes in everything, especially during the summer in drinks, like ice teas, lemonades, fruit punch, and sodas, along with many other beverages (however it is not exclusive to summer, some people enjoy drinks at any point of the year with ice depending on their spontaneous preferences). Except usually, the ratio of ice to the drink is disproportionate and basically the drinks are filled to the brim with ice. And ice dilutes the quality and flavor of the drink which can be annoying. When I went abroad for a vacation in Germany and Austria, (during the Summer time) I noticed the restaurants did not by default offer ice, and drinks were lukewarm. This was interesting, although the temperature was a bit odd and uncomfortable, it was nice having more to consume, lacking the dilution of too much ice. Usually at restaurants in the U.S the  ice cups serve as an old maneuver, giving the slightest reason to replace the drink with a refill and charge the customer again to increase profit. Sometimes this occurs without their consent, which happens often at smaller franchised restaurants. However we usually prefer drinks with ice during the summer, or at least cold drinks. But it would be better if the entire drink did not consist solely of ice. Historically, in the 19th century ice was considered a luxury and there was a surplus of ice, so we began commercializing it and it became an apparent global export. Other societies beforehand had also harvested ice, but North Americans were quite eager in this trade. As the perspectives prospered, that ice could elongate the preservation of medicine and of foodstuffs, especially chill drinks, the trade became even more marketable.

Instead of harvesting ice from icebergs and frozen ponds, industrialization and mechanization allowed ice to be fabricated.

Personal Space? Greetings?

Normally in the case of acquaintances we are not exactly touchy-feely and we don’t appreciate when people walk too close to us in conversations, because it would be too awkward walking backwards, so there is some unspoken rule about distance in between people. Anything slightly invading personal space is considered oddly intimate. Usually an arm’s length in distance radius, is considered appropriate otherwise it would invade boundaries. It is extremely rare to find cheek kisses for acquaintances as a greeting, it would be seen as being pretentious and strange. Hugs are usually reserved for friends, partners, and family. However these conditions can vary among the enclaves of different cultures intermingled. But it’s something generally followed.

Is it rude to ask about personal finances?

It is considered rude and socially unacceptable to ask someone about their finances for example how much income they make or how much they paid for a luxury item. People consider this curiosity as an invitation to judgement on their specific lifestyle, since some people are subconsciously comparing themselves on a class to class basis. All of it is shallow materialism and competition created by the rhetoric of emotional marketing and collective capitalism, namely the idea that solely income boosts one’s status and wellbeing. Which is fallacious. An example would be the idiomatic ‘meet the joneses’ in American consumerism, which emphasized social mobility considering the increase in the private sector. This social mobility led to wealth to purchase unnecessary objects to prove one’s social standing as there is a surplus of fulfillment in commodities especially among the middle class. However this is more of a common psychological issue that needs to be addressed, (conspicuous spending) which is rooted in the subconscious social attitudes among the masses, observably.

Strict alcohol laws

Negative connotations are associated with alcoholic drinks in the U.S. as during the post revolutionary times, drinking became an excessive coping mechanism to combat psychological issues due to inflation and was associated with hard work. Alcohol was also preferred over contaminated water, and was normalized in all aspects of life (weddings, ceremonies and so on). However in the 1800’s, the temperance movement (basically a movement reducing alcohol consumption) gained momentum, this is because of the Second Great Awakening. (A sensational movement of the thundering preaching of salvation and moral responsibility). In the 1820’s the goal shifted to absolute abstinence of alcohol. Then in 1920-1933 the 18th amendment prohibited alcohol, initially considering the need to preserve resources especially during WWI as well as the developments of the religious awakening combined with the abolitionist and progressive movements. Women, especially mothers and children would be placed on influential banners used as emotional rhetoric to reduce alcoholism for the sake of ‘health and safety for the families’. Then the 21st amendment repealed this prohibition in the hopes of restimulating the economy as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to deal with the effects of the Great Depression, through its taxation. Although alcohol was thought of as something ‘bad and sinful’, the prohibition laws ironically caused more violence and mayhem. In more recent times, currently, in many marketing campaigns the dangers of drinking and driving are especially emphasized. And due to the strong evangelical protestantism associations of morality and alcohol as mentioned in the historical context, the age is quite high compared to other countries. In fact in Canada the drinking age varies between 18-19 depending on what province one is in and one can find a list of countries, basically everywhere else where the consumptions laws are even more lenient.

In short, the list could go on about more customs and commonalities, however I chose just a few North American cultural customs to write about. The times I visited Vancouver B.C, noticeably, Canadians did not differ too much. It appeared as a large extension of Washington state, and the social attitudes seemed quite similar. The only adorable thing was the stereotypical ‘Eh’ interjection that they, the Canadians themselves, recognized and even printed on disposable plates. But all in all, it was enjoyable writing about some customs, which I learned a lot while researching and traveling.

Michaela

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