Visiting Europe has long been a kind of rite of passage for Americans. It’s somewhat ironic since many Americans are descended from people who went to great lengths to leave Europe. Still, Americans feel a kind of propriety over their ancient motherland, like they know Europe, perhaps better than the Europeans do. Even a few weeks on European soil will quickly show them how wrong they are.
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions that Americans have about Europe is that it’s full of restrictive rules that interfere with daily life. Of course, Europe has rules, both spoken and unspoken, about everything from immigration to mattress donations. America has rules about those things too, and many of them are broadly similar. Perhaps this foundation of similarity is what makes the difference all the more apparent. If the rules of Europe were really as restrictive as Americans seem to think, they would get changed, eventually. Rules, both the social rules that are not written down and the governmental ones that are, change and evolve constantly.
Now many Americans know that there are different rules in Europe than in America, which often comes with the assumption that European rules are bad and obstructionist. There are too many rules in Europe, according to many in both America and Europe itself. These assumptions rarely consider why those rules exist. The parameters and requirements in Europe are different, but they make sense. Like rules in America, rules in Europe exist to protect and serve.
This isn’t to say that all the differences between Europe and America, particularly the legal and social norms, are immediately and obviously sensible. For example, many chemical ingredients and food additives are legal in America, in order to make it easier to transport food a long way without spoiling. America is a big country, the farms are far away from the cities, and spoiled food is bad for people. Those same additives are often banned in European countries because they aren’t good for people either, and the distance between farm and table isn’t so far.
They say that fifty miles is a long way in Europe but fifty years is a long time in America. As the relative compactness of Europe has shaped laws, so too does the tremendous length of time. For example, the walking trails of England crisscross private lands in a way that would probably be considered trespassing in America. This isn’t because British citizens respect private property less than Americans. In many ways, they respect it more; there is no doctrine of eminent domain in the UK.
However, people need to be able to get places, and for centuries before the invention of the motorcar and the motorway, that was done on foot. To this day, Europeans walk more than Americans, and in England, they often use public footpaths. Footpaths were the interstate highway system of medieval England, and they are still used today.
You can see how these rules and protections evolved over a tremendous length of time, and they did not come about for no reason: Europe is a crowded place, and good fences make good neighbors. If you have millions of people with dozens of different languages packed onto one small continent, you need a different set of rules than a country with one primary language and an abundance of unused land.
The long and the short of it is that Europe has different norms. Different parts of Europe have different norms from each other, and part of being a savvy European is knowing those norms and respecting them. When you’re in someone else’s house, they get to set the rules. That applies everywhere. Those norms exist for good reason and deserve your respect. Whether your family once immigrated from Europe or not, much of the framework of American society comes from European roots. Perhaps this is why so many Americans are fascinated by the minute differences between the two.