I’ve lived in Finland for nearly 5 years after moving here from the United States. I’ve been asked many questions by curious Finns over the past few years, usually starting with “Why did you come here?” (to go to university) quickly followed by “But why did you stay here?” (because I love it here). After a couple of drinks, the conversation often turns to American stereotypes, in particular the American stereotypes and tropes that are portrayed in movies and television. A good part of the entertainment that the world consumes comes from Hollywood, so most Finns have seen the same tropes over and over and are left wondering whether it’s a case of Hollywood invention or Hollywood reflecting real life in the United States.
When it comes to American stereotypes, there are plenty to take your pick from. Let’s take a look at 5 of the most common questions that I’ve been asked about life in the United States, based on what movies and TV are telling the world.
Do Americans really never take their shoes off indoors?
Shoes come off at the door. Everyone in Finland knows this. However, American movies and TV almost never show the characters removing their shoes upon entering a home, so it’s only natural that this question pops up fairly often. In the US, there’s a lot of variety across the country with no hard and set rule when it comes to shoe removal. Everything boils down to a number of factors such as region, climate, floor type, upbringing, length of time indoors, and personal preference.
Tracking dirt or mud into someone’s home is rude, so people in wet or snowy regions might be more likely to be pro-removal, as well as those with carpets. On the other hand, it’s considered rude in some areas to ask guests to remove their shoes at a get-together. Going barefoot equals “not fully dressed”, and could potentially embarrass guests. To add another layer to the already complex issue of shoe removal, immediately kicking your shoes off in someone else’s home can be viewed as an overly intimate act and taking “make yourself at home” a step too far. So, unlike Finland, there’s no unspoken cultural tradition of taking shoes off indoors. It’s usually best to watch the host and simply follow their lead.
Do they really wear towels in the sauna?
Sauna is one of Finland’s greatest gifts to world. There’s nothing better than peeling off your clothes and relaxing in the heat of a sauna with good friends and a cold beer. However, just about any movie or TV show that has a scene taking place in a sauna shows characters doing so while wearing a towel, leaving many Finns to wonder what’s going on. Do Americans really wear towels in the sauna, or is this a Hollywood invention?
While modest sauna-going may be partly due to how nudity can affect film ratings, Americans tend to get weird when it comes to public nudity. If you’ve ever done sauna with an American friend, you might have had to coax, bribe, or pry their towel away before letting them enter. Sauna-goers in the US tend to be a mixed bag, with some opting for nudity and the majority seemingly opting to wear a towel or swimsuit. Mixed gender saunas often have “No nudity” signs, and many single gender saunas discourage nudity because it might make others feel “uncomfortable”. Check out this explanation on sauna etiquette, found at Quick and Dirty Tips:
“You are in a confined place, so making people sit very close to your naked self can be very uncomfortable. If Joe Fitness does not have a towel, kindly let him know there are some outside. You can even excuse yourself to use the restroom and come back in with another for him. Better yet, bring two in with you–one for you and one for any gym-goer who may lack the proper etiquette. Just in case.”
I imagine that saying “Jussi, here’s a towel to cover your shameful nudity” wouldn’t go over so well here in Finland.
Is college life anything like it is in movies?
Fraternities and sororities, keggers with beer pong, dorm rooms, and a huge university campus with a quad where students hang out with acoustic guitars and hackey sacks are mandatory parts of any college movie, and I often get asked if there’s any truth to this portrayal of college life. While every college student tends to have a different experience, Hollywood’s depiction is more or less accurate, albeit somewhat exaggerated. Wild parties do happen (especially at the larger universities), but it’s up to the individual to decide whether they want to participate — and many would rather focus on their studies. Movies conveniently leave out constant studying montages and crippling student loan debt that follows graduation, and focus more on the crazy hijinks of college kids instead simply because it’s more fun to watch.
What’s with all the red cups?
Surprisingly, this is hands down the most common question I get asked when it comes to the US and how it’s portrayed in films. You know which red cups I’m talking about: red, plastic, and in every single hand in a college or high school party scene. Rumors abound that films use the red cups because they are opaque, meaning that the film won’t be depicting underage drinking. However, they’re used at parties in real life too. Large parties with kegs of beer and mixed drinks in particular, because who has that many glasses on hand? Certainly not broke college students.
The recyclable red cups are manufactured by Solo, the leader in plastic drinking cups. They’re cheap, easy to find, and have become somewhat of a tradition over the years. Solo makes other colors as well, but VP of consumer business for Solo Kim Healy has said that “Consumers prefer red, and it’s not very close. I think for one thing it’s a neutral color that’s appealing to both men and women. It’s also just become a standard.” The cups have become so iconic that there’s even a terrible country song about them:
Are high school cliques real?
Whenever the topic of high school comes up, the questions start rolling in. Hollywood tends to reuse a very specific formula for high school flicks, but while they may get it somewhat right when it comes to university life, it’s not really the case for high school life. In general, high school is much more friendly than depicted in entertainment. Much of the drama gets left behind in junior high for the 11-14 year olds to enjoy. Cliques do exist in the sense that groups form around shared interests like sports or drama club, but it’s not common to find a named clique such as “The Plastics” in Mean Girls. Cliques also tend to be more fluid than they’re depicted, with many students having friends in different groups and more interaction among various cliques. Bullying is still a major problem in high schools across the US, but I can’t say I’ve personally ever seen a nerd get stuffed into a locker by a jerky jock.
It’s always fun to discuss the things that Hollywood gets wrong. What are some of your own questions that watching movies and television has caused you to ponder? Let us know in the comments below.