Recently I was having a discussion with a friend and told him that I felt that, out of all the countries in the world, only two can be called truly unique: Japan and the United States. While one could argue that Japan is not dissimilar to Korea, and that the US is kind of like Canada, I'd say "not really". I'll let somebody else cover Japan, but as an American, I've noted these nine major ways in which we differ from everyone else. I will try to be fair and impartial.
- We don't use the Metric system. Jimmy Carter tried to entice the country into going Metric, but we Americans are a stubborn lot, and it was a no-go. Today, only the US still officially uses pounds, yards, quarts, acres, and Fahrenheit degrees to measure things. No kilograms, meters, liters, hectares, or Celsius for us! Now, we are not entirely alone: some of the old "English units" are still in use in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Ireland – mostly feet and miles. But by and large, we are the last holdouts.
- We have far more liberal gun laws. In this case, "liberal" does not mean "left-wing" but "unregulated": an eternal hot-button political issue in the US is the argument between the freedom to carry guns and the need for stricter gun control. While we banter, the rest of the first world has embraced the latter, especially in regards to handguns. Meanwhile, there are 90 guns per 100 US residents. (This isn't to say that 90% of Americans own a gun: many simply own several guns.) Yemen is a distant second, with 61 guns per 100 residents. Switzerland is an even more distant third with 46 guns per 100 residents. It's no surprise that, out of developed nations, we have by far the highest firearm-related death rate (mostly suicides).
- We work for tips. No country forces you to tip like we do. A 15% tip for your waiter is practically mandatory, and many Americans – especially those under 50 years of age – routinely tip 20%. Hairdressers, cab drivers, maids... nearly everybody in the service industry expects and even depends on hefty tips. Compare this with other first world countries, where it is sufficient to leave your spare change behind, or tip as much as 10% for excellent service. Non-restaurant-based tipping is even less common outside the US.
- We have an active capital punishment system. Some states have abolished this, but as a country we legally kill more of our citizens than any other nation on Earth, with three exceptions: China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Of first world peoples, the Japanese are the only others who still have the death penalty. But as I said earlier, Japan is unique too.
- We vote for individuals rather than for political parties. Most democracies on this planet are parliamentary democracies: you vote for a party; the party chooses the leader(s). But here in individualistic America, even though people often vote upon party lines, one is still encouraged to vote for the individual. So you can vote for a Republican mayor, a Democrat representative, a Republican senator, a Democrat governor, and a Republican president!
- We have essentially a two-party political system. Notice how I only mention Democrats and Republicans above? Our additional parties – Green, Libertarian, and so on – almost never get enough votes to get their candidates elected, even to local offices. The parliamentary democracies of other countries often consist of half a dozen or more political parties, with each party represented in parliament by the percentage of the vote they receive. I rather prefer that system, but for now, we are stuck with our "winner take all" approach.
- We don't have public health care for those under 65. That is, unless you're a veteran or a Native American, or qualify for aid because of extreme poverty. As most readers know, this has been the big political debate of 2009: depending on the poll you look at, between 46% and 83% of Americans favor universal health care – that's a pretty wide margin of error! But most polls indicate a 60-70% majority in favor. All I will say is that the entire rest of the developed world has universal health care, and they do not appear to suffer because of it.
- The majority of our population is "very religious". God bless America: no other first world country has nearly as high a percentage of its populace that calls themselves "very religious" as the United States. (Except for – no surprise here – Vatican City.) Again, polls vary, and who knows how individuals define "very religious" to themselves, but our number hovers at around 60%. And 85% of Americans refer to themselves as Christians.
- Our head of state is not white. Ending on a progressive note, although we lag behind many others in electing a female president (the United Kingdom, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Pakistan, The Philippines, etc. have all beaten us to the punch), we are the first and only Western country with a leader of black African descent. (There are, naturally, black heads of state throughout Africa and the Caribbean, but no other first world nation can make our claim.)