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: One is Japan. The other is the United States of America. And while one might say that Japan is not dissimilar to Korea and the US is kind of like Canada, I say "not really". I'll let somebody else talk about Japan, but as an American, these are nine of the major ways in which we differ from the rest of the West. I will try to be fair and impartial.
- We don't use the Metric system. President Carter tried to entice our country into going Metric back in the '70s, but Americans are a stubborn lot, and it was a no-go. So today, only the US 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 desire to enact stricter gun control legislation. While we banter back and forth, the rest of the first world nations have far tighter gun control, especially with handguns. There are 90 guns per 100 US residents. (This isn't to say that 9 out of 10 Americans own a gun: millions of Americans have several guns.) Yemen - not a Western nation - is a distant second with 61 guns per 100 residents. Switzerland is an even more distant third with 46 guns per 100 residents. And so on. No surprise that, 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 employees as much as we do. A 15% tip for your waiter is practically mandatory, and many Americans - mostly those under 50 - routinely tip 20%. Hairdressers, cab drivers, maids... nearly everybody in the service sector expects and even financially depends on hefty tips. Compare this with other first world countries, where it is considered a courteous act to leave your spare change behind or perhaps tip as much as 10% for a really good meal. Tipping outside of restaurants is even less common across the world.
- 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, in that order. 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: a voter indicates the party they wish to vote for, and then that 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? Yes, the US has a Green Party, and a Libertarian Party, and even more obscure parties. But they 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, as I think it more accurately serves the varied political beliefs of a nation's populace. But for now, we are stuck with our "winner take all" mentality.
- 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 as nearly high a percentage of its populace that calls themselves "very religious" as the United States. (Except for, surprise surprise, the 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.)