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12 Readers on What the Rest of the World Does Better Than the U.S.

Plus: Why reforms can’t fix American gun violence, according to one reader

Backlit figures walking in front of an American flag
Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked, “If you could change one thing about the culture of your country by adopting a practice or attitude or folkway from another country, what would you change and why?”

Meg recommends “the Japanese practice of bowing, not only to each other as a way of greeting or farewell, but also to the rooms one enters and exits.” Here’s her pitch for wider adoption:

This moment of mindful respect for the people and spaces we encounter strikes me as a way to affect all of our interactions in ways that foster a deeper connection and a pathway to peace. On the giving or receiving end of this simple gesture, I feel blessed and honored.

Simone wants people in the United States to eat like the French:

If possible, I would change the American way of treating mealtimes as “on the fly” (eating at desks, fast food, lousy school-lunch choices). In France, people take time to eat together. They enjoy their meals. Families talk about their day, what happened at work or school, and offer opinions about current events. Children learn from their parents and peers that participation in conversation is encouraged and supported. In addition, more thought goes into meal planning. Not only do people eat a wider variety of fresh foods; school lunch menus are very careful to be balanced and nutritious for growing children. Their school lunch menus rival some of the best restaurant menus here in the States! Having more reverence for the foods that nourish our bodies and taking the time to enjoy meals together also translates into a more socially connected community.

Jaleelah wants her fellow Canadians to drink more like Jordanians do:

What do people find so appealing about alcohol? It tastes bad, hurts your body, and makes you do stupid things. I accept that different people enjoy different things, but I hate that bars are the center of all adult social life in Canada. I was raised Muslim, so I didn’t grow up around adults who drank wine or beer with every meal. Despite the fact that I don’t strictly observe Islamic law as an adult, I still see drinking as unnecessary and harmful.

I think that most people start drinking because they see everyone around them drinking, not because it’s actually fun or useful. I’ve spent time in Jordan, where alcohol and bars are legal and moderately popular, but the default social drink is tea. I’d change our drinking culture to Jordan’s. People should have the right to do what they want with their bodies, but I’d prefer a culture where they are encouraged to make healthy choices.

Kelsey wants to change America’s default greeting:

I am a 29-year-old first-generation American—my parents are both immigrants from Poland. In U.S. culture, the thing I would change to be more like traditional Polish culture would be to cease the use of “How are you?” as a casual greeting. In the U.S., I find myself asked by acquaintances or strangers in office corridors, at check-out counters, on phone calls to businesses: “How are you?” I know the appropriate response is “Good; you?” and the follow-up from the asker is “Good”— if there is any follow-up. Often, American askers will continue walking down the hallway without even responding to my response. This bothers me on several accounts: 1) “How are you?” in Polish culture is typically reserved for close companions, not acquaintances; 2) those in the U.S. who “ask” it as a casual greeting in passing are not truly asking; 3) it makes me feel like, Why are you asking me to lie to you and say I am good when I possibly am not? And maybe I was feeling overall fine until you prompted me to reflect on my state of being?; 4) now that I am reflecting on my state of being and you are walking away or continuing on with this transaction, I am left feeling alienated.

Kim wants to adopt a Spanish folkway:

I suggest the United States adopt the idea of siesta during the day. It is much needed in the workforce.

Ellie contrasts U.S. prison culture with the Norwegian approach to crime and punishment:

Because of our problems of prejudice and privatization, our prisons are designed to make life worse for convicted people. We need to make life better for them, so they are better citizens when released, and so they won’t get readmitted. In Norway, the only difference between a prisoner and a guard is that the prisoner does not have the freedom to leave at will. The Norwegians consider that loss of freedom to be punishment enough.

The prisoners’ accommodations are pleasant, though simple. There are no bars; guards are friendly to inmates; there is no solitary confinement; smuggling of drugs is illegal but is tolerated; drug rehab is a robust offering. Inmates cook their own meals and do their own cleaning and maintenance. Disruptive prisoners may be transferred out to a more secure, more supervised wing. But even there they get fairness, respect, and access to volunteer and self-improvement programs, same as the main block prisoners.

If you treat prisoners as valued human beings, you teach them how to be valued human beings, and how to treat others as such. Norway’s recidivism rate is less than a third of ours.

We need to get the profit motive out of our prison system, so that an increased incarcerated population is no longer a sign of a successful business model but is rather a sign of an unsuccessful model for preventing re-incarceration. In a prison system, a “repeat customer” should not be a good thing for anyone.

Tracking recidivism reduction will determine quantitatively which changes in prisons are working, and which successful changes are the best to make universal requirements.  Right now there is no accountability anywhere for recidivism. With adoption of Norwegian practices, first in a few but then in all prisons, the prisons can become accountable. Recidivism can go from being “a damned shame” to being “a damned sight better.”

Perhaps thinking of Amsterdam, Christa writes, “I’d like to have bicycle lanes everywhere in the United States, and the right to turn on red should be abolished so as to not kill or injure pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Michele admits, “I’m not sure what culture has the strongest practice or attitude of forgiveness,” but that’s what she wants for the United States. She argues:

There is very real suffering and injustice that deserves sympathy and redress by civil society. However, polarizing grievances are not helping anyone. There is a growing culture of vengeful embrace of victimhood that is inflamed by misinformation and propaganda. New power structures exploit and stoke grievance passions. People can be too wrapped up in vengeance and fears to seek difficult truths that would produce understanding that might lead them to forgiveness, responsibility, and cooperation. Maybe another culture has a better way to deliver better outcomes. I just wish that, by magic, we could replace our culture of victimhood and vengefulness with powerful forgiveness to be able to move forward cooperatively and equitably for the greater good for everyone.

Barbara laments the treatment of one demographic group in particular:

Ageism is a fact of life in American culture. As an old person, I don’t expect to be worshipped. I would just like to be appreciated as a fellow, equal human. It would be nice to have my opinion valued. It would be nice to be seen as a member of the community. That happens in many other cultures around the world, such as Korea, Finland, and Denmark.

Jake prefers Canadian gun culture to American gun culture:

My whole life has straddled the U.S. and Canada. I was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, to parents who had moved from the U.S. the year before; I attended college and have lived the remainder of my adult life in various regions of the United States. Thus I have spent decades contemplating what is different, and what is not, between the two countries.

There is so much that I am grateful for in the United States. But if I could change one thing, it would be the culture of widespread gun ownership. I have no problem with hunting rifles and shotguns; I grew up around them and do not find them frightening. But I find the U.S.’s sheer ubiquity of gun ownership, and the everyday use of handguns and assault rifles designed solely to kill people, to be baffling and at times terrifying.

In Canada, everyday life is so similar to what it is in the United States, yet most people simply don’t have to consider the possibility that someone they will encounter in public will threaten them with a gun. The news blotters in Canadian newspapers are full of accounts of people who rob convenience stores with hockey sticks, and lack cases in which some driver fires at another one because they thought they cut them off on the freeway. Because legal gun ownership is so much rarer in Canada, there is much less opportunity for legal guns to be illegally used, or for legal guns to get sold on the black market. The result: The same lowlifes and hotheads that exist in Canada as exist here in the U.S. are much less likely to be packing. What would potentially be a lethal shoot-out here ends up as a punch-up or maybe a knife fight there, with much less chance of someone getting killed.

I fervently support gun-safety legislation in the U.S. and loathe the poisonous role of the [National Rifle Association] and other organizations that can’t countenance even the most basic reforms, some of which might have the effect of saving thousands of lives. It should be possible for reasonable people who disagree about guns to come together and agree on a suite of changes that would make a real difference: End liability shields for gun makers; aggressively prosecute illegal gun dealers or renegade gun-store owners; enact universal background checks; require extensive training and liability insurance for concealed carriers; end the ludicrous and politically inflammatory permission of open gun carrying; drastically increase the scrutiny of people who seek to purchase assault rifles; and so on.

But I know that even with these reforms, the U.S. will never have rates of gun violence as low as in Canada. The number of guns is approaching the number of people in this country. There is no realistic way to get rid of them that large swaths of the public will ever accept. So even with reasonable reforms, we will likely continue to have tens of thousands more people killed every year by guns than we would have if the U.S. had Canada’s gun culture and laws. Though that is unlikely to affect me personally, I live with the fear that some lunatic around the next street corner is carrying in his pocket the Godlike power to inflict death. If I could snap my fingers and make 95 percent of the guns in the U.S. disappear, I would.

Marilyn dislikes a different but perhaps related aspect of American culture:

If I could change one thing about my country’s culture, it would be our attitude toward rugged individualism. In the United States, prizing of individual freedom to the extent we do has fostered selfishness, insularity, toxic masculinity, isolation, and, most damaging, freedom from responsibility to anyone but “me and mine.” In countries where collective responsibility flourishes, there is much less violence, more considerate behavior, a willingness to contribute to the betterment of the whole society, and a belief that well-considered collective action can reap great rewards for everyone. We live in a global society now, and while individuality is a creative force, individualism can and often is a destructive force in far-flung places in the world where climate change caused by individual actions is wrecking lives.

And Barry wants to change an inclination that he observes in America but that exists in every country:

If I could change one thing, it would be the culture of advantaging one’s sons and daughters over others’. Conservatives give preferences to their progeny without hesitation or apology; it is consistent with their ideology. But ideological liberals also intend (belying their “equality” ethic) to give great advantages to their own children, sending them to the most prestigious prep schools, then on to the best universities. And all this perpetuates deep socioeconomic inequalities.