More Things That Are Uniquely American

US Flag image from Wikipedia

Apparently I am in a “popular demand” kind of mood these past few weeks. One of my most popular all-time posts was “Five Things That Are Uniquely American”, and I just happen to know a few more things that we Americans just do differently. Things like…

The way we balance our books

Book balance image from Shutterstock

No, no, no. I’m talking about accounting practices. You know, keeping track of money?

Oh. Ooohhhh. I get it now.

Oh. Ooohhhh. I get it now.

Keeping track of finances is a very important job, from individual people trying to keep on top of their bills to large corporations watching their profits like a hawk, all around the world. Of course, the problem is that there is plenty of opportunity for dirty, dirty weasels to lie about how much money they have. On an individual level, this can mean drowning yourself in debt with all those expensive cars you can’t afford. On a corporate level, well, you all still remember Enron, right?

You know, that thing?

You know, that thing?

That’s why we have accountants, who have to be specially trained and certified. It is also why those accountants always follow very rigorous standards and practices when they go over the books. There is a standard set of procedures, a standard way to classify different types of transactions, and standard ways to report the findings.

Around the world, these rules are codified in the appropriately-named International Financial Reporting Standards. The IFRS, as this collection of rules is known, is written by the… wait for it… International Accounting Standards Board. This set of accounting rules has become standard almost everywhere in the world.


Patriotic eagle image from America Solidarity

Here in the United States, we have a very different set of rules: the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or GAAP, set by America’s own Financial Accounting Standards Board. Because of course we do.

As it turns out, though, the GAAP and IFRS aren’t all that different in the basics. Accountants still monitor the same types of accounts and transactions, classify them almost exactly the same way, and prepare the same financial statements. There are a number of key differences, though.

For example, if you have an asset, and it has changed in value over time (for example, you buy a house and it goes up in value), IFRS lets you count that change in value in your records. GAAP does not, on the argument that value is subjective (“I feel like this house is worth $500,000 today. How does that sound?”), while the amount you actually paid for it is something that can be verified. There are any number of differences like this, and they make it hard to read financial statements in one style when you are used to the other.

This makes doing business internationally quite difficult. Imagine being Volkswagen Group of America. As an American company, you have to report your finances to Uncle Sam in GAAP, but as a branch of Volkswagen, you have to send back to Germany another set of paperwork in IFRS. So, most companies that do business internationally just keep two sets of financial records for every transaction. There has been talk of simplifying this system through “converging” IFRS and GAAP and adopting a single, global system; so far, though, it’s just been talk.

Information from one of my MBA classes

The way we name books, video games, movies, etc.

Harry Potter 1 US image from Wikipedia

Everybody loves Harry Potter! (Well, almost everybody.) There is something rather odd about the world-renowned series, though. Have you ever noticed that the first part of the series has two titles?

Harry Potter 1 image from Wikipedia

That is the original cover used in the original British publication. Notice the title: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Now look at the cover at the beginning of this section, that first introduced Harry to American children like myself. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It turns out the Philosopher’s Stone is actually a mythical element that is really important to medieval alchemy. Of course, American kids don’t generally know anything about medieval alchemy. So when the book was published here in the States, the publisher decided that “Sorcerer’s Stone” would sound less boring to American readers.

It turns out that it’s surprisingly common for books, movies, video games, and so on to have a different name in America than they do in the rest of the world. For example, while most audiences saw a movie about Samuel L. Jackson shooting up the streets of London named “The 51st State”

The 51st State image from Wikipedia

American moviegoers saw a movie about Samuel L. Jackson shooting up the streets of London named “Formula 51”.

Formula 51 image from Wikipedia

While the rest of the world watched The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, Americans watched The Pirates! Band of Misfits. While the rest of the world played the hit 1991 adventure video game Another World, Americans were playing the hit 1991 adventure video game Out of this World. Another video game with multiple names is Fahrenheit, which was released in the U.S. as Indigo Prophecy. Not even video game consoles are immune: what I grew up calling the Sega Genesis was called the Sega Mega Drive by kids in Japan, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Why these differences? Well, sometimes it’s a trademark dispute. If somebody has already claimed rights to the name you want to use, your options are pretty limited, as Taco Bell learned the hard way when they tried to move into Australia. Other times, marketers just think American audiences would react better to a different name. I guess we’re just special that way.

Information from Wikipedia

The way we spell

Anglo-American Spelling Comparison from Youtube

Americans speak English, and so do a whole bunch of other countries. But what we spell “color”, they will spell “colour”. While our news talks about “national defense”, theirs talks about “national defence”. While I want to go out to the theater, my Canadian counterpart wants to go out to the theatre. You don’t see this sort of thing in other languages. In Spanish, there will be differences in accent, word choice, slang terms, and occasionally pronunciation from country to country, but not in spelling. What is going on?

Thank Noah Webster.

Noah Webster image from Wikipedia

Born in Connecticut in 1758, he spent the Revolutionary War alternating between attending Yale and serving in the Connecticut militia. He was not just an ardent patriot; he was something of a radical. Not merely content with political independence from Great Britain, he wanted the new nation to be culturally independent from Europe as well. No need for the stains of kings and aristocracy cluttering up America’s culture! No, he argued, we should have a culture of the people, right down to our language.

Which brings me to the matter of spelling. Beginning in 1783, Webster wrote a highly popular series of schoolbooks that taught generations of American children how to read and write. Then in 1806, he also wrote – you guessed it – the Webster’s Dictionary. In both cases, he intentionally and purposefully sought to change the way Americans spelled. He felt British spelling was too complex, and “Americanized” the spelling of words like traveler (traveller), wagon (waggon), and mom (mum). Not all of his changes were widely adopted, though – he tried to have tongue spelled “tung”, for example.

Still, we now live in an America where we are surrounded by Webster’s work, right down to the red squiggly lines telling me as I type this that the British words I’ve written above are misspelled. That is an achievement.

Information from Wikipedia.

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