How the world's travel guides describe America

The Atlantic's Max Fisher does a survey of foreign tour guides to the USA and finds in them a frank view into how America is viewed outside the USA. Travellers are advised that the real price for restaurant food is 20% higher than advertised ("You have to calculate 20%, write it under the subtotal, and sum to arrive at the real price. Taxis work the same way."), to avoid small towns if they are gay, to be punctual, and to let Americans lead when it comes to hugging and cheek-kissing.

You might say that global food cultures tend to fall into one of two categories: utensil cultures and finger cultures. The U.S., somewhat unusually, has both: the appropriate delivery method can vary between cuisines, and even between dishes, and it's far from obvious which is which. Baked chicken is a fork food, but fried chicken a finger food, depending on how it's fried. If you get fried pieces of potato, it's a finger food, unless the potato retains some circular shape, in which case use your fork. And so on. Confused yet?

The books emphasize that the U.S. is safe, with one big exception they all note: "inner cities," which are described with a terror that can feel a little outdated. "When driving, under no circumstances you should stop in any unlit or seemingly deserted urban area," Rough Guide warns, going on to describe dangerous scams – a strange man waving you down for "auto trouble," another car hitting yours out of nowhere so that you'll get out – in a way that makes them sound commonplace.

Welcome to America, Please Be On Time: What Guide Books Tell Foreign Visitors to the U.S.

(via Kottke)