As a U.S. citizen who has just returned from a decade in Europe, I can't report much good news about the relative standing of the American dream. My experience is that—despite their own economic crises—Europeans have far less reason to worry about job security, health care, or unpronounceable ingredients in their food. Their public transportation is better, their roads smoother. Their working hours, vacation, and parental leave are staggeringly more family-friendly. We're falling behind. Debts and wars, income inequality, a curdling political culture, and Charlie Sheen have knocked us off our national stride.
But even at this late hour of our empire, I can bring one unmitigatedly good tiding home from my wanderings. Our domestic appliances—washing machines, ovens, etc.—are way better than Europe's. I have but three words for those flag-torching ingrates who don't know how good we have it in the homeland appliance department: We're No. 1!
Let's start with usability. Most European appliances seem to be designed by engineers with serious communication disorders. Exhibit A is the German-built microwave I owned in London. Let's say you're at home one night in Europe and you'd like to make some popcorn. Put the popcorn in the microwave and turn the microwave on high until it sounds like it's done, right? Ah, but my microwave had no "high" button. No "low" button, either. Instead it offered me a choice of nine precise, oddly-spaced wattages: 150W, 300W, up to 900W.
I suspect most Americans don't know what a watt is—although they might guess it has something to do with the metric system. I doubt many Europeans know, either—although it might be one of those things that their schools teach instead of creationism. But whatever a watt is—and please don't tell me; I really don't want to know—my point is that on movie night, no normal human wants to have to think about how many hundred euro-electric-units they need to make popcorn. At its core, the American dream is about getting what you want, and the American people have made their wishes clear: give us buttons that say "high" or even better, "popcorn"—or give us death.
You could always do as your ancestors did and make popcorn on the stove. But then you'd have to turn the burner on. That's easy in America, where the burners tend to have controls labeled with words such as on (or lite and low, high, etc.). Many European ones have no words at all—just a combination of symbols, letters, and numbers. There's no snappier summary of the cultural divide between Europe and America than the pricey German stove whose burner controls are marked 0, 3, 5, 8, 12, and A.
Ditto for ovens. Rather than words such as bake, broil, clean, European ovens almost always mark their controls with a library of comically obtuse Euroglyphics. Some of these symbols indicate whether the oven's heat comes from below or above and are relatively easy for a chump from the colonies to guess. Others are harder to fathom: the P with swirls around it, the P with somewhat larger swirls, the swirls inside a circle between two horizontal lines, the snowflake (odd for a device that we generally expect to heat its contents), and the weeping asterisk.
And in the seemingly-trivial-but-nevertheless-irritating department, nearly every appliance I encountered in Europe would beep when it finished its cycle to let you know it was done. Then it would keep beeping, until you opened it and turned it off. If I turned on our washing machine or dishwasher before bed or before going out of town, I'd hear it beeping when I woke up or got home. (The mystifying exception was the oven timer, which beeped a few times before going silent, even though repetition might actually have come in handy. Those raised in the cradle of haute cuisine may possess some congenital sixth sense about whether they've left the oven on, but I burnt dinner more times than I can count.)
Then there were numerous quality issues in the appliances I encountered during my decade in Europe. Glasses wouldn't stand up in either of the two dishwashers I owned—they simply fell over, unless I packed them in so that they leaned tightly against each other, which regularly resulted in one or more shattering. (I offer this metaphor freely to critics of European notions of social welfare and urban planning.)
Nor did my combined washer-dryer—with an interior slightly larger than a coffee can—ever seem to accomplish its appointed tasks, despite having a huge panel of wheels, buttons, and switches that could create, literally, hundreds of unique cycles. The washer would remove the evidence of smoke or the gym, but never an actual stain. (If Europeans often appear to eat more carefully than Americans, it's probably because they know that if they spill something they will never, ever manage to hide the evidence.) As for the dryer portion of said device: Italso had a universe of potential settings, but seemingly only one actual function, which was to heat the moisture in the clothes to a scalding temperature but never to remove it. How I longed for a dryer that worked, one with settings like Dry, and—my country, my country—More Dry.
To make sure I hadn't spent a decade in some alternate Euroverse, I did some comparative window-shopping at a few major appliances stores in the United States and the United Kingdom. I found a few exceptions—some beautifully simple models from the Scandinavian company Asko, for example. I also discovered that some European manufacturers modify the labeling on their U.S.-marketed products. But the rule generally holds: European appliances sold in Europe have more complicated controls, fewer actual words, and more and nuttier symbols than American appliances.
Why would Europe, a continent that generally prides itself on the art of living well, choose to debase itselfwhen it comes to home appliances?
One possibility is that Europeans like the cacophony of settings, symbols, and beeping that is their lot. But Holger Brackemann, head of the testing department at StiftungWarentest—think Das Konsumer Reportz—suggests otherwise. Surveys show that most European consumers use only a small portion of the options available and that when machines come in for service, most have the same setting they did when they came out of the box. Nor can he "imagine that consumers like all these symbols." In my very informal poll of friends and family—a few dozen people in Britain, Belgium, and Germany—almost all expressed a preference for the American features I described.
Perhaps, then, Europe's crazy appliances reflect something quite apart from consumer preferences—no surprise on a continent where the customer is only occasionally right. The use of symbols rather than words, for example, is a cheap if irritating solution to the problem of selling appliances in a linguistically diverse market. And the relative ineffectiveness of European appliances is almost certainly a result of much higher environmental standards. (Indeed, my Eurodryer was so useless that like everyone else, I just hung my clothes to dry, which is a pretty clever way of encouraging lower energy use.) Similarly, interminable beeping is a good way to encourage users to switch devices off as soon as possible.
So it's the same old story. Europeans may have essentially the same preferences as Americans when it comes to the building blocks of middle-class comfort, but they're nudged, taxed, or forced to be more energy efficient, less parochial, and more rational by an elite of government regulators, engineers, and climate scientists. This, of course, is exactly what American conservatives and liberals are always noting about Europe, whether in horror or in admiration.
But let's not turn our competitive-appliance-advantage into yet another political fight. Instead, let's gather around one of our fabulously domestic appliances for a moment of tumble-dried national unity. Savor the warmth pouring off its inefficient design, the easy controls, and above all the silence at the end of its cycle: the sweet, sweet sound of unalloyed American triumph.
Click here to view a slide-show essay on American vs. European Domestic Appliances.