Why Are Americans so Cold-Resistant?

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Over on Facebook, Dan asks in a comment:

'Gibt es eine Theorie, warum Amerikaner weniger kälteempfindlich sind? Diese eiskalten klimatisierten Räume überall. Im Sommer nie ohne Schal in die USA reisen. Bei 15°C rennen sie mit T-Shirt rum.'

In English, 'Is there any theory why Americans are less sensitive to cold? These ice-cold air-conditioned rooms everywhere. Even in summer, always take a scarf to the US. They run around in T-shirts when it's 15°C/59°F.'

This is one of the most glaring cultural differences Europeans and Americans immediately notice when they switch continents. Europeans see Americans walking around in the cold seriously underdressed, and marvel at the fact that Americans not only don't seem to care about drafts at all, but actually generate artificial drafts with omnipresent fans and air-conditioners. Americans in Europe watch fellow-passengers in overheated cars and trains sweat into their clothes without complaint, and grimace in horror as the only open window in a stuffy bar or restaurant is shut by a draft-hating German. And many interior spaces in Germany seem over-heated to Americans. As soon as the temperature drops below 20°C or so, Germans switch on the heaters.

Now, the first thing I will say is that I think this cultural gap is narrowing — Germany is moving towards greater acceptance of fans and air-conditioning, just as Germany first ridiculed the puritanical American idea of smoke-free bars and restaurants, then quietly adopted it wholesale. But there is still a formidable divide in how people perceive temperature. I have a few theories about the American attitude:

  1. America is a much hotter country than many Europeans imagine. The American Northeast coast has colder winters than Europe, but hotter summers. Most of the country, though, including the south and midwest, get extremely hot and humid in summer. Every state in America gets more sun each year than Germany, with the sole exception of arctic Alaska. I'd say it's basic human nature to appreciate a drastic change from temperatures that are uncomforable to most humans. And most humans feel comforable between 22 and 25 degrees Celsius. So when it's 10 degrees outside, as if often is in Germany, Germans will breathe a sigh of relief in entering a room (over)heated to 27 degrees. And if it's 32° outside, Americans will breathe a sigh of relief entering a room (over)chilled down to a comfy 19°.
  2. This also explains the prevalence of air-conditioners. But there are other factors at work here. First of all, America in the 1950s and 1960s was wealthier than war-ravaged Europe, so business and private people could afford air-conditioners. This led to a general cultural norm that most interiors would be air-conditioned. Energy costs in the U.S. were low in the 1950s and 1960s, so nobody was really that concerned about how much juice air-conditioning used. Air-conditioning also drastically improved office productivity during hot months, adding an economic argument to adopting AC. Spaniards take a siesta because it's impossible to work effectively when it's really hot inside, and they're abolishing the siesta because it's a drag on productivity. But if they really want to boost productivity, they will have to install air-conditioning, not just expect people to work when it's 35° inside and sweat is streaming down their forehead. Air-conditioning would also have reduced the death toll of 15,000 French people during the heat wave of 2003. It should surprise no-one that air-conditioners are increasingly popular in Germany (g).
  3. Americans are fat. 31.8 percent of Americans are obese, making them the 2nd-fattest nation on earth, behind Mexico but just above Syria. If you know that 1/3 of the people entering your store or restaurant are going be fat, you'll adjust the temperature accordingly to keep them happy, keep them inside, and keep them spending money. Thin people can always put on a sweater, but there's only so much clothing fat people can remove before the police have to intervene.
  4. European culture has a tradition of folk-wisdom that drafts are bad for your health. No 19th-century novel would be complete without a character blaming a draft for anything from a headache to evil nightmares to consumption. And in Germany, this belief still exists. As the German-language wikipedia article on drafts notes, there is still 'a widespread superstition in German-speaking countries that drafts can cause illnesses'. This belief is not unknown in the U.S., but it never became as widespread as in Europe.
  5. Americans do not like to sweat during nomal daily activities and are extremely concerned, if not obsessed, about personal hygiene. They spend enormous amounts of money and go to great lengths to ensure that their bodies do not emit unpleasant odors, and anyone who fails to do this will be ostracized as surely as a German crossing the street against a red light. Once again, this is a cultural norm that Germany has, in the last 20 years or so, quietly adopted. Sales of chewing gum, routinely mocked by intellectuals as mindless cud for bovine Yankees, increased by 600% in Germany between 1972 and 2012. Deodorant use in Germany skyrocketed in the 1980s and has increased notably even in the period 2010-2013, which has made train travel much more pleasant for all concerned. If you place a premium on smelling good (or at least not stinking), that means you place a premium on not sweating, which means the cooler the temperature, the better.
  6. And finally, perhaps population genetics may play a role. The majority of Americans are still white, and immigrated predominantly from Northern European countries. Although all humans can adapt to all climates, studies have shown that Europeans who relocate to hot places sweat more than indigenous people there.

Those are my theories. Feel free to dispute them or add your own in comments.

4 thoughts on “Why Are Americans so Cold-Resistant?

  1. Good analysis. I’m not sure about number 3 though. By that token, there should be tons more air conditioning in east Germany, since residents there are statistically fatter than their western counterparts. I don’t find this to be the case though. I suppose the fear of drafts overrides that.

    I’m always amazed to see Germans walking around in 22C Indian summer weather as it is now wearing heavy boots, coats, scarves and hats. People in Seattle would be busting out the shorts and tanktops.

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  2. @Pascal: Fixed the link, thanks.

    @Tom of Finland: Something I didn’t mention, but also makes a difference is that almost no buildings in Germany have central AC systems, and German buildings cannot accept window air-conditoners. American windows move up and down allowing you to stick a window unit in there easily. German windows either open all the way on a side hinge, or can be tilted about 10° — these are the famous ‘Wasistdas’ German windows, Kippfenster in the mother tongue. They don’t go up and down.

    Thus, no window units. If you want to air condition a room, your unit will be a big block on wheels with a large exhaust tube you stick out the window slit. Ugly and inconvenient. Also, East Germans, until recently, were still a lot poorer than their West German counterparts, and air-conditioning units are expensive here. If you actually want to install a permanent A/C unit with an external compressor, that will cost you at least €1000 plus installation costs to break a hole in the wall. Even the block-on-wheels-with-tube units cost more than €200. Considering it’s only hot in Germany about 30 days out of the year, most people on a budget ain’t gonna pay for that.

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  3. Tom of Finland has been in DE for about 20 years now and recently built a house there, so he knows how windows work 😉 That’s a good point about the window construction. I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree about the aesthetics of a hole in the window and a mobile unit that can be conveniently wheeled out of sight for 10 months out of the year versus a big thing hanging in the window.

    Another factor occurred to me: cheapass American housing construction. I’ve never seen a building made of nothing but wood and drywall in Germany. That may explain why they need to keep the cold air blasting constantly in the US, otherwise it heats up quickly. This is not necessarily a rave about German buildings however. Brick and concrete construction is better insulating in my experience but I’m not a fan of the controlled ventilation that is trendy at the moment in DE.

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