I read a study last week about eating habits and obesity in different cultures. One of the things the researchers found was that the French tend to take cues from internal signals to stop eating - feeling satisfied, not feeling hungry. And Americans are more focused on external signals - the plate is empty, the television program is over.
But the thing is, I think it's actually true in general too. I've always had the impression that the rules the French follow are not the external ones. Walk down the street here and you'll see evidence of that all over the place. People park where they want, drive how they want, refuse to conform to something as repressive as 'standing in line' and much more - there is a general tendency to grappiller et gruger. But still, this society is ruled by an internal iron fist. It's very hierarchical, full of unspoken (mais ça ne se fait pas!) rules that govern behavior, social mobility and economics.
As Americans, we are very good at following the external rules - we stand in line, pay for parking, and generally feel guilty if we cheat or break the rules. But on the inside? There is certainly no transgenerational iron fist. There is little there guiding us - which leads to an overdependance on external rules. I believe it's also why we can be so ridiculously ostentatious. It's not enough to recycle, everyone has to know we recycle.
Europeans often ask me why Americans will go over the top, crazy militant for a relatively small issue (think cigar) and then completely let the huge issues slide (think GWB and the past 7 years). I think we focus on the small problems that are easily identifiable as breaking one of those external rules because when it comes to the big stuff, we wouldn't even know where to start.