I hope I can get out the thought that's bouncing in my head without sounding too strange or overly stereotypical or ignorant. I apologize for the latter two. (The first I can't help).
I can speak only for my experience, as an American and a person whose knowledge of Buddhist America comes from message boards (tah dah) and some amount of retreat practice, but really message boards.
It seems that Lay people, espeically theravada lay people, are still trying to figure out exactly what being a lay practitioner entails. I am going to try to make this clearer by some examples of how I see lay practitioners here vs. my understanding of lay practitioners in an imaginary example that we will call Thailand
I'm thinking mostly theravada. I am not qualifying these characteristics as good or bad.
Non-Buddhist Country Laypeople
Not raised Buddhist
large amounts of Judeo Christian Baggage
not much access to monasteries, monks
not typically superstitious, not devotional, suspicious of "religion"
slow, hesitant, or unwilling to accept the notion of rebirth
intellectual Buddhism - highly questioning
very literal and technical reading of suttas
influenced by multiple schools of Buddhism and often new age notions- picking and choosing
entry point into Buddhism is usually meditation
somewhat frantic pursuit of meditation and attainment goals
Goal: full enlightenment or bust
Common questions: Should I ordain or not? Should I be celibate? Should I stop eating candy/listening to music/going out to clubs/watching TV/eating meat? Is getting married going to totally screw up my practice even if I do not plan on ordaining anyway? (pseudo monasticism)
Buddhist Country Laypeople
Buddhist upbringing taken for granted
More "merit" based understanding - good kamma bad kamma
Access to monasteries and monks a given
more prone to ritualistic ideas in Buddhism
notion of rebirth not a big deal
Single School of Buddhism based on region
More relaxed attitude towards practice
meditation not a given
goal: Better rebirth? Awakening at some point.
I guess I've been thinking about this since I got married. It may appear I've typified the second group as lax, and in some cases this may be true, but I also have met some of these imaginary people and I have always appreciated their more down to earth and fairly healthy attitude. The reason I say we can learn from this is that I see a lot of Theravada laypeople just beating themselves up over practice and going to a lot of extremes, which I'm not sure is helpful.
Of course, our intense curiosity to find out just what the Buddha is getting at (our literal and questioning attitude) is probably a good thing, yet at the same time it can lead to a lot of frantic questioning and overly technical discussions. (Which I am super guilty of).
It's possible also that I am talking about Americans and that other countries are not having the same complications. The American attitude of "Consume/master/conquer" shows up in our Buddhist practice pretty quickly.
Hope I didn't come off sounding too like a fool, but I'm interested in any comments.