I don’t know if it is because I travelled more in Europe than any other continents, but I usually expect not to find so many cultural differences in other countries, other than maybe the architecture, language or food. I kind of always assume people have the same perspective no matter the place or that your normal is their normal too. Of course, this is a highly unrealistic expectation, as so many continents hosting so many countries that share such different history will always have different kinds of normal.
When me and Victor have decided to visit the United States of America, as Eastern Europeans, we knew we will probably meet some differences, mostly from what our travelling friends have told us. Always starting with the complicated interview at the airport customs as soon as you land there and ending with the fact that you should not eat much if you want to keep the same weight. The popular places from the movies are, nevertheless, present in the stories you hear and also the friendliness of the people that you really don’t believe it to be true, because who’s really that excited anyway? (laughing emoji).
Here we are, 5 weeks after a trip on the whole East Coast of the USA and back on European soil, that we can say even though they might seem alike, the cultural differences between these two parts of the world are really noticeable. And it’s usually the little things that make you feel you are in country quite different than your own. I remember that in the first two weeks, I was still discovering things that seemed unusual or confusing and that no story from my friends covered. From New York where everyone’s life is on a higher level of speed (you can read about what we think of it here) to the Southern part of the country (like Charleston, or Miami), many of the differences kept coming up. And I thought if I would put together a list with all of these things, they might come in handy for someone else that will go in the USA for the first time.
So here is a list of things that me and Victor think can confuse an European travelling into USA:
1. VAT Taxes
I can honestly say this was the biggest cultural shock we had in the USA. And it actually started before getting there, during the planning of our trip. While all the prices for hotels in Europe (or in any other country thereof) is shown in full, in USA you would see the prices before tax. This meaning that depending on the state you go, an additional tax up to 10% might be added to your invoice. This applies to everything, from restaurants or supermarkets to shopping stores or museum entries.
2. Bigger Tips
While in Europe the tip at restaurants is optional depending on how good the service is, in USA the tip is mandatory and it starts with 15% of the bill value. If you leave 15% that means the service was bad, 18% means it was average and 20% that it was very good. As some restaurants let you choose the percentage of the tip you want to leave, some make this decision for you and put it on the check as their minimum allowed tip (and yes, they can charge 20% as the minimum). So, our tip (pun intended) would be to always expect the amount you have to pay to be with at least 25% higher than what the menu says (taxes + tip).
3. Cards don’t require pin numbers at payment
Paying with a card, either is a debit or credit, is a lot much easier than carrying cash with you and I think a lot of people agree with me. And most of the countries in Europe own cards with a chip, requiring a pin number from the customer when a payment is made. Is just like a a signature given by the buyer saying he agrees with the purchase. In USA, the things are a little different, because you aren’t required to enter your pin number. At restaurants, after you got your check, the waiter just takes your card away and brings it back already having done the payment. You can sign the payment receipt afterwards, of course, but I could basically use whose ever card I want, because no ID is requested to confirm is your card. As an Eastern European, call me paranoid, but this calls for sketchy things done with stolen credit cards 😀
4. Too much fast-food
We kind of knew from the movies or travel articles that fast food restaurants are everywhere in the USA, but we didn’t know the extent of it. Everywhere you look there is one, starting from Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, Chic-fil-A to the old school McDonalds. So far so good, they don’t really bother you if you are not a fan of fast food. The difficult thing is you could hardly find a place to eat that doesn’t serve the food in a fast pace. During our stay in New York, we were starving for something that is more healthy to eat or that at least resembles food in Europe and when we found restaurants like these, they were really expensive.
5. Very big portions
Oh, I can’t even describe the size of the food portions. Let’s say that a person who in Europe would eat above average, in USA would satisfy his appetite with just an appetiser. In some places, me and Victor would order just an appetiser for both of us and no entree. And the Southern you go, the bigger the plates are. And it wasn’t quite clear to us if people actually eat that much or they just have greater expectations from their appetite.
6. Food too salty, too sweet
I can only comment for food in the restaurants, but salt was never just enough. And I think Americans have a thing for salt, as their famous pretzels are also covered in salt. Or maybe we just have been unlucky with this, who knows. But after the time we spent in different states on the East Coast, we remained with this impression. Oh, and the sugar! Every thing is a little sweet, if not too sweet. Both in restaurants and supermarkets. Plain simple yogurt, without fruits? Not a chance! Bread? Yes, the majority of the brands contained sugar. Drinks? Double the sugar you can find in Europe. Water? More brands with sweet tastes than plain old school water, containing just H2O. You don’t notice it at first, but when you start craving savoury things and cannot find too many, then you know.
7. Free drink refills
I actually really liked this part. In restaurants, tap water is free and you can have as much as you want. Also as much as you want? Any other non alcoholic drink you pay just once. In Europe, if you are too thirsty, you end up paying more on drinks than the food, while in USA you never leave a place thirsty and with empty pockets.
8. Ice Ice baby
Beware for your throat, as the amount of ice you will get in the USA, if not used to it, for sure you will catch a cold. Every glass of any drink you have is full of ice from the start, ending up having a bigger quantity of frozen water in you glass than the actual drink you wanted. After a few weeks, we just learnt to mention when we order something to have no or less ice.
9. At restaurants they make you finish fast
For Europeans, especially the Western side of the continent, going out to eat is like a celebratory thing, where you go to relax, maybe have a glass of wine and enjoy yourself as long as you want. Nobody gives you any sign you need to free the table or to hurry your eating. In the USA, you are never supposed to relax at your table too much. Eat and go! Maximum an hour, even if the restaurant is empty. You get the check even before you ask for it. If you don’t show any sign of leaving immediately after you finish eating, the waiters keep coming at you asking uncomfortable questions until you eventually leave.
10. Distances measured in miles
No more kilometres measurements to calculate the distances on the road. 1 mile = 1.6 km, so keep this in mind when you want to approximate the distance/time to your destination.
11. Signalling light on the cars is red
In Europe, the lights on a car for signalling the direction where you are going is yellow, while in USA is red. Not such a big deal, but for a short period of time you can get confused in traffic, as your eyes are used to see a yellow light when the car in front of you wants to change direction.
12. Driving chaotic on the highway
Oh, my! Driving on a highway has never felt frustrating until the USA. To paint the right picture on how the driving happens on a highway in Europe: the slowest cars drive on the far right lane, change lanes only to overtake another car and come back to the right lane when the other car is left behind. This way, no matter how fast you drive, you are never blocked and the traffic goes smoothly. In some countries, like Germany, if you do not respect this you can even get a fine or get banned from driving there. How the traffic is on a highway in the USA? Everyone drives on whichever lane they want, no matter the speed. Everything is kind of chaotic and you get blocked regularly, because of cars going with the same speed that occupy all the lanes (like driving in a straight line with no one overtaking anyone). Better or not? I really want to hear opinions 🙂
13. 4-way stop
At first I thought this rule is not that good, but after 4 weeks driving in the USA it actually makes sense. How does it work? One crossroad can have all the 4 ways with a stop sign. While in Europe the lane in your right has a priority, in USA whoever is first in the intersection goes on. In my mind this would create chaos, but it’s actually more organised and the traffic did not get blocked once during our time there.
14. Turn right on red light
You can turn right every time, even on red light, unless there is a sign it says differently (like “No right turn on red light”). So, next time you are in the USA, don’t wait for the green light to turn right, you might be blocking the traffic.
15. You can do every thing from your car
Americans do a lot of things from their cars. Apart from the usual things that even European do in traffic, in the USA everything has a drive-in, even pharmacies. But what surprised me the most, I think, is the drive-in ATMs.
Electric power in the USA is different from the one in Europe in relation to the sockets and the voltage. While regarding the sockets there is an easy solution, like an adaptor, with the voltage there is another story. Through all the states, the power is set at 110 Volts and 60 cycles. In the language every person can understand, this means too low for any European electric tool. So to be able to use an appliance there, you would need also a voltage convertor. The problem? It might occupy just too much space in your luggage. While a step down voltage convertor (220 -> 110 volts) is in the size range of a socket adaptor, a step up one (which is what you need if you have European devices) is quite big for just a travelling gadget. At the end of the day, you might just leave behind the hair straightener (I’m sorry, girls!).
17. Internet not good, might need to pay
Being a Romanian, from the country with the fastest Internet on the planet, meeting with the USA internet was not a good encounter. While other European countries have an above average internet, there we often found ourselves unable to work with the available speed. Sometimes, that speed was not even free and hotels would charge up to 10 dollars per day for using it. Luckily we had our hotspot device with us for internet use. The downside of this? 10 GB of internet on a sim card for the hotspot cost 100 dollars and for 5 working weeks we needed approximately 30 GB.
18. Hotspot device might not work
We already had a hotspot that we bought from Europe in this trip, but the surprise was it is useless there. The wireless providers have a totally different infrastructure so the device wasn’t able to recognise the local network. This was applicable to all the providers in the country as we paid them all a visit. In the end, we bought a new hotspot device and that was it. So, if you plan to use such a tool when you go to USA, wait to buy one from there 🙂
19. Measurements for almost everything
I already mentioned about the distance measurement in the section about driving, but I feel this is worth mentioning as a whole talking point.There are a lot of differences, about which you can read here, but I’ll point out just the ones that stood out for us:
- distances: European metres become miles (1 mile = 1.608 km)
- solid weight: European grams become pounds (1 pound = 453,592 g)
- liquid volume: European litres become ounces (1 ounce = 29,573 ml)
- temperature: European Celsius becomes Fahrenheit (number of degrees Fahrenheit = 9/5 * (number of degrees Celsius) + 32)
20. Cold inside everywhere
Imagine being a rather cold day, weather wise. Now imagine stepping in a store, hotel room, supermarket, any other public room and having with 5-10 degrees (Celsius that is, I can even get around the calculation for Fahrenheit) less the temperature from outside. That’s basically how they use the air conditioner. Even on summer times you feel the need to have a jacket with you inside. And from what the locals say, they don’t like it either as it makes them carry warm clothes with them at work every day. Why do they want for every inside area to have a maximum of 16 degrees Celsius, we still don’t understand.
21. Pedestrians don’t wait on red light
Oh, my! Nobody waits on red light! Even cars on the street are used to this, as they always wait for the pedestrians to cross the street, even if they have a green light. You can see this behaviour in other European countries, like United Kingdom, but trust me, they don’t even get close with how the Americans are. Funny story: me and Victor were waiting for the pedestrian green light to cross the street and one lady screamed (like literally screamed) at us “why are you waiting? you are blocking other people!”. Like actually crossing the street on the red light is the rule.
22. IDs requested at the bar, even if older and even if you don’t drink alcohol
When in the USA, make sure you always have an ID with you if you plan to visit a bar. Even if you plan to drink just a soda. They will always request for your ID to make sure you are over 21 years old. Funny thing? They ask for IDs for older people also, even if they clearly seem over 50 years old.
23. Commercials on TV make you paranoid
One of the lessons we learnt in the USA? Don’t watch TV. The commercials are insane (and I’m not even joking). Once every 20 minutes you would see a series of ads telling you to use one product or another where they would always mention some bad side effects. And I will just mention a few exactly how they describe them: rash product – “several people reported lymphoma cancer from using this”, sleeping pills – “a good amount of people reported depression and suicidal thoughts from using this product”, some contraceptive – “in some situations can be lethal”. What? WHAT? If I get rid of a rash I can actually get cancer from it? Or if I don’t want to get pregnant I can die? I can understand why many of the Americans are paranoid about different health stuff, as after just one week we also became paranoid about using any local product. On one hand is good they tell you the bad effects out loud, not to be a surprise, but on the other hand why would you make a product that can actually do more bad than good?
24. Friendly people
This was my favourite part of being in the USA: the friendliness of the people. European people, especially the Eastern side, are not really open in creating connections with people they don’t know or if they do, the conversation are always on the surface. On the other hand, people in America are so excited when they talk to you that is contagious. It actually made me and Victor think we should be more like them because it’s kind of inspiring. To paint the picture:
- People actually stop you in the street to compliment you. During our 5 week stay I counted 11 people that complimented me on my hair, outfit, shoes. When this happens to you, the mood is instantly boosted and it makes you want to pay it forward.
- When you meet someone new, they are always excited to get to know you and genuinely showing interest in you person. In just a span of 10 minutes, they ask you about your life so much that you start thinking they already know more about you than half of the people you know. And as an European, you start to feel bad you don’t share the same curiosity to ask them the same thing.
- They don’t judge you. No matter what you share with them you get answers like “oh, that’s so cool”, “I’m so happy for you”, “that’s awesome”, “tell me more, sounds wonderful”. When people show you that kind of excitement, you don’t actually care if it is genuine of not, you feel on top of the moon just like that.
I think we can honestly say this kind of interaction with the American people was life changing for us. It changed our perspective on human interaction and also on the way we usually think as Europeans. Small things and showing more positivity towards others can improve both yours and the other persons day. So, European person, be more kind, more open, more sociable and more excited about human interaction! For sure, it will improve you life.
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