Travel opens the mind, it’s true. Nothing is a better learning experience than leaving everything you have ever known and diving headfirst into a new and exciting culture.
That being said, expecting everywhere to be like home is a one way trip to experiencing heavy culture shock. From the obvious things like language and food, to the less obvious things like social norms and the proper speaking volume, we have wandered the world (wide web) in search of some of the most shocking culture shock moments.
Keep these in mind the next time you are abroad unless you like having the local laugh at your pain.
65. Stranger danger
64. Talking at American volume
63. Agreeing to disagree
62. Old-fashioned chivalry
61. Don’t judge Americans too harshly…
60. Smoke ’em if you got ’em
59. A vacation or a commute?
58. Put on a happy face
Traveling overseas, you realize how insanely optimistic Americans are in general.
57. Time is relative
Here in America, people are extremely punctual, especially in business situations. Let’s say you have a business meeting at 2:30 PM — you’re expected to be there on the dot or maybe even five to ten minutes early.
If it’s a more casual situation, you’re expected to be no more than 10-15 minutes late. If you’re someone who shows up (even 10-15 minutes) late your friends will call you rude behind your back and you’ll get a bad rep.
Generally speaking, Americans like to segment out their time and are quite fast-paced. Not sure why but it’s part of our culture.
56. Roasted by a French waiter
To be clear, they actually mean to improve your life by saying “vous mangez mal” – you are eating badly. Don’t take it personally. For example, if you order a seafood appetizer and a bare entrée of more fish, you’re apt to hear this. The French think variety and completeness of meals are really important for your restaurant experience.
55. Who’s got that shame?
Being super competitive.
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53. Keeping cool
52. (Not) under pressure
Holy crap, yes. My husband and I barely had time to sleep let alone shower after our wedding. We spent 24 hours in airports and planes on the way to Malta. We were absolutely foul by the time we got there. We could not wait to finally get clean.
Let me tell you how unsatisfied we were when we realized the shower head was barely better than someone spitting on us from across the room.
51. The glued-on smile
50. When did you last get laid?
49. Nobody hates Americans more than Americans
On the other hand, we’re like siblings. Only we’re allowed to beat each other up.
I wish non-Americans understood. That redneck and I might want to knock each other’s teeth out back home, but if we happen to be in the same location outside the US and you’re messing with him, if I know he’s a fellow American, I’m his new best friend.
48. Please don’t actually tell me how you’re doing
47. Bring on the fructose
46. Why does your sink eat your hands?
45. Party in the streets
44. Pay to pee
It absolutely blew my mind when I was in a train station in Paris and had to pee like a racehorse and there was a freaking gate/turnstile in front of the bathroom I needed to put some Euros in to get in. They even had an attendant standing by it.
Once I got in, it was just as standardly gross as any other public toilet. If I’m going to pay the least they could do is make it fancy and nice.
43. Germ fountains
The one exception that comes to mind is Rome. There are public water fountains everywhere along the side of the street (not the big fountains in squares and stuff, they look like a pretty normal water pump). They’re all completely drinkable.
42. Dress to impress
41. Talk to yourself
40. It’s extra funny if you know Australian slang
When I went to Australia I found out very quickly that no one down there “roots” for a team – they “go for” a team. So when I said I root for the Red Sox I got a lot of weird looks. Especially since the word “root” means to have sex with something in Aussie slang.
39. England truly is a magical land
I moved to England from Texas about six years ago. One of the major things that I noticed was that smiling and being friendly towards strangers was considered bizarre. This is a bit true in any metropolitan area, but especially in the UK. In Texas I was used to smiling at people, asking for directions if I needed them, and being friendly towards strangers. I learned very quickly that smiling at someone on the tube or asking someone for directions on the street immediately makes someone think you’re trying to scam/rob them or you’re crazy.
38. What do you mean I pay the price on the tag? Don’t I pay that plus some random amount extra? That’s how we do it back home
The prices abroad don’t add tax after the fact. You pay what the price shows. No need to figure the tax. Dumb that we do that here.
37. Don’t even get me started on the bikers
I did an art history course in Italy. What really stood out to me was the size of cars over there. Over here you have a mix of mid-sized sedans and pick up trucks/SUVs, with the occasional compact car (back when I went compact cars here were incredibly scarce).
Over there, it seemed like most everyone drove a compact car, with the occasional sports car. I remember counting six pickup trucks in the 10 days I was there (for comparison, I can name more than 6 people I know with a pick up here).
36. We have to yell to be heard over all the fireworks, gunshots, and eagles screaming
The stereotype about us being loud is true. I never thought of myself as being loud until I went abroad and would hang up the phone after speaking in what I thought was appropriate volume to find everyone around me was staring at me, and realized how much more quiet they were lol whoops
35. Imagine ordering for one in America and being asked: “Is this a to go order?”
My dad and his friend were visiting Vietnam some years ago and they went to a restaurant and ordered what they thought was a normal amount of food. Shortly into the meal, they noticed that all the restaurant staff were clustered at the kitchen door staring at them. They had never seen anyone order so much for two.
34. If every building had those cool Star Trek doors this wouldn’t be a problem
I worked in a job where we opened up a manufacturing plant in Juarez, Mexico. It’s not that far from the border, but I was surprised how the cultures shifted so differently from the US side to the Mexico side. I’m a female and I had worked with mostly males in Mexico. They were so very kind and polite and was a great experience. But I’ll never forget the time I tried to hold the door open for the men, they were not ok with it. They made me go through the door first.
Later they explained because they knew me and knew that my intentions were not ill-willed. They said that for me, as a female, to hold the door for a male was a huge no-no, which is why they refused to go through the door.
33. There’s a reason it’s called “The Great American Road Trip”
Road trips, at least just jumping in the car and driving a few hours without giving it much thought. I live in a large western state and it seems at least every other weekend my family and I were in the car traveling for a few hours to see some site, go into Mexico or another state.
I have relatives in Switzerland and they were going to drive us to the Frankfurt airport and I was blown away how big of a deal it was to them. My uncle had the car inspected, shopped around for gas, and printed off travel and weather reports. All for a trip my dad would have said: “Hey let’s do this this weekend, in the car kids!”
32. Just wait until we invite them to a block party
Measuring walking/driving distance in blocks.
It’s the unit of measure I use most frequently when giving directions – the restaurant is 3 blocks away, go south one block and then two blocks west, I live six blocks from the grocery store…
It wasn’t until I studied abroad in England and got a completely blank look when I asked someone how many blocks away the library was that I realized using “block” as a measurement only makes sense in cities that were largely pre-planned and built on a grid system. AKA: not many places outside the US.
31. Boris, you must come over and see my sink drain, it is AMAZING
My Dad had had occasion to do some work in the Soviet Union in the 1960s — he was an engineer on particle physics experiments — and so came to know a few of those guys.
Well, right after the Soviet Union fell, one of the scientists he knew came for a visit and he and his wife were simply astonished by the idea of a garbage disposal. They just stopped what they were doing when my folks did some washing up. They took him to Sears to buy one to bring home, presumably what became the first disposal in Dubna, Russia!
30. We can’t be the only ones that do this, right?
Being “friendly” to an extent. I checked in at a hostel and walked into the lounge area where people from all over the world were just chilling. I kinda introduced myself to the whole room, and someone goes, “You’re from the states, yeah?” And I’m like, “Yeah how’d you know?” They said, “Only an American will walk into a room of strangers and introduce themselves to everybody.”
It was said in good spirits and was not confrontational at all. After the room had a laugh, I sat down and we all shared our travel stories. I still keep in touch with a lot of the people I met in that room.
29. Avacado envy
Went to Puerto Rico. Was like: “Yo I’ll have like 6 of those stuffed avocados.”
Buddy was like, “Yo gringo, I think you underestimate the size of our avocados here. Just have one and I’ll bring you more if you want after.”
I had half of one. It was like a football.
28. This is a travesty
S’mores. I was in New Zealand having a bonfire on the beach and someone went and grabbed a bag of marshmallows and then everyone just ate them??! By themselves?! And someone from Sweden asked me if s’mores were a real thing or only on tv. I was flabbergasted.
This all could be due in part to the fact other places don’t tend to have graham crackers.
27. If you expected people in Europe to work like they do in the US with as little protection, you’d see a strike in the same minute
Work defining you completely. Sure everyone complains about too many hours, not enough pay, but then all they talk about is work. Recently moved to Germany, work is highly compartmentalized by people here, they don’t talk about it much when not at work.
Also, reasonable working hours are a thing here: as a new hire I got 38 hr/week, 30 days vacation annually, and that’s only a little over the government required amount.
26. Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it
Going out to a restaurant.
In America, you are seated ASAP, and then they bring you drinks, appetizers, entree, dessert and then check as quick as they possibly can (if it’s good service) for a total time of 45 minutes to an hour and a half-ish. Staying past this time is seen as a bit rude.
In Europe, going out to eat seemed to be more of an event that you slowly enjoyed for a longer period of time. First, they bring you drinks and an appetizer for the first hour. Then the second hour is the entree and dessert. Then it’s more drinks for another half hour or so.
I don’t know if it’s because we were American but it seemed like the wait staff everywhere we went was annoyed that we were rushing them when we just thought it was bad service and didn’t understand the routine.
25. Keep away from dat personal space
Huge amounts of personal space. I know everywhere has the concept of a “Personal Bubble” but for Americans, it’s more like a “Personal Iron Curtain.”
Now I can’t unsee the lengths that Americans will go to, to be far away from other people. Next time you get on an elevator or a Metro in America look at how perfectly spaced out everyone is standing to maximize the distance to other people.
24. Americans are world-renowned burger experts
Eating a burger and fries with your hands. I just assumed everyone did this. I went to Sweden with my boyfriend and we stopped at a burger joint. Small local place. When the chef heard we were American he immediately wanted us to try a specialty burger he made and tell him what we thought about it. They were all excited when we picked it up with our hands and we realized everyone else in the place was using a fork and knife. The burger was 11/10.
23. Can’t have an electrical fire if there’s no electricity, though
More common in UK but not having electrical outlets in restrooms/bathrooms. Like how do you hair blow dry your hair and clean your hands from the hair products you just used? Do it in the bedroom on the ground or a dresser that you have to buy a mirror for when there’s a perfectly good mirror in the bathroom and a sink?
My British colleagues say watching American movies seeing scenes of hair blow dryers in the restroom is so foreign to them. Also in the UK having independent switches on every outlet.
22. Gotta love the 1950’s Americana stuff
It hadn’t occurred to me until I was watching some Australian television that people view old-timey American culture like we view old-timey British top hat culture. And people view places like LA like we view places like London.
It’s hard to explain but the show I was watching had a couple that made their entire home/hotel into an old-style American diner with bright red and pinball machines.
Another team had their house with an LA “theme” which I still don’t understand but it just hadn’t occurred to me that a vacation to a place like LA for someone in Australia is as exotic for me as a trip to Australia. Or having a house looking like the inside of a Johnny Rockets is as insanely fascinating to them as a house looking like an Australian bungalow with koalas is to me.
21. The classic PB&J, a staple of elementary sack lunches around the country
I lived in Spain for a few months with some Polish roommates. I managed to find some good imported American peanut butter (literally covered in dust on the bottom shelf of a store) and made a PBJ; the two roommates were so disgusted by it that they were nearly in tears in horror when I tried to get them to try it.
20. Why do you talk funny
In the US, I have a “standard” American accent — similar to how newscasters or other TV people speak. It’s pretty nondescript.
When I lived in France, I obviously had an American accent when I spoke French that people picked up on in about 2 seconds pretty much anywhere in France that I traveled. My French friends would make fun of me (with love) and call me “petite américaine”, and other people I met in my travels were actually quite kind (especially so outside of Paris) and had a LOT of questions for me about the US (this was back in the early ’90s, so I’m not sure if things have changed since then).
19. So will the assault rifle
Hiding my drink in my jacket when walking in public.
I went out with a bunch of people from my hostel, and every time we crossed a street, I instinctually hid my drink in my jacket.
My German friends made fun of me saying, “you Americans can legally carry around an assault rifle in public, but not an open drink??”
Blew my mind right there.
18. I’m not going to dress up unless you pay me, and even then, I’m not gonna be happy about it
This is gonna sound a little weird maybe, but… lazy clothes. Americans sort of have a ‘uniform’, for lack of a better word, and nine times out of ten I can pinpoint the American in a crowd because of it. T-shirt (hoodie if it’s cold), cargo shorts (or leggings-as-pants if female), tennis shoes.
Now I’m not gonna say Japan doesn’t do casual because they definitely do, but I guess it’s more like, casual is a fashion and they make it look good while they’re outside, whereas the American look is just comfort above all else.
17. Wait, so they make you pay for water, and make fun of you for carrying a water bottle? What gives, rest of the world?
Apparently, it’s weird to carry around a reusable, non-plastic water bottle outside the US. When I studied in South America, the big joke at the university was “you can always tell who the Americans are by their water bottles.” I’m talking Nalgene, Swell, etc with stickers on it. I was embarrassed by this, but not enough to not stay hydrated.
16. Every American AT BIRTH is given a flag, and our first word is always “Freedom”
I emigrated to Australia 10 years ago.
We talk very loudly. I notice other Americans instantly because of this, especially on public transport. We sound very aggressive, too. We tend to be a lot more friendly, though, but the volume and how fast we talk sounds aggressive to others
We are less afraid of going up to strangers and just start talking, ESPECIALLY in bars/pubs. Don’t expect to get a lot of that overseas.
I’ve been told by others that it’s very easy to spot an American because they always wear sneakers or basketball shoes with jeans, which is basically my uniform so they’re probably right
Absolutely no one here installs flags in front of their house or goes around waving them at sporting events (unless it’s the Olympics or an international sporting event) like Americans do. We love our flags for some reason.
Hardly anyone here knows their national anthem, and other various immigrants I’ve talked to are the same, yet we know our anthem backwards and forwards, AND the pledge of allegiance. And other countries don’t sing it before every sporting event. We are weird.
We tend to complain more. This one I’ve yet to personally experience but others tell me this
15. Wetherspoons is the cornerstone of the UK
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in Scotland recently, and I have to say that the biggest moment of culture-shock happened in a surprisingly mundane location— the grocery store.
See, in the United States, you get used to having a lot of selection; too much selection, as some might say. There are a half-dozen different brands of instant rice, eighteen varieties of cream cheese, entire aisles dedicated to different flavors of chips, and produce selections that take up a decent third of any given shop. The only times when a product is out of stock are either the day before Thanksgiving or the day before the Celebration of the Superb Owl… and even then, you can usually find a knockoff version of whatever you were hoping to purchase.
As an aside, if you’ve never had knockoff Pop-Tarts, you have yet to experience the pure essence of “Meh.”
Anyway, in Scotland – and I’ve been led to believe that the rest of the United Kingdom is similar in this regard – the selection is considerably more limited. Sure, there’s still a decent chance that you’ll find the majority of the entries on your list, but only if the shelves had been recently restocked. About the only thing that has more than three versions available is canned haggis… and I have to be honest, I genuinely thought that the popularity of that particular item was a joke made by Americans.
While we’re on the subject of garbage (and that is a joke made by Americans), trash receptacles are few and far between in The Land of the Lochs. In San Francisco, you can find one on literally every street corner. In Edinburgh, you have to “queue” for a “fortnight” in order to get close to a “bin,” which may or may not end up being a surprisingly small “Wetherspoon.” (That’s like an Applebee’s which has somehow thrown up on itself.)
I could go on, as there are dozens of more things which I haven’t mentioned.
Really, though, I was just surprised by the fact that Scottish grocery stores are so… well, Scottish.
14. You could fit almost 17 Switzerlands in one Texas
Some Swiss friends of my grandfather were planning a trip around the US and one day was reserved for Texas. They were planning on dropping by Austin, San Antonio and then over to Houston for lunch. Then getting dinner in Dallas/Fort Worth and driving out of state that night.
He had to tell them that Austin is an hour and a half from San Antonio and about 4 hours from Dallas. Then it’s another few hours to Houston.
13. That’s not how tea works, I think this guy got scammed
I always tell people this story about the difference between America and Japan (or most Asian countries from what I hear)
We were in Tokyo on our last day, exploring the Ueno market. We decided to grab some Green Tea for the trip home. Eventually found a shop, one bag left maybe the size of a brick.
Being American I figure this is just like Costco or something, I’ll buy this thing that was made in some factory somewhere far away and processed and sterilized and inspected and distributed and bought and sold 3 times before I touch it.
The guy stops us, and says something along the lines of “oh no we have fresh stuff in the back,” we go into the back, and here a small pickup truck just pulled off the mountain. The family is unloading the plants from the truck, picking off the leaves, and putting them into the bags.
This stunned me, like speechless, and it completely befuddled my girlfriend why anyone would think that was weird.
12. Just eat with chopsticks, solves all your problems
I spent six weeks in France and my host made fun of me the whole time because I would eat with my fork in my right hand and switch hands when I went to cut something up with a knife. Apparently, it’s far less trouble to keep the fork in one hand and use the knife with the opposite hand but since I have literally never done that, I didn’t have the muscle memory to make it work.
So I just had to endure odd looks from my host as he tried to imagine what physical impairment I must suffer because I can’t use my knife in my left hand.
11. I’ll take one roasted duck head, please
Chinese food in America is a lie. I’m currently in China and if I ask for common American Chinese dishes, no one knows what in the world I’m talking about. They really eat a ton of chicken feet and fish soup. I’ve seen fish skin chips, roasted duck heads, pork floss, and no lo mein, fried rice, General Tso’s chicken, none of these exist…
It makes sense because we wouldn’t eat the traditional meals here but culture shock is an understatement.
10. I always feel like somebody’s watching me
Here in America, people will try to avoid eye contact most of the time in public places, unless it’s for conversation or someone you know. Like it’s super weird to be staring at someone, and you basically have to stop when the other person looks back.
That’s not what I found in other countries. I’ve always noticed that there is no problem with studying people in other countries. Like one time there was this European lady, older aged I think, at the Dubai airport. I was looking around the duty-free shop, and she was sitting at a gate. Since my family was in the next gate over, I walked past her several times. Each time I could see her staring at me. Finally, I decided to stare right at her the next time. No effect.
I’ve had this happen many times in foreign countries inside public spaces. In America, most people think a quick cursory glance is all that is acceptable. Not the case elsewhere.
9. How else are we going to make money selling happy pills though?
ANXIETY. Economic anxiety and the fear of being brought low.
We Americans are all aware that we are just one minor mistake or accident away from bankruptcy, or one faux pas from part of the problem. There is no limit to how far or how fast you can fall, and it’s likely no one will try to catch you. Once you hit rock bottom you can’t expect a hand up either.
People kill themselves over it.
Some places, of course, have it much worse, but if you live in the States you will never realize just how wary everyone is until you live with people who aren’t.
8. That’s what happens when you pay your servers a decent wage
The entire eating out experience. Me and my husband went to Europe last May and were blown away by how different something so simple could be. First of all, just going and sitting at an open table instead of waiting to be seated was so unsettling. Then the tiny amount of expensive water. THEN the overall pace of it all.
Everything from your server coming over to tell you specials to bringing you your drinks to getting your payment is at least 3x slower. At every sit-down restaurant, we went to it was like our waiter and everyone around us was thinking, “what’s their big hurry?!” If we spent less than 2 hours at the table. Being a server in the US is so stressful but I saw no stress from any waiter or waitress we encountered in Europe.
It made me realize just how much the “rat race” mentality affects every part of American life. In America sitting at a restaurant for a couple of hours, savoring your food, and talking leisurely with someone over a meal is typically seen as a waste of time unless it’s a business lunch. Not to mention the entire staff of an American restaurant would want to kill you for taking up a table that long.
7. Maybe America isn’t so bad after all
Toilets that refill the bowl with water after flushing. (I.e. Toilets where you poop into a pool of water, rather than into a mostly empty bowl). And as a corollary, how BAD poop smells when it’s not under water.
I’ve spent a lot if time outside the US but I cannot get over pooping and having my turd just sitting there in the open air until it’s flushed. Once had a toilet in Austria that effectively had a flat shelf under the natural poop landing place, and it was washed to the front upon flushing. The most horribly designed toilet I’ve ever seen. Turd just sitting there stinking up the place. God forbid you have diarrhea. Oh my god.
6. Honestly, that’s just a Miami thing, we aren’t all like this
Dieting. Or rather, thinking you’re dieting. Americans will eat margarine instead of butter. They will eat egg whites instead of the whole egg. Fat-free milk instead of full-fat milk or cream. The rest of the world eats the whole egg, drinks milk with fat in it, and doesn’t drink diet soda all the time.
I went to Israel for several years and lived on a kibbutz. Eventually, another American from Miami, we’re talking typical Miami suburban white boy stereotype to a tee, went there to volunteer. This guy was in the Negev desert where they had their own egg chickens, and he kept complaining about how he couldn’t find any pasteurized egg whites. Because he wanted to drink them in his protein shake. And was on a strict “I eat every 2 hours” regimen. He kept going up to all the guys and giving them unsolicited advice on how to cut or how to get big, bro. Imma get you big, bro.
Nobody else in Israel does this. Seeing him reminded me of what Americans are like. Next to the Israeli soldiers, my god, did this guy look like the biggest tool. An American tool.
5. Only Americans would find a way to make hanging out in a parking lot a reason to party
I’ve lived in the states my entire life, but when my Spanish girlfriend came to visit I wasn’t sure what I could show her that really exhibited American culture. There are plenty of American stereotypes you see on TV, but it wasn’t until I took her to a tailgate that I realized how violently American the whole experience is.
A huge parking lot full of partying twenty-year-olds bouncing on trucks bigger than most European apartments, with half the trucks blaring country, and the other half blasting rap. Solo cups and aluminum cans all over the place, grills, corn hole, etc. I’ve traveled to quite a few different countries, and I can’t really see a tailgate happening in most other places.
4. Ask a cop how he’s doing here in the States, and you’ll get tased
Learned an embarrassing lesson in Paris. Walked up to a security guard at the library adjacent to Centre Pompidou, which is where we were headed and asked in English if he could tell us where the entrance to the museum was. He stared at me blankly. I started stammering, trying to repeat myself in French, when he said very sarcastically, ” ‘ALLO? ‘OW are you DO-EENG?!” I had not first offered a greeting before asking my question.
In large American cities, public servants and other people providing services to tourists are often not looking for such niceties. They want you to make it as quick as possible and keep moving.
Also, people in other countries wear clothes that fit them properly, even if they don’t have the physique of a supermodel. I think that is one of the biggest fashion differences. Americans love baggy clothes, although it is much less pronounced in major cities. In Atlanta, we used to be able to spot the suburbanites the same way that American tourists can be spotted in other countries.
3. You should probably not be drinking half a gallon of champagne a day
First visit to a restaurant after being stationed in West Berlin (it was a while ago) I asked the waiter for a glass of water, then four of my fellow soldiers chimed in that they would like a glass of water as well. The waiter replied, “four glasses of American Champagne coming up!” Upon his return with the water, I asked why he called it American Champagne and he told me “Because you Americans drink water like we Germans drink Champagne.”
I stopped asking for water after that.
2. Everyone likes free money
When I was studying abroad in Italy, my group and I tipped our waiter something like 75€ and in broken English, he told us to wait in our seats. It was our first week abroad and we didn’t know if we did something wrong and were a little nervous. A couple of minutes later he brings our entire table shots of Limoncello on the house because it’s not customary to tip and he wanted to treat us because we gave him a large tip.
1. Just wait until they ask to meet you on the first floor
Ok, so, this one is probably pretty obvious, and looking back on it it’s really embarrassing. My family took a European vacation when I was 17. For some reason, we decided to get KFC in the UK. (Because ‘Murica.)
My friend who came with us went with me to order and pick up our order. We ordered a family size bucket of chicken, and they asked us what kinds of side dishes we wanted. We said “Biscuits.” And the employees looked at us with the strangest look.
UK KFC: “You want biscuits with your chicken?”
Me: “Yes. Biscuits.”
UK KFC: “We don’t sell those.”
Me: “What do you mean you don’t sell biscuits. What are your sides?”
UK KFC: “Chips?”
Me: “You mean French fries? Ok fine. That’ll do.”
I was worldly enough to know that “chips” meant “French fries”, but “biscuits” in the UK are cookies. My fat ass tried to order fried chicken and cookies. I am positive someone over in the UK is still telling this story at parties as an example of how disgusting Americans are.
Also on this same trip, my father asked why our waitress kept saying “cheese” when she was saying “cheers”
We really left a good impression across the pond.