Moving overseas can take some getting used to. Adjusting is not always easy as there may be a host of things that are drastically different from your home country. A new language, a new cuisine, a different standard of living, and differing ideas about religion and politics are just some of the experiences expats face on a daily basis, and most expats are likely to go through some degree of culture shock.Americans and Europeans have many things in common, such as the adherence to fundamental democratic ideologies and a commitment to an alliance that has impacted the world order for a number of years. This also includes some of the highest standards of living on the globe, even in the face of economic strain. But Americans and Europeans also have some prominent differences, such as varying ideas on individualism, governance, religion, morality and free expression. As an expat, these and other differences are experienced in a more direct way. Here are some of things that may surprise you as an American expat.
Americans tend to value individual liberty, and almost six in ten Americans feel that every individual should be free to pursue their life’s goals without state interference. On the other hand, Europeans place greater emphasis on the state’s role to make sure that no citizen is in need, and believe that it is more important to guarantee that no individual is in need.
Tolerance and free speech
Americans have a higher degree of tolerance compared to Europeans. In a 2014 survey, nearly 77 percent of Americans felt that they should be permitted to make statements that may be offensive to someone’s religious beliefs. This is a considerably higher share of the population than in any of the EU countries.
American expats in Europe will find that very few Europeans work more than 40 hours a week. In some countries, this is even less. Compared to this, it is safe to say that Americans may just be overworked. The European trend of working fewer hours a week does not stem from laziness or low productivity, but rather more employee-friendly labor laws. In spite of Americans working longer hours and with fewer benefits, the economy is still not in its best shape. Therefore simply being overworked does not result in productivity. It can, in fact, contribute to greater stress and less free time.
This is related to the earlier point on work hours. Most European countries grant employees a minim of four weeks’ vacation. Most Europeans make use of their vacation time, without inciting a grudge from their employers, because vacation time is actually guaranteed by laws. American expats will be happy to discover that it is possible to take a couple of weeks’ vacation time at once. This is rarely done in the United States, where people are reluctant to take even two to three days off at a time.
Expats will be pleasantly surprised to learn that in Europe, lunch is considered to be an important meal, and many Europeans, especially in warmer countries, take an hour or more for lunch. Americans may be used to having lunch at their table, staring at their monitors. In Europe, in many cases, lunch involves at least two courses and does not consist of just a sandwich and a soda, which is the case for many in the US.
Driving and cars
Europeans tend to drive less, as most European countries have efficient public transport systems, which are of a higher quality than in the US. Americans may be used to driving to and from work, even in traffic-filled streets. This can be stressful as well as time consuming and expensive. American expats in Europe can commute by a comprehensive rail, tram and bus network. The time spent in commuting can thus be spent reading, watching the scenery through the window, eating breakfast, or even napping!
Americans in Europe will find that the cars have manual gears. Americans are more used to automatic ones. There is also a difference in the style of cars in Europe and the US. American cars are usually larger and squarer. This is evident in the American preference for limousines and pick-up trucks. These are not too common in Europe. Americans will be surprised to see that cars are much smaller in Europe. The preference for smaller cars in Europe may come from the fact that the population is more urbanized and these smaller cars are easier to park in the cities.
If you are an American expat in Europe who also happens to be a sports buff, be prepared to be surprised. Attending sports events is not usually an activity for the whole family, as it tends to be in the US. In Europe soccer games mostly have a male audience and are not generally a family affair. European sports fans rarely eat during the games, and mostly fill up on alcohol, something which increases the intensity of the game. Unlike US sports franchises, European sports teams do not simply move from one city to another if they are not making adequate money. Instead, they remain in their own cities even through the challenges and hence build a fiercely loyal fan base along with historical rivalries that make the game even more exciting to watch.
Food and food portions
In Europe, there are a number of traditional dishes that belong to a particular region or city. These dishes or specialties are very local, and hence some dishes may be available in one town, but unavailable 100km away. Europeans eat more varied meals and consume less fast food than Americans. Their meals also include a lot of different types of cheese, and they usually drink more wine and stronger beers than Americans. As an American, who on an average eats sweeter foods and more soft drinks, these new eating trends may come as bit of a surprise.
The sedentary lifestyle has all of us putting on a bit (or a lot!) more weight. But in the US the food portions are weightier too. In fact, US food and drink portions are enormous compared to Europe. While this means that Americans are getting more for their money, the question arises of whether anyone actually needs that much more. Also, getting used to bigger portions means that you would start needing more in order to be satisfied. The drink sizes in Europe are small too. A small coffee in the US is comparable to a large in Europe. There also rarely have XL sizes when it comes to groceries and clothing. The ‘less is more’ idiom may surprise American expats.
Europeans are known to dress better than Americans, in general. This is especially true in Central and Eastern Europe. In Europe, it is a rare sight to see someone dressed in sweatpants and sweatshirts, or out-of-style jeans and no make-up, even if they are just going to the mall. Like most of the points mentioned in the article, this too is a generalization. But even college students make the effort to dress up nicely. This could be because Europeans see each other much more, as they tend to walk around quite a bit.
European cities are built to be more pedestrian-friendly. This results in more people walking around and being active. American expats may be still used to the American way of keeping fit, which often tends to be quite strenuous, such as power walking, riding racing bikes or intensive running. In Europe they will discover that nothing has to be done in extremes to stay fit. Simply being consistent with your exercise and eating healthily is adequate to stay active and fit.
Perception of time and distances
The environment in which we live shapes our perception. A monument or structure that is 100 years old is considered new by European standards, while Americans would call it ‘old’. When Europeans regard something as ‘ancient’, it is often nearly 2000 to 5000 years old, while ancient for Americans, would be just 200 years old.
When it comes to distances, the reverse occurs. Americans would consider driving 100 km as quite near, while Europeans would feel that it is rather a long way off. This is because of the higher density of population and also because Europe is smaller in size (almost two times smaller than the USA!). Europeans tend to travel a lot more, both inside and beyond their continent.
Dealing with culture shock
Culture shock occurs when you move from a familiar environment and culture to a new one. Expats commonly experience culture shock, and in different ways. Some of the things that can lead to culture shock include weather, language, cuisine, clothing, customs, and behavior. Various theories about how people adjust to new cultures have cropped up in recent years. Culture shock can be unique to the person experiencing it and depends on different factors such as language ability, prior experience with the culture and a person’s own adaptability. However, the transition occurs for every expat and comes with its own set of challenges. Knowing what to expect when you move overseas is helpful in making a smooth transition.
There are six stages of culture shock that expats experience. The first stage is when the decision to move abroad is made. This is a busy phase as plans are made and one anticipates the start of a new lifestyle in a new country. There is excitement and a sense of adventure. The next stage is the spectator or ‘honeymoon’ stage that occurs upon arrival in a new country and when everything seems exotic and interesting. Participation is the third stage, when the honeymoon ends and it becomes time to start dealing with everyday challenges such as learning the language. This leads to the shock stage, wherein an expat feels irritability, loneliness and lethargy, which are triggered by the challenges of daily life and tasks. The fifth stage is the adjustment stage, when an expat starts forming relationships with the local people. They finally start feeling like they belong in the new culture and feel a sense of acceptance. The sixth and last stage is re-entry, where the transition back to an expat’s old life occurs. This may not be as easy as expected, as reverse culture shock can lead to disorientation.
The good news is that even though culture shock can be uncomfortable, it stimulates intellectual and social growth. It can expand one’s range of interests, activities and knowledge, and brings improvement in many spheres of life. There can be an increase in confidence and development of a well-rounded approach to the world. It can also lead to maturity and a better understanding of one’s own cultural values.
Some of the things expats can do to cope with culture shock include reminding yourself that this is all natural, surrounding yourself with comforts from home, such as cooking your favorite foods, staying grounded, stepping out of your comfort zone, seeking help from a guide in learning the local language and culture, and staying connected to family and friends back home.
What did you find surprising when you moved to Europe? Let us know in the comments!