From tipping, to stores that stay open 24 hours, to the simple vastness of the country, there’s a lot about the USA that can be overwhelming to those who weren’t born and raised here. People on Quora share the biggest culture shock they received from visiting America.
Comments have been edited for clarity. Link to the source article can be found at the end of the article.
There were two.
One was straightforwardness and openness in public.
Before my visit to the USA, Ive never understood the concept of small talk. Ive heard of it on numerous occasions, especially during my English lessons, but I never really got it. Whats the point of talking if theres nothing to talk about?
Then I came to America to work and travel, and everyone started talking to me.
People asking me How are you? (or How ya doin? in Virginia) didnt shock me – I knew that it was just a way of saying hi.
What did shock me was that everyone was doing that – even some random people I didnt know passing me on the street.
Im 206 cm (69 for Americans) tall. Thats a lot, and Im constantly reminded of it by handrails on buses and trams or by doors in houses. But living in Poland, I hear one, maybe two questions related to my height every year. In Newport News Partick Henry Mall ten people asked me about my height in an hour.
People kept engaging me in conversations all the time – at work (when it was slow enough that we could talk), on buses, planes and trains, in public.
And everyone was super freaking emotional.
What an average Pole would say: There was a spider in my room. I killed it with my slipper.
What an average American would say: Oh my God, youre not gonna believe this! I came into my room and there was a HUUUUGE spider right in the middle of it! I took a slipper and started whacking the spider with all my might, until it was dead! I still cant believe it happened!
I dont want this to sound stereotypical, but the fact that most of my American coworkers – people I spent most time with – were young women, might have affected my perception of this aspect. But still, a Polish girl would usually be much less emotional, especially after the job of killing spider was done
Ive been in the USA for three months. For the first month it was a bit annoying to me – I even used the term emotional exhibitionism once or twice – but then I got used to it.
I even started enjoying it, especially when I finished my work and started my travel – because it was nice. I could ask random strangers on planes or trains about objects we were passing and learn about them this way. I’d then answer their questions about Poland (Yes, its in Europe. Yes, we have shopping malls, theyre nothing new to us, and actually we kinda start getting sick of them. Yes, were mostly Christians, Roman Catholics to be exact, and no, Ive never met a creationist in my life).
The second thing that came at a shock was food prices.
The most affordable way to acquire food in Poland has always been buying raw products and cooking them. If I bought half kilo of mushrooms, three kilos of potatoes, six eggs and one kilo of potato starch, it would cost me 17 PLN (about the price of single Whopper meal in Burger King) and it would be enough to make Silesian dumplings for dinner for a family of four.
It always seemed logical to me – if someone else processed the food instead of me, this person would get paid, and this money (along with other costs of production) would be added to my bill.
So the more stages of processing the food goes through, the more expensive it gets. Right?
Not in America.
In the land of the stars and stripes, for some reason the more stages of processing the food goes through, the cheaper it gets. I felt like if I bought cheese, bread and butter and made a sandwich myself Id pay more than if I bought a sandwich someone else got paid to make for me.
It was completely against any of my previous consumer habits and I needed some time to actually acknowledge this. I still have no idea how it works (it probably has something to do with the economy of scale, but still).
I know that many Americans dont like it and blame the cheap processed food for the nationwide obesity problem.
I actually lost some weight when I was in America, and I was on tight budget, but it might have something to do with the fact that I worked 1012 hours a day and usually I ate only breakfast and lunch during the day. Im not gonna pretend like I know the solution, Im just gonna enjoy my cheap potatoes here in Poland.
Overall, America was an awesome place. But it was also pretty weird.
Basically, what is advertised on TV: Lawyers and prescription drugs are advertised on TV like if they were Coca-cola or beer. Never seen that anywhere else.
It is a culture shock because of its consequence: conditions like PTSD, OCD, TB are common knowledge as well as knowing what drug is used to treat what disease. They are so deeply ingrained that stand up comedians can make jokes about Xanax and everyone cracks up! In other countries, save for aspirin and Ibuprofen for headaches the general population doesn’t know what pills are for what.
And the other consequence is the automatic defense mechanism: Ill sue you! No other country I’ve visited uses the verb sue as much as the states.
Last week, my friend and I decided to drive up to Buffalo – Niagara for a short trip for the Labor Day weekend. We reached Buffalo around 6 PM in the evening and decided to see the famous canal side.
The canal side tends to be pretty crowded on Saturdays. We had a hard time looking for parking around the area. We drove around for 15 minutes in search of a spot in the street to avoid the paid parking lots.
But ultimately we had to get inside one of those paid lots. This one was pretty economical.
It was $5 for all evening. But not an automated parking lot. There was staff at the entrance booth.
As I entered the parking lot, the staff stopped us at the booth.
Staff: Good evening Sir. $5 please.
I took my credit card out and handed over.
Staff: Sorry sir, we do not take cards here. It’s only cash.
I open my wallet again and start looking for cash, but I just see 3 $1 bills.
Me: Im sorry, I dont think I have enough cash. Can you please tell me where the nearest ATM is?
Staff: “How much do you have?”
Me: “I just have $3. (Shows him the 3 $1 bills)”.
Staff: “No problem. I can put the rest from my tip! Please go ahead and park.”
Gives me a parking ticket.
This just saved me around 20 minutes to go around and look for an ATM for just $2. Never expected this coming from a parking lot security staff! I feel people in the U.S are very generous. Be it a owner of a company or a staff, everyone seems to be kind and caring.
On thing that surprised me was the differences in university campuses. A university campus in the United States is not just a place for learning, its your home. Students live there, eat there, attend classes, party, play sports, work out, watch movies, watch sporting events, study and meet potential mates…all on campus.
American movies do a decent job of portraying the college experience. Typically at European universities (and perhaps the rest of the world) students attend university for classes, but live the rest of their lives off-campus.
Not here. Your freshman year dorm/suite/hall will become your friends for the remaining four years. You may add some or remove some here and there, but those people become your nucleus in many cases.
Ice is in everything. This still bothers me. On the rare occasions that I forget to ask for no ice or the server forgets, I am presented with a specimen from the North Pole alongside what appears to be 34 drops of sweet liquid.
The actual drink is nearly nonexistent, its way too cold and by the time the ice melts, it tastes just like sweetened water. Also, I typically wake up with a sore throat the next day.
Friendships seem to be one dimensional in America.
In my experience, your school friends remain your school friends. You may occasionally grab a bite to eat, but the topics of conversation focus on school. Your sport friends remain your sport friends. Your work friends are simply your work friends and so on.
Friends from one circle of life dont automatically enter other circles or groups – everything seems very isolated from each other.
Friendships also dont seem have very strong bonds. You may have some good childhood friends that you keep in touch with, but for the most part, people simply do not have a strong nucleus of friends that lasts forever. This is simply my experience and not necessarily the truth- I would love to hear any comments about this.
Everything is available, anytime. You want to buy cheese, bread, jeans, rifle and a TV at 3 am? You can do that. Then you can visit a fast food place on your way home. Everything is just open…all the time. Try that in Italy.
Distances are insane here. An 8 hour road trip is really not considered that long, its fairly common. Living in such a large country twists your perception of distance.
I used to think any drive taking more than an hour is basically a road trip, now Ive realized theres people that commute for over an hour…every single day. Ive also gotten the opportunity to drive from NC to Montana (40+ hours) twice. The US has every landscape imaginable.
Finally, the last thing that took me by surprise was the acceptance. There has been debate about this in recent times, but it still holds true. Anybody that lives in America is considered an American. Asians are Americans, Blacks are Americans, Indians are Americans, Whites are Americans, Arabs are Americans, Italians are Americans.
People can retain their home culture, but they dissolve into the large American society and are considered a part of it, not strangers or outsiders.
Coming from India, these are the things that took some time to get used to.
Everything here is really BIG!! The cars, food portions, grocery quantities, supermarkets like Walmart, Target, Costco and so forth are massive. Also, people here buy stuff in bulk. We are used to buying things in 50/100 grams, small portions, so it took time to understand this and move on.
There is no metric system, so I had to get used to mile instead of kilometer, gallon instead of liter, pound instead of gram, and ounce instead of milliliter.
The floor numbering starts from 1, unlike in India where 0, -1, -2 exists. I kept saying 1st floor in place of 2nd and had many confusions around it.
The customer service is great. I love this part. I bought a music player, realized later thats expensive for that sound quality. Went to the store and returned. Got my money back. No questions asked! And you can trust their words when they say guarantee and replacement, they really mean it.
When you ask for water in restaurants, inform no ice upfront. Otherwise you will end up having 70% ice and 30% water in your glasses.
I do have to say that the biggest shock was the hospitals and the health care. Dont ever step into hospitals without insurance, your lifetime earnings wont be enough for a small treatment. To make matters worse, urgent/emergency care will charge you anywhere between $100$150 for a single visit. I think any visits you make late evening are treated as urgent. Gosh!
I’m from Nepal and I had seen fair amount of movies and TV shows not to get shocked by some of the things people mentioned in other answers. It’s been just 15 days since I arrived, and I’ve visited only 2 cities. Here is what shocked me:
Having to pay to drive on a road.
Back in Nepal, people are fond of complaining to government about how they are not taking care of anything. I don’t know how paying to use a road works here, but just the idea of it seems new to me.
The government knows who you vote for.
This took me a while to notice, but when it did, I was blown away.
The primary elections for the political parties are run by each State – you go to the States voting place, vote for whatever State, County, City votes are going on, and also for your partys primary. All of this, on a single form. In order to run this operation, the State needs to know which party you belong to, so they can prepare your ballot. This information is then shared with the parties.
So now, each state (and county) has a list of each individual, and the party they identify with, and will most likely vote for in the general elections. As I was baffled by this, I learned that Americans dont seem to think this is odd, or care about all the horrible things their government can do with this information.
For the cynically-challenged, here are just a few. Target your street, or your childrens school, with higher taxes/less benefits, because it votes to the wrong party. Give you worse service at the DMV, because the rep hates your candidate. With the US system of not all votes count, decide who wins the next elections.
I guess the Americans have democracy baked into their minds so hard, they dont actually need all the petty rules we have in other countries to make sure elections are fair.
I asked my husband this question and his answers surprised me enough to share: entering public transport in an orderly line.
This may be just a Hawaii thing, but in general people wait in line for the bus, mentally keeping note of who comes first, second, third, etc.
And when the bus comes you enter in the same order.
Nice and respectful like.
My husbands from Russia. Public transport is different. The doors open and it’s a mad rush to get on before it closes; elbows and knees flailing around, bags pressed against other, unknown butts, the whole shebang.
I didn’t brief him on proper bus etiquette, so when ours arrived he strode right to the front and hopped on first – much to the chagrin of other passengers.
I was embarrassed for him and apologized while everyone gave me dirty looks and muttered haole (foreigner) under their breath.
When I finally got on I explained bus etiquette to him and we spent a few days conditioning his gut reaction to rush onto the bus as soon as the doors opened.
The second thing that bothered him was all the styles of cooking eggs!
Any breakfast joint you go to will ask you How do you like your eggs?
My sweet husband replied, Cooked – please.
The waitress laughed and explained they can cook it any way he wants, rattling off a list of options: over-easy, sunny side up, scrambled, omelette, poached, hard boiled, soft boiled, Spanish-fry…
He looked at me in panic, Fried and umm…mixed together?
I jumped in, Scrambled is good.
Apparently English classes abroad lack vocabulary to describe the many ways diners can cook eggs.
Dignity of labor is something that impressed me the most when I came to the United States.
It was my first day at a job in United States. Like most places, we had a custom that a new employee would send an email introducing themselves. I did the same.
Three hours later I was washing my hands in the restroom and the janitor comes up from behind and says Hey man, welcome. It’s your first day.
I still don’t know how he knew it was my first day. I doubt he might have been in that email distribution list, but anyway.
He made me feel welcome. We talked for about a good 10 minutes. He told me about his kids, what they want to be when they grow up. What he wants them to be when they grow up and so forth
The shocking part was, while having that conversation, I started wondering is he really the janitor?
I worked in India as well for a short period of time. The support staff such as janitors were treated so differently there. They would wear uniforms when rest of us didn’t. All of them would form a huddle of their own during lunch and sit in a separate corner. It was very rare, but if they have something to say to you, they will call you Sir.
This man had the confidence to come and talk to me so effortlessly because he might have never been made to feel different. People around him never behaved as if the job he does as a janitor is in any way less than the others, who would typically be converting coffee to code.
Later, I found the guy was really popular amongst my techy colleagues. They would call him by his first name and so would he. No Sir involved.
Dignity of labor, it matters here and rightfully should.
How people named Robert also go by the name Bob or Bobby.
I recently moved to the US from India and I’ve been living here for about 5 months now. I honestly still don’t get this.
My English teacher introduced himself as Robert on my first day of school here. Then I saw another teacher calling him Bobby in the hallway. For some reason, this is such a common practice amongst Americans that no one even pauses to question this.
Why Bobby? Now I’d understand if someone named Robert went by the name Robby or Rob. And if ones name were Bobert, I’d get it if he went by the name Bob or Bobby.
But how Robert translates to Bob or Bobby, eludes my understanding.
One of the biggest cultural shocks i had while travelling around America was the attitude of people towards food and water wastage.
America has surplus food produce and food there is cheap.
This is an incident which happened when I went to a Burger King. A kid was filling a soft drink from the touch screen kiosk.
First he took a glass of Dr Pepper and tasted it. He didnt like it so he poured the whole glass into the sink. Next, he took some Sprite and did the same thing. Finally, he decided go with Coke. Two glasses of soft drink was wasted and nobody was bothered!!
If it were in India the machine would be inside the billing counter which only the staff has access to and the drinks can only be filled by them.
When I googled about food wastage my guess wasnt wrong -America tops it.
Not cultural, but a shock nonetheless.
No cellphone coverage, even on certain parts of the Interstate highway. I saw a movie where the bad guys waited to prey on their victims on a segment of the road where there is no cellphone signal and I thought that was exaggerated. In fact, you may drive on the Interstate for miles and miles and still no signal can be found.
Not all cellphones can be used in certain cites. Some cities have a signal only from carrier A and not the others. So much for national coverage.
Internet speeds vary widely. As the birthplace of the Internet, the US should deliver lightening internet speed, right? Wrong. Of all the places, my hotel by Union Square in San Francisco, the capital city of Silicon Valley, delivered snail-paced internet. Slowness is the norm in most places I visited.
There are flags everywhere. Its like no one in US would know which country they are living in if they didnt put US flags on every square foot of their porch, front lawn, cemetery, shopping mall and so forth. Exception to confederate flags – those folks are proving they dont know which country they are living in. Or maybe they do.
Religion is in your face and mixed up with everything. Everywhere. Only in the US have I seen Jesus is Lord sign under Mikes furniture or bible verses on store flyers. In your face and everywhere, just like the flag.
People whose everyday lives are guided by sitcoms and commercials. Believe it or not, Ive heard people seriously judging other peoples behavior based on something they have seen in a TV commercial or a sitcom. From the way you are supposed to eat chocolate to the three second rule and double dipping. Its like they live a meme.
One shock was so surreal to me that I stood and watched it unravel like it was happening in a movie. An armored car stops on one of the less busy streets of SOHO, New York city. Three guys come out, one carrying an empty money bag – two with shiny stainless steel revolvers in their hands.
They were so nonchalant (there was no drama in the way they conducted themselves and they were not tense, fast or looking around for threats) that I didnt realize they actually had their guns at the ready until they were gone.
I wish I had the presence of mind to take a few photos with my camera (Im sure that wouldnt distract them in any way just like the presence of half a dozen bystanders didnt) but I just stood there watching like it was happening on TV because Ive seen such a scene only on TV before.
Just to clarify, Im not afraid of guns and think every country should have an equivalent of the Second Amendment. I was just very surprised to see it in action in such an open yet pretty non-intimidating manner.