Life is definitely different in America. While there are going to be cultural differences everywhere, that’s one of the most enjoyable things about travel - discovering what makes a different place… well… different. However, there are some things that are so different in the rest of the world that they just don’t make sense to the majority of USA folk - and that can be a bigger culture shock than anticipated. You may expect the differences in temperature and language, but it’s the little things that often create the biggest shock for a traveler.
From the little things that crop up when eating out or visiting a new friend’s home, to the bigger ways that society works, there are plenty of things that are pretty normal in the rest of the world, but that would be an absolute revelation in the good ol’ U S of A. Some of these might not surprise you, and others may not be the norm in 100% of the rest of the world, but all twenty-five of these things will pop up all over the rest of the world… and rarely ever back home in the States.
25 Tipping Isn’t Required
In most of the world, it’s not common practice to tip when going out to eat (or doing pretty much anything else, for that matter). In many places, tips would be accepted, but as a way to say ‘thank you’ for truly exceptional service, not as a standard.
Even in countries where tipping is more and more prevalent, service staff is paid a decent wage, and tipping is much less (10%, for example). And in some places, tipping is actually considered an insult - suggesting that the employee is poorly treated and in need of extra money.
24 Chip Flavors
There are plenty of snack flavors that you will find elsewhere in the world that will simply baffle the average American. The UK, in particular, has some pretty phenomenal flavors that seem bizarre to anyone used to snacking Stateside. Beef, cheese & onion, and prawn cocktail are so standard that they are basically expected - while common US flavors like sour cream & onion are a rarity.
Different taste buds call for different flavors, clearly… and don’t knock ‘em until you’ve tried them!
23 No Free Refills
Back to the restaurant experience for this one, because in the rest of the world, it’s common to pay for each drink you order. No, we’re not just talking about the alcoholic ones. In most restaurants, if you order five sodas, you will pay for five sodas - not for one soda, with ‘free refills’.
That goes for everything (except perhaps just water), and can be a big shock to a group of US diners who each have several rounds of cola before getting the bill. Don’t expect soda or coffee refills unless it’s explicitly stated on the menu.
22 No Restaurant Hostess
Another thing that might confuse Americans headed out to eat is that in many places all over the world, it’s not the norm to be greeted by a hostess at the door who will show you to a seat. With the exception of very high-end restaurants where a host is common (mostly to check reservations!), most places will expect diners to simply seat themselves, and then a server will come over with some menus. Unless there is an obvious hostess stand, feel free to go ahead and seat yourself. It’s totally fine.
21 Order At The Bar
Many people from America have been perplexed when headed to a bar outside of the US, when they sit down and wait for ages to try and get some service. But given that it’s the norm in most places to go to the bar and order there, the service staff is probably confused by the person just sitting around not ordering a drink!
It’s also common (especially in the UK) to order and pay for drinks at the same time, rather than run up a tab. Which makes sense - not only is it harder to get surprised by a bar bill, but it’s harder for a client to run out on one!
20 Smaller Portion Sizes…
This one has become something of an ‘only in America’ joke, but it’s based in truth. In most of the rest of the world, portions at restaurants are much smaller than they are in the US - and not just at the fancy places. Instead of massive plates piled high with food, you’ll get only as much as someone might find it reasonable to eat in a single sitting… and in the rest of the world, ‘reasonable’ is much less than it is in the US!
Even snacks at cafes, like cookies or sandwiches, are usually much smaller than they would be Stateside (or are labeled as ‘giant’).
19 …And No Doggie Bags
This is likely connected to the smaller portion sizes, because diners don’t expect there to be any food left over to take home! But the idea of a ‘doggie bag’ at a restaurant is a purely American one. Like some other US trends, this is becoming more common in the rest of the world, but you’ll still get some strange looks if you ask to take part of your food home with you, and restaurants likely won’t have any containers to give you anyway.
Just eat your (small) portion and leave any leftovers on your plate.
18 So Much Less Sugar
Americans may not realize it, but most visitors to the States are shocked by the sheer volume of sugar that is in USA food. Particularly conscientious label-readers may be aware of how much sneaks into grocery store food, but even more casual diners are often shocked at how much sweeter day to day foods and condiments are.
Breakfast foods, especially, would often be classified as ‘dessert’ in the rest of the world, like waffles piled high with whipped cream and sweet sauces. USA folk simply seem to have a very sweet tooth.
17 Eating And Walking
Still on the topic of food (what can we say, Americans seem to eat differently to the rest of the world), it’s rare to see people strolling along eating and drinking the way that they do in the US. In some cultures it may be a little more common, but in most places, eating is reserved for sitting down. Even sitting at a park bench to eat your snack is ok, but simply walking down the street chowing down? Not so much. Foodie cultures and Japan are particularly shocked by this behavior.
16 The Cost Of Education
Americans have definitely been waking up to this one lately - because in the rest of the world, going into tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of dollars of student debt would be simply unthinkable. Instead, university education in most of Europe is either free or cheap (and heavily subsidized), so that students can get the qualifications that they need without having to go bankrupt in the end. The cost of university is also often standardized across all schools, unrelated to their prestige - something unthinkable to anyone growing up with the Ivy League as the norm.
15 Free Healthcare
Another thing that is common in much of the world but utterly unheard of in the US is free healthcare - or at the very least, subsidized and reasonably priced healthcare. Health insurance does exist, but it’s absolutely unnecessary, as the vast majority of medical procedures and even medication will be covered by the government, allowing anyone to get the care they need.
This has become a contentious subject in the US in recent years, but in much of the rest of the world, not having automatic access to healthcare would be the controversial idea.
14 No Medical Adverts
Along with having healthcare provided by the government, it’s not common in the rest of the world to see advertisements for prescription medications (or other medical products). In some countries this would actually be illegal, and in others it is simply unnecessary - patients trust doctors to prescribe the appropriate medication, and it’s not the money-making industry it is in the US. You’ll still see ads for over-the-counter medication like painkillers and cold medications, though. Just nothing that you’d have to see a doctor in order to get hold of.
13 The Laundry Room
Everyone in the world washes their clothes, of course, but the laundry room is something of a US (or at least, North America) thing. In much of Europe, especially, it’s common practise to have your washing machine in the kitchen, along with all those other appliances that use water. Another option is to have one in the bathroom, if there’s enough space. An entirely separate room for laundry?
That’s just not something most people have the space for - especially in older buildings that were built before washing machines were the norm (or even in existence).
12 And A Total Lack Of Dryers
Another very American thing to do when it comes to laundry is to have a dryer as well as a washing machine. While plenty of people do have both, it’s still considered a bit of a luxury in most of Europe, and most people simply air dry their clothes. That usually means a washing line outside for people who have yards, but also means a drying rack that you set up indoors. Not only is it cheaper, but it’s actually better for the clothes - so maybe the States should consider taking this one on board!
11 Excellent Public Transport
In the US, getting a car is something that almost everyone does as soon as they are of age - even people who don’t have the most money. And unless you live in a big city, it’s easy to see why - most of the US just isn’t set up for foot traffic, and the public transit systems are not easy to use or convenient for most.
However, in much of the rest of the world, public transit is well-maintained and runs on schedule, meaning that having a car just isn’t necessary unless you live deep in the country.
10 And Well-Maintained Cars
When driving isn’t a necessity, it’s far less common to see cars on the road that are falling apart. While this may be the norm in certain poorer countries, in much of the developed world, the standards for keeping a car on the road are much higher than they are in the US.
A show like ‘Pimp My Ride’ simply couldn’t exist, because the beaters driven on the show would be entirely illegal in countries where cars have to regularly pass tests to be allowed on the road in the first place.
9 Orderly Queues
This may not be the case in 100% of the world, but many places (especially in Europe, Australia and Japan), people have the art of the line-up down pat. Queuing etiquette is well-understood and carefully abided by, even when there are no signs to require it.
The idea of simply barging into someone else’s spot or worse - taking their cab - is pretty much unthinkable… but of course, in places like the UK, even if you break those unwritten rules, all you’ll get is a glare. People are far too polite to call people out on it!
8 Tax Included In The Price Tag
Another thing that is totally normal most places that the US should possibly consider adopting is the inclusion of sales tax in the price of items. That means that what you see on the tag is what you pay - and no trying to work out the tax on a grocery cart full of shopping, or an armful of sweaters at the mall. Of course, this one is a nice surprise for USA folk abroad, and the way that the US adds tax at the till can be a big shock for visitors to the US.
7 No Pledge Of Allegiance
All over the world, children start their school day by… sitting down at their desks and taking roll call. Some might sing a school song, or even (for very patriotic places) the national anthem, but that’s pretty rare.
The idea of having to face the flag and swear a vow to the country and the flag is something so purely USA that it confuses most people in the rest of the world. Of course, for those who grew up starting each day with the words, ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag…’, the idea of skipping it is the weird one.
6 Full-Sized Pints
Back to the pub for this one - the serving of a full pint when the menu says ‘pint’. This is particularly important in the UK, where a serving of beer in some of the sizes and glasses available in the United States would probably lead to a bar brawl!
Nope, across the pond, a pint is a full-on pint, not a ‘sleeve’ or a ‘glass’ or anything else. Except maybe a half-pint, which is exactly what it sounds like (and a great way to have a drink without breaking the bank, or waking up with a headache).
5 Drinking At 18 (Or Younger)
Another element of pub culture that is the norm for much of the rest of the world is that drinking happens a whole lot earlier in life. Throughout Europe, it’s common for children to be given a small drink with dinner and at special occasions, and many pubs allow kids to come along to sit in the garden, or for teens to join their parents at the pub while they have a meal.
Even the legal drinking age is rarely higher than eighteen - years below the minimum age of twenty-one in much of the States. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, well, that’s up to you to decide.
4 The Metric System
In most of the world, measurements are nice and simple, thanks to the metric system. In the US, of course, the Imperial system still reigns supreme, even though it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Get ready to drive at kilometers per hour (not miles), to measure things in meters (not feet), and to weigh them in grams (not ounces).
Of course, there is one obvious exception to this rule; the UK has its own mix of measurement systems that are sure to confuse anyone - even the Brits themselves might not be able to explain why they combine imperial and metric the way they do.
Many a US tourist has wandered into a bathroom elsewhere in the world and wondered what the smaller, weirder-looking toilet is next to the main one (or why there is a hose hanging off it). This is, of course, the bidet - a way of cleaning off after using the facilities using water, not just paper.
For most of the USA, this seems completely bizarre, but for most of the rest of the world, it seems strange not to wash thoroughly with water after doing what you need to.
2 Public Drinking
While many places in the world have similarly strict rules on drinking outside (and a few places in the US are a little more lenient with open-carry laws), it’s still common in the rest of the world to see people having a drink outside.
That may be carrying a pint outside in the summer, or drinking openly in parks or at festivals, but as long as people aren’t at the point of being disorderly, don’t be surprised to see some open-air beverages being consumed.
1 Mandatory Long Vacations
Most jobs in the US don’t come with a whole lot of vacation time - but in the rest of the world, it’s common to get weeks (even four weeks or more) of paid vacation time, allowing people plenty of downtime to rest and recover.
In fact, according to Business Insider, the US is the only developed nation that does not have a legally mandated minimum amount of paid leave for employees - leading to some getting little (or even none). In Europe, this would be unheard of - and no one would take a job offering so little paid time off.