Are you a Canadian or an American traveller going to Europe for the first time? Get ready for a major European culture shock. Read on to discover main differences between the North American and European cultures so you know what to expect.
Dear Europeans reading this article, this is an opinion piece and if you are easily offended, please skip this article. North Americans and travellers from other continents coming to the Old World for the first time will more or less experience the following things. Please keep in mind that this article is general and not everything mentioned below applies to every country in Europe.
Below are some travel tips on overcoming the European culture shock. Nevertheless, you’ll have to deal with that yourself. The level of your culture shock depends on your cultural background, travel history, adaptability, expectations, prejudices, religion and integration ability. Have fun reading.
Don’t expect English
English is an official language only in the UK, Ireland, and Malta. That’s it. These countries are on the outskirts and there are no English-speaking states in continental Europe. Embrace the unknown. Before you set out, mentally prepare yourself for new sounds of unknown languages. Listen and enjoy it. English is a beautiful language and I love it. But there are even more beautiful languages out there.
When you travel and meet people who speak English in non-English speaking countries, be truly and deeply grateful to them. They used their strong will, spent tons of money, lots of time and maxed their brainpower to learn another language so that you didn’t have to. Be grateful to them because with their knowledge they ease your conversation. No one may expect others to speak their language when they themselves speak only one, their mother tongue. And if you feel like you should be served in English whenever you travel, wake up. Or stay at home.
I suggest you do some homework before you travel and learn some basic expressions in the language of the country where you plan to travel. At least the magic words: hello, thank you, please, bye, I am sorry and excuse me. Your effort will get you a way better service and bigger smiles from locals.
Don’t expect ice in drinks
This one is a major European culture shock for North American visitors. Europeans are not obsessed with ice-cold drinks. Many drink room-temperature beverages. The cold drinks served in bars and restaurants in Europe are already pre-cooled, so they don’t require more chilling. Besides, if they give you too much ice, it seems they try to scam you and charge you for frozen water and dilute your drink. Your cold drink might come with some ice, 2-4 cubes or so. If you want more, just ask for a glass of ice cubes.
Don’t expect straws in drinks
Europe is banning all single-use plastic such as plastic utensils and cups, plastic plates, straws, plastic coffee stirrers and balloon sticks by 2021. These items are hard to recycle and almost all end up in oceans where fish suffocate on them or eat them. Some places will offer paper straws when asked. Besides, our mothers spent lots of time and energy in teaching us to drink from a regular glass. Unless we are physically unable to drink from a regular glass, we have no need to drink from a straw.
Don’t expect or ask for free tap water in restaurants
When you order water, you’ll be offered a glass or a bottle of mineral water or still spring water and they’ll charge you for it. It’s not a custom to automatically bring cups of ice water to guests in restaurants like in Canada or the US. Some places might do so during summer heat waves, but it’s not common. Many European cities have drinking fountains in public spaces and squares. They either flow constantly or there might be a faucet handle. The water in these fountains is of drinking quality, it’s free for public and funded by municipalities. Another place where you can refill your reusable water bottle for free is your hotel or accommodation provider. Generally, water in Europe is drinkable in most places. If it’s not, there will be a sign or a pictogram telling you to use it only for hand washing.
Don’t expect air conditioning
Another European culture shock hard to cope with for North American tourists. Until recent years, most of Europe has done very well without any air conditioning. European summers are usually normally warm and dry, or better say, they used to be. Even in the warmest parts of Italy, Greece or Spain, people still live without air-cooling gadgets. Unfortunately, due to global warming, Europe now gets strong heat waves that can kill the elderly and paralyze the public in the summer months. More and more people install air-conditioning devices into their homes.
Due to Europe’s different style of houses (made of bricks, concrete or wood), it is difficult to install a full-building air-conditioning system into an older structure. This is especially true for historic and heritage buildings. If you can’t handle sleeping in a hot room during the summer, don’t book your accommodation in a historic hotel. All they can do is offer you a plug-in fan. If you are from North America, you’ll do yourself a favour when you forget the elegant room in a charming, centuries-old hotel and book a room in a modern building. While you explore and go on sightseeing tours, always carry a (reusable!) bottle of water with you, wear a hat and also bring a hand fan.
Smoking in public
In Europe, smoking in public is not as strictly regulated as it is in Canada for example. You’ll see Europeans smoke on streets, in outdoor restaurants, bars, pubs, while waiting at a bus stop, etc. There are signs prohibiting smoking in many areas, but some smokers tend to ignore them. It’s annoying. As a visitor, all you can do is walk away.
Your allergies are your problem
If you have an allergy, be it nuts, perfumes, sesame seeds or tomatoes, it’s your task to be careful and watch out for the offenders. For travellers with allergies, this will be a significant culture shock. In Europe, nuts are commonly eaten in schools, public places, and restaurants. Also, perfumes are worn everywhere, and you cannot require other people to stop wearing them just because you have an allergy. It’s not because Europeans are less considerate. In general, Europeans are less allergic than Americans or Canadians. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone with a life-threatening nut allergy. In contrary across the Atlantic, it seems that every classroom has a kid like that. In Europe, the situation is probably going to change for the next generation due to market flooding with GMO products, medication misuse, air and water pollution, electromagnetic and nuclear radiation, etc.
The food packaging always contains allergy warning though. So always read the ingredient list and wrappers. Also, if you have a gluten sensitivity, you might find out that you have no problem with the digestion of wheat-flour products. It’s due to a more natural processing of grain and less GMO in general. Also, Europeans don’t put shelf-life-prolonging chemicals into their bread. People buy fresh bread daily and you’ll find small bakeries everywhere. There is no need to use calcium propionate, propionic acid and such to keep the bread from mold and bacteria for many days. While in Europe, be prepared to buy fresh bread and pastry every other day.
Fresh and delicious food
As mentioned above, Europeans go grocery shopping more frequently. If you venture to a grocery store (a supermarket, actually), you’ll notice smaller carts, smaller sizes of packaged food and bread without any plastic bags on it (use provided tongs to take a loaf or pastry from bins into a paper bag, never bare hands). Everything has a ‘use by’ date on it and you should pay attention.
Thanks to this fresh food culture, the majority of restaurants also serve food which they cook from scratch on site. You won’t be served Sysco-style frozen soup concentrates or pre-grilled chicken breasts (with black BBQ stripes already on it). Restaurants will serve you freshly baked pizza from dough that a pizzolaio (= pizza maker) made in the morning. You’ll eat a soup made by the chef according to his own secret recipe and which you won’t find elsewhere. You’ll eat cake created in house or by a patisserie three streets away.
You may find some European desserts, pastries and common foods such as cereal or yogurt less sweet than you are used to.
Minimum on-the-go and even less drive-through
Europe has a strong sit-down food and drink culture. Running around with plastic drink cups and hamburgers in paper bags is not a European thing. If you want a cup of coffee, you find a coffee shop and enjoy it there while sitting indoors in a stylish armchair or outdoors on a bistro chair. You’ll also enjoy lunch and dinner eating at the table, preferably in a company of other people. Europeans eat on-the-go mainly when they travel or when there is no place serving normal meals. Additionally, forget the drive-through. If you ever see a proper drive-through in Europe, it’s usually the American fast-food chains.
For some, this is the most pleasant European culture shock. You’ll easily buy a bottle of great wine for €3 -4 (Hahaha, not in Iceland though). Beer is also cheaper than across the Atlantic. Liquors cost a bit more, especially the heavily marketed brands. For a change, try local, country-specific alcohols. The variety in every country will amaze you. You can buy wine, beer, and liquors in regular grocery stores. You’ll have to show your ID if you appear under 18.
Zero alcohol tolerance
Before you indulge too much, please note that there are EU countries with zero alcohol tolerance for driving. The police do regular road-side checks on random drivers and if they catch you driving with alcohol in your breath or blood, you are in trouble. To be on the safe side, don’t drink any alcohol 3-4 hours before driving.
Quality of customer service
Another hard European culture shock. The quality of customer service isn’t as great as in North America. Of course, this differs from place to place. Before you buy shoes (or anything else), make sure you really want them, and they fit you well. In Europe, to return purchased merchandise, you’ll have to have a valid reason, the receipt and you’ll have to come back within a short period of time after the purchase. Across the Atlantic, you can buy a vacuum cleaner, use it for a month and return it back for a full refund just because you changed your mind. Not a chance in Europe.
Customer service quality in the hospitality industry is also different. If you need something, you have to come and ask. They won’t approach you and offer help. One observation, at an information kiosk in Prague Airport, you have to come to the desk and start talking. Don’t expect immediate eye contact and greeting as you approach the desk. Even if the clerk sees you with her peripheral vision, with her head down she will continue to type away until you speak first.
Also in restaurants, if you don’t like your dish, return it immediately. Don’t give it a second chance and try another bite. You are also less likely to get a complimentary dessert if the restaurant makes a mistake.
Don’t expect hostesses in restaurants
In European restaurants, you just walk in, look around to find an available table, sit down and wait for a server. Depending on how busy the place is, it might take longer until a waiter comes to your table with menus.
Everything is smaller
This is the first European culture shock you’ll notice. The cars are smaller. The trucks on highways are less chunky and the roads are significantly narrower. Then you’ll notice smaller appliances and thinner people with smaller egos.
Europeans in general dress well. City people wear chic clothes and care about fashion. Women wear makeup, hairdos and high heels every day to work. Men wear dress shirts and ties. Sweatpants and sneakers are mainly for sports. Only rebellious teenagers or wannabe-cools might wear them as regular outfits. And you definitely won’t see people walking their dog in pyjamas.
Europeans can spot a North American tourist from miles. If you want to blend in, overdress. Don’t come wearing sneakers, cargo shorts or leggings, a polo shirt, and a baseball cap. You don’t have to put your flag sticker on your backpack. Everybody knows. Some countries care about style more than other places. In Italy and France, you simply have to dress chic.
When it concerns the human body, Europeans are more down-to-Earth than North Americans. Europeans won’t bat an eyelash if they see a topless woman sunbathe on a beach. Nobody cares when men wear speedos. Nobody is horrified when toddlers run naked on a beach. It’s just a human body and we all have the same packaging.
Then come tourists from North America where nudity is well monetized and they are, well, culture-shocked. A piece of advice: if you are a prude, don’t go to Europe, especially beaches and hotel pools.
An interesting fact about Europe: the northern Europeans like their personal space and prefer to be further from each other when they talk. But when on vacation in southern Europe, they have no problem going topless on beaches or by hotel pools no matter their age and volume of body fat. On the other side, southern Europeans stand closer to each other when they speak. They hug and kiss when they greet, but never go topless on beaches. The middle part of Europe is a mixture of both these approaches.
Breastfeeding in public
Normal, common, natural and nobody even notices. If you chomp down your double hamburger in public, why should babies be denied their lunch? Breastfeeding is so basic and asexual. People who are offended by seeing a sucking baby should probably be banned from eating in public. And the ones who find it sexy should probably see a psychiatrist. Read more about breastfeeding in public here.
Expect fewer public washrooms and have change ready because there’s a fee. Yes, in Europe, you must pay for public washroom use. Depending on the place, it’s somewhere between €0.20 – €1 per person. The fees go to people who clean them. And there are fewer washrooms available than you are used to from home. This is especially true about old cities with historic buildings. Suggestion: when sightseeing, go and use the washroom when you find one, even if you don’t really need to. When you need one later, there might not be any around.
Regarding washrooms in restaurants, bars and coffee shops. You can use them only if you are a paying, food-consuming guest. Some let passers-by in for a fee. Some will kick you out. There are also no washrooms in shops (only in big department stores and malls). And for sure you won’t be able to use a washroom in a supermarket (like in Canada, where you can use the same one as the employees). For this reason, don’t be alarmed when you see a parent with a toddler or a kindergartener by a tree or a bush in a public park. Some European kids are diaper free by the age of two. And what do you do with a screaming 3-year-old who urgently needs to pee and there are no washrooms around? Will you let the kid wet their pants or take them to a tree in the corner of a park, shield them from public and let them pee those few drops they can’t hold in?
Taxes included in prices
This is a great thing. You know exactly how much you are going to pay. No guessing, no confusion, no shock. Each EU country has its own tax system and different amount of GST, HST or VAT, but they all include them in the final price tag so there are no surprises.
The one from the heavier European culture shocks – take a deep breath -> it’s approx. a triple of the US price and double the Canadian (Canadians already pay more for gas than Americans).
Variety in everything
So many countries with so many different producers and so many different cultures. Enjoy and indulge.
Europe will never be a uniform society. And that is a good thing. There are too many varieties of languages, cultures, opinions, histories and all countries are proud of their own heritage. Some still carry their grudges from the past rivalries, but all in all, Europeans get along very well.
Metric system everywhere
Well, except in confused Britain.
Driving on the right side of the road
Well, except a few rebellious islands around continental Europe – Britain, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta.
Europeans know how to enjoy life
While you travel in Europe, jump the bandwagon. Enjoy life, take in the view and observe the street life. Savour the food and sit down when you drink your latte from a porcelain cup. You know when you get home, you are back in the hamster wheel. Europeans don’t get it how can North Americans put up with just two weeks of vacation time a year. That is insane. Europeans start their job with 4 weeks of paid vacation time a year and work their way up to 6 weeks. Europeans are no less productive or less efficient than North Americans. So, where the problem?
More pedestrians and cyclists on city streets
Be careful when you drive in Europe. Cyclists are everywhere and they don’t always have a designated path just for them, so they join the regular road traffic. Cyclists on roads are always a tremendous annoyance. They are vulnerable and many of them ride too far from the curb and too close to the centre of the road. It’s hard to go around them on busy one-lane roads. Some of them have poor cycling skills and put themselves in danger by not signaling their turns. Be especially careful when you want to turn right at road crossings. Always triple check your back and side mirrors, turn your head to see any fast approaching bicycles.
In most public buildings, a staircase is what you see way before you spot a lift. Public buildings such as libraries, museums, hospitals, schools, and offices always have a big staircase right by the main entrance. Stairs move crowds faster than lifts. If you have a stroller, a wheelchair, a walker or difficulties to walk up the stairs, always look to the sides and behind corners. Stairs have a primary position in buildings, lifts a secondary.
Offer your seat
On public transportation, you are expected to get up and offer your seat to the elderly, pregnant women and mothers with small children as well as all disabled or visibly sick people (with crutches, etc.).
Respect and behaviour
Before you let your teenager or young adult travel to Europe, make sure they know how to behave in public and historic sites. Cities have security cameras everywhere and can catch you in case you misbehave. There are always news about silly tourists, usually clueless young adults, who scratch their names into walls of historic sites like the Colosseum in Rome, take a piece of stone from an ancient archaeological site, walk barefoot in fountains or this recent one: a young traveller placed a plastic male member on the head of a statue in Prague’s most important square. He did it at night thinking nobody saw him. Well, the cameras helped, and the police found him in a hotel where he had to pay a hefty fine.
Public transportation system
A really great thing about Europe is its public transportation system. You don’t really need a car there. Even in small towns and villages, there is always a regular bus service, either local or long distance. Bigger towns have frequent train connections. There are many service providers and you can combine them to plan the fastest and easiest route. Public transportation seems to be cheaper in Europe than in North America and more people use it from all income levels.
These are just the more obvious differences between Europe and North America, and you’ll be struck by many more. I hope this list is helpful and now you’ll be ready to tackle the European culture shock. If you have any other suggestions and observations, please share it below in the comment section. Hopefully, you had fun reading this article.
–> Related article: NORTH AMERICAN CULTURE SHOCK
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