Most travelers experience surprise when arriving abroad. In Japan, tipping is considered condescending. In France, turning up to dinner in shorts and sneakers is mostly considered bad manners. That dinner won't start until 9 p.m. over in Spain. Being understood in Bulgaria? It's side to side for "yes" and up and down for "no." For all the times that American travelers have been criticized for failing to understand local culture abroad though, it's worth remembering that this is a two-way street. Yup, this list will look at all American ways of life where the shoe (or sneaker) is on the other foot.
75 million people visited the US in 2014. They come for the glitz of New York City, the glam of Los Angeles, and (almost) everything in between. Amazingly, with so much of American culture having spilled over into European countries, many Europeans still fail to understand the basics of American society. Europeans watch American TV shows and movies. They listen to Rihanna and Drake just as much as Americans do. In countries like France, American words make up a sizeable part of the language. Somehow though, these travelers are still missing the memo. They haven't got a clue how to get around. Or how shopping works. Or restaurant dining. From the everyday norms most people wouldn't think twice about to the straight-up hilarious ones, here are 25 things Europeans still don't understand about America.
25 "MINUTES FROM DOWNTOWN" DOESN'T MEAN WALKING DISTANCE
Take it from a European who has made this exact mistake. In Europe, distances in cities generally refer to walking time, not driving time. That's quite the culture-shock for a European arriving in America – especially if they're all smug with themselves for finding a cheap hotel that's "just minutes" from downtown. The reality of winding up on the edge of a highway with no public transport, sidewalks, or sign of life for miles isn't exactly the buzzing picture they had in mind.
24 THE FACT THAT THIS IS CONSIDERED BEAUTIFUL
Instagram hashtags are an international deal, but some of them haven't quite crossed the cultural barriers. Europeans take immense pride in their often-gourmet, beautifully presented food – think elegant, refined plates with fancy sounding names. A mammoth burger slathered in melted cheese, slaw, and enough grease to make your screen need a full clean? It's a little strange to them. Europeans are slowly beginning to see that burgers can be gourmet as much as they are fast food. They're still a ways from considering this as beautiful as most Americans do, though.
23 THEIR REACTION WHEN THEY DISCOVER CUSTOMER SERVICE
If America can be proud of anything, it's exemplary customer service. Arriving at Applebee's? You can guarantee that you'll be greeted by a smiling, obliging hostess who will offer you iced water immediately and keep checking that you're okay. Things are different in Europe. From store assistance to 24-hour customer support, the level of customer service in the US is so high, it's enough to make Europeans miss it when they leave.
Only 25% of Americans stay "on hold" for more than 10 minutes on the phone. Brits? It's nearly triple.
22 SHOWING UP TO DINNER DRESSED LIKE THIS
In Europe, you do not show up to meals in shorts, socks, and sneakers. Take that from the European who has seen Americans turned away from breakfast in a fancy hotel for wearing just that. Europeans will arrive at American eating joints dressed to the nines (or normal for them). It can get pretty awkward when everyone is chilled out in khakis, sweatpants, or t-shirts, and they're wearing pressed pants, belts, dress shirts, and a jacket. 100-degree heat? They hadn't even anticipated that.
21 YOU CAN GET ALL THIS AT CVS?
The concept of a pharmacy basically being a slightly smaller Walmart is still something really alien to most Europeans. For many, a decent-sized CVS or Walgreens will be bigger than their actual home supermarkets – the fact that you can get virtually everything there 24 hours a day is worth considering a luxury. Many European countries have laws preventing over the counter medicines being sold anywhere other than a pharmacy (which sells only that). Soda, cookies, clothes, vitamins, and baking products all under one roof? They don't call America great for nothing.
20 THINKING THAT MEALS BEGIN WITH ENTREES
To be fair, the word is French. In Europe, an entree refers to the appetizer – it's the same word, just with the fancy French accent that makes it look like this: entrée. They reached that conclusion because the word does suggest the "entrance" part of the meal. Of course, when Europeans arrive in America and order their entree, they wonder why it's taking so long to arrive (and why every other table has stacks of appetizers to keep them occupied).
19 ZERO CLUE HOW BIG AMERICA REALLY IS
Europeans might have looked at the map of the US, but many of them still have no concept just how huge America is. A 2-hour car journey in Europe is considered a "road trip." Europeans in the US often find themselves wrecking their entire trip because they had "no idea" that driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles takes over 5 hours.
11 US states are large enough to fit England into them. Europeans are used to reaching another country with a quick drive.
18 WHEN YOU ASK THEM "HOW ARE YOU?"
This is possibly the biggest cultural barrier separating Europeans and Americans. In the US, asking someone: "How are you?" or "How's your day?" is a pretty standard greeting. It's friendly, casual, and not an actual question. Over in Europe, asking someone how they are suggests that you actually want a full reply (basically, their life story). In the UK, the equivalent is "are you alright?" This has actually freaked Americans out – it doesn't mean that they think you're unwell or in trouble. It just means "how are you?"
17 A LOT OF CONFUSION OVER THE DOLLAR MENU
Prepare yourself for a disgruntled response if you're a fast-food or store worker serving a European. In Europe, prices displayed include any sales tax – if it says it's 1 Euro, it's 1 Euro. The dollar menu at McDonald's is a definite curveball for Europeans. They'll get excited to see all the stuff that they can get for $1. Same goes for 99 cent purchases at the grocery store. Unless they're in states like Delaware or New Hampshire (where there's no sales tax), Europeans find paying for stuff extremely confusing.
16 GETTING CONFUSED OVER SWISS CHEESE
"Turkey, ham, tomatoes, and Swiss." It sounds pretty simple, right? To Americans, it is. Over in Europe, there is no such thing as "Swiss cheese." There are, however, over 300 kinds of Swiss cheese. Appenzeller, Gruyère, and Emmental are all varieties of Swiss. European Subway has an "American cheese" option, but definitely no "Swiss." Prepare for a disappointed French, Belgian, or Swiss diner if you're in a US sandwich joint. A cheese with holes does not a Swiss cheese make, for them.
There are over 300 kinds of Swiss cheese. Subway is tricky for European first-timers.
15 FLAGS EVERYWHERE CAN LEAVE THEM OVERWHELMED
When you're in the US, you'll know you're in the US. Why? Flags are everywhere. The sheer level of patriotism in America can prove somewhat overwhelming for Europeans (who aren't used to displaying their nationality with a flag outside their home). Driving through suburban streets and seeing house after house with that US flag feels bizarre for the average European, as do the endless t-shirts, logos, and #USA spirit. That's before you stick them in the country on the 4th of July.
14 HOW AIR-CONDITIONED RESTAURANTS MAKE THEM FEEL
As far as Europeans are concerned, the USA might as well stand for the United States of Air-Conditioning. AC is still a rarity in European establishments unless you're at a major outlet like McDonald's or Starbucks. It isn't so much the presence of AC that Europeans find difficult – it's the way you guys crank it up. Take it from a European who actually had to leave Outback Steakhouse in the Midwest because the blasting AC was too much to bear.
13 THEY DON'T APPRECIATE BEING CALLED "ALIENS" AT THE BORDER
The US protects its borders just as much as many European countries. Europeans arrive at the US border with some pretty standard expectations – providing fingerprints, having a biometric passport, a landing card, and a reason for traveling. These are all things that they expect. What comes a little less welcome, are the signs dividing lines between US citizens and "aliens." According to US law, an alien is "any person not a citizen or national." The term has caused a small amount of controversy with the word it has chosen, but "alien" it is.
12 THE SHEER CHOICE OF FAST FOOD
You would never, ever see this in Europe. A city like Paris might have one or two McDonald's restaurants in a certain district. Having a McDonald's, Wendy's, Arby's, Pizza Hut, Coldstone Creamery, KFC, and Subway all within three minutes of each other isn't just indulgent – it can be flat-out shocking to many Europeans. It's unlikely that they'll complain about it (unless they look down on fast food), but it's definitely a shock.
There are 14,146 McDonald's and 26,744 Subway restaurants in the US. Take it from a European – the sheer choice is overwhelming.
11 THERE IS ACTUALLY STUFF BETWEEN NEW YORK AND CALIFORNIA
Much like many Americans have the tendency to forget that there's more to the UK than London, Europeans frequently find themselves a little surprised at what the US actually offers. Europeans grow up with fairly localized TV and movie portrayals of New York City and California. Stick SATC, Friends, Modern Family, and The Big Bang Theory on international screens, and you'll get that. Aside from Disney World in Florida, many Europeans literally have no clue about any of the states between NY and CA.
10 WHAT A REAL AMERICAN BBQ LOOKS LIKE
This one rarely gets any complaints. What it will get from Europeans however, are some pretty wide eyes. Europeans might have their cheeses and fancy sauces, but there is no barbecue culture there– to be fair, many countries just don't have the weather for it. Having a barbecue is still much more prevalent among US families than it is for Europeans, where having a backyard is a rarity. As to the Texas-style barbecue? No way were they expecting the hickory smoked, rib-plentiful array that is this.
9 NOT QUITE UNDERSTANDING PERSONAL SPACE
America has way more space in general than Europe does. Most Europeans are shocked at the size of the average American home – take it from someone who found an average family home in Ohio staggeringly huge. Personal space is a concept that tightly packed European cafes never quite got. Americans? Give me some breathing space, please. Europeans will often find that they're inadvertently upsetting Americans by simply being too close to them.
The worst part is trying to explain to them that nothing they are doing is actually offensive – it's just how close they're doing it.
8 ZERO CLUE ON HOW TO TIP IN AMERICA
Tipping in the US and in Europe are two very different things. The majority of European dining checks have the service charge included, so tipping is only done from super happy patrons. At the same time, the amount considered reasonable in Europe is around 10 or 12%. Tipping 20% in America might seem normal to natives, but that figure would seem extortionately high to many Europeans. As such, despite meaning well and wanting to show it, Europeans can come across as fairly rude in American restaurants.
7 BEING SUPER SURPRISED AT THIS
A gallon of milk might seem like the most ordinary thing in the world to most Americans, but it's a different story for anyone from Europe. A gallon of milk doesn't even exist in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and most other European countries. British people "pop out for a pint of milk." Alongside other Europeans, they might purchase a half gallon bottle at the most, but they'll definitely be surprised to find milk by the gallon. Milk and cookies isn't a thing in Europe.
6 DIFFERENT STATE, DIFFERENT RULES
Europeans may come to the US for variety, but there are certain types of variety they weren't expecting. The concept of laws varying between states is one that many Europeans have difficulty understanding – after all, they're all in the same country, right? Driving regulations are by far the biggest one affecting travelers. The fact that stop signs in Oregon are slightly different, or that texting while driving is (or isn't) permitted in certain states can land them in hot water. The last one isn't one we recommend doing – stay safe.
5 THEY LITERALLY DON'T KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF THIS
Europeans and their cheeses – where to start? Whether it's crumbled feta over in Greece or sharp and smelly Roquefort in France, cheese in Europe is not something that comes in a can. Europeans are definitely aware of cheap and mass-produced American-style cheese slices from their fast food outlets, but the can thing is a whole new level for them. British people actually post pics of this on social media as a "novelty" item.
There are around 1000 types of cheeses in France alone. Cheddar? There are hundreds of varieties.
4 YOU CAN GROCERY SHOP IN YOUR PYJAMAS
In 2018, Travis Scott told GQ that Kylie Jenner "takes two hours" to get ready for dinner. While spending a little time on appearance is something most of us do when it matters, we're equally comfortable going out with zero effort – in America. Europeans are quite formal in their attitudes to dress. You definitely wouldn't see this in Europe. The concept that America is a place where it's completely okay to do this is still something that Europeans are baffled by. They're also unlikely to try it.
3 ALL THAT ICE
Much like the heavy duty air-con, the whole "iced drinks" thing can take some getting used to for the average European. Walking into any chain restaurant, diner, or burger joint in the US, you'd probably be disappointed to find your drink without ice. Some Americans might even consider this unacceptable. In Europe, when you order water, juice, or soda, you get just that. At a push, you might get offered ice as an option. Europeans don't necessarily dislike iced drinks. They definitely don't expect them, though.
2 THEY EXPECT EVERY PART OF AMERICA TO BE WEALTHY
If you've watched any TV show set in sunny California or NYC's glam-filled streets, you'll know the drill. Everyone lives in either a Beverly Hills mansion or a Central Park-facing duplex penthouse. Europeans can easily arrive in America with these images in their minds (and no concept that deprivation in the US does exist). Americans have a similar deal arriving in cities like London or Paris, but it can be a real shock for a European winding up in small-town America. Trailer homes? Dilapidated streets? They didn't show that on Gossip Girl.
1 CONFUSION OVER HOW THICK THESE ARE
Pancakes in Europe are the opposite of pancakes in America. In Europe, you're looking at a wafer-thin crêpe that's folded over with a savory or sweet filling. The syrup, chocolate, and powdered goodness might taste similar, but the look is very different. Europeans will order pancakes in the US and be pretty surprised when a six-inch stack arrives. If you're ever in Europe, give the "crêpes" equivalent a try.
European "crêpes" are the opposite of US pancakes. They're super-thin, super-flat, and definitely not stacked.
You lucked out with an actual European telling you the biggest things that still confuse Europeans about America. If you've got American (or European) friends– particularly any who might totally relate to this, hit share on Facebook. Sometimes the internet needs a little more humor...