Just because Americans are used to something doesn't mean people from other countries are! They're used to having things done a certain way, and it can be pretty jarring to see such a shift. Just as these people.
Tourists on Quora share the biggest culture shock they experienced when they visited America. Content has been edited for clarity.
“Found That Quite Strange”
“The strangest culture shock I experienced in the US is that in the US, the idea of perishables stretches far beyond things like milk and bread to a larger degree than in Europe. I always found that quite strange.
Shower-curtains, sneakers, kids-seat in cars. You name it. There’s like an expiry date on everything – not necessarily explicitly but implied.
My American girlfriend used to say, ‘My shin-bone hurts, I need to go to the mall and get a pair of new Nike’s as I’ve had the one I have for 6 months already and the shock-absorption is wearing off.’
In Europe in the 80s and 90s, you had your sneakers until they were so worn they fell off of your feet. Not saying that’s good. But there’s something suspicious when businesses in non-perishables suddenly are pushing a story that it is in fact a perishable.”
“I Was Shocked”
“I was sent to Minneapolis a couple of years ago to train simulator technicians, and was staying in one of those ‘apartment hotels.’
Now, I’m from The Netherlands, and there are all kinds of rules and regulations regarding advertisements and commercials.
So for me, it was incredibly shocking to turn on the TV and see some commercials that were aired on American television. Two I remembered:
‘If you have absolutely no money and are in debt, don’t worry, we can provide you with another credit card to become even more indebted.’
And the other one:
‘If you have any of the following symptoms, you probably have disease XYZ. Call your doctor and get him to prescribe you medicine ABC.’
Of course, the actual wording was a bit different, but that basically was the gist of the commercials. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe commercials were allowed to push people to such reckless, ruinous, and dangerous behavior. Horrible.
The other culture shock was that the drink store was closed on Sundays. That made no sense at all to me: you can get drinks on days you are working, but not on your day off. Huh?!?
But 20 miles down the road in the next county, I could get a couple of drinks. Very logical.”
“Did Not Eat Lunch That Day”
“As a Canadian, we are pretty hard to culture shock when we visit the USA. But in 1999 my kid and I, on a drive from Vancouver to visit a friend in LA, stopped on our second day in Redding, California, at a little adobe Mexican place for a late breakfast.
We saw something on the breakfast menu we had never seen before. Huevo Rancheros. Being a little more adventurous than most Canadians, we both ordered it. We were startled to be served an entire platter filled edge to edge. It appeared to be a lot of food. Fortunately for us, we had not eaten for 14 hours and it turns out the food was not very deep on the plate. It was fantastic though, I think the cooks gave us the gringo version and not the Mexican version, but we were fine with that.
I had never been to a place before where the food covered not only a plate, but all of a platter from edge to edge. It has been one our favorites ever since. But no one else had ever prepared it as well as this place did. When we were moving to LA in 2001, we drove past the same place and that little restaurant was gone.
In 2011, a similar thing happened. I was staying at the Eastside Cannery Hotel on Boulder Highway in Vegas and ordered ham and eggs for breakfast. The piece of ham covered the entire 12? diameter plate with the eggs and hash browns on top of it. And it was not all that thin. About as thick as 4 slices of lunch meat. Since my philosophy is when it appears I cannot eat the entire meal, I always eat the most expensive parts first. The hash browns were awesome, but most of them stayed on the plate to make room for all that ham.
Needless to say, I did not need to eat lunch that day.”
“I Was Stopped In The Street Everyday”
“I am from Sweden and visited America (northern California) two years ago. I really loved it there!
In Sweden, people are generally very reserved; we don’t talk to each other on the bus or train or talk to strangers at all if we can help it. To accidentally make eye contact with someone in the street is a Swede’s nightmare! Quick, avert your eyes!
When I was in California, I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly people were. I was stopped by people in the street every single day. They wanted to compliment me on my shimmering shoes and, when they heard my slight accent, ask where I was from. We were best friends for a few minutes and then they went on their way. I made several two-minute best friends every day, it was rad! People were super friendly, effortlessly helpful, and interested to know more about me. I really missed that when I went back home again. Still do.
Also, American supermarkets; you can find everything. The aisles are four times as long as in Sweden and filled with everything one could ever ask for. I mean, fresh-cut fruits, ready-made birthday cakes, and drinks all under the same roof? Oof. It was incredibly overwhelming to go grocery shopping, but man if they don’t have absolutely everything.”
“Never Met Such Outgoing Children”
“When I was seven, my parents moved to Alexandria in Virginia with my brother (five years old) and me in tow. I still remember my first day in my second-grade class. There were two extremely weird things that took me completely by surprise.
The first was that all the children assembled in the gym, which I think doubled as the auditorium before classes began and they all pledged their allegiance to the US flag and then sang the US national anthem. Not only was I unfamiliar with any and all of the words, but the whole exercise was also utterly foreign to me. In Toronto, we just stood for ‘Oh Canada’ in the classroom, and then got down to business.
The second completely strange event occurred when the teacher introduced me to the class. The teacher had me stand at the front of the class and she said, ‘Everybody, I’d like to introduce Nicholas. He’s just moved down here from Canada.’
I was met with open, frank yet extremely friendly curiosity. I was inundated with genuinely interesting questions about myself and Canada, and with invitations to play. I’d never met such outgoing and friendly children in my life.
Two years later when we returned to Toronto and the process was repeated to my Canadian class, they all looked at me like a piece of chopped liver.”
“That Was Nice And Different”
“The lack of culture shock was the strangest part of it. Maybe it’s just me, the fact that I have close relatives living there who visited us regularly over the years (certainly several times before we were able to visit them for the first time), or that I have consumed copious amounts of American cultural product over the years. Including documentaries when they began to be uploaded online.
But right from the time we (I was visiting with my parents) left the airport and my aunt drove us to her lovely home in the suburbs, it felt…familiar. Familiar from all those movies showing stereotypical suburban neighborhoods. And it’s not that I am saying that now, in hindsight. When my cousin asked me how it felt to be in the US for the first time, I said the same thing. She was maybe disappointed I wasn’t absolutely ecstatic, but I said watching the movies and TV shows seemed to have prepared me so well I wasn’t even surprised by anything.
The wildest part was how you could have people running shops in NYC without them being able to speak English, at all. It was a different experience, and we learned how much communication is possible even if you don’t know the language as long as you trust each other.
The other ‘pleasant’ shock was being able to drink water off the tap. We do that too these days at our airports but anywhere else, we would immediately purchase mineral water. Oh, and that people would wait patiently without honking in miles-long traffic jams…and likewise wait their turn to get onto staircases at the New York subway stations. That was different and nice.”
“Couldn’t Get Enough Of Them”
“The first time I went, it was after my second year of university when a friend and I were on our way to army officer training for the summer. We had about two weeks, so drove down to California to visit his family on the way.
I could not believe how good the pizzas were! I couldn’t get enough of them.
On the other hand, we went to a little dumpy place called McDonald’s. We’d heard of them. I had the worst hamburger I’d ever had, but it only cost 15 cents.
Many years later, we were on our way back to Calgary from visiting my wife’s grandmother in San Diego and stopped in Utah for the night. We went out for dinner and I ordered a steak. I couldn’t believe how bad it looked or and how awful it tasted! I later found out that it was a so-called chicken-fried steak.
I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything so bad before or after. No, liver and kidney are worse tastings, but not by much. What a terrible thing to do to a piece of beef.”
“I Literally Ate For Three Days”
“I still remember my first week in the U.S. after I landed from India. My office was right across where we all were staying, and there was a Chinese restaurant nearby. After two or three days of eating pizza (we didn’t have a car yet to get groceries), I decided to get food from a Chinese restaurant.
In typical Indian style, I ordered soup, spring rolls, an entrée, and rice. The lady who was taking the order asked me if I was expecting somebody else. I was surprised by why she would ask that.
A few seconds later, however, I understood. The portions were absolutely insane. The soup bowl was so big and the noodles were just so much, I literally ate for three days.”
“Extremely Polite, Friendly, And Helpful”
“My first visit to the US (I’m British) was about 25 years ago. Since then, on a number of trips, I have traveled and stayed in all the States apart from Hawaii and Alaska.
My strange culture shock (in terms of being contradictory to previous information) was quite simply how delightful most Americans are. Most are extremely polite, friendly, and helpful. The police (in most places) is much warmer and politer than police elsewhere including the UK.”
“Doesn’t Make A Lot Of Sense”
“I lived in Miami for a few years. On my first car journey, there many of the electrical poles had what appeared to be trash cans attached to them. I didn’t realize they were transformers. I soon found out. Now and then during a lightning storm- and Miami in July August have these on an almost daily basis – one of them would explode and the lights go out.
In the UK in urban areas, the cables are buried. It’s more expensive but the ongoing maintenance is less. Also, with storm-force winds, electrical cables are taken out by falling trees.
Still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
“How Do You Buy A Round?”
“I’ve been lucky enough to go to the US quite a few times, but the first time would have been 35ish years ago. The main shock was to realize that they didn’t understand British English sometimes. It started at immigration when it became evident that the otherwise perfectly friendly, official didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fortnight’ – this is a whole story in itself.
Then, at a fast-food outlet, saying that we wanted the food as ‘take-away’ caused some confusion.
Later, when trying to buy some smokes, the assistant had great difficulty in understanding that ‘200 Marlboro, please,’ did not mean that we wanted two packets of Marlboro 100s.
Chips? We weren’t expecting those crunchy flakes.
Not paying for drinks at the time of ordering. How do you buy a round?
And, finally, ‘Why am I paying more than it said on the price tag?’”
“Found Myself Thinking, ‘Put Some Clothes On!'”
“Going to an international school, one of the things they do to prepare graduating seniors is give a talk on being a ‘Third Culture Kid’ (a child from one culture who grows up living in a different culture), and how to adjust when you move back ‘home’ for college. I assumed it wouldn’t apply to me since we’d moved to Indonesia just before I turned 17, and I’d only been there a short time. I was wrong.
On returning to the U.S., I found myself shocked at how little everyone was wearing – and not just girls. Indonesia wasn’t a very strict Muslim country when we were there, but it was a Muslim country and people were quite modest in their dress. At school, we were encouraged to be respectful of our host country and so even the kids I hung out with dressed modestly. By which I mean shorts and short dresses were often to the knees, and what you thought were skirts were frequently culottes instead. Shirts were long enough that tummies didn’t show, and usually had sleeves (weren’t spaghetti straps) and v-necks weren’t common. Not puritanical, just modest.
Coming back to the US, I found myself thinking, ‘Put some clothes on!
I thought this a lot. It took me a good year or two to get over cringing when I saw someone wearing a shirt that showed their stomach or which had a deep cut that showed their chest.”
“So Rich And So Tasty”
“I first went abroad from England to the USA in 1972, to work at a summer camp in Connecticut. I was 21. We landed at JFK airport and went to a hotel in New York. It was July and it was warm, in fact hot. So first was the weather, it was hotter. A lot of people who first come to the UK say how cold it is. At the airport, there were one or police officers with loaded weapons on their belts. British police do not and still not regularly wear loaded weapons as part of their uniforms.
The next day, we went for breakfast in a café/ restaurant in New York. The bacon was weird and there was a hash brown but it was a big scoop of fried potato bits – very odd. The best bit was the coffee. It was so rich and so tasty. If that wasn’t enough it was refillable, so you could go back and get as much as you wanted. Overall, my three months in the USA told me that the people were so very friendly and generous, but only when you got to know them especially in the big city. In the country, they were instantly welcoming.
We returned to San Jose, California four years ago when my son moved there. The coffee was still great, and the weird hash brown was still on the menu. One big thing I noticed was the cars; they were shrunk to sensible European sizes, in fact, they were largely similar to the cars in England. The weather was noticeably warm but the countryside was brown and scorched. No wonder England seems so green.
Near to my son’s house in the suburbs was a park with basketball hoops, a children’s play area, and a baseball field. There was a game in progress so I wandered over to watch some authentic American pastime. As I got closer it was clear the young men were playing cricket! There were all Asian, Indian origin all the tech industry and they ran a mini-league of games with ‘street rules’ for cricket on the baseball field.
So as far as Silicon Valley is concerned, it’s very cosmopolitan.”
“It Was A Big Shock For Me”
“Absolutely the worst one was trying to find the faucet behind the toilet after you went for ‘number two.’
I am originally from Turkey and I grew up with water being an integral part of cleaning when one goes to the bathroom. The old, ottoman-style ‘hole-in-the-ground’ type toilet usually has a small faucet close to the ground so that one can clean himself/herself while squatted. In the western style toilet bowls, there either is a built-in pipe coming out of the porcelain throne, or there is a copper tube fed into the bowl under the seat rim.
So it was a shock for me. My first few days in the US were spent at a mom-n-pop owned small hotel in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the owners were of oriental descent. Lucky for me, this meant the bathrooms were equipped with water faucets for sanitary purposes.
So it was a big shock when I had to relocate to the Southern California area for the rest of my stay and checked into the Residence Inn hotel near Ontario Airport. No water, but rolls and rolls of toilet paper. When I first saw the toilet paper rolls on top of the tank, I did not figure out why one may need so much paper. Little did I know I would be going through them like crazy in the next few days.”
“Always Felt A Little Shell-Shocked”
“My first culture shock came at LAX in Los Angeles when we landed from Australia. Being a ‘woman of a certain age,’ the first stop after we got through customs had to be the restroom (loo). All the stalls were occupied except for one. Wow, thank goodness for that!!!
I scuttled in and stopped in shock –
The bowl was full of water! Oh no, it’s blocked! What am I going to do? If I flush it, the water will pour over the top and flood the place! I frantically thought.
I backed up and looked out in the room. Another one came free!! I raced for it, mightily relieved – only to discover that this one was full of water as well. But the woman who came out didn’t look worried for some reason.
By this time I was almost wetting myself, so I dove into the cubical.
I’ll get out of here and run before it overflows, so they don’t know who did it!
Imagine my surprise, when all of a sudden – after peeing – the water started to spiral away!! What? I was so shocked I almost swirled down with it!
That was my first realization that American toilets start out full of water! Australian toilets have just enough water in them to swirl the waste away. Needless to say, I didn’t panic throughout our lovely eight weeks holiday, but I always felt a little shell-shocked by the amount of water wasted.
This shock was the first of several! The coffee and tiny creamers were another story as was the ‘No Loaded Weapons Allowed Here’ signs on supermarket glass entrance doors! I have to say we had a wonderful time in the USA and received nothing but kindness and smiles everywhere we went. Even the NYC subway – where we had heard everyone was cold and standoffish, it was party time down our end of the carriage! Perhaps it was our accents which brought people out of their shells!”
“What An Unpleasant Surprise That Was”
“The first time I was in the US was in 1993. We came for a skydiving competition that was held at Skydive Arizona near Eloy, Arizona. We arrived at the skydiving center, sorted out the registration and other admin things, and we thought that a cup of coffee would be a good idea before we continue our daily activities. So we entered a bar/coffee shop and ordered five cups of coffee.
The first surprise was the barista’s question: ‘Small, medium or large?’
Being a true Balkan gang, we immediately replied: ‘Large, of course,’ because what kind of man drinks anything but large coffee?
And then came the second surprise… We got five paper cups, each containing almost a liter of coffee (later we found that it was a one-quart cup). In Croatia, when you order a large coffee, you will get a 1-deciliter cup (around 1/10 of a quart).
Next, and final surprise was the actual coffee. And what an unpleasant surprise that was. In Croatia, at home, we drink boiled coffee, which is very black, very thick, very strong, and have some coffee foam on top. It is opaque, and if you pour one-centimeter (circa half an inch) of coffee in the cup, you would not be able to see the bottom of the cup.
What we got was coffee is so transparent, you can see the opposite cup rim through the coffee. Actually, we could see the bottom of the 1-quart cup through the coffee. It was like very thin tea. And the taste… like someone just washed very dirty hands in hot water. In a couple of seconds, all that coffee ended up in a ditch. Later we tried coffee in a hotel, some other coffee shop, and got the same result and disappointment. So we ended our quest for coffee in the U.S. for good.
I grew up watching old western shows and seeing cowboys boiling strong coffee on the campfire. So I was expecting something like strong cowboy coffee. I wonder where that cowboy coffee disappeared over time.
But, lesson learned. Three years later I was sent to a U.S. Army school in Fort Lee, Virginia. This time I came armed with one kilo of Croatian coffee, that I boiled for myself in my room. Few times I invited my fellow American officers for some Croatian coffee, but they had the opposite problem. For them, our coffee was way too strong.”
“Rules Are Quite Different”
“I am from India, and I visited the USA briefly for giving a presentation in 2019.
The first cultural shock has to be the size of soft drink glasses in all the fast-food restaurants along with free refills.
This might be normal in other countries, but it is certainly not the case in India. There is hardly any concept of free refill here.
Most Indian cities have all the leading fast-food chains of the world, but the rules are quite different here. There are hardly any free refills in the same fast-food chains.”