- Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation people often get when they move to a new environment.
- We compiled 15 of the biggest culture shocks non-Americans experienced in the US.
- They include Americans’ habit of making small talk and smiling, their obsession with guns, and the variety of products at grocery stores.
Culture shock happens to just about everyone visiting a foreign country for the first time.
For people coming to the United States, culture shock can be caused by many things: the way Americans communicate with each other, the country’s obsession with guns, or even the variety of milk and butter at American grocery stores.
We compiled 15 of the biggest culture shocks foreigners experienced when they came to the United States, and the examples highlight many everyday things Americans take for granted.
Read on to find what non-Americans found most surprising about the United States.
The concept of small talk was the most shocking thing to Piotr Waszkielewicz, who visited the US from Poland.
“Before my visit to the USA, I’d never understood the concept of small talk,” Waszkielewicz wrote in a Quora thread. “I’d heard of it on numerous occasions, especially during my English lessons, but I never really got it. What’s the point of talking if there’s 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) didn’t shock me – I knew that it was just a way of saying ‘hi.’ What did shock was that everyone was doing that – even some random people I didn’t know passing me on the street.”
Business Insider contributor Lyndsey Reid said she was shocked by how little vacation time American workers got from their employers.
“At my previous job, I had 25 days of vacation, eight paid bank holidays, a day off for my birthday, and the opportunity to buy an additional five days off,” Reid wrote for Business Insider. “We worked hard. But we were given adequate time away from the office to rest, reset, and rejuvenate.”
“So you can imagine my horror when I was offered my first job here in the States and found out my paid time off was an accrued total of 10 days – a measly two weeks, including vacation and sick days.
“And the worst part was that the employer seemed to think that was generous, prefacing the section about PTO with: ‘We know how hard you work and recognise the importance of providing you with time for rest and relaxation.'”
Vice reporter Serena Solomon, who moved to the US from Australia, wrote in 2016 that the first culture shock she faced in America was the sheer number of food products available.
“I grew up in Australia – a country not unlike the United States – but I was completely floored the first time I visited an American grocery store,” Solomon wrote for Vice.
“In Australia, there are only a few brands of milk, butter, and bread. Milk generally has one ingredient (you know,milk), the cheese isn’t fluorescent orange, and bread does not come in a can. In America, options for a single product type barely fit into one aisle. It was my first major experience of culture shock – which can feel like a hurtful reminder that you’re not ‘home’ anymore.”
Robin Zeitoun, a welder from France, told Vice he was frustrated by how inefficient certain things are in the US.
“It is so frustrating here. Nothing is easy. Nothing is efficient,” Zeitoun told Vice.
“To pay rent, you have to use a check? I have never written a check. The last time I got a check was maybe 20 years ago, from my granddad.
“Getting an apartment takes so long as opposed to other countries I have lived in where it’s just a handshake. That’s it.
“I went to the post office yesterday, and I was waiting in line for maybe an hour-and there were only five people in front of me. I felt like I went from a Western country to a third-world country. People here with money have access to things. The rest of the people are just trying to survive.”
And Chae An, an attorney from South Korea, told Vice she remembered being shocked the first time she saw children with braces.
“I had not seen or even heard of braces before [coming to America],” An told Vice.
“I had friends in Korea who had really messed up teeth, but it wasn’t necessarily seen as any kind of defect. I started seventh grade in the US and several of the kids had braces – the type with wires going across both upper and bottom teeth with a metal holder in front of each tooth. They looked almost like robots.”
In the US, “it’s very difficult to tell who’s wealthy and who’s not,” software designer named Aniruddh Chaturvedi said after moving from India in 2011.
“The wealthy people usually don’t have many material possessions. Every millionaire I know drives old cars, wears Levi’s jeans, etc. They tend to spend more on experiences,” Chaturvedi wrote in a Quora post.
“A lot of people I know who have fancy stuff usually go into credit card debt in order to fund their lavish lifestyle. It’s strange! Perhaps expensive material possessions are simply a form of validation that rich people usually derive from their work, their family, friends, etc, which may not necessarily be the case for the average consumer.”
“I’m almost certain that the 1% isn’t the main clientele for any luxury brand in the US.”
Anda Galffy, a writer and photographer from Romania, said she was shocked to see how informal Americans were with each other, even with their elders and authority figures.
“I think informality is a unique American value. It was one of the things that I found quite unique,” Galffy wrote in a blog post.
“Calling your elders, teachers and superiors by their first names was unheard of in Romania and it still is in most cultures I know. But the Americans’ informality doesn’t diminish the respect they have for other people. Calling someone by their first name is usually a sign of friendliness or acceptance, not a way to making one feel unimportant.”
She was also shocked to see the extent of America’s obesity problem.
“Coming from a country where we had barely enough food to survive, I was astounded to see people so obese that they were bound to an electric wheelchair to carry them around,” Galffy wrote.
“Sadly, obesity is not only condoned in this country, but rigorously defended through anti-discrimination laws.”
A Mexican immigrant wrote on Quora she was shocked — in a good way — by all the things provided at US schools, including subsidized meals, school buses, and air conditioning.
In Mexico, students either need to walk home for meals or buy food outside the school, wrote the immigrant, who used the name N. Lira in a Quora thread.
“Imagine my surprise on my first day of school in the United States,” she wrote. “The first class consisted of letting us watch the news during breakfast time. What!? Breakfast time and TV at school AND the food is free? I was almost too shy to get my servings because I didn’t want anybody to think that I was taking advantage of the situation.
“And at the end of the day I didn’t have to walk home under the blistering sun. The school bus was free! And – drum roll – it was air conditioned,” she continued.
“I could hardly believe how everything was so neat, organised, overflowing, free, shiny, comfortable and all I had to worry about were my grades! I was in school heaven. I often fantasized about how amazing it would be if my classmates from Mexico could experience the same things.”
Vast distances between places in the United States were a huge shock to Raul Marita of Romania.
“An 8-hour road trip is really not that long; it’s fairly common,” Marita wrote on Quora.
“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 I’ve realised there’s people that commute for over an hour every single day. I’ve also gotten the opportunity to drive from North Carolina to Montana (about 40 hours) twice. The US has every landscape imaginable.”
And people from different backgrounds have an easier time assimilating into American culture, he argued.
“There has been debate about this in recent times, but it still holds true,” Marita wrote.
“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.”
Catherine Rochereul, a culture blogger from France, said she was most surprised to see how widespread other languages are in the US, especially Spanish.
“First culture shock in the United States: the big-box home renovation stores in our neighbourhood have 100% bilingual signage: English on one side, Spanish on the other!” Rochereul wrote in a blog post.
“The United States is a country founded on immigration and it shows, not only in the stores. My son’s elementary school sends important information in French as well.”
Rochereul also experienced culture shock when it came to Americans’ obsession with guns.
“Honestly, I think the US should make getting a gun more difficult, especially for people with bad intentions,” she wrote.
“In France or Germany, I’ve never seen any shops, department stores, or whatever selling weapons. I also have no idea where I could buy a gun in my home countries-maybe from an online catalogue?
“It’s a gigantic difference that probably explains my cultural shock.”
On the other hand, Omer Joel, who spent most of his life in Israel, was surprised by how few guns he came across when he visited New York City.
“Contrary to popular belief, there are almost no guns on NYC streets. Neither are uniformed soldiers,” Joel wrote on Quora.
“The only guns I saw were in police officers’ holsters, and they were invariably small arms. Israeli cops sometimes carry assault rifles; railway security have submachineguns. No such thing in NYC, except for, possibly, in airports.
“Off-duty Israeli soldiers travel in their uniform … and often have to carry their assault rifles with them when off-duty. US soldiers apparently change to civilian clothes when off-duty and leave their rifles in their base’s armory.”
Ezra Mburugu, who came to the US from Kenya, said he was shocked that motorcycles were used mostly for recreation in the US, and not for more utilitarian purposes.
“Motorcycles in Western countries are used for leisure; in developing countries they are used to carry people and goods,” Mburugu wrote on Quora.
“For instance in our rural village, young men aspire to buy a Chinese motorbike since it offers them great convenience: carrying a 50-kilogram bag of fertiliser from the market center, carrying two to three bags of potatoes back home from a quarter-acre of farm in government forests, to carry agricultural produce to the market, or to make money by carrying people.”