19 European Habits that Americans Just Don’t Understand

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By Darryl Henderson

It’s always a culture shock when you travel to a different country, yet nothing stands in more stark contrast than certain habits and customs between Americans and Europeans. To illustrate, here are 19 things Europeans do that Americans just can’t understand.

Tipping Isn’t Required

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Tipping in restaurants and cafes in America is a must, and most people in the U.S. will add a tip to most types of service. Meanwhile, in Europe, tipping is very much a choice based on whether you think you’ve received exemplary service (or are just feeling generous that day!).

Work-Life Balance

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In the U.S., long working hours and overtime are often the norm. This is a sharp contrast to most European countries, where there is a bigger focus on leisure time. According to Immigration Ultimate via LinkedIn, the Netherlands has the shortest working week at 33.2! Americans could only dream of that!

Relationship with Public Transportation

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For most Americans, public transportation is simply a way to get from A to B – and a commute certainly isn’t something you look forward to. Yet, in Europe, there’s more of a culture around public transportation, with a focus on reliability, punctuality, and reserved seating for a smoother ride.

Social Drinking Customs

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In the U.S., the legal drinking age is a lot higher than it is in Europe; not only that but the relationship between Americans and alcohol could be considered a lot more fast-paced than in Europe. Europeans put a lot of focus on savoring alcohol and slower, more social drinking.

Greeting Customs

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Americans usually opt for a simple verbal greeting or a respectful handshake. However, greeting customs in Europe can be much more personal. Many Europeans greet even new acquaintances with a kiss on the cheek—or two. This can be jarring for Americans who prefer more personal space!

Afternoon Siestas

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In European countries like Spain, Greece, and Italy, a midday nap, known as a siesta, is an accepted habit. This is to avoid the hotter temperatures, with most shops shutting during this time. For Americans who are used to 24-hour services and cities that never sleep, this can be a surprising practice.

Coffee Culture

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While Americans undoubtedly take their Starbucks orders very seriously, Europeans have an extremely rich coffee culture that isn’t as fast-paced. Huffpost explains never to order a milky coffee after 11 a.m. in Italy, either, as milk-based coffees are considered breakfast drinks. You’ll certainly get some strange looks if you do!

Smoking Habits

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Europe has a more relaxed attitude to smoking, which can be a surprising experience for an American who is used to the stricter smoking bans in public places. Smoking tends to be a more common pastime for many Europeans, especially outside cafes and restaurants.

Grocery Shopping Routines

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When venturing out for groceries, most Americans want to make as few trips as possible. This means bulk-buying at larger supermarkets or warehouse stores. Meanwhile, in Europe, there is more focus on frequent trips for fresher, higher-quality ingredients at specialized markets.

Street Food Culture

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Street food is popular in the United States; there’s no doubt about that. However, there’s a big focus on fast – and rather unhealthy – food on the go. In Europe, vibrant markets and street food are more culture-focused, with regional and cultural specialties being offered from a variety of cities.

Their Focus on Recycling

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Europeans take recycling and waste management very seriously. They tend to be more strict about recycling and waste separation, but people in the U.S. have a much more lax view. The Guardian reports that people in the U.S. recycle only around 5% of their plastic waste, which, frankly, Europeans would find outrageous!

Leisurely Dining Culture

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In the United States, dining out can be a fast-paced affair. Restaurants focus on turning over tables quickly to attract the most customers—and a big tip. In Europe, a slower-paced dining culture is key, with Europeans often spending hours at a table with family and friends!

Less Personal Space

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The amount of personal space a European is prepared to give can be daunting to an American. In some countries, Europeans often seem unaware of the personal space of others; bumping into other people is totally accepted, especially in crowded streets and cities.

Access to Healthcare

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Healthcare is one of the most significant differences between Europe and the U.S. European countries usually have a universal healthcare system with much lower treatment costs, more accessible checkups, and often, it’s free! In the U.S., most struggle with healthcare costs and expensive private insurance, which is tragic.

Dress Codes and Fashion

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The fashion sense on the streets of European cities can be surprising for many Americans, who adopt a more casual dress code on a daily basis. Many Europeans dress extremely formally and chic, even for everyday errands. There is also a bigger emphasis on designer fashion brands in European cities.


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Being able to speak more than one language is the norm for many Europeans. There’s a huge focus on bilingualism in European society and a focus on multiple language skills learned during education, yet most Americans aren’t proficient in multiple languages unless they push themselves to learn in their spare time.

More Compact Living

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The size and layout of most homes in America and Europe can vary greatly, with a focus on larger living spaces in the U.S. European countries, on the other hand, find more compact living the more popular choice and tend to have different preferences when it comes to urban versus suburban living.

Taking Longer Vacations

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Europeans focus much more on regular vacations than Americans, with more frequent breaks from work throughout the year. As CNBC reminds us, most European countries offer at least 20 days of paid vacation time, and national holidays and religious festivals allow for time off work. We Americans could only dream!

Communication Style

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Finally, European conversations may be a little jarring for the average American. They tend to rely on dry, sarcastic humor and are generally more blunt. Americans have a more open and straightforward communication style, where meaning is often made clear. So, don’t get offended when Europeans say it how it is!

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