Expat Insights

10 Cultural Differences – USA & Europe Part I

american in europeThis post is for fun and to simply share cultural differences/ways of living I noticed when I first came to Vienna, comparing it to what I have been used to in the US in an educational way.  Maybe you will learn something new and realize something about yourself or your culture. Enjoy this post!

For more information on Austrian culture, check out: Customs and Habits in Austria

1. Paid Sick Leave:  If you are employed and too sick to go to work, in Austria you need to go to the doctor within 2 days and get a confirmation paper (Krankenstand) saying you have been sick in order to get sick-day pay. For me in the states, I could call in sick, and only if I was sick for many days I needed to show proof from a doctor. Living in Vienna, you need confirmation from a medical professional and have to go to the doctors office — even if you’re still sick, you got to get up and go (unless you are extremely sick, then you can call a house doctor to visit you).  

So, when I am sick, I go to a walk-in clinic popular with English speakers on the second, and I always make sure I get there 15 minutes before the clinic opens to get a good spot (because many people can be waiting in line to see the doc).  When you’re at the clinic, make sure you provide your insurance card, and keep your ears open for hearing your last name and the door number (in German) to talk to the general physician.  Check out English-Speaking Doctors from the US Embassy Vienna Website and Doc Finder-Vienna.

2. Excuse Me: In the US, when we bump into someone, we typically say ”sorry.” At the store, when we want to reach in front of someone to grab an item, usually we say ”excuse me” as a warning that we will ”invade” their personal space for a moment. I notice these sayings and gestures are not so common here, and I personally have been told there is no need to apologize when a person bumps into me (because automatically I say ”sorry” even if I didn’t bump into them!).

vienna, austria, american in europe3. Coffee & Water: Growing up in the states and going out for brunch, coffee would be served in a large mug and if you want water, you order it seperatly.  In Vienna I like how the server brings water with your coffee, and I think it’s to help you stay hydrated from the dehydrating effects of the caffeinated drink.  In Italy, it is customary to drink your water before you drink espresso, otherwise it is seen as rude.

4. Closed on Sundays: We Americans have been spoiled with conveniences: Stores, restaurants, shops and cafes usually are open every day, into late hours of the night. Then you have super store Walmart open 24/7, so you can purchase that cookie dough ice-cream at 2am with no problem.  Having such places closed in Vienna on Sunday can cause an American to have a panic attack — and joking aside, is one of the most common complaints Americans (and perhaps other expats) have about Vienna.

Sunday is literally taken as a rest day in this city, so your best bet is to get all your major shopping done by Saturday.  In certain apartment buildings, you can’t even use the washing machine or make loud noise on this day, so what you just gotta do in Vienna is to get use to it — plan ahead, make sure you have your groceries and stuff ready for Sonntag and if worst comes to worse, you can go to the select few grocery stores at train stations, (brace yourself for long lines), Turkish markets, or pharmacies open on Sunday if need be.

5. Did Someone Say Goat Milk? Yep — goat milk, sheep milk, sheep cheese, spelt flour, etc are very common in Vienna’s grocery stores.  I find this really cool that there is much more than typical cow-milk products available because in the US, usually one has to purchase uncommon products in a health food store.  In addition, there are much more lactose-free options in Vienna in cafes and restaurants now– allowing milk for your coffee to be easily substituted with a dairy-free option.

IMG_03036. Typical Baking Products Not So Typical in Austria: Vanilla extract. Brown sugar. Baking soda. Chocolate chips. Such little things needed to make those famous chocolate chip cookies end up being a burden for an American to find in Vienna.  Usually one has to go to an exotic food market, gourmet shop, or international store, as these items are not found in normal grocery stores. You can also be lazy and ask your mom to ship you these products, but they’re going to be more expensive than the transportation ticket you need to travel and purchase the products yourself in the city.


7. Alcohol is Much More Accepted : Laws in Vienna say you can drink alcohol in public starting from age 18, compared to the age of 21 in the US.  In some places in Austria, you can be 16 years old to purchase beer or wine (no hard liquor) with ID.  This is definitely a huge cultural difference between USA and Austria, and perhaps an exciting one for young college students visiting the European country.

On Mariahilferstrasse, a popular shopping street in Vienna, when a new store is opened, it is common to see a table stand with champagne glasses for visitors to consume during the grand opening.  Public events highlighting the celebration of something also serve free alcohol. In my personal life, school events such as parent evenings offer wine, a definite difference to what I have been use to in the states where parent evenings provided water and juice.  So to me, alcohol is much more open, accepted and consumed in Austria than the US. 

8. Watch out For the Side Puddles and Dog Poo: Even though public urination is banned in Austria, some men still pee around the corners and against building walls, from which pee that runs down onto the sidewalk where you will most likely step into it. This situation was all new to me as a small-town woman when I first came to Vienna, and this goes the same for dog poo – even though owners must pick up after their dogs, some don’t —  so you need to be aware of where you’re walking too.

IMG_19449. Counting Numbers – 1,2,3:  When you ask an American to show you with their hands the numbers one, two and three, they will use their index finger as one, middle finger as two, and ring finger as three.  In Austria and most of Europe, they start the number one by using their thumb first, then the index finger (two) and middle finger (3).  So when you are in Vienna, and you want to communication to the bartender or waiter you want one beer, you use your thumb (like a thumbs up).  This is another cultural habit I have to get use to, especially since I work at a kindergarten and count numbers with children, I have to re-train myself to use my thumb instead of my index finger when counting numbers.

10. Paying for the Toilet: Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between USA and European cities are the paid toilets. In Europe you pay a small fee (usually 50 cent) to go to the bathroom. At first I was flabbergasted for paying to use the toilet, but it is very common in Europe and something to accept.

What are some cultural differences you notice between your country and another?

Thanks for reading!


  • VictoriaK

    A good list of differences; after four years here I could probably add a dozen more if I thought about them anymore! Regarding chocolate chip cookies (and many, many other favorite dishes from the US), we have adopted a “When in Rome…” approach and have found we prefer our “Austrian” recipe!

    You can easily substitute vanilla bean for extract (2 or so inches of scraped bean=1 teaspoon of extract). Or, if you prefer extract, which is essentially vanilla bean steeped in alcohol, purchase any size bottle of vodka (the cheaper the better) and stuff in a few beans. Put it in your cabinet and voila! you’ll have extract in a couple of months. As for chocolate chips, a chopped bar of Milka stands in beautifully for Nestle or Ghirabaldi. And, Wiener Braun Zucker works just fine, too. Since the major grocers carry all of those items, no need to run around town when you’re in the mood for chocolate chip cookies!

  • Erin

    I absolutely LOVE this post! Yes to all of the 10 differences you mentioned!! We experience them all here in Salzburg. Especially with the baking products! We had my husband’s Mom ship baking soda here and brought bags of chocolate chips from the USA too! Ohh the things we’ll do for classic chocolate chip cookies now 🙂

  • Ursula

    Hi there,
    Other Substitutes:
    Baking Soda = Natron
    2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract = 1 Package Vanillezucker
    Go for Kochschokolade for your Chocolat Chips (less sweet, less dissolving)
    An Other American in Vienna

  • Ryan

    I liked the shops not being open on Sunday in Germany. Most people spent time with their families and end up window shopping. One practice I am glad they have mostly stopped is being closed midday for 2 hours for nap time or lunch. I really don’t know why they closed but they used to do it in the 70’s.

  • Holly

    Read this going: yes!!! that’s what I’ve been saying!! Since I spend 99.9% of my first conversations with people talking about the differences in America, I’d like to try and add a crucial one…
    Supermarkets. Biggest difference between pretty much all of Europe and America, I think. Here, you see people standing at Hofer or Billa or Spar or wherever, reading every produce label. Why? Because every Austrian is nationalistic about at least one thing, food. They want their “true, honest, simple, Austrian” produce (to quote my Austrian confidant). There are more billboards advertising Steiermark berries than…anything.
    I could go on and on about the differences between supermarkets; no silly fake rainstorms for veggies, only seasonal vegetables, one peanut butter brand called, “American Peanut Butter,” similarly, white sliced bread also called, “American Sandwich Bread,” everyone brings their own bags and pack their groceries in record speed, etc, etc, etc… But the huge surprise to me: supermarkets are HOT. In the US, you walk in and are freezing by the time you’ve reached the bananas. Gotta love the European attitude of no A/C.
    Am I right? Or am I spending way too much time in Hofer? (Yes, Spar and Eurospar are fancy but think about the average store in the US, we don’t call them markets for a reason.)

    • Michelle

      Ah yes, can totally relate to what you are saying! Yes, I am happy I don’t have to be freezing in a grocery stores here! I use to complain about the lack of AC here, but now I prefer it, since I find being in a AC room all day unhealthy 🙂 except those old trams…on a hot summer day it can be brutal in there!

  • Lan Nguyen

    I enjoyed reading your post! I plan to apply for studying abroad in Austria. Is there any similar in life between USA and Austria that you have realized?

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