Culture Shocking in the USA

I always say the biggest culture shock I experience is when visiting the USA. My American sister (we share a Father and were raised in different countries by different Mothers) does not understand this. Honestly, I don’t really understand it either. There is much I love about the United States whose culture I have been exposed to via films, television and music since as early as I can remember.

I can still recite several songs from Sesame Street which are forever engrained in my memory, and will leave this Earth believing Seinfeld to be the best television show ever made, perhaps with the exception of Breaking Bad. Then, there is the food. Let’s not even talk about that except to say that if I lived in the states, I think I would have a serious problem with overeating (more than I already do, that is).

As a kid I used to imagine eating out of these boxes, just like they did on the movies. Tyrhone wasn’t the only one following dreams in the USA, people!

Though I have visited the US several times, I am met with the same feeling every time I go there, the feeling that this is not my world.

Me on a wet San Francisco morning during our visit to the city…

A rather strange concept for an English speaking person in an English speaking country, let alone a country whose culture I have been exposed to my whole life.

As an Australian who has also lived in the UK and most recently Mexico, the thing I find most confronting about the US is the high level of customer service. I feel like this may actually be at the crux of my culture shock.

I am simply not used to people in the service industry (which I myself worked in for many years) being extremely polite and exceptionally attentive.

It creeps me out a little.

What do you mean you are going to refill my soda without me having to ask apologetically? And why do you not seem bothered by that?

And, what do mean it’s FREE REFILLS????!!! Is this Pizza Hut in the 1990’s???

Of course there is also this tendency I have to not want to speak when I visit the states. For some reason it is there that I feel the least eloquent, what with my funny Aussie/English hybrid accent and all.

I feel like a fool when I open my mouth, unsure of whether to say toe-mar-toe or toe-may-toe, soda or soft-drink, war-ter or wah-ter (water). Most of the time people don’t understand me, whilst I understand them perfectly (after developing an ear for their accent via 33 years of dedicated television viewing).

I blame Neighbours for never taking off in the US. It may have been the necessary bridge between cultures which would make ordering at a Starbucks drive-through SO MUCH EASIER for everyone.

Add Tyrhone into the mix, a South African who has lived in the UK, Australia and Mexico, and you have one very confused cashier who is too polite to break it to us that she cannot for the life of her understand what we are saying and just gives us the coffee for free, because it is easier than deciphering our drawn-out vowels.

True story.

In Valley Springs, California, the small town we stayed at during Tyrhone’s paramotor training, two hours from San Francisco, they don’t get a whole lot of international visitors. At ‘Hawg Dawgs’ the local (and very lovely) hot dog restaurant (yes, they exist, don’t knock ’em til you try ’em), the friendly waitress told us about a guy from New Zealand who passed through recently, as though we might know him.

It was really sweet.

Actual wild turkeys, running around just outside of town.

One of the reasons I travel is because I quite like being the odd one out. Perhaps because I’ve always felt different on the inside, when I travel, I feel like my external circumstances match my internal ones and therefore I feel more at peace. But for some reason, in the US I can’t help feeling like everyone knows the rules except me, like the dream you have where you walk on to a stage and forget your lines, and everyone is staring at you, waiting for you to take your cue.

I feel exposed and well, different.

There’s that word again.

A feeling which doesn’t often bother me in places like China, India, Indonesia or Mexico, so why the hell does it unsettle me there?

Perhaps it is a weird desire to fit in to a culture which looks similar to mine on the outside, but is actually vastly different. Perhaps it’s the fact that I look like everyone else, but know that I’m not.


What I do know, is that it is not a bad thing. It is the beauty of exploring places different to the one I was raised in, and it makes for some interesting encounters when people ask us, “Where ya from?”

Cue weird Australian/British/Americanized accent:

“Well, I’m Australian and he is South African and we met in London but have been living in Mexico for the last year.”

At ‘Eddie’s Grill’ in Valley Springs, CA, a place which serves the best BBQ ribs and banana cream pie I am ever likely to eat, the polite, sweet waitress backs away slowly, smiling, but confused. Suddenly her face lights up and she breaks into a huge grin.

“We had a guy from New Zealand in here a few weeks ago,” she tell us proudly.

“Yes, yes, we heard about him!” we reply knowingly, finding our common ground. It’s amazing to me how the world can feel so small and so big at the same time.

And if you happen to know a guy from New Zealand who has been to Valley Springs, California, please let him know he is the talk of the town.

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Culture Shocking in the USA — 52 Comments

  1. I totally get this Sarah. I feel like we’re living in an American part of Mexico at the moment and I’m constantly surprised at how different our cultures are. I find myself using different words to make myself understood too. Poor Rob though, its not just Holly no one can understand his Yorkshire accent!
    Kellie recently posted..Falling in love and falling apart in CampecheMy Profile

    • Aw, poor Rob. That cracks me up!!! You should implement compulsory screenings of ‘An Idiot Abroad’ in your community to bridge the cultural divide!!!! Karl Pilkington will save you!!!

  2. I have a love/hate relationship with the USA. Love the price and quantity of food. LOVE Mexican food.

    Hate the fact everything is so sweet and laced with high fructose corn syrup. Don’t like the quality of their dairy and red meat. And I really, really hate their customer service (I find it overzealous and intrusive).
    NZ Muse recently posted..Top three Couchsurfing momentsMy Profile

    • I’ll admit it is a little unsettling, but perhaps it’s more of a reflection of the lack of customer service in other countries? For example, I cringe very time I have to call my bank in Australia. I think the friendly service is something I could get used to! :-)

  3. The customer service industry in USA has very low salary compared to Australia. They need their tips to survive. Where in Aussie they get a good pay regardless.

    • Yes, that’s true, I’m sure if most of my salary was based on tips I would have smiled a lot more too. It’s just interesting to observe other cultures and the subtle (or not so subtle) differences.

  4. I’ve been away from the states in India and other than the food, I miss the customer service. I worked retail/waitressing both before becoming a nurse and was always one of those friendly people – not for tips but because its just how I was raised. Its normal to me.

    • Yes, I can understand how Americans are disappointed with service in other countries! In saying that, I was a flight attendant for 11 years, and always tried to deliver good service. Whilst some days it was easier than others, it always felt better to be kind.

  5. It is no surprise that a lot of Americans don’t travel so I’m sure you are a major novelty! When people (other Americans) find out what I do with my life I’d say at least 65% of them ask me if I’ve been to Australia!!! I’m like, really, Australia?!?! You know there’s a big world out there right? But we American’s love Australia. And I’ve found that a lot of Australian’s (not you, of course) don’t like American one bit. I always feel a bit sad for us Americans, loving that country that just won’t love us back.

    P.S. I also feel as though I don’t fit in the U.S. The more often I come back the less inclined I am to do so
    Kim recently posted..The catalyst. We all have the power to change.My Profile

    • Aw, that breaks my heart! For the record, most of the Aussies I know love going to the states. They love how cheap everything is, how much variety there is, and of course, the friendly people. Everyone we met in California was so sweet, and it’s been like that every time I’ve been stateside.

  6. I get it, too! I was born in the US and lived most of my life here, but I have travelled a lot, and I feel this way every time I return. Like you said:
    This is not my world.
    I really enjoy your blog and you writing. Thanks for sharing your world!
    Cynthia recently posted..Walkin’ In a Winter Wonder-LandMy Profile

    • Yes, culture is such a funny thing, it is beautiful and interesting but can also make us feel separate. I do believe we humans are more similar than different but for some reason we (me included) tend to focus on the differences.

  7. I always experience “reverse culture shock” when I return home to the US. Hard to explain it, but it just happens. Also, I wonder if your experience was quite amplified by staying in such a small town. Living in San Francisco, I do tend to come across a fairly well-traveled and multicultural group of people. Then again, SF is its own bubble! Funny story about the NZ guy!
    Sam recently posted..Mexico: The MisadventuresMy Profile

    • Yes, I experience it in Australia too. I’m sure it has everything to with being in developing countries for the last two years. If anything I think the small town was easier to handle than the city! It was really nice though, well off the tourist trail for sure and everyone was really nice! :-)

  8. I get that culture shock feeling in some places in the States and other places feel right at home- I wonder if there might be a certain city or state that you wouldn’t get that feeling in?

    And I seriously chuckled about that New Zealand comment. We get the ‘do you know Bob in Canada?’ when we say where we’re from, but we haven’t been asked if we know people from nearby countries!
    Emily recently posted..What to Know about ColombiaMy Profile

    • I’ve been to New York and even though it’s so busy I absolutely loved it. San Francisco was nice too, we just didn’t have a lot of time there. There are still a lot more places in the states I’d like to discover, so I look forward to seeing more of it in the future :-)

  9. I’m from here – and I often feel that this is not my world either. I think that is why I moved to NYC after traveling…. It’s a city full of people that feel that way. Which also makes for one strange place….
    Aurora recently posted..30 for 30sMy Profile

  10. Definitely enjoyed this as I’m fascinated by how USA is perceived to non-USA folks.
    I can relate on not wanting to speak or feeling different when you’re here. WHen I was 19 and lived in London for 3 months, I felt embarrassed being American. I often didn’t want to open my mouth out of fear, I’d be made fun of, grouped together as the typical stereotypical American and yet the UK has similaritiesto the USA that make it feel comfortable to me in many ways.
    Ten years later and many a visit to London and I laugh at myself for not wanting to speak, for so wanting to blend in when difference is everywhere, It’s a city full of foreigners!

    I agree that customer service can be over the top in the States. Yet, in London I was surprised how sales folk could seem to care less if you were in the store or not being so accustomed to extra mile service here. Same thing in Spain- often I’d enter a store and clerks would carry on there conversations as if they were at home in their living room and sometimes had to interrupt them to purchase something.

    Oh the beauty of culture shock and cultural differences!
    Lauren @Roamingtheworld recently posted..Reflections of what I gained from my first year in SpainMy Profile

  11. So funny to hear you say that you think American customer service is so friendly and helpful, because I actually am constantly disturbed when I try shopping in Asia because the shopkeepers follow me around and watch me like a hawk. I don’t know if this is because they think I’m going to shoplift or what, but it really creeps me out. Let a lady browse in peace! (Also, I nearly gave a shop assistant in Japan a heart attack because I was walking around trying on all of these shoes, and she just wanted me to SIT DOWN so that she could bring the shoes to me and slip them on my sweaty, smelly feet…)

    I do get what you mean about the almost sinister culture shock that can sneak up on you when visiting places that are almost, but not quite, home. Having grown up a stones throw from the U.S., I always assumed that Canada & the U.S. were pretty much the same. Once I moved there, however, I realized there were these sly little differences that threw me for a loop, and after living in the States for 7 years, when I went back to Canada to visit, I always felt like I oddly did not know my home country at all anymore and felt completely out of place. So even going from Canada to the U.S. (and back again) it’s jarring!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Feeling Blah about the Batu CavesMy Profile

  12. This is such an interesting post for me to read today, the day I’m back in the US for the first time in five months. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the more I travel, the more I realize how much the US is my home in a place that nowhere else will ever be. For example, this is the first time I’ve ever stepped foot in New Orleans. Yet today, here I am, driving my sister’s car down the street, pushing my shopping card through the market, and smiling back at the lady at Starbucks like I’ve been here all my life. I feel very much at home. The more I explore my own country, the more I like it.

    But, yeah, it will be a few days before I stop throwing toilet paper in the bin.
    Alex recently posted..Ask Me AnythingMy Profile

    • That’s good to hear Alex! When we returned to Mexico after our trip to the states, I felt my heart swell and it was rather strange. I said to Tyrhone, “Is this what patriotism feels like?” Enjoy your time state-side, I’d love to go to New Orleans!

  13. As an Aussie I totally get this! I find the same happens when I interact with Americans visiting Australia as well as the ones I meet overseas. I kind of presume we ought to understand each other, because our cultures are so similiar, and of course I know all about their lives from what I’ve seen on TV…so I start talking about something and they’re like, “…what?” lol
    Karyn @ Not Done Travelling (formerly plasticsux) recently posted..Doors Closing, Windows OpeningMy Profile

    • Hehe, yes we use so many different words for different things. My American sister tell me Americans don’t say ‘nearly’. They say ‘almost’, stuff like that :-)

  14. Isn’t it funny how the little differences can almost be more of a shock than the big ones?! I get the same feeling in Australia, it’s almost as if since everything is sort of familiar the little differences jump right out and slap you in the face. I did love the look on everyone’s face in Oz when I would start speaking though. In most of the places we travel people know just by looking at me that I am going to speak differently than they do. In Australia no body knows until I start speaking that i’m not from there and I love the mini double takes :)
    Jenny recently posted..Sleep, Eat, Work, Do – Krabi Town, ThailandMy Profile

    • Yes! It’s like when you go to a culture which you know to be vastly different than your own, you’re prepared for the shock, but in other Western cultures it kind of surprises you. I hope they re treating you well down there mate :-)

  15. This made me smile. I have a whole new appreciation for American customer service (and America itself, for that matter) after having lived in China for two years. Customer service there is non-existent, though sometimes you are followed around the store uncomfortably, and the general population can be a little brusque. As soon as I arrived back in the U.S., I was overwhelmed by how nice everyone was. People hold the door for each other, cars stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, and service personnel are friendly and helpful. It made me proud to be an American, frankly, and very happy to be home. For now anyway :-)
    Heather recently posted..36 Hours in TokyoMy Profile

  16. Do you feel that way in bigger cities too? Portland can be over-the-top friendly, so you might be really freaked out there.

    I honestly feel the same way being in YOUR country right now. The customer service we’ve had here has been pretty bad, well, except for the IGA. The ladies at the IGA in Mt. Lawley have been really lovely.

    I also find it odd how few runners and walkers in the park even exchange a glance, much less a smile. I got one older lady to smile at me. What is wrong with me??
    Carmel recently posted..WHAT TO DO IN VANG VIENG (IF YOU’RE OVER 30)My Profile

  17. Awwww, I love that you took pictures of the Oak trees, turkeys and cows! My husband and I traveled for most of last year and knowing that I had Northern California to come back to made re-entry a little easier!

  18. I had exactly the same feelings the first time we visited the U.S but my reaction was completely the opposite, I loved it! I now get really upset when we leave the U.S as I know we’re going back to bad customer service. It’s funny that whenever I get there I have the feeling that “this is my place” regardless of where in the country that it.

    A lot of Brits say they hate the whole “Hi, how are you today?” aspect of America as they think it feels fake but it makes me a much more positive person when I’m there. So funny that someone asked if you knew someone in New Zealand! The best we ever got asked is if we’d been to the royal wedding 😉 I was quite tempted to make up my own Will & Kate story.
    Maddie recently posted..New York City the second time aroundMy Profile

  19. Funny reflection on Americans not understanding accents. Many of us don’t get out much or watch foreign movies or TV. I remember the first time I traveled abroad with my sister in Ireland, we had an entire conversation with a sheep farmer and couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It was hard for us to believe he was speaking English. I can understand the Australian accent pretty well, though, thanks to marathon episodes of Summer Heights High.

  20. As an American I think it’s hysterical that Chinese take out boxes stood out to you – I would NEVER think of that as something American but now that you mention it, it totally is! And people are always eating out of them in movies! By the way, I LOVE the Australian accent. My company has Australian clients and I love skyping with them and listening to them talk :)
    Anna | The Blonde Banana recently posted..Packable: Roberta Freymann’s Global Chic CollectionMy Profile

  21. I totally get the Chinese take out boxes – the first time I visited the States (I am Austrian) I bought a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and ate it right out of the tub (inspired by American TV shows/movies too) :-)

    I actually can confirm that Americans are fascinated by Australians, as they generally think I am Australian and are soo excited about that (that’s why I started telling them I am from “Europe”, it’s just easier as hardly anyone knows where Austria is).
    Irene @ Freelancers on the Road recently posted..A Road Trip in FuerteventuraMy Profile

  22. Hi Sarah, this is a very interesting and entertaining writing. It’s fascinating to learn about your insight about the US. It is a common belief here that Europeans and Australians are not too fond of the US culture. It’s good that there’s something about it that you enjoy. We’re kind of spoiled with the high level of customer service here that when we travel we have to remind ourselves that we are not in the US and gear ourselves with a lot of patience when dealing with lack of customer service.
    Marisol recently posted..The Colorful Cityscape of ReykjavikMy Profile

  23. Well I think culture shocks to different places are normal and I think it’s fun too. You get to learn a lot of things and maybe enjoy the beauty of every place once you know them after you visit the place.