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Culture shock living in the USA

Culture shock affects anybody who moves abroad and it can be a frustrating, isolating time for an expat far removed from his or her homeland. One of the ways of addressing culture shock – or differences in culture including values, beliefs, social customs and traditions, routines and ways of doing things – is how you deal with it. Whether you treat it as a serious hurdle to overcome or have a quiet chuckle at the peculiarities of your new home, it often comes down to your attitude and approach.

The thing about the US and the melting pot culture it embraces is that so much can feel different. For an Englishman in the New World, things can sometimes seem the same on the surface – from the language to the television shows. But peel away the layers and, as with any foreign country, there are subtle differences. Here are a few of those culture shocks (from a British perspective).


Tipping and Tax

Americans love to tip. Be it for great service, the server’s low minimum wage or for the feel-good factor, tipping is entrenched in American society. Be prepared to hand over some of your hard-earned dollar for service in restaurants and bars, for haircuts, taxi rides or in fact to anyone that offers a personal service. But remember to add the tax on a product or service to the final purchase price and make it a 10% minimum tip or incur the wrath of the server.

Driving Miss Daisy

First, adjust to driving on the other side of the road (the right-hand side). Then, allow for the vast numbers of SUVs and 4WDs passing either side of you on the freeway. After that, marvel at the times you hit the windshield wiper when looking for the indicator or how the stop light at the traffic signal jumped from red to green without ever passing amber. Bring in the four-way stop at any given road junction and you’ll be looking for the bus next time you travel.

Size and Diversity

You won’t necessarily be surprised at the size of the country compared to the UK but you might find the regional, lingual and cultural differences across the 50 states of the US something to behold. Mainstream American television shows can give an unrealistic impression of the country’s diversity. Cities like New York obviously have wide-ranging multi-cultural influences but venture further afield to the distant corners of the North American continent to discover opposing climates, changes in attitudes, unique festivities and a host of ethnic origins in any one of the semi-autonomous states, each one with its own strong sense of identity.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

There are a myriad of broader social and cultural differences but what about the everyday minor points of difference? Electricity runs in the UK on 240 volts but only 110 volts in the US (ditch your electric goods or invest in a decent transformer). Door locks turn in opposite directions to those in the UK and light switches flip in opposite ways. Chocolate tastes unusual (think Hershey’s not Cadbury’s) and power outages are generally more frequent.

The key is to embrace change, not dwell on the differences. Enjoy the journey, relish the uniqueness of your situation and join in, sign up and get involved in the local community to ensure that your adjustment to life in the US is fun, worthwhile and memorable.

Russell Ward is a British expat living on Sydney’s Northern Beaches where he writes about his search for a life less ordinary at, one of Australia’s leading expat and travel blogs, he can be followed on Twitter and Instagram as @russellvjward.

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