17 Common European Behaviors That Americans Just Can’t Wrap Their Heads Around

Over 1,864 miles of the Atlantic Ocean stand between America and Europe, but it’s not just distance that divides us—there’s a cultural barrier, too. U.S. transatlantic travelers often find themselves perplexed or surprised by behaviors and lifestyle quirks that are perfectly normal ‘on the other side of the pond.’ Here, we describe 17 common European habits that don’t translate well!

Long Vacations

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Europeans are accustomed to legally mandated paid vacations from work of four weeks (or more) annually and can even take this leave concurrently. Having an entire month to relax, travel, or visit family seems like a fantasy to most Americans, who are typically allotted only two weeks of vacation time and frequently take even less. This can make some of us consider moving to Europe permanently!

Public Displays of Affection

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While not true for every European country, many people there are more comfortable with PDA than Americans are, especially in places like France, Italy, and Spain. Expatica reports that it isn’t uncommon to see couples kissing, caressing each other, or embracing in public places—something that many U.S. citizens aren’t used to and may feel uncomfortable witnessing.

Closing for Lunch

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How often have you visited a U.S. business to find them closed for a 2-hour lunch break? Probably never! In many European countries, especially warmer ones in the Mediterranean, shops and businesses shut down for a midday break or even a siesta. Many Americans find this jarring, as they’re accustomed to a more continuous workday and often work through lunch.

Cars Not Taking Priority

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Walking and cycling are important in European city life, particularly in cities like Brussels and Amsterdam. Local laws, infrastructure, and cultural norms support alternative transportation, and many commuters value daily exercise. Americans (raised in a car-dependent country) can be frustrated at the lack of parking and the blanket priority given to bikes and pedestrians. 

Multi-Course Meals

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If you like to eat quickly and move on, European dining might not be for you. Many European countries have a leisurely, relaxed, and elongated dining custom, with multi-course meals served over several hours alongside copious wine. Some U.S. citizens find eating an appetizer, main course, and dessert, with long breaks in between, too long-winded and yearn for a ‘quick bite.’

Sunday Shopping Ban

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In some European countries, Sundays are designated for rest and family time, and most businesses, except restaurants and entertainment venues, are banned from being open on Sundays. Despite religion being important to many Americans, consumerism has won out. Most of us expect stores to be open daily, so finding stores closed on Sundays can be unexpectedly inconvenient. 

Formal Titles

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European society still respects official titles like ‘sir,’ ‘madam,’ and ‘doctor’ when addressing someone, even in casual situations. American culture is more informal, and using titles can seem unnecessarily formal and a touch pretentious. Indeed, CNN states that the term ‘ma’am’ has even become somewhat offensive in the U.S. when used in certain contexts!

Paid Toilets

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Public restrooms in Europe can require a small fee to use, hence the British phrase ‘spending a penny,’ a euphemism for urinating. Paying to use the bathroom is most common in busy public areas, like bus stations or landmarks, and is something many Americans find strange and inconvenient. In the U.S., it’s almost always ‘free to pee!’

The Metric System

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Most European countries have adopted the metric system and don’t display the equivalent imperial measurements. Americans, raised with miles, pints, gallons, feet, and pounds, find this foreign system of weights and measures confusing and frustrating—often having to use a calculator to do the math. It can make a simple trip to the grocery store very challenging!

Vacation Homes as Investments

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In America, a vacation home is traditionally kept as a second home for holidaying or lending to friends, not rented out to strangers for profit. Europeans, however, often see such property as an investment and use their second homes as a source of income. This idea can be puzzling and novel to Americans, although the advent of Airbnb and similar platforms is slowly changing this.

All-day Bakeries

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Fresh bread and pastries are a daily staple in many European cultures, with long-life alternatives and store-bought products being shunned for freshly-baked options, and many European bakeries open early and stay open late. Americans, accustomed to grabbing pre-packaged bread at the grocery store, might find this a strange (yet delicious) novelty.

Free Healthcare

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According to Expat Financial, almost every country in Europe has some form of universal healthcare, meaning citizens receive ‘free’ healthcare, typically paid for by obligatory insurance contributions from working people. Americans, accustomed to a complex, often expensive, healthcare system, find this concept of ubiquitous medical care almost utopian.

Afternoon Snacks

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With smaller meals and more time for breaks during working hours, Europeans often enjoy a small afternoon snack, like pastries or cured meats. This additional meal can seem excessive to Americans, who typically eat more food in one sitting but stick to three meals a day. This cultural habit can lead to overeating when U.S. tourists visiting Europe decide to indulge with the locals!

Public Nudity

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In general, Europeans are much more comfortable with casual nudity, and it’s not uncommon to see things like ‘live sex shows’ and ‘sex shops’ advertised in cities. Naturist beaches and nude saunas are also commonplace in some countries. Americans, raised with a more prudish, puritanical view of nudity, might find this public exposure a bit too explicit to handle.

Paid Parental Leave

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Many European countries offer generous paid parental leave, and not just for new mothers—both maternity and paternity leave are a thing! The idea is that new parents should be able to bond with their new baby and enjoy the first few months of parenthood without worrying about finances—a foreign concept in the U.S., where short-lived maternity pay is the only concession.

Multigenerational Households

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In Europe, it isn’t uncommon for families to consist of adults, children, and grandparents living together under the same roof. Many adult children live with or near their parents well into adulthood and aren’t expected to move out when they reach 18. In contrast, Americans tend to favor earlier independent living, and most elderly people live in care homes, not with family.

Leisurely Strolls

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In American cities, life is high-paced and high-stress, with an emphasis on making money and utilizing every minute efficiently. Europeans tend to have a more laid-back approach and often take leisurely strolls simply to unwind, think, or enjoy nature. While Americans may find this frustrating, a study in Research Gate proved several benefits, including less anxiety and longer lifespans.

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