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What differentiates Europeans from Americans: the cultural gap across the Atlantic

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Written by Maciamo Hay (last updated in April 2018)

The Western world (i.e. Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand) could be considered as a single "Western civilisation". 'Westernness' could be defined by people who are ethnically or culturally European, in other words people of European descent or speaking a European language as their mother-tongue.

Europe itself has the greatest linguistic and cultural diversity of the Western world. However, the common history, geography and socio-political evolution of the European continent, as well as the cultural divergences that have occured in former colonies, have resulted in the creation of a common basis for European culture that contrast (sometimes sharply) with the USA or the rest of the Western world.

Here is a summary of my observations on the differences between Europeans and Americans (USA). These are of course the major trends, and exceptions exist everywhere. Irish and Polish people, for instance, tend to be closer to the American mainstream than to some of their fellow Europeans. Canadians are somewhere in between, sometimes more European, but often closer to their southern neighbours.

Feeling of time & distances

Our perception is shaped by our environment. A 100-year old house or church is considered new by Europeans, but old by Americans. I have even heard Americans think that 200 years was 'ancient', a term that for Europeans normally refers to the Ancient World, i.e. the Antiquity, not antiques!

Perceptions are reversed when it comes to distances. Europeans would tend to think that driving 100 km is quite a long way, while for Americans that would be rather near. This is due to the much higher density of population in Europe, and the smaller size of Europe (believe it or not the EU is over twice smaller than the USA). Yet, Europeans travel much more than Americans, inside or outside their own continent. This might be because Europeans are used to go "abroad" since their childhood, European countries being comparatively so small, which makes them more comfortable than Americans with the idea of travelling outside their country. Presumably, Seattle residents feel the same way about travelling to Canada, which lies just across the border.

Cars

Almost all Europeans have cars with manual gears, while Americans have a marked preference for automatic ones.

European cars are also very different in style than their American counterparts. American cars tend to be more massive and squarer, because size matters in the States. Americans have a fondness for (very) long limousines as well as pick-up trucks (in the countryside). Both are much rarer in Europe, hardly ever seen in many regions. Europeans like rounder designs of cars. Smaller cars are much more common in Europe, probably because Europe has a more urbanised population and small cars are easier to park in cities, especially on pavements/sidewalks of historical cities, where large parking lots are rarer than in the USA.

Washing machines

European washing machines normally have only a cold water inlet (the water brought to adequate temperature inside the machine) as opposed to both a hot and a cold water inlet in the USA. European washing machines are almost always loaded from the front, as opposed to the top in the USA. Interestingly, Japan decided to follow the American system.

Measure System

All Europeans use the metric system (metres, grammes, litres, Celsius, etc.). Although Americans do learn it at school, the vast majority of them still use the old English Imperial system (yards, miles, pounds, Fahrenheit, etc.) for everyday life.

Date and time system

Europeans write the date in the format "Day Month Year", whereas Americans use "Month Day, Year". Americans usually consider that the week starts on Sunday and ends on Saturday, while in Europe it always starts on Monday and finishes on Sunday.

Most non-English-speaking Europeans use the 24h system, as opposed to the 12h system used in English-speaking countries.

Public holidays

The International Workers' Day (a.k.a. Labour Day or May Day, on 1st May) is a national holiday in (most) European countries, but not in the USA. EU countries also celebrate Europe Day (5th or 9th May), although it is not an official holiday (yet).

Social customs

Traditions like baby showers and bachelor(ette)'s night with strip-teasers originated in the USA, and even though some made their way to Europe, at least in some countries or social circles, they are still regarded as typically American. For most European this is something they only see in American TV series and movies. The same is true of Thanksgiving and Halloween (although the latter has exported itself pretty successfully to Europe and East Asia from the late 1990's onwards). American marketing strategies have also given rise to nationwide phenomena like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which, as potent as they are in the US, hardly have any equivalent in European countries (except on Amazon).

Schooling

Schools and universities are free in most European countries. Europeans see access to university as a right, while American families often have to save for years for their children to attend one. What is more, universities in most countries around the world have entry exams, while only a few European countries do (like the UK).

North Americans have prom night at the end of the last academic year of high school (and sometimes also at the end of middle school). It is a rather formal party where boys wear suits and come accompanied with their date wearing evening dress. As American movies and series show, prom night is often a highlight in an American teenager's life. Europeans have no equivalent tradition, although informal end-of-studies parties are common (often several ones, which do not necessarily take place in the school).

Languages

Foreign-language learning in Europe is now compulsory in every country since primary (elementary) school. Most Europeans learn 2 to 4 foreign languages, for obvious reasons. Americans usually only speak English (+ their mother tongue for immigrants) because they do not need more in their huge country.

Politics

Europeans tend to be more liberal regarding soft drugs, prostitution, alcohol, abortion, or cloning (but interestingly not so for GM food). Americans on the contrary grant greater freedoms when it comes to gun possession, as well as driving a car from a relatively young age (14 to 16 years old, while the norm is 18 years old in Europe).

Government system

Americans have a "Congress", while Europeans all have "Parliaments".

American politcs is chiefly curtailed to two parties, which would be center-right and right, but lack influential left-wing or green parties. It is rare for a European country to have less than 3 main parties. It is often 4 or 5, which makes politics less bipolar (but often also more complicated to reach agreements).

The American police (FBI) is much more "aggressive" than the police in Europe. Ccar chases, breaking into houses with guns shouting "police, don't move, hands on your head !" or similar scenes are almost non-existent in Europe. Suspects in the US are detained more easily and interrogated more harshly. Americans also go to court much more promptly than in Europe.

The legality of guns in the States also makes daily life and one's sense of safety completely different from Europe.

Patriotism

Americans put much more emphasis on patriotism than Europeans. Being a patriot is a way of life in the USA. The term is rarely used in Europe.

Few Europeans would mind rational critics of their country's government, while a good deal of Americans find them offensive or disrespectful (especially from non-Americans). Some Americans go as far as regarding criticism toward their government as a personal attack (although attitudes are starting to change). Europeans are only too happy to hear other people criticising their own politicians or their country's problems.

Religion

Americans are much more religious than Europeans. Church going is very popular in the US, where it is seen as an indispensable way of socialising. In Europe the practise has almost entirely disappeared and is mostly limited to the elderly, or special events like weddings or Christmas.

God is often mentioned by American politicians, but almost never in Europe. Mixing religion and politics is taboo in many European countries (notably France), due to the stricter separation of state and religion. There are exceptions, such as Poland or Spain, but even these countries do not appear very religious compared to the USA.

More extremely, a majority of Americans would find offensive for someone to openly claim not to believe in god, whereas the opposite is often true in Europe.

Circumcision

Circumcision is almost unheard of in Europe, as in most of the non-Muslim and non-Jewish world. The practise became very popular in the USA after WWII, and over 90% of baby boys born during the Cold War era (until the 1980's) were automatically circumcised, with or without their parents' consent. It is becoming less common nowadays. Nevertheless, a 2002 survey revealed that 79% of American men were circumcised. The prevalence was lower among Hispanic men, and lowest of all in men born outside the US.

Political correctness

Due to their great ethnic and religious diversity, Americans have developed a more acute sense of political correctness, in an attempt to attenuate frictions between the various groups. Europeans still associate very much with their place of birth with their ethnicity, language and culture. In fact, until recently, adjectives for language, ethnic group and nationality would often match (with notable exceptions, like Belgium and Switzerland). In the US (almost) everybody has the same nationality and language, and it is ethnicities and religions that differentiate people first, hence the greater importance for respect toward other ethnicities and religions in the USA.

In Europe the emphasis of respect is put on cultures and languages. Making aggressive jokes about a particular linguistic or cultural group (e.g. calling the French "cheese-eating monkeys") because of the importance of cheese in French culture), for instance, is the equivalent of attacking a particular ethnic or religious group in the US. It's a big no-no. However, making fun of religions is usually quite acceptable in Europe.

Socialising rules

There is a cultural tendency for Americans, and New World people in general (Americas, Australia) to be more open, friendly, helpful, but also hypocritical toward strangers, compared to the more reserved and blunt Europeans. That phenomenon was observed by many cultural psychologists. The likely reason is that societies in the New World were built on immigration and people are generally more mobile and very likely to meet people from different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. In such a diverse environment it is helpful to be open and sociable to create new connections, as immigrants had to start a new life from nothing and fit with a wide range of different people. But it is also a good idea to keep your beliefs and convictions to yourself to avoid shocking or hurting other people's sensitivities, as it's harder to know what people think and feel in a multicultural environment than in a homogeneous rural community in Europe. Americans are famed for this well-meaning habit of not telling everything we think and expressing everything we feel in order to avoid conflicts or to avoid unnecessary disagreements. Europeans instead aren't as a whole that afraid of expressing themselves and of being nice to others only if and when they really feel like (not because that's the polite thing to do). They weren't culturally taught to save face by adjusting their behavior to not annoy other people. Instead they value their self-expression, self-esteem and indivituality above even things like social peace, good relations with neighbors and mates and their social face. One could say that Americans value more agreeableness, while Europeans favour outspokenness. American political correctness is a result of this cultural propensity to agreeableness. The Brits are an exception as they fit somewhere in between Americans and continental Europeans. They may be even more reserved than the European average, but their generally polite and friendly attitude makes them much less blunt than the majority of Europeans.

Food

Europeans all have many traditional dishes as well as regional culinary specialties. Specialities tend to be very local, so that some pastries can be seen in one town, but not 100 km away.

Europeans eat more varied and balanced meals (especially in southern cultures) and less fast food than Americans (except maybe the Brits). Europeans eat more cheese (not just the French !), more yoghurts, and on average drink more wine and stronger beers than Americans.

Americans consume sweeter food and much more soft drinks than Europeans. American alcohol laws are much tougher than anywhere in Europe (see map of legal age to drink alcohol in Europe). It is generally prohibited to drink alcohol before the age of 21 in the United States, even with one's parents' aurorization. Age controls are both more common and more severely punished in the United States than in Europe.

Sports

It is interesting how the popularity of sports can be so different between Europe and North America. The most popular sports in ALL Europe is football (soccer), probably followed by tennis, cycling, and Formula 1 (as well as other motor races). In the US, soccer and F1 are far away in the popularity ranking. It is baseball, basketball, ice hockey and American football that attract the crowds and make money. And as much as European sports lack popularity in the US, the reverse is true (except for basketball).

Advertising

Advertising practices vary greatly between Europe and North America (especially in the USA). While it is common to see people wearing inflatable costumes to promote products on American streets, it is very rare or never observed in most European countries. Likewise, Americans like to place giant billboards along highways/motorways, this practice is absent (usually illegal because too distracting) in most of Europe, where the only signs are public awareness campaigns for safer driving.

Street names

Street naming practices vary between countries and cities. But one of them, attributing numbers to the streets (e.g. 5th Avenue or 16th Street) instead of names, is typically North American. This practice is almost unheard of in Europe, where streets either have a name or, in rare cases for isolated country roads, nothing. All roads outside cities are obviously part of a numbering scheme both in Europe and North America, but those come on top of the street names. For example, the A40 between London and Oxford is known as Oxford Road in the Greater London, and London Road beyond that. It is customary in most European countries to name a road connecting cities according to the name of the city to which it leads. This custom is occasionally found in the USA, notably in New England, but never as systematic as in Europe. The only exception in Europe are motorways (AmE: highways), which are not named anywhere, although they generally have two numbers: a national one (e.g. A1 or M25) and a European one complying with the United Nations's International E-road network (e.g. E15 or E60).

Naming practices

Americans are possibly the only people in the world who have taken the habit to use surnames as given names, and this trend is getting increasingly popular. These are names like Jackson, Cooper, Harrison, Mason, Jenson, Austin, Sheldon, Tyler, Riley, Dylan, Bradley, Roy... They are mostly boy names, but girls aren't immune either. Taylor, Cameron, Mckenzie, Addison and Maddison are just a few examples. This practice was originally used mostly for middle names (as in John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or William Jefferson Clinton), but has become widely used for first names since the second half of the 20th century.

Dating & Marriage

While marriage is increasingly seen as a completely optional "folkloric tradition" in Europe, it is still quite important in the USA (probably because religion is also more important there). Statistically Americans marry much more than Europeans, but also divorce more. Gay marriage, now legal in several EU countries and hardly an issue for debate in Europe (because of the little importance of marriage in Europe nowadays), is still vehemently opposed by a big part of the US population.

Wedding ceremonies are also much more important and formal in the USA. In most of Europe it is limited to an informal family gathering (usually at the bride or groom's parental home). Marriage traditions do vary considerably between European countries, and even more between families. But in average it is certainly less important than in the States (or in Asian countries for that matter).

Furthermore, there are some strong nationwide American traditions regarding wedding ceremonies, like bringing "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue". There is obviously no equivalent thing at a European level.

In fact, even the way of dating tends to follow so well-defined rules in the USA. For instance, there are widely followed conventions about sleeping on the 3rd date. Men know they shouldn't expect to see a woman again if she insists to split the bill ("check" in AmE) at the end of their first date. The way to propose (the staging), or the act of buying an expensive engagement ring (often corresponding to one or several months of salary!) are, in general, more important to Americans than Europeans. In Europe, the way of doing things is more informal and spontaneous, and can varies a lot from one region to another, and even on a person to person basis. Sometimes, that makes Europeans envious of how easy and clear things look in the USA in comparison. The drawback is that it seems too stereotypical, especially if you don't like the conventions.

Another major difference is that in in Europe, contrarily to the US, priests/ministers do not have the legal power to marry people (except in Italy). An American couple can ask a friend who has been ordained online to marry them, but that isn't possible in Europe (including Italy). Likewise, "eloping" to get married (e.g. in Vegas) is also a typically American thing since hardly anyone elopes to get married at a town hall.

In the USA having children out-of-wedlock has a bad rep because the vast majority of these children end up living in single-parent homes. Only 2% of American children live in a family with two cohabiting parents (as opposed to two married parents or a single parent), against 31% in Estonia, 26% in Sweden, 25% in France, 18% in Belgium and 14% in the UK. Even traditional minded (and relatively religious) Germans and Spaniards have 8% of them (four times more than in the US !). => see also: Religion and tradition still influence couples' decision to get married

Nobility

Europe still has a class of noble people (restored in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism), and many countries will mention the title (e.g. Baron) in official documents. About 1% of family names still have a "noble particle" (uncapitalised "de", "di", "von", "van", etc.) and it does have a meaning for some people. Europe also has hundreds of thousands of castles reminding people on a nearly daily basis of the time where nobility once ruled over everything.

Military politics

It is prohibited in most of Europe for the military people, or anyone with a professional military history to become a politician. This means that they become politically ineligible. In the USA, the reverse is almost true. It is almost required to have a military history to become president, and quite a few Congress people have also served in the army. Maybe this is because the president's image is still strongly associated with that of the "commander in chief", and because defence (or offence) is so important in US politics.

Bumper stickers

Bumper stickers can be commercial, religious, political, sports, humorous or philosophical, but they are essentially an American phenomenon. Europeans are much more reserved when it comes to sticking things on their cars, and the usage is mostly limited to 'baby on board' stickers, as well as national or regional flags or logos (e.g. in Spain where the black bull sticker is ubiquitous, except in Catalonia where its a black donkey or in Asturias where it is the Asturian cross). Humorous stickers are very occasionally seen in Europe, while religious, political or commercial ones are virtually non existent.

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