10 Ways That Europe is Different from the USA

First, let me tell you about the inspiration for today’s blog post.

Recently a friend suggested that I read what turned out to be a rather disheartening rant published by an online expat website. (The names shall remain anonymous in order to protect the guilty.) The writer, an American lady, was complaining about her life in Germany, a lament brought on by a recent visit to her local Apotheke (pharmacy). She was whining about the fact that she had to take the extra time and trouble to consult with a German pharmacist (in German of all things) in order to obtain a medication that she could have bought over the counter in the US.

Bikes and pedestrians

Germans and other Europeans walk and ride bikes more often than Americans.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Several people left comments pointing out that the German system actually provided the benefit of helpful, professional advice that would have required a visit to the doctor in the US. True, you can’t just go to a supermarket and buy a bottle of aspirin in Germany, but you can go to your local Apotheke and get sound advice about which pain reliever would be best for your situation. While living or traveling in Germany and Austria, I have made several trips to the pharmacist to get help with a medical problem. In every case, the pharmacist either provided a good solution or, in one case, told me to see a physician. (What I thought was a sprained finger turned out to be a broken one.)

Is the German practice better than the American one? That’s not really the point. The point is that expats need to understand that there is a reason why Germans do something one way, while Americans do it a different way. Saying one way is “better” than another is simply making a judgment based on your own background and experiences.

Apartment house

An apartment complex in Berlin. More Germans rent their residence than buy. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Yes, I sometimes personally think the German way of doing things may be superior or inferior to the American way. (See The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) But I’m an American with an American perspective – despite my years of experience traveling and living abroad. Germans, Austrians, Brits, Japanese, or Argentinians may have a very different opinion. The point is to understand two things: (1) You can’t change local ways of doing things, and (2) there are historical and cultural reasons for the way it’s done. Different does not have to mean better or worse. It also can mean just plain different. “Andere Länder, andere Sitten” – the German equivalent of “when in Rome…” – means “different countries, different customs.” Different, not better or worse.

Church windows

Few Germans see the inside of a church on a regular basis. A Lutheran church in Brandenburg, not far from Berlin. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

So let’s count some of the ways that Germany and Europe are different from the United States.

Let’s clarify at the start that we’re not talking about the more obvious everyday differences: money (€ vs $), power plugs (round vs flat), voltage (220v vs 110v), etc. We’re looking at lifestyle differences – the German way versus the American way.

  1. Walking/cycling versus driving a car – North America, with very few exceptions, is a get-in-your-car-and-drive culture. Europe is a get-on-your-bike-and-ride or walk-to-the-market culture. Being a pedestrian in the US can be challenging, besides making you seem odd. Most American cities and towns are too spread out for walking, and public transport, if it exists at all, has a lot of gaps and is not a practical alternative for most people – unless they’re in New York City or one of the few other US cities with good public transport. Living in Germany without a car is a practical alternative. Living in the US without a car is torture. It’s all a matter of how each place has developed and designed its urban areas.
  2. Doctors and medical care, healthcare costs, life expectancy – Most people would agree that the US healthcare system is a costly operation. Even a short hospital stay can end up costing a fortune. Yet Americans have a shorter life expectancy than in most European countries. The US ranks 36th compared to Austria (16th), Germany (22nd), Switzerland (10th), and Italy (7th). (Japan is first: 86.2 years.) When I was living in Germany, I was amazed by how much cheaper medical care and prescription drugs were, compared to the US. Even without insurance (which you have to have), medicine from my local Apotheke was much cheaper than in the US. A hospital or doctor’s visit costs a fraction of the same thing in the US. Even with the new healthcare law in the US, cost is still a problem. Neither Germany nor the US has a perfect system, but the healthcare system in Germany has been around much longer and seems to be much less profit-oriented than the system in the US.
  3. Language awareness – Thanks to geography, the US is more insular than Europe. In Europe there is almost always a different language right next door. Young Europeans usually learn English and another language other than their own. Thanks also to geography, Europeans have more interest in foreign languages. Expats need to share that interest if they want a better experience during their time in Germany and Europe.
  4. Ecological awareness and the environment – Europeans in general, and Germans in particular, are much more conscious of environmental issues. Perhaps because of the higher population density along with higher energy costs, Europeans have made a lot of progress in renewable energy, particularly in solar and wind energy production. Expats also quickly discover that German waste disposal is a more complicated process than in North America, and many German cars automatically shut off the engine when stopped at a traffic light.
  5. Debt and spending – German has one word for “debt” and for “guilt”: Schuld. This is reflected in government and daily life. A German credit card is actually a debit card, and the amount charged on that card will be automatically deducted from the holder’s bank account at the end of the billing cycle. Expats soon learn that Germany is largely a cash society. Even in a restaurant you can’t assume they’ll take a credit card. On the tourist circuit (hotels, airlines, rail, etc.) a credit card is a go, but the German railway didn’t even start accepting credit-card payment until 1992! Americans used to their credit-card culture need to adjust to Germany’s cash culture.
  6. Diet and cuisine – The typical German diet tends to be different from that of Americans, but expats can enjoy those differences in the form of a vast assortment of over 200 bread varieties, not to mention delicious pastries (think Austria!). This being Europe, the local Greek or Italian restaurant is run by Greeks or Italians. Americans may miss Mexican cuisine, but there are other good choices, including Asian and Indian food. Even McDonald’s serves beer in Germany, highlighting yet another key cultural difference. Guten Appetit!
  7. Religion and morality – Few Germans attend church, and they also tend to be irreligious (except perhaps for Catholic Bavaria). If they identify with a religion (and pay the German church tax), most Germans are either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. There is a small Muslim minority, mostly Turks whose parents originally came to Germany as “guest workers.” Other US Protestant faiths (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, evangelical, etc.) are considered “cults” in Germany, and Germans have a hard time understanding the US religious right mentality. “Puritan” Americans are often shocked by German attitudes towards nudity. When it comes to movie ratings, Germans consider violence much worse than sexual themes or nudity.
  8. Home ownership and renting – Germans have a completely different attitude about home ownwership and/or renting. The American dream was always a home of one’s own – although that may have changed after the recent mortgage crisis (something that could never happen in Germany). Only about 40 percent of Germans own their house or apartment, compared to about 60 percent in the US. I know Germans who have lived in the same house or flat for over 20 years, and are content just to pay rent. (See Chloë’s blog on A Different Type of Renting.) They have no interest in buying. Although there are Germans who dream of their own home, they don’t necessarily want to buy it and have a mortgage. First of all, a mortgage is more difficult to obtain and requires a fairly high down payment. And German tax law is not as favorable to homeowners (mortgage-holders) as is the case in the US.
  9. Taxes (fuel, income, VAT, etc.) – Americans don’t know what high taxes really are. Germans willingly pay taxes that make Americans blanch. The highest sales tax in the US is under 10 percent. Most US states have lower rates than that. The VAT in Germany is 19 percent (lower for groceries and some other items), over twice the highest sales tax rate in the US. Gasoline or diesel fuel costs more than twice as much as in the US, mostly because of taxes. Other taxes and fees in Europe and Germany are generally higher than in the US, where no one seems to want to pay for anything anymore. Germans understand that to have good roads and public services there is a cost.
  10. Work ethic, weekends and vacation time – Americans have the lowest rate of paid vacation time of any modern industrialized nation. And most US workers don’t even take the little free time they’re entitled to. Paid leave in Europe is a given, and they use it. Taking work home or working overtime is also rare in Europe. Germans keep a clear distinction between home and work, and never shall the twain meet. Weekends, particularly Sundays, are sacred time off with the family. Germans believe in hard work, but quitting time is quitting time.

So, American expats, respect the differences and enjoy them! The entire world can’t be like the United States, nor should it be. Other lands, other customs!

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7 thoughts on “10 Ways That Europe is Different from the USA

  1. Dear HF, I thoroughly enjoyed the post. Being a US citizen of 20 years with Asian immigrant background but utter fascination for all things Germany, it was an absolute delight to read some of the differences. I have been lucky enough to spend my summary holidays in Germany/Austria past two years and can vouch for these contrasting choices across the pond. One thing I wanted to bring up was the lack of global perspective (whether language, foreign cultures, news, awareness) etc that most Americans have about rest of the world, specially those who don’t live in big cities and aren’t exposed to tourists etc. So despite Hispanics being a sizeable minority, most American aren’t bi-lingual whereas most German friends of mine know German, English and a third language e.g. French, Italian etc. Also Germans love reading newspaper etc and you can get variety of free news paper on most german airports etc. one thing that you will never find in America at any airport. This becomes an issue in America as we are the only super power in the world and tend to have very strong opinions about global affairs without as much context or background knowledge as we should. Do you agree?

  2. I believe I read the blog article you are mentioning in your opening paragraphs. I think the womans problem was that she was more embarrased about what she had to ask the pharmacist for, than actually having to talk to them. I can relate with her – went through the same thing – Fußpilz. Somethings you just want to get in and get out, no questions asked and not being lectured on how to use the product where other patrons can overhear what your problem might be – foot fungus, menstral cramps, yeast infection…need I go on?

    Yes, there are differences. Like I said, think her “rant” had more to do with how embarassed she was about her situation, than actually having to talk to them at all.

  3. think you took the original post in the NY TImes a bit too seriously! As an expat for 8 years covering 4 continents I find everyone goes through stages of emotion and comfort …..most of the time we love our host country and the adventure of a new culture and of course we see that there are many things we can learn ….but some days all the things that you found funny or ok before just drive you nuts…you miss home and the ease with which you navigate your own culture …so you vent and laugh . I have many friends from Germans to Fins to Brazilians who have moved to my home – the USA and they often have similar tales – they are funny and sometimes poignant moments that when we move yet again we will miss! Plus I noted that you have traveled extensively but have only lived outside of your culture for a year……if you did it a bit longer I think you would experience more moments like the authors and understand the stages of expat life a bit more…..

    • Anitaa, now I think you’re being a little hard on me. 🙂 OK, maybe I was too critical of the lady, but she was only the inspiration for my post. And don’t think I have never been frustrated while living and traveling in Germany. The point is to step back and try to keep one’s perspective when it comes to cultural differences. That was the main point: respect the differences and try to understand them, if not enjoy them. But if you can enjoy them, all the better. Good point you make about the stages of being an expat. That might make a good blog post.

  4. I’m a long term expat. Living in Germany and Austria for over 25 years. Yes, I agree with most of what you have written. Some protestant movements, i.e. the baptists, have risen from cult status. And taxation is 19%, some areas such as hotel and the majority of groceries, it is 7%. In Austria it is 20%. I know you are more in for the comparison to the States than the actual figures.

    I also like the land management here. Not everyone owns a sprawling, heat guzzling, 5000 sq ft. home that just occupies the land. There are absolutely gorgeous areas in both countries and people have plenty of space to live – albeit, different. That wouldn’t be possible with this population density, if cities and urban areas weren’t planned differently than in the US.

    Here’s another one: How many big US cities have large areas where you cannot walk alone day or night? Off hand, I don’t know of any here, although I would not rule it out in small areas of Berlin, Vienna, Hamburg, ?? – But I’m not sure if there are any.
    As a comparison, I have told people at home (Midwest) to imagine sharing their home with 10 times as many people. So a family of 7 would have to imagine 70 people living there. Just to get across what population density is.

    I personally have a pharmacist who gives me just about everything except the most restricted medications because he knows me. Find that somewhere.

    What really attracted me to Europe were the differences in culture. From my hometown in any 5 hour direction you basically had just more of the same: More Midwest. 5 driving hours here will put you through so many different cultures and languages, just unbelieveable and of course terribly interesting. Right now I ski out my back door, have about a 90 Minute drive to Munich and a little less to Innsbruck. The air is clean, I can drink out of the streams, I ‘shroom without mosquitos (a plague at home) or poison plants and virtually no snakes.

    That’s another one I love: Sundays things shut down! No Mall to hang out at. Family and friend times, slow down and relax, eat a family meal without distractions, go for long and healthy walks and hikes. Sundays are becoming more buisnessy, but I hope they never reach US levels. My kids are home and don’t disappear and hang around the mall and shop more than they need.

    Let’s not forget the cuisine. Except for some trendy areas in the States the rest is at best very average. I find the variety and quality here much better with many top notch, haute cuisine, places to eat.

    Are there things I miss? Yep. Indian Summer and ice fishing and a license to fish all lakes in the State. (I’m female). The smell of Maple trees. Buying Clinque cheap. Family. But I really can’t think of much else. Eventually you get over missing Thanksgiving. And we do Christmas American style.

    You are right – “different” has no value if better or worse. Nothing is perfect, but this society has worked well for me and my otherwise German family of DH and 3 boys.

  5. Thanks, rebe23, for your extensive and thoughtful comments. (I also appreciate the tax rate correction; I did mention the lower rate for groceries, etc.) I agree about Sundays in Germany, but it took me a while to accept that. We Americans can be a little too 24/7. Yes, “different” can be a good thing, and you seem to be enjoying it. Vive la difference!

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