I grew up in a small beach town outside Barcelona, Spain (or Barcelona, Catalonia, now that Catalonia is demanding their right to vote and secede from Spain, becoming their own country).
My childhood memories include a lot of hot summer days playing where the Mediterranean sea waves crashed and endless afternoons playing at the town park. Also, Sunday family-wide paella lunches that extended for hours of talking around the table, and going to the same small school with the same group of friends from age three until late high school.
After visiting the United States several times for summer camp over my teenage years, I wanted to study abroad in the U.S. So I moved to another small town, but this time across the Atlantic ocean, to Crested Butte, Colorado.
Let me enlighten you on some of my most culturally shocking experiences and realizations.
Instead of kissing someone on both cheeks seconds after being introduced to them as you would do in the majority of Western Europe (sometimes even three times in countries like Belgium), in the U.S. you resort to cordially shaking hands. If you become pretty good friends with someone and you feel close to them, you might side-hug them when you see them – one of the most awkward things for me to this day. In Spain, we kiss people for fun, to let them know we love them. Kisses on the cheek are currency. Here you don’t even kiss your best girl friends on the cheek on their birthday, and that’s a little sad!
Also, when you meet someone’s parents, at least in wealthy areas of the country, you call parents “Mr.” and “Mrs. last name,” often despite having known your friends’ parents your entire life. That sounded so formal and impersonal to me at first, having always called all my friends’ parents by their first name or even their nicknames sometimes.
Coming from a country the size of the state of Texas, driving anywhere two hours was a stretch. My siblings and I thought three hour vacation road trips were hell. But here in Colorado, driving two hours to go skiing for the day and then driving two more hours at the end of the day is normal. Road tripping in general is a lot more accepted as a means to travel long distances in the U.S., and I like that.
Tipping is a tough thing to get used to in the U.S. In Europe, service workers are paid the bulk of their salary by their employer, rather than being at the mercy of customers. Tips are extra in Spain. When you have a great lunch, and your bill is 40€, you might leave one or two euros at the most. I have heard stories of Americans trying to tip someone 20€ in Barcelona and being followed outside the restaurant to make sure they didn’t leave the money on accident.
Speaking of restaurants, instead of eating dinner around 9 p.m., in the U.S. dinner is much earlier than that between 6 and 7 p.m., making it necessary to have a second dinner or an almost guaranteed unhealthy snack before bed. It has been a tough adjustment, and I still eat dinner later than most people here.
Table manners are different too. Here, being polite means eating with one hand while the other hand is resting on your lap. In Spain, if you are polite, both your elbows or forearms are on the table while you are eating. Yet another tricky adjustment, especially after starting to date an American.
Although chivalry is often considered dead, it is still alive and kicking in the U.S., more so than in Spain, in my opinion. When I got to Colorado State University I was shocked by the frequency with which a man will hold a door open for a woman. Letting women go first, in several aspects, is still important in American culture. I feel like in Spain that’s not the case, especially in young men.
One thing I love about American culture that I wish was adopted by European countries are “thank you” notes. Most people here write them for each birthday gift they receive, after job interviews, for professors, and to each person on their wedding guest list. I think gratefulness needs to be cultivated, and thank you notes are a great way to teach children from a young age to give thanks.
Of course I am not pointing out the things I hate about American culture, just the strikingly different ones that required an adjustment for me. After all, I am still here five years later and not going anywhere any time soon.