When I found out I would be spending this academic year in the US I did my research on the culture, I thought I was fairly well prepared for the culture shock. In many ways the US is not that different to the UK – we all speak the same language after all, however I think that in some ways that made the culture shock greater; I wasn’t expecting it to be as different as it is and the little differences came as a bigger surprise. Here’s my top 5 list of differences.
It feels like everything in America has some form of hidden charge. Taxes are not included, either on the price of items in the shop nor on the meals on a menu in a restaurant. Tipping is also viewed as mandatory as opposed to in the UK. While this was something I was prepared for it does take some to get used to remembering the number I see on the price tag is not the amount I am going to be paying. If you are withdrawing money in America there will usually be a charge for using a cash machine owned by a bank different to the card you are using.
There is no shortage of processed food in the US. Most of the time the processed stuff is cheaper although some of it tastes really bad. A lot of things have extra sugar added to them too (bread is one I have noticed in particular). However if you are studying abroad there are lots of opportunities for very nice (and sometimes free) food. If you are attending a meeting or going to a talk within a research environment there are often pizza or sandwiches up for grabs. There are also a lot of good places for food around the Harvard campus area. My favourite of these is Pinocchio’s Pizza & Subs on Winthrop Street just off JFK Street.
America is spacious. With a population density about 8 times smaller than the UK, there is plenty of room for people to build things. And this is very obvious when walking around anywhere that isn’t the middle of a city centre. Everything feels a long way from everything else. Houses that are deemed fairly affordable are enormous compared to the UK. Although while they have plenty of space they are often made of wood instead of brick and this makes them harder to keep warm in the cold winter months. They do also wobble slightly in high winds which is a very strange sensation. Another strange curiosity of the USA is the definition of cities. Areas that are called cities are often suburbs by UK standards. For example, I am living in an area of Boston called Somerville but it is named a city in its own right.
If you have lived in Southampton, London, or indeed anywhere in the South of England you probably know that people don’t really interact with strangers unless they have to. However out here people are much more likely to say hello to you as they walk past. A pleasant surprise was the large prevalence of Spanish. Most signs in public will have both English and Spanish on them. Before I came I expected that to be only in the South of the USA but it turns out that Boston is more multicultural than I thought.
Everything seems to be more disposable in the US. The aforementioned pizza and sandwiches in meetings all come on paper plates. People in restaurants often take a lot of napkins. Some people even use kitchen paper for drying up instead of a tea towel. A concept I found bizarre when I first encountered it. Lots of items in supermarkets come with, in my opinion, an excessive amount of packaging.
There are many more differences than the ones I have listed (for example, adverts for medicine and medical services on TV) and I suspect the culture shock would be greater if I was living in other less metropolitan parts of the country; but a little culture shock is part of coming to a new country and it would be less interesting to live somewhere new without it.