The illusion of the “similar culture”

The illusion of the similar cultureThe weirdest thing about moving to France was the culture shock. Not the fact that it existed — I was prepared for that.  No, what floored me was how intense it was, especially in comparison to my previous move. Who would have thought that adjusting to a Western culture would be more difficult than adjusting to an Asian one?

(The culprit was cockiness: I wildly overestimated my expat abilities because this was my fourth move and I thought I’d already made all my mistakes. One word: hubris.)

During those first challenging weeks in Bordeaux, the target of my wrath became the Internet café, where all the keyboards were — quite naturally — French. I’d never used a different keyboard layout before, and as a touch typist, it was discouraging to glance over a lengthy email I’d just written only to find a screen full of gibberish staring back at me. I was inadvertently signing my name “?qriq” instead of “Maria,” which seemed fitting in light of my brand-new identity crisis.

I was trudging back to my crappy temporary housing after another frustrating keyboard experience one day when Blaine called. Blaine and I have been good friends since high school, so I had no problem whining to him that I felt like a total loser who couldn’t seem to figure out how things worked in Bordeaux. Like the sweetheart he is, he started telling me how much he struggled when he moved to England twenty-plus years ago.

“Are you kidding me?” I snapped. “You think that’s hard? At least you didn’t have to learn a different #@*&$ language.” (For the record, yes, he’s still my friend. The man is a saint.)

I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that

“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”

I think there are three broad areas that trip up expats who move to a culture they think is similar to their own:

Language (vocabulary, syntax, accent)

George Bernard Shaw (or Oscar Wilde — take your pick) once observed, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” As an immigrant kid I have some experience in this matter, and I can say with utter certainty that you don’t know what mortification is until your English/Irish parents send you out to “buy some fags for us” in the presence of your snickering Canadian schoolmates.

“There are some amusing differences such as pants, which you quickly learn means something different,” agrees Blaine. “Also, I had a fanny pack….”

Well, I never said he was cool.

Let’s turn for a moment to another brave voyager, Aisha Ashraf. (You might know her from her excellent blog, Expatlogue.) Aisha moved in the opposite direction, from England to Canada, and has had similar issues understanding Canadian English.

“I had a cut on my finger so I asked at the hotel reception for a plaster,” she told me in an email.  “The woman at the desk gave me a blank look, shifted uncomfortably, then gave a little cough and asked if I’d like an elastic band. After I explained about the cut, she got the picture and her face lit up as she triumphantly iterated, ‘aaahhhh, a Band-aid!’ That was my first experience of speaking the same language yet appearing incomprehensible, and it was a really odd and unexpected feeling.”

Procedural/logistical matters

These are the practical aspects of daily life — those routines that are so mundane, you’ve never given them a second thought.

“It can be just minor things,” Blaine says, “but because you’ve grown up with only one way of doing something, you may have not have developed your flexibility bone* enough to consider that there might be another way. I can give you a trivial example: knowing the difference between a taxi and a private hire car. In Canada there’s only one kind of taxi. In England there are the more expensive official taxis, there are private hire cars — the mini cabs — and then there are the unlicensed mini cabs, which are another breed altogether. When you have to learn 20 new things like that a day, it makes you crazy.”


People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”

“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”

So apologies to my dear friend Blaine for discounting the very real culture shock he experienced when he moved to Blighty. Scratching the surface reveals that Canadians and Brits aren’t so similar after all: they speak different Englishes, have different behaviours, and even — as I learned while writing this post — type with different keyboard layouts.

* * *


Fags: British English for cigarettes
Pants: British English for underpants; also, adjective that means “really bad”
Fanny pack: Canadian English for bum bag
Plaster: British English for Band-aid
Band-aid: Canadian English for plaster

* “Flexibility bone” — LOL! See why I love this guy? 🙂


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
This entry was posted in Adjustment, Canada, Culture Shock, Language and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

159 Responses to The illusion of the “similar culture”

  1. expatlingo says:

    This is so true. As an American, I was also very shocked at how difficult our move to England was compared to our move to China. Expectations can be a killer!

    • Maria says:

      It’s a lot like repatriating: “This should be easy.” Famous last words!

      • Loca Gringa says:

        Repatriating, wow, that’s the problem too with moving back to your home province from another province. You don’t even have to leave the country… to feel the pin pricks of repatriation!

  2. traveller says:

    Of that British stiff upper lip, the stuff of legend:) It may be a stereotype but at the end of the day there’s no smoke without fire…

  3. Can totally relate! I remember when I went to Canada (a 20 something Australian who’d travelled around Europe alone, lived (and survived) a year or so in London. Moving to Canada, I thought would be a synch. Only trouble was language – I could understand every word ‘they’ said but not what they were saying! Then there was the humour … 🙂

    • Maria says:

      I felt the same way when I moved to Australia!

    • Redterrain says:

      I’m in Australia, and I’m not a participator with the humour here! We’ve got totally different tastes as countries. Not to mention the racism here (*especially where I live) is horrible…it shocks me every time I encounter someone’s slurs. It makes me shudder…apart from that Australia has been a fine experience so far. I’ve only been here for 2.5 years.

      • Maria says:

        I lived in Sydney for a year, but the only time I encountered racism was in Alice Springs. It was very shocking, I agree. That aside, I loved living in Australia. By the way, your photos are absolutely gorgeous.

      • Redterrain says:

        Thanks Maria! I hope you’re able to visit Australia again in the future. I’m Canadian as well and am a little envious that you get to experience winter!

    • kirbyakasid says:

      I’m an Aussie who did the London thing at 20 then moved to the UK permanently – I expected the culture to be very similar. It isn’t. I kind of loved the differences, and still do 16 years on, but initially there was a shock.

      • Maria says:

        Lots of Australians move to the UK, and I imagine they’re all a bit shocked when they realize it’s more than just the weather that’s different. I’m glad it’s working out for you!

      • kirbyakasid says:

        It probably explains the number of Australians who spend two years in London sitting in Aussie bars talking to other Australians about how awful Britain is compared to Australia.

  4. Sylvain says:

    Welcome to Bordeaux! 🙂 I love that flexibility bone thing. Things may be spelled the same and pronounced the same but that doesn’t mean they meant the same. That’s the things I’ve learned throughout the years I’ve traveled. I’m French but have spent so many years living in Canada. Now, I am here in Asia, in the Philippines to be exact and will move the Thailand in a few days. Hope you find my home country to be nice and I also hope that you adjust in the French culture without any hardship.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks Sylvain. I left Bordeaux several years ago without ever feeling completely adjusted, but I have many wonderful memories of my time there. Good luck in Thailand!

  5. Judy says:

    As a Brit who transplanted much later in life than you, I totally agree. I found the Canadian “How are YOU today?” and “Have a nice day!” totally disconcerting as it would have been an unheard of presumption in the UK back then to speak to stranger like that. I recommend “Watching the English” by Kate Fox which is quite illuminating.

    Working more recently with Americans moving to Toronto, it was interesting to note what they struggled with. One thing that hadn’t occurred to me is there is almost a total absence of post offices. You can appreciate their confusion when I explained the best place to mail a letter was Shoppers Drug Mart (which usually host a postal outlet). Who’d ‘a thunk it?

    • Maria says:

      “Watching the English” was a revelation — really interesting stuff. And as a Canadian, what I find confusing about Shoppers Drug Mart is the relative absence of drugs. By the time I’ve waded through the cosmetics, food, toiletries, etc. I’m down to one or two aisles of OTC medications. Time for a name change, I think.

  6. This one really hit home for me, pun intended. I moved from Canada to the U.S. in 1989 (still here) and have found the toughest piece adapting to some American values and attitudes. Canadians, and other cultures, have profoundly different values in some key areas and it makes me realize (sigh) I am not as flexible as I need to be. Thanks for a great post.

  7. Anna says:

    I think you’re dead on in pointing out the difficulty wrong expectations sets us up for with “easy moves!” Thanks for writing here… I appreciate your perspective.

    p.s. My public service announcement for the day: “Fanny pack” has a whole other meaning in British English… as in, the name little girls use for their private parts… Can you imagine my British friend’s mum’s reaction, waiting her turn to go sledding (sledging) at a fun group outing in America, as our Pastor yelled at the top of his voice from the bottom of the hill, “Put your fanny on the sled!!” Yikes. 🙂

    • Maria says:

      Thanks Anna. I learned the truth about “fanny” the hard way when I lived in Australia and it’s a lesson I’ll never forget. My friend Blaine never will, either!

  8. Lyn says:

    I’ve expressed this same thought many times since moving from the US to AU four years ago despite years in Asia. When you move to a very foreign culture you confidently expect it all to be different so your expectations are in line. The huge disconnect comes with the expectation that the common language will make it all easier.

    When we first arrived I spent time trying to google the room rates for the Hotel attached to our apt building in Perth thinking “oh how convenient if we have guests!”. Hotel means Pub. Bless my heart.

    Or rooting for the home team…the classic American 7th inning stretch song takes on strange and uncomfortable connotations when sung at an Aussie baseball park! And my first pap test here was a big eye opener for reasons I won’t air in a public forum. 🙂

    Remember the line from The Princess Bride? “You keep saying that. I do not think that means what you think it means.”

    • Maria says:

      Rooting — oh my goodness, don’t get me started. Roots is an iconic Canadian clothing brand, and I made the mistake of wearing one of their shirts — with the name emblazoned across my chest — in Sydney. I should’ve just hung a red light from my head and handed out price lists. It created quite a stir!

  9. Carrie says:

    One year I went to 6 countries in Europe. I am an American . I heard everywhere I went “You can not be from America?” After watching some Americans, I understood why they were all saying that. I learned early on in my travels…..When traveling you are not to say “that’s how we do it in America”,You are in their country! Learn 1st their customs and follow their ways..for Gods sake have manners! The people traveling from the USA, were so rude! Same in reverse…

  10. dena says:

    I have been married to a Brit for 18 years and every once in a while he will say something and he will get a blank stare from me.
    He moved to the U.S. at age 16 and was in class one day when he asked for a “rubber.” He couldn’t understand why everyone was laughing so hard at him simply asking for an eraser. He quickly gained the class clown label for that one!
    Thanks for your blog, makes us realize that we are not alone in this Expat craziness!

    • Maria says:

      My kids made the “rubber” mistake when we moved back home. Only once, though — that’s the kind of mistake you don’t make twice. 🙂

      • Kaye says:

        My kids go to an international school and refuse to say “eraser” for “rubber” (in the Brit Eng sense)– kind of hard to explain to them why their American cousins will be laughing their heads off…

      • Maria says:

        That will be a day they’ll never forget!

  11. I didn’t consider Canada to be any different from a country like England, but you’re right in that terminology varies from country to country. Here’s a funny example. I have a friend from Asia and at work she always asked for a rubber..which gets her uncomfortable stares. Eventually she learned what the word rubber over here referred to something completely different(!)…and started saying eraser! :D…… Interesting post. Congrats on being FP! 🙂

  12. northernmalewhite says:

    Youre a lucky lady to have lived around so much!

  13. The keyboard thing tripped me up as well while I was studying abroad and desperately trying to keep in touch with family via e-mail (it takes WAY longer to type e-mails on foreign keyboards!!). For most of the trip, I never go the chance to be fully immersed so it was easy to pop in and pop out again, I didn’t have to go through the hassle of leasing a place, finding a job, etc which would have been much more difficult.

    When I finally got to Worcester College at Oxford University, I wrongfully breathed a sigh of relief. I thought, Oh! I’ve got it now. I can make it around without a lick of German, Italian or French, so English will be so EASY. So i can relate to your experience. In the six weeks I lived there, I learned that no matter what I did, I stuck out as an American everywhere I went. I learned that culture is multifaceted, much more than just the language. Thank you for this post! I could definitely relate and learned a lot!

  14. rdury says:

    Another difficulty is that people from the host community will be interested in different things and talk about the same things in different ways; throwaway humour (that you might produce in a shop, for instance) is different too.

    • Maria says:

      Ah yes, humour — always a tricky thing when crossing cultures. I can remember watching an English comedy (subtitled in French) with a Frenchman many years ago. I was laughing hysterically, while he had a polite but perplexed smile on his face. Awkward.

  15. Ahhh I get this. Ive moved four countries so far… Never gets easier. =/

  16. I’ve moved from the country of my birth (Zimbabwe) to the UK, then to Spain for ten years and now back to the UK, Scotland to be precise, and the culture shock has happened every time. Even though you speak the same language (except in Spain, of course, where I did make the effort to learn Spanish) it really isn’t the same at all. My first visit to the UK was when I was 13. I was so excited about fish and chips in newspaper -which they haven’t done for years for health reasons- but was shocked to be addressed as ‘love’ by the shopkeeper, something that just wasn’t done in what was then Rhodesia. Now in Glasgow, I’m discovering a whole new language, ‘love’ or ‘dear’ has been replaced by ‘hen'(??) and you need a dictionary or a translator for some phrases!

    • Maria says:

      My dad (who is British by birth but has lived in Canada almost 45 years) still calls waitresses “love.” Which is fine when he’s visiting England, but Canadian women don’t like it much. He thinks he’s being respectful, but that’s not the way it’s interpreted here. You’d think he’d figure that out after almost half a century!

  17. RSpeaks says:

    I always tell my friends it isn’t so easy to shift. They laugh (this is where I show your post :D). Well at least they haven’t shifted 4 times in a row and by that I mean a new country every time. Started in India, to Texas (US), To Sheffield (UK) and now finally resting in at Chalon sur Saône (France). This implies I went from Chikan, to Chiken, to Chikken(with the British accent) and finally landed up on Poulet (Chicken in French), wherez the link , I have no clue. Thus, I can completely relate to post! Always good to know someone’s dealing with the same :)… Great article. Wish you luck adjusting in France. Go slow on the wine and cheese.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks! Your comment reminds me of another language mix-up, this one when we first moved to Singapore. When people talked about “shifting,” I thought they meant “scoot over a little bit.” It took me a long time to realize they were referring to moving house!

      • RSpeaks says:

        I can vouch for this mix-up. In fact the very mention of Singapore reminds of this Russell Peters gig I saw a few months back. Shared one too many laughs since I’ve read your post and associated this with Russell’s gig.

      • Maria says:

        The first time I saw Russell Peters, I laughed so hard I cried. There’s a guy who understands intercultural mixups! He’s at his best when he’s talking about his Indian parents. (He’s from my home town, by the way — I went to school with his brother.)

      • RSpeaks says:

        Talk about celebrity links :D… Same town oh thatz neat (cool in British version). Infact I was lucky enough to watch a live show of his in Brampton when I was over to Canada for a week to attend a friends wedding. Nice place but cold. though I guess I can’t really complain now that I’m leaving in a colder place.

      • Maria says:

        I grew up in Brampton. Small world, eh?

      • RSpeaks says:

        Small world indeed… It’s a nice place Brampton.. Though couldn’t conclude much in the short span, but I can always run down my memories on the Rose Theatre and Centennial Park.Two landmarks to make sure I didn’t get lost. Fun week

  18. suitejen says:

    I did a study abroad in England for a couple of months and then spent some time in France with a pen-pal. It was really shocking how different things were and the keyboard layout was definitely a pain in the rear!

  19. Just one question (from an American): what’s a bum bag?! Congrats on being freshly pressed!

    • Maria says:

      A bum bag is what you’d call a fanny pack — that little bag that you strap on your waist. But in many parts of the world, “fanny” is a term for female genitals. I found that out the hard way. 😦

  20. never moved anywhere but it is interesting to see how such a move was hampered by cultural differences. Life is funny though; same planet different continent, different culture.

  21. Phi says:

    Hello! 🙂 It’s so nice to read a review of ‘my’ culture. I’m from Portugal and last year I moved to Spain just for that year, to study. In fact, even if those countries are side by side, I didn’t find any sign of Portuguese culture in Spain. I guess we are too identified with our nation, ‘they’ make us feel some kind of a racist feeling about the others. I’m thinking about the 18th centrury, when the nationalisms in France and in Germany (specially in Germany, with Fichte) created the feeling of union that cannot be destroyed by any meanings. It’s comprehensible, they were being invaded by Napoleon! 🙂
    Well, I just like to tell you that that feeling is more normal than the feeling that you have when you live in Asian countries. Because in Asia they don’t have an individualist culture nor a feeling that their state is their nation. They cultivate the feeling of the ‘whole’, they belong to the ‘whole’, as you probably know. Their historical and philosophical evolution is so much different than the western’s!

    Hope I helped you to understand your feeling.

    Hugs and kisses from Portugal! :*

  22. Peaches says:

    As a midwest American now living on the Canadian Prairies who has also lived in England, Guernsey, and Germany, thank you so much for this. It is so true. My moves to other English speaking countries were infinitely harder than my move to Germany.

    • Peaches says:

      I just wanted to add that sometimes (often times) I think people in the new host culture expect a new arrival to assimilate more easily if the language is similar too, setting up unfair expectations when things they think are obvious aren’t for the immigrant. I’ve know I’ve been treated like I was daft for not knowing something that, to them, was relatively simple in other English speaking countries, but when I made a simple Gaff in Germany, everybody was much more accepting because they knew I was adapting.

  23. Sine says:

    so true!
    You didn’t disclose what “fanny pack” meant in British English, by the way. It must be the same bad as in South Africa. I was just told not to say it but not what it meant!

    • Maria says:

      Well let me put it this way: when I lived in Australia and used the word “fanny” in a meeting, you could cut the horror in the room with a knife. I tried to explain my faux pas by saying “Where I come from, fanny means butt.” One of the women there replied, “Here, it’s a little further around.” I’d draw you a picture, Sine, but my art skills aren’t as good as yours!

      • Sine says:

        🙂 Thanks for giving me a good laugh this afternoon, god knows I needed it after this week. It’s one thing if their word means something entirely different (like braces), but it’s outright cruel if you just shift the anatomy a little in such a deadly way!

  24. Soul Walker says:

    I love that when I read your definition of “Fanny Pack” I’m still not sure exactly that I know what you are referring to… and english is my first language (but I am neither Canadian nor British).

  25. Jennifer says:

    How fun! I loved reading this post. It’s quite timely as well, because my family and I are getting ready to move (permanently) to France this summer. I can’t wait to explore your blog some more. Thanks for posting, and congrats on being “freshly pressed”.

  26. Great post! I definitely had some of those cultural and linguistic barriers when I moved from the US to Scotland. And a lot of people’s reactions are, “How different can it be?” (At least I did better than my dad. When he came to visit me, he just looked at people blankly when they talked to him and I had to “translate.”)

  27. Enjoyed your article; I recall a situation, back in high school. I was not the transplanted citizen, but the home grown Texas, preacher’s kid who was approached in class by a young, female, foreign exchange student from England with this question: “May I borrow your rubber?” The class exploded into loud laughter, as I turned six shades of red, and this sweet, young lady glanced around wondering what she had asked that was so funny. I’m not certain about Canada, but in the States a “rubber” is a male contraceptive device, but to this girl from England it was a pencil’s eraser. The English language would certainly be the same if it didn’t mean so many different things to the English speakers of the world. 🙂 Thanks for posting. 🙂

    • Maria says:

      When I was a kid, “rubber” did mean “eraser” in my part of Canada. I’m not sure when it changed, but certainly by high school I wouldn’t dream of asking someone in class for a rubber (especially since I went to a Catholic high school!) Thanks for commenting.

    • Sine says:

      great story! I’ll have to make sure to remind my kids not to say “rubber” now that we’re back in the US. Though I’m not sure nowadays things haven’t changed again. They may laugh at ME if I use such an old-fashioned term:-)

  28. carolinabin says:

    Very interesting for me, an Italian student in London!!

  29. I lived in Northern Ireland for a little while and had the thought that I would not have such a difficult time with culture shock (similar language, I’d wanted to go since I was a kid, and–as you said–hubris). I still remember the day I broke down crying because I couldn’t find orange juice that tasted “right” (I’m from Florida, we take our OJ seriously).

  30. expatlingo says:

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  31. That’s it. I’m staying home.

  32. I think you raise a great point of being aware of local culture no matter where you go. It’s so easy to be cocky. I grew up in Nebraska, then moved to Colorado, small city to large city suburb. Then I went to university in Boston, grad school in NYC, then Wisconsin, East Coast back to Midwest. Then I lived in Seattle two years, then back to the Midwest, but to Minnesota. (I’ve also lived overseas, but I’m follow your lead in looking at the subtle difference.)

    The most interesting things I’ve seen are how people express emotions: what’s funny, what frustrates them, how they express frustration. Midwesterners tense up with frustration; East Coast folks let it all out; West Coast folks act calm. The way they act with strangers is also different in different regions.

    I was actually surprised at how different Wisconsin and Minnesota are different! Wisconsinites are more outgoing and drink more. Minnesotans are more aggressive. Minnesotan laws seem stricter somehow. Anyway, the differences in what I assumed would be the same shocked me. And Minnesota is nothing like Nebraska–yet only two states away.

  33. expatlogue says:

    Great post Maria and thanks for the mention – the comments have been a hoot! There’s nothing left for me to add, except perhaps to say that this whole post is evidence of how you need a healthy dose of humor to get through an intercultural experience. 🙂

  34. embenn03 says:

    My roommate is from New Zealand as well as a few other friends who are living here in the USA. I’ve become used to all their lingo, some of which is similar to that of Australia and England, but at first it was interesting comparing different words and phrases. Same with one of my Canadian friends, and the US borders them! We jokingly would call it a language barrier despite the fact that we have a common language to begin with.

  35. Georgina says:

    You’re absolutely right. I’m originally from the UK, have been based for some time in the US now, and still struggle with something unexpected everyday. It can be funny. But it can also feel extremely alienating and demoralizing.

  36. Congrats on being FP’d! (again! right?) I very much relate since my husband is British and I’m American. Been there done that on many of these. 🙂 We had a 10 minute exchange over the phone when I was trying to look for something he insisted he put in my purse, meanwhile I was looking in my wallet. Sigh.

    • Maria says:

      Ah yes, the classic purse vs wallet issue. That one reared its ugly head many times when I was growing up with my English father and Irish mother. I learned to ask “do you mean the big purse or the little purse?” LOL (And thanks, yes, this is my second time being Freshly Pressed.)

  37. inationbook says:

    never bum a fag or ask for a poke

  38. alycevayle says:

    Great post! It’s always a challenge immersing yourself in a new culture. The term ‘fanny pack’ makes me laugh. We call them bum bags in Australia.

  39. pickledwings says:

    Great post!

    I moved form Canada to the Czech Republic almost a decade ago. Ironically, the biggest culture shock didn’t come from Czechs.

    I returned to Canada for the first time in summer of 2012, so that’s about eight years away, and finally was in a position to understand why so many immigrants found the friendliness of Canadians unnerving a lot of the time. It’s almost too friendly. I had completely forgotten how chatty serving staff in restaurants and sales clerks in shops can be in Canada.

    I didn’t realize how artificial it felt until I’d been away for a while.

    • Maria says:

      The biggest shock for me the first time I moved away was how unfriendly the servers and sales clerks were. I wasn’t used to being treated with indifference (or outright hostility.) Now that I’m back in Canada, that uber-friendliness just washes over me. It’s like the fish who doesn’t notice the water until it’s gone.

  40. geofoodie says:

    Completely agree about the culture shock. We moved from the US to the UK in 1999. For the first two years I understood only about half of what people said to me. I have a similar story about the different meanings of yard and garden. What got me was the number of times I would be in a group with of English people and someone, whom I didn’t know would start talking and then begin to bash Americans. And then I would speak or someone would introduce me and it would be akward. This doesn’t happen here in Hong Kong, where I now live, at least not in a language I understand.

    • Maria says:

      I understand that — I sometimes have difficulty understanding my English relatives. It’s not just the accent (they’re from West Bromwich), it’s the vocabulary. After all these years, I think I know all the differences in terminology, but I can’t keep up with the changes in slang and that gets me every time.

  41. Jessica says:

    Love this. I lived in Asia for three years and have visited Europe for several months at a time, but have never actually lived there. I’m from California. I wouldn’t have thought that moving to France could be worse than moving to a tiny town in Taiwan, but I agree that both would have serious challenges. Great post. Love your blog. Following.

  42. Interesting post 🙂 I really enjoyed reading it 🙂 All the best, Lucrezia

  43. Charlene L says:

    I can definitely understand this one… I moved from France to the UK, two Western European countries that only share a bit of sea as border. Four years later, there are still small values and details of everyday life that surprise me, culturally. I can’t imagine (yet) what it’s like to move permanently to a different continent. But you do make good points!

  44. Naomi Hattaway says:

    TOTALLY needed this read today! Great work, Maria!

  45. I’m so glad this was FPed! So many of us struggle with it…but it’s rarely discussed so well. I plan to blog it, with a link back to this one. Congrats on it…

  46. mirrorgirl says:

    What is meant by British stiff lip?

  47. Ashana M says:

    A new culture is always a learning experience. Even moving from California to Massachusetts is a bit of a shock–different values, different ways of doing things, different words. (What exactly do they sell at the package store? Not packages). It does help, as you point out, to expect it. I don’t think it gets easier, except to the extent that you learn to roll with it instead of fighting the frustration. Yes, there will be difficulties with learning a new keyboard and what kind of cab to take. That can’t be changed. But what you can change is taking the time to recharge so that you can face all this new learning that needs to be done without becoming totally exhausted.

    • Maria says:

      Absolutely! It’s so important to take care of yourself in stressful situations — eat well, get enough sleep, exercise, and take it easy with the alcohol. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t magically come together the way you want it to. It’s a process, not a race. Thanks for the insight.

  48. The “Band-aid” / sticking plaster thing initially got me thinking that perhaps brand names are used more as commonplaces for ordinary objects rather than their generic names in North America than they are in Britain, but then I realised that this isn’t the case and that British English speakers use lots of brand names as nouns all the time: “Sellotape” for adhesive tape; “hoover” for vacuum cleaner – and that one has become a verb as well e.g. “doing the hoovering”. (I think that one works so well because it’s almost onomatopoeic.)

    Great article for the modern mobilised person. Thank you!

    • sejedrey says:

      And this is a good example of a not-very-well-traveled American learning something, too. I also had assumed it was a very American thing to use the brand name when one means the generic item (Kleenex and facial tissue, for instance). It’s somewhat relieving to see that that, at least, is a little more universal.

  49. I remember when I visit France, my mom and I would stand on the Escalator next to each other. Then people would come from the left and pass (almost shove) us rudely. At least that’s how we perceived it. A few days later when my brother arrived (He had been living in Euro for a couple of months), he explained that we should stand on the right and not hog the whole stair so whoever is in a hurry can pass from the left. We didn’t know that before. It was hard getting used to.

    This is only one example. In just one week, I saw a completely different culture. It was shocking.

    • Maria says:

      I wrote an article last month called “Why No Culture is Rude.” And it’s true — you just have to understand the customs. Great example, thank you.

  50. Interesting post! I’m English but moved to the States when I was very young, and now I live in Spain. Sometimes it’s the small things that feel the most alienating and frustrating. If things are tough anyway, having normally very easy stuff be more complicated too feels hugely unfair.

    Because I’m not really ‘from’ one place, I’ve learned to just take it for granted that I’ll always end up saying something strange no matter where I am!

  51. As an American who has lived in England since 1982, I can tell you that the worst thing is getting bits of the colloquial phrases and vernacular stuck in with your native tongue. No one can understand you! LOL great read and great post. Well done on getting Freshly Pressed.

  52. Eyagee says:

    As a Canadian who moved to South Korea 2.5 years ago, the only thing I can describe as culture shock was for a brief moment i looked around and realized “they are all Koreans!” . The homogenous nature of my surroundings was a surprise but was soon over and I made an effort to learn, and even find amusement, in the differences between my 200 year old culture versus their 5000 year old one. Its never dull 🙂

  53. Veronique says:

    I completely rely to your post Maria. I did the same mistake when we moved from France to the US. I expected this relocation to be easier than the previous ones but it was a real culture shock, especially when it came to raising children, education, school and being a parent. I remember preparing back to school with my kids. The school supply list said : colored crayons, so I went to Target and bought what I thought was colored crayons but what was in fact colored pencils. When my daughter came back from school she explained it was not the right “crayons”. I discovered later that by crayons, it was meant wax crayons from Crayola. This is just an anecdote. But then as an expat parents your days are full of ‘anecdotes’, and when you are new in a different culture, it can makes you crazy.
    This is the main reason why I ended up wrting “Finding Your Feet In Chicago” !
    Thank you for sharing your point of view and experience.

    • Maria says:

      Thank you, Veronique. The good thing about your experience is that you got a great book out of it! At least people moving to Chicago will have a better idea of what to expect. 🙂

  54. Thanks, Maria. This is both helpful/informative and humorous!

  55. I don’t find moving from one culture to another stressful. It just obliges you to open your horizon, build the “flexible bone” and mosty, learn to laugh at yourself!

  56. casagan says:

    Great post! I moved a few years ago from Spain to UK, and I find lots of weird and amusing differences. Culture shock at its best! 🙂

  57. You really hit the nail on the head, Maria. Moving from the USA to Khartoum, Sudan took some serious adjustment – but I was prepared for it. However, when we moved next to London, I was totally blindsided on my first day of work. The guy sitting beside me turned and asked me for a rubber! It took me a few seconds to realize that he wanted an eraser, not a condom. Didn’t I just feel silly … and oh-so Yank! Great post, and congratulations on the Freshly Pressed – richly deserved. All the best, Terri

  58. bethsciallo says:

    I am so wearing your tee shirt – I moved from rural South Carolina to Scotland 19 years ago. I was totally unprepared and outright shocked to find not one, but several other languages/accents. I remember almost breaking down in tears when I had to ask a Glaswegian man to repeat himself for the 3rd time over the phone. I finally said, “I’m sorry sir but I’m from the South in America and we speak real s-l-o-w.” He put the breaks on and I finally figured out what he was talking about. I didn’t answer the phone for the rest of the day!

    • Maria says:

      Oh, I can relate. I don’t think I understood a thing my Scottish father-in-law said for the first year of my marriage. I just smiled and nodded and hoped I wasn’t getting myself into any trouble. 🙂

  59. eacoyle says:

    One of my best friends is British (I’m American), and after 9 years of friendship, we still find little language differences to laugh about. And then there’s always trying to imitate one another’s accents–never fails to make me laugh when I hear how other people hear me. Thanks for the great post!

  60. gregschina says:

    Totally feel you on this one, it’s the lack of preparation that does you in. When you’re going somewhere that you KNOW is really different from your own country then you make sure you’re mentally prepared. When I first moved out to China I was so prepared for it to be different that when I got here I had no issues at all. When it came to moving back home to the UK, however, I was completely unprepared and it took me by surprise how long the adjusting period took.

  61. Katka says:

    Well I have to say that I dont believe in culture shocks as such. The differences do exist, but I have never thought home was any better when facing something new or weird. On the contrary, I feel alien in my home country many times :-).

    • Maria says:

      I think culture shock is actually a neutral term. It’s simply a reaction to the differences, whether they’re felt in a positive or negative way.

  62. Gaurav Singh says:

    Very nicely written. i think it(the points u mentioned in your article) happens within a country too…( North and southern part)…

  63. Best of luck in learning French! This was a nice read though 😀
    I wonder how difficult it could be for an Indian to get his/her point across admist such confusion 😉

  64. I’m an Australian and live in Lagos Nigeria. So far this year I’ve lived in Perth, Australia, Texas, Malta, London and now Nigeria. My husband is American so I’m fairly bi-lingual as far as British/Australian/American English goes. The most difficult aspect of adjusting to ex-pat life in Nigeria has been the poverty, inability to walk around freely and having servants in the house. A lot of the online information about Lagos is also out of date, with the city much safer now than it has been in the past. Malta was fantastic – it’s a party island and I made wonderful friends. I loved Austin, Texas as well, particularly the food and the outdoors lifestyle. I also got to see my stepdaughter more. To adjust quickly it’s best to “go native” and not try to re-create what you had at “home” or even think about any place as “home”. Home to me is wherever I’m living with my husband. We eat the local food, shop where the locals shop (our driver acts as bodyguard) and make friends outside ex-pat circles. Life in Lagos is full of surprises. One night we came home to find a huge turkey sitting happily on the razor wire fence- apparently he does it all the time!

  65. Ah, the many manifestations of culture shock! As a European who emigrated to the US and was married to a man from the Caribbean and spent time volunteering in Africa, I have experienced a lot of different cultures myself. I have often found that the language barrier is the most frustrating part because when I don’t have command of a language, I feel incompetent, less intelligent in my ability to communicate with others.
    In the l980s, I did my master’s thesis on cultural adjustment in Taiwanese and Indian students in the US – again, the language barrier was greatest in the Taiwanese students and their cultural adjustment was less successful than the Indian students’ (many of whom had a good command of the English language).
    Humor is a funny thing, too. Even though we may understand every word and even the nuances of the joke, it just may not be very funny. My American husband is still surprised about the things I will laugh about when we are watching a movie vs. what I don’t find funny at all. Are you familiar with Peter Adler’s (l975) model of cultural adjustment? I really love his view of cultural adjustment as a process of self-identity. The other culture merely holds up a mirror to us that helps us understand ourselves better. Plus, there are predictable stages through which we progress over time, along with strong emotional processes.

  66. Eagle Tech says:

    While traveling in the Philippines, many folks speak English. I developed an inordinate confidence in my ability to communicate with Filipinos. While at a restaurant, I asked for a napkin. The waitress looked at me strangely. I asked again, enunciating. The waitress goes, “huh?” Finally my wife spoke up and asked for a “tissue,” (said in English) which the waitress immediately understood. Apparently, in the Philippines, a napkin always means a “feminine napkin!”

  67. NatVega says:

    I experienced cultural shock when I move to US (I’m from Panama, Central America) but I became used to live there and eventually I liked and made it my home. Now, when I moved back to my county -hopefully for a short time- this cultural shock is worst. And the fact that people from my country doesn’t understand my frustration, is not helping at all. Taking in consideration that I also had a home with my partner in US and I get used to live there with my dogs I just want to overcome this feeling… So thanks for sharing your experience with all of us.

  68. Pingback: Reblogging a great “culture clash” post from “I Was an Expat Wife” | Uruguay Expat Life

  69. Ever felt invisible? That was my first culture shock when I moved from India to Denmark. Having become partially visible, I now continue with other not-so-shocking cultural experiences. And I get to write about it for The Copenhagen Post newspaper:-)

  70. somematters says:

    Reblogged this on .

  71. This was interesting to me. I’m an Aussie who lived in America for 5 years. My husband is American. I never got used to it. I felt that my husbands family expected me to just “fit in”. But I struggled with that. So different culturally to Australians. I didn’t find the humour funny. I found Americans so much louder. Everything was so big. I’m from a british family, and missed the reservedness of Aussies and my family. I felt like everyone wanted to know everything about me. There were things I loved about America. It was a real learning experience though. I never quite fitted in. We moved home to Australia a year ago and I’m really happy here. My husband is now the one adjusting. He is finding it easier than I did. He’s a quiet guy, and adapts easily.

  72. HAHAHA … what a great read! We’re Canadians who’ve just moved to England! Since we’ve lived in 6 countries, we knew it wouldn’t be “the same”, and trying to keep our humour with the “language barrier”! Loved the post!

  73. Kari Ryerson says:

    Reblogged this on

    I love your posts and I just want you to know that I have been considering writing about my American expat in the UK woes but you always write it so much better than I could. Thank you, Your posts have been a great help to me in my nearly 2 years here in England, this is the second time I have linked you.
    I often find myself in a room full of people who are tilting their heads like curious dogs when I speak. Sometimes it is funny and other times embarrassing. I can definitely say that I underestimated how difficult the adjustment would be.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Kari. I’m glad to hear that reading about other people’s experiences can help. But now all I can think about is how funny it must seem when people tilt their heads at you. 🙂

  74. Evez says:

    Haha the first time I heard people using the word fag when travelling to London I almost p*** my pants 🙂

  75. pennyfields says:

    Aha, get what you mean about culture shock being ongoing. I have a friend who moved from China to England almost nine years ago when she was a kid and the culture still catches her out sometimes.
    Yeah if anyone said “Fanny pack” over here they would be laughed at endlessly, I find if slightly difficult to write the word let alone say it!

    Interesting post, though 🙂

  76. Pingback: Why changing countries can be such a challenge | Broadside

  77. Pingback: The Best Moment Award | Pondering Spawned

  78. Wow! I never even thought about the possibility of adjusting to a different culture with a common language. I actually feel silly for never thinking about it. I assumed that there would be differences, but I never thought about the possibility of experiencing a true learning curve. Considering this, I’m a little less afraid to just branch out and go to a non-English speaking country since the learning curve is unavoidable and inevitable. This was a great post!

  79. jshewett says:

    This was awesome. I have laughed so hard reading your post and all the subsequent comments. My “other” is English, I am American, we live in our respective countries. I just spent 3 months with “other” and OH MY LORD! I had an easier time adjusting to living in Afghanistan! I was constantly giggled at by the men I called “Sir” and the women I called “m’am” but being both a good southern American girl and retired military I couldn’t stop myself. Half of the time “other” was translating for me in public because I couldn’t understand the Northern English accent when they spoke too quickly. Two weeks into my visit, I lost track of how many times I was asked to “say something American.” It was epic. I loved it, and I can’t wait to go back.

    • Maria says:

      I’ve been enjoying the comments on this post, too! I love reading people’s fish-out-of-water stories. And I do understand what you mean about the North of England – I spent some time in Newcastle, and was never 100% sure what people were saying to me. I hope you get to go back soon.

  80. sejedrey says:

    I know about these sorts of problems only academically; it’s good to see personal anecdotes that illustrate them in a more accessible way. Thanks for sharing.

  81. crunch says:

    Just stumbled across your blog here. Really nice one! I just moved back to India from the US after a decade and I feel like an expat in my own country now. I don’t relate to most things here and it’s scary as hell! But your post particularly reminded me of all the things I said going into Gradschool in the US. I used to keep referring to utensils as vessels. I looked for fountains the first time I was thirsty and someone told me to check out the fountain near the corridor. I used to walk around my grad lab asking people if I could borrow their bottle of water and everyone always said they had a cold! (You drink water without sipping it in India if it’s not your bottle .. so it’s generally acceptable as long as you know the person!) The list is endless. Thankfully hanging out with people you meet over alcohol helps you get over all the initial fear of seeming like an idiot! Your post also reminded me of these 2 posts on my blog, 1. coming across a French coffee shop here in Bangalore, India a few weeks back and 2. a silly story on asking people for directions.

    • Maria says:

      Haha, your story of not knowing how to navigate Bangalore is exactly how I felt when I first moved abroad — completely at sea and not understanding how to fix it. I hope you get your bearings soon!

  82. Some awesome stories, that I can relate to. As an English expat now living in New York, married to an American wife. We always tease each other about our cultural differences. It was funny when we visited the UK last Christmas, our nieces were fascinated with American English expressions, and kept correcting me on my adopted American English expressions.Some I did on purpose though.

    • Maria says:

      I’ve been in that situation too — I had an Australian boyfriend when I lived in Sydney and we were always making fun of each other’s English. He later told me that he only started saying “g’day” when he began dating me, because he thought I’d expect it. (He was right about that.)

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