Not What You’d Expect: 11 Biggest Culture Shocks Foreigners Encounter in the U.S.

Whether it’s from movies, television shows, or just from friends and family who have visited the U.S., many people think they know what to expect when touching down in America for the first time. But in reality, there are still a number of major culture shocks that they may not be prepared for. A curious user in a popular online forum asked this question to Americans who have foreign families visiting them and here are 11 of the most interesting answers.

1. Eating Giant Pizzas

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A user named Lyla insists that the different pizza sizes in the U.S. are shocking. I would have never thought about this when I lived in America. Still, once I came to Australia, I realized those little pizzas you get from Domino’s is the largest size you can get anywhere.

After living here for a few years, I’m horrified about how large a single slice of pizza from my local pizzeria back home would be. No wonder we have such high obesity rates. You get a better deal in the U.S. but pay with your health.

2. Going to Big Retail Stores

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An Oregonian with family from overseas insists his German relatives were blown away by the mystical land that is Walmart, especially since they took them to the largest one in their area. 

Others with foreign relatives share the sentiment about being awed by the sheer size of our retail stores like Walmart, Target, and Costco. More than just the size of these places, it’s so utterly American. 

Target in Australia, for example, is a pretty dull clothing and merchandise store. In contrast, the American version has a grocery store, a pharmacy, electronics, clothes, a Pizza Hut, and a Starbucks inside, which is why Australians don’t understand why Americans are so obsessed with Target.

3. Millions of Options Available All the Time

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Nothing can prepare you for the sheer availability, convenience, and 24/7 supply of food and products in America. An Italian-born and raised couple visited the U.S. with their son, who was taken aback by Costco. He said, “Wow!!! It’s like if Amazon was a store!”

The father jokes that he said, “son, this here’s what America’s all about.” Say what you will about consumerism, but it’s convenient to go to the store whenever you want, with endless options for any item you could dream of. Moreover, you face fewer limitations, which Americans take for granted until they travel elsewhere.

Using Australia as an example again, I couldn’t believe stores here close at 5:00 pm and that their “late night shopping days” only extend until 9:00 pm and on Thursdays, no less, so not even on the weekend. A tourist from India was shocked you can go shopping at midnight in the U.S.

4. Everything Has a Drive-Thru

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I hadn’t thought much about this one, but we have many Drive-Thrus. This took one American’s “overseas friend” by surprise—Drive-Thrus for fast food places, pharmacies, coffee shops, banks, and liquor stores.

My favorite comment came from this person who says, “My favorite ‘even that has drive-thru options’ moment as a Brit so far has been a church where the pastor turned to the camera that was doing the live stream and said ‘and for the folks watching at home, drive-thru communion is available until 3:30, just pop on by.’ What a time to be alive!”

5. Needing a Car To Go Anywhere

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Many users commented on how vast distances are between places. After all, you can drive for 12 to 14 hours in Texas and still be in Texas. One American’s Indian cousin was also shocked by how long you can drive on the road without seeing another car.

A funny anecdote shared by a New Yorker with Irish cousins is when they wondered out loud if they could do a round-trip by rental car from NYC to California, explore the area, and then return to NYC all within three days. As hilarious as that is, they insist it isn’t even as ridiculous as some other driving estimates they’ve heard from Europeans. I guess that’s what happens when you can travel to several countries in no time at all.

6. Large Portion Sizes & Refills at Restaurants

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A person with British cousins made a list of what the Brits were astonished by. Among them were portion sizes at restaurants, especially considering the low prices of such portions.

Another individual mentioned that refills at restaurants are a culture shock that confuses people from overseas, who assume that their refilled coke is something they will be charged for. This one’s funny because I’ve gotten so used to living overseas that I genuinely forgot free refills even exist.

7. Freedom

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People mentioned various things in this thread, referencing the freedom to do or buy certain things. For example, a German couldn’t believe that a copy of Mein Kampf would be displayed for sale in a bookstore because it was banned in Germany for 70 years. Only recently, a scholarly critical edition was released.

On a similar note, foreigners often can’t believe that Americans can walk into a public space or store while being armed because few other countries in the world have the same level of protection of gun rights as an upheld value. People can also buy and set off their own fireworks, which may not be legal in several other countries.

8. Huge Cars

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One traveler was blown away by the massive size of American cars when visiting St. Paul, Minnesota, from Germany. Even compact American SUVs are at least 1.5x the size of European vehicles. The trucks are even larger than the cars, with this commenter insisting their neighbor had what looked like a monster truck parked in their driveway.

9. Chatty People

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One foreigner said, “Honestly, my parents were shocked by how polite and kind everyone was.” They obviously didn’t go to New York. However, it’s a familiar and true stereotype that Americans are more chatty and optimistic than Europeans. Well, maybe not New York, but we’re more likely to chat up strangers for no reason.

10. Big Houses & Wide Roads

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A common notion was that everything in America is bigger — the cars, lawns, buildings, stores, and houses. Even the roads are wider than the narrow excuses for a “street” in Europe. The trade-off, unfortunately, is that we don’t have sidewalks.

11. Extreme Humidity

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Visitors from Europe and other countries with cooler climates often find the heat and humidity in many parts of the U.S. to be quite a shock. The heat they always seem to think they will enjoy, until they get here and realize that North Carolina isn’t Majorca and near-100% humidity robs summer heat of any joy,” shares one user who has some British folks over.

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Jaimee Marshall is a writer who hails from the suburbs of Philadelphia but has spent the past few years living abroad in Australia. She considers herself a bit of a movie buff with a knack for horror and clever sci-fi flicks. When she isn't watching or writing about movies, she's probably either posting political memes, cooking vegan food, or being active. She covers entertainment news, and reviews films and television for Wealth of Geeks. You can also catch her deep dives on sociopolitical issues at Evie Magazine, Katie Couric Media, and Her Campus or watch her appearance on Popcorned Planet, where she discusses heated issues like due process in our current social climate.

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