Cultural differences between the US and Australia
Last updated: March 28, 2013
In 2011 I moved from the suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia, to Berkeley, California in the US, to work for a few years. This page is where I'm taking note of various cultural differences that I observe during my stay. I've tried to steer clear of stuff that I think everybody already knows about the US (like how huge the food portions are, etc.) and instead focus on stuff that really surprised me. Most of the differences are actually fairly minor, and I found I had to adjust to a lot less than I expected.
I used to have a very brief disclaimer here about sampling bias in my experiences, assuming I could rely on people to have enough common sense to take some things as given. However, a recent inflammatory email in which I was told to "go home" (yes, really), has made it clear that I actually need to spell some things out explicitly, so here we go:
DISCLAIMER 1: the United States is, obviously, a very large country, with many constituent states, and the culture can vary a lot from place to place. It's possible that a lot of the stuff I see every day while here is entirely unique to Berkeley - or maybe the San Francisco Bay area, or maybe Northern California, or maybe all of California, or perhaps the East Coast, instead of being true all over the country. So whenever I talk about "Americans" below, I am talking about the Americans I have experience with, and you should understand this. If I had to write "Americans (or maybe just Berkeleyites, or maybe Bay Area folk, or maybe, or maybe...)" every time, I'd get sick of writing this and you'd get sick of reading it. Please do not get mortally offended if I ascribe behaviour to "Americans" which does not accurately describe everyone in your family. Of course, Australian culture varies across the country too, although less so, I think, than the US. Some of what I say below may reveal a South Australian bias, so please again understand that I am talking about the Australia that I know.
DISCLAIMER 2: this article is intended - as its name plainly suggests - to be a list of differences between two countries, i.e. things which are different. It is not a list of ways in which stupid America is laughably inferior to the glorious Australian motherland, nor vice versa. There are some aspects of life in the US which I like better than the corresponding aspects at home, and sometimes I like the way we do things at home better. It's fairly even and I think most reasonable people from either country could live in the other and be pretty happy. If my attitude comes across otherwise in this article, it's not intentional. A lot of the differences I note here are quite minor and of no real consequence. I realise this! I am listing them because I think they are interesting, and that other people might care to know about them, not because I think they are a big deal.
Okay, on to actual content.
One of my local cinemas in Berkeley has a "flashbacks" program, where they play classic (and cult classic) films from bygone eras (mostly the 80s) for $5 a head. Everyone knows the best films were made in the 80s anyway, so this is a pretty good deal and my wife and I have been to a few of these.
Every time I have been struck by the insane amount of laughter that goes on. Americans seem to have an absurdly low threshold for genuine laughter at cinemas: stuff that will make me chuckle or maybe just grin widely will make the typical American movie goer laugh out loud for at least 15 seconds. People are just completely uninhibited about it. This is just funny and/or strange when you first experience it, but it rapidly becomes extremely annoying. Directors are smart enough to leave a sensible "laugh gap" before important dialog or critical action resumes after something really funny, but that whole model just breaks down when people utterly piss themselves in response to every pun or bit of innuendo and the mirth becomes distracting.
It takes a concerted effort in the US to find bread that doesn't contain either sugar, corn syrup, molasses, honey or some other sweetening agent somewhere in the top 3 or 4 places on the ingredients list. The bread is sweet, though people don't seem especially aware of this. If you complain about this or try to get advice on where to get bread that isn't sweet, people seem very quick to recommend sourdough - as if there could exist nothing between these two extremes. I have a really severe sweet tooth in general, but the sweet bread thing is a problem for me because it leads to a really bad clash of flavours when you have something really savoury on the bread. Which leads me to another observation...
I feel like in Australia there is a fairly strong culinary principle of keeping sweet stuff and savoury stuff fairly distinct. You don't mix these two things very closely in a single meal. This concept doesn't seem to exist at all in the US and sweet and savoury are combined with wild abandon, leading to things like bacon on pancakes with syrup, apple pie with melted cheese on top, or caramel with sea salt (in fact, adding salt to anything sweet seems quite commonplace here). I still haven't managed to wrap my head around this.
Getting back to my sweet tooth, something I'm really fond of at home are licorice bullets, which are just small bullet size and shaped bits of licorice which have been dipped in chocolate. I also really like licorice logs, which are basically just a larger and longer version of the same concept. I can't find anything remotely similar to either of these in the US. There's plenty of licorice and plenty of chocolate, but the idea of combining them in any fashion doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody.
There are some confusing differences in chocolate bar names between the two countries. I was very surprised to find that Mars Bars are extremely rare here. They are usually found in convenience stores which are run by immigrants and have a good amount of imported candy in them. I don't think they're made or directly sold in the US at all. However, while actual Mars Bars are hard to find, there is another bar called a Milky Way which is exactly the same thing. Interestingly, there are Milky Ways in Australia too, but they're not the same as their US counterparts. Australian Milky Ways are like Mars Bars without the caramel - they're just nougat in chocolate. That bar exists in the US too, but under the name of 3 Musketeers. So basically the same range of bars exists in both countries, but sometimes different bars are called by the same name.
Something that I think will always feel very foreign to me is the sheer willingness of Americans to queue for restaurants. I think this practice is somewhere between very rare and non-existent at home. If you want to eat somewhere that is very popular and always busy, you call ahead and make a reservation. If you try your luck without a reservation and the restaurant is full, unless you're likely to get a seat inside of ten minutes I imagine almost everybody would just walk away and try something else. In contrast, it seems to me like a lot of restaurants here will not accept reservations for parties smaller than a particular threshold, which is always greater than two. This means if a couple wants to eat somewhere very popular, their only option is to wait outside the restaurant in a line, and people seem only too happy to do this for many restaurants in the Bay area. Sometimes restaurant staff will add your name to a waiting list and will come outside periodically to call the name of the next party who are waiting, allowing people to form a sidewalk-obstructing blob rather than a strict line. For really popular restaurants, the line/blob can get really large and I have to assume people are waiting around for well over half an hour.
In Australia, if you order a cappuccino from a cafe, you can be pretty much certain of two things: there will be chocolate powder sprinkled on top of the foam (this is considered a defining characteristic of a cappuccino) and you will be provided with a spoon (because how else are you going to eat the froth?). In the US, I've never seen chocolate applied by default (but it's usually available to add yourself) and getting a spoon is rare, but does happen sometimes.
All dedicated coffee shops in the US, in addition to selling standard espresso drinks like cappuccinos, lattes, etc. will sell "house coffee" made with a filter/drip machine, and this is usually very cheap, probably $2 at most for the largest cup size. It seems really strange and backward to me when I actually say it, but this is quite rare in Australia and most places will only do espresso drinks (which are, of course, a lot more expensive). I think McDonald's was one of the last places in Australia to offer drip coffee.
Another way in which Australia definitely lags behind the US in coffee is when it comes to making it at home. The near-universal standard of home coffee in Australia is instant coffee, made from a kind of crystalline powder by just adding hot water, which is boiled nine times out of ten in an electric kettle. Having any other kind of coffee making equipment in your home will mark you out as a definite coffee enthusiast and is considered a bit of a luxury. Maybe the kind of thing you only get out when you have company over. In contrast, instant coffee is relatively rare here, and so are electric kettles, actually. Most people will boil water either in an old-fashioned kettle on the stove top, or even in the microwave! Coffee at home is almost always made with a drip machine using ground beans. As one might expect, this offers a drastically better result (at the cost of a little more effort), and I don't imagine I'll last long after moving home before buying a machine.
There seems to be a strong culture in the US (it's probably a lot worse in places with high concentrations of University students like Berkeley) of spending a lot of time in cafes. I mean people will move into a seat with their laptop and a pile of books and stay there studying or working for several hours. This is very rare in Australia. I guess most people would not consider it rude as such, as long as you're buying drinks every now and again (buying one drink and then taking up a seat for half a day would be considered rude), it's just not something a lot of people would think to do. I can see how this might make a nice break from studying at home or on campus, but it can also be frustrating in that it makes it very hard get a seat at a lot of places. If I'm at a cafe and I'm not just getting something to go, I almost always want to just sit down with my wife for 20-30 minutes, and there are some cafes where this is basically impossible.
In the US, it's quite common for people to reply to a "thank you" with nothing more than a "mmm hmm" sound, which sounds very dismissive to Australian ears and consequently quite rude. It kind of sounds like "your thanking me for that is so unnecessary that I'm not even going to bother responding with words". It's not supposed to mean that, of course, and you get used to it pretty quickly (and I even do it myself sometimes now), but for the first few weeks here I found it very frustrating.
In Australia, saying "excuse me" is mainly used as a kind of (polite!) imperative: you are expressing the fact that someone is actually stopping you from doing something you want to do and you'd like them to actually take active steps to remedy the situation. In the US, as far as I can understand it is more often used for what I assume was its original purpose, and people will say it when they squeeze past you without actually intending for you to do anything. This can lead to some awkward situations for an Australian, where you say "excuse me" to someone who has, say, accidentally sat with their foot on the strap of your backpack that you set on the floor so that you can't lift it up, and they'll not move at all and just say "oh, you're fine" causing you to have to explicitly ask them to move their foot.
For reasons I cannot fathom, Americans pronounce "Craig" as "Creg" (rhymes with "Greg") and "Graham" as "Gram".
In Australia, when you are telling somebody something like a phone number or credit card number over the phone, there is a universal convention: you say a group of 3 or 4 digits and then stop, and the person you are talking to repeats that group back to you, and then you continue. This way you can catch mishearings as they happen. This convention does not exist at all in the US, apparently, which means there is often a really awkward silence between groups where I habitually wait for them to be parroted back but the other person just waits for the next lot of digits. They won't even say a short "uh huh" or anything to indicate they are ready, it's just stony silence.
Much to my amusement, "doneness" is a legitimate cooking term in the US, used to describe how thoroughly cooked, say, a steak or an egg is. I can appreciate the need for a word like this, but I can't shake the feeling of drastic overregularisation that I get whenever I hear it.
The US words "sandwich", "burger" and their relation to each other is a source of minor fascination for me, because the interplay is surprisingly subtle. In Australia these words are pretty unambiguous. Something is a burger if it consists of a hot, flat and round piece of meat (or some kind of faux-meat substitute conjured up by soy alchemists if you're vegetarian) together with some salads and cheese, placed inside a bun. The precise nature of the meat filling is irrelevant - you can have a beef burger, a chicken burger, a fish burger, it doesn't matter. These things are all burgers. A sandwich is basically anything else that consists of some stuff stuck between bread that isn't a burger. You buy burgers at McDonald's and you buy sandwiches at Subway. The situation seems much less clear here. Anything an Australian would call a sandwich, an American would too. You still buy sandwiches at Subway here. However, sandwich is also used to refer to things that Australians would only ever call burgers - you can buy a sandwich at McDonald's here. I asked a friend about this and he said that "burger" in the US was only for describing things that had a ground beef patty in them. If it ain't beef, it ain't a burger. Thus, chicken burgers, fish burgers and veggie burgers are contradictions in terms. A Big Mac is a burger, but a McChicken is a sandwich. I originally interpreted the two words as being disjoint, meaning a Big Mac is a burger and only a burger, not a sandwich. But I've since noticed that McDonald's staff and promotional media will still describe burgers with beef in them as sandwiches sometimes. So I guess sandwich doesn't exclude beef, which would make burgers simply a proper subset of sandwiches, so that a BigMac is a burger and a sandwich. This makes the American "sandwich" a genuinely ambiguous word, if we accept that the things you get at McDonald's and the things you get at Subway genuinely are two different natural kinds. They certainly feel like they're genuinely different things to me, but that could be a side-effect of having called them by different names my entire life. Of course, this ambiguity is not a big deal in practice because context can help you distinguish between the two meanings in most situations.
Money and shopping
Banking in the US is firmly entrenched at least 10 years behind Australia, and I presume most of the developed world. Almost everyone here still has a chequing account and they may actually pay for things with cheques. Most people, especially younger people, do not use cheques often, but I have seen it happen, and the sheer fact that major stores will still accept cheques if someone wants to use them, and that banks give you a cheque book when you open a new account, shows that chequing is still a lot more prevalent in the US than in Australia. My American bank has an "online bill paying system", and I kid you not the way it works is this: you type in the address of whoever you're trying to pay a bill with, and the amount and a customer reference number or something, and the bank's computers print out a physical cheque and an envelope and automatically mail it out to them. It's positively Rube Goldbergesque. There is no equivalent of BPay, and you can't easily transfer money from one bank account to another just by knowing the account numbers (in fact, people here are extremely reticent to hand out their bank details because they think only a scam would require that, since the way their antiquated chequing system works means you can actually use account numbers to steal money). My bank have recently introduced the ability for its customers to transfer money directly and electronically to the accounts of other customers of the same bank, and they are advertising this like it's some kind of futuristic convenience.
On a more convenient note, almost nowhere in the US requires a minimum purchase amount to pay with a credit card or the local equivalent of EFTPOS, and almost everywhere has the facilities to accept cards. This makes it extremely easy to be totally cashless. About the only thing I actually need physical money for is the laundromat. Because of this I can get by without being super familiar with the US coinage, which can be embarrassing when I actually have to use it. The coins here are quite counter-intuitive for me, because size is only loosely correlated with value - a dime (10 cents) is smaller than both a nickel (5 cents) and a penny (1 cent). Incidentally, dimes really just say "1 dime" on them, the number 10 isn't printed anywhere, so this is not just a slang term (like the Canadian "loonie" and "toonie"), but really their official name. In Australia, most places will require you to spend a certain amount, usually $5, to be able to pay with a card, and it's not as uncommon for somewhere to only take cash. I don't think I could get by being totally cashless at home.
If you're going to return something you've bought to the store in Australia, you'd better have a good reason for it. If it broke within the first few days, or never worked, or didn't do what it said it would do on the box, you'll be fine, although expect the store staff to be moderately skeptical and actually inspect the item to make sure it is faulty. If you just changed your mind, or you didn't bother to try on some clothes and found out they don't fit, or you found a better deal elsewhere, tough luck. That's not what returns are for, that's what careful research and consideration before you buy are for. American readers who just read all that are probably approximately comatose right now, because in the US you can basically return stuff for any reason whatsoever, or no reason at all. People will do things like order an XBox game console online, decide they don't want to wait a few days for it to be delivered, go and buy one from a physical store, play it for a few days and then return it once the one they ordered online arrives, and not feel bad about it at all. And in actual fact, they have no reason to feel bad because stores here have official return policies which basically say that within the first however many days, you can return things for any reason whatsoever as long as you haven't damaged them. They're playing entirely within the rules.
Pets are essentially treated as gods in the US, at least by Australian standards. I suppose this applies mostly to dogs. Here is an exhaustive list of destinations Australian dog owners would take their dogs without any hesitation:
- a vet
- a park
- a beach
- a dog show
- an obedience class
Pretty much anywhere else would be an unusual place to take a dog (of course, taking your dog for a walk nowhere in particular is fine). You sure as hell would never take your dog inside any of these places:
- a restaurant
- a supermarket
- a department store
- a clothing store
- a train
- a bus
This would be considered wildly inappropriate in Australia. Hell, it is wildly inappropriate because it shows a complete disregard for public hygiene, public safety and the cleanliness of other people's stores and merchandise. However, I saw all of the above at least once in my first year in the US - and I don't go out much, so these probably aren't rare incidents.
Of course, in Australia a notable exception to the norms above would be guide dogs, which understandably are permitted pretty much everywhere. A lot of the places above where Americans will take their dogs will have posted signs saying that only "service animals" are allowed. However, the term "service animal" appears to have been diluted beyond all sensible bounds here, presumably due to rampant litigation. I have seen people who are obviously not blind or deaf and who are walking just fine on their own two feet claim their dog is a service dog, when it's some tiny little dog barely larger than a cat which is jittering about a store on the end of its leash in such an overwhelmed and undisciplined manner that it is obviously not capable of bestowing any kind of service on anybody.
Oh, you're also allowed to take pets on domestic plane flights here as carry-on luggage (although this is expensive and there are a lot of rules about it).
Shows vs fairs
In June 2012 my wife and I went to the 100th Alameda County Fair, in Pleasanton. For the most part, the fair was extremely similar in content and atmosphere to two events I've experienced at home, the Royal Adelaide Show, which is at the state capital, and the Royal Gawler Show, which is much smaller but also much closer to where I grew up. The same basic elements are at both: Ferris wheels, roller-coasters and other rides, rigged carnival games, exhibitions of local arts and crafts, farm animals, restored olden days farming equipment, etc. Only two differences really stood out. First, while the Country Fair had pretty much all of the junk food that I would consider obligatory for a good Australian Show, they also had a lot of additional stuff. American Fairs are, apparently, an excuse to deep fry anything and everything. This extends all the way to fruit, such as peaches and watermelons, which feels pretty "out there" to me. Of course, at both Fairs and Shows all the food goes for 2 to 3 times its price on the free market.
More significantly, though, is the complete lack of an American equivalent of showbags, which, for children at least, are absolutely the most important aspect of a Show. Showbags are plastic bags full for the most part of of toys and/or junk-food, costing usually somewhere between $5 and $20 depending on the quality and quantity of what's inside (although certainly there are more expensive options). Individual bags are usually themed around a particular franchise or brand (e.g. a Barbie bag, Pokemon bag, Snickers bag, etc.). Bags are advertised on television, and major newspapers will include a multi-page pullout listing all the bags, their contents and prices. There are hundreds, but probably not thousands, of bags to choose from, and choosing a selection of bags that fits your pocket money budget is Serious Business. American children apparently miss out on this experience all together, which seems extremely sad to me.
Oh, something else that really shocked me was that to get into the Fair we had to empty our pockets and walk through a metal detector gate, like at an airport, which would be inconceivable at home. That's not to say that the Fair was at all safer, because there was no x-raying or searching of bags. The security guard was very concerned that I empty each individual coin out of my change pocket so her little metal detector wand would stop beeping, but nobody looked inside our DSLR camera bag, which is easily large enough to contain a few handguns or pipe-bombs, making the whole process a complete waste of time and money. Of course, there's nothing uniquely American about security theatre, which happens in Australia too - just not at the Royal Show.
Quite early on in moving here, I was really struck by just how open and friendly people here are. In fact, I had this realisation first before I even finished moving here, in the airport at Honolulu while waiting for my (massively delayed) connecting flight to San Francisco. People here are much more uninhibited than at home about striking up conversation with random people, say, in line at store checkouts or in airport waiting lounges. This was really striking for me because I've never had cause at home to think of Australians as people who prefer to keep to themselves (quite the opposite), but Americans who visit must certainly think of us as such.
Either it's perfectly socially acceptable in the US to spit wherever the hell you like, such as in the street or on the sidewalk, or drastically fewer people care about keeping their behaviour socially acceptable than in Australia. Barely a day goes past that I don't walk past someone spitting like it's no big deal. I never expected this would be the case in the US, it's the kind of thing I associate more with developing Asian countries. I can't even remember the last time I saw someone spitting in the street in Australia.
Light switches on walls, to control lights on the roof, are upside down in the US compared to Australia - the switch is down when the lights are off and up when the lights are on. But that's not a big deal at all and you get used to it quickly. I will never understand the switches on lamps here, though, which are for some reason different. American lamps are operated by little rotary switches, tiny knobs which click through positions as you turn them. This wouldn't be a big deal if they worked in the obvious way - turn the knob 180 degrees, it clicks, and the light comes on. Rotate it another 180 and it clicks again, the light goes off. Instead there are usually something like 5 to 8 different clickable positions the knob can turn through. And they don't alternate between the light being on, off, on, off, on, off. The assignment seems pretty much random, and sometimes the light stays in the same state through 2 or 3 consecutive clicks. Also, sometimes the switch only works if you turn it in one direction. If you turn it the other way it might still click, or it might not, but the lamp probably won't change state. The whole thing is just super weird and I don't know why anybody would ever even conceive of such a system. Every lamp seems different, which makes using hotel room lamps a baffling new challenge each time.
At the time of writing, USPS deliver mail to my house six days a week, Monday through Saturday. In Australia, there's no mail at all on weekends, so this is a pretty nice change, especially because I shop online a lot since I don't have a car here. Sadly, USPS are in severe financial distress (and this is obvious whenever I visit my local post office, which is severely under-staffed), and Saturday mail service is being discontinued sometime in 2013. But it was nice while it lasted.
I really don't know why, but it seems that aerosol underarm deodorant is strictly a men's product in the US. The vast majority of deodorants for women are of the roll-on type. After being unable to find spray deodorant for women at several stores, my wife asked a few of her online American friends where she could get some, and the response from all of them was "Spray deodorant? Isn't that for men?". This really makes no sense to me at all. In Australia, both kinds of deodorant are readily available for both sexes, and why the hell shouldn't they be?