10 Ways Americans and Europeans Differ

Two young women jump simultaneously for a souvenir picture near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. What are some of the differences Americans notice when they visit Europe and vice versa? LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

The grass can seem greener on the other side of the pond. Americans often covet the history, culture and food associated with Europe, whereas Europeans are wowed by the U.S.'s affordable housing, gas (petrol) prices and mega-stores. So fascinating are the differences that residents of both areas often crisscross the ocean for a taste of the other continent. In fact, 17 percent of U.S. overseas travel was to Europe in 2016, more than to any other destination by a long shot, with the Caribbean placing a distant second [source: International Trade Administration].

But along with the travel, there are characteristics on each side of the ocean that make visitors go "hmmm." We've put together a list of 10 ways that Europeans and Americans differ. That's not to say that every single American or every single European is going to fall neatly into every one of these categories. We're sure that not all Americans are obsessed with gaining a princess title and there are probably some Europeans out there who love an ice-laden beverage. But, for arguments sake, here are a few key, but entertaining, differences.

10
Kings, Dukes and Princesses, Oh My
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge stand on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with their bridesmaids, following their wedding at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011. Many Americans love to follow the royal family. ark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

When American actress Meghan Markle weds Prince Harry of Wales in May 2018, she'll fulfill a fantasy for many American girls: marrying a prince and gaining a royal title. Outside of marriage, there's little chance of Americans obtaining one. The U.S. simply doesn't have any aristocracy or monarchy in place to facilitate such a system. That said, a couple of notable American citizens have earned their titles through marriage, including actress Grace Kelly, who married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956 and urban planner Lisa Halaby who wed King Hussein of Jordan in 1978 and became Queen Noor [source: Courtney].

So what accounts for this American fascination with titles and the British royal family? (They're not so interested in other European royal families). Is it just princess fever courtesy of Disney movies or a love of imported dramas like "Downton Abbey"?

It's been suggested that the reason is Americans see the British royal family as the equivalent of a long-running soap opera or reality show. But Boston University historian Arianne Chernock thinks it is about the special relationship between Britain and America. She told The New York Times that Anglophilia in the U.S. dates back to just after the American Revolution ended British rule in the 13 colonies. "There is a desire to retain that strong cultural tie, and I think that persists to this day," she told the Times.

Meanwhile Britain remains fond of their royals too. Despite some complaints about the amount of money it costs to maintain them, the percentage of the population that wants to do away with them has remained at 18 to 19 percent from 1969 to 2011.

Titles in Europe are still typically passed down from father to eldest son, with daughters unceremoniously skipped over (which means the title sometimes goes to a distant male cousin.) Efforts have been made in recent years to alter this practice. This potential change to hereditary peerage, as it's known, is still tied up in debate as of 2018 [sources: Parliament UK, Shapiro]. The law was changed to give equal succession to females in the British royal family in 2011.

9
Ice, Ice, Baby
Americans love ice in all their beverages. Europeans? Not so much. Steve Lupton/Getty Images

Woe to the American who wants an ice-cold beverage while traversing Europe. Ask for ice in your soda and you might be treated to one or two cubes, a far cry from the filled cups much of Americans are accustomed to. As with any cultural preference, there's probably not one simple reason why Europeans and Americans vary so widely on the topic of ice, but it's likely that the 20th century modernization of America played a role. While U.S. households became rapidly equipped with refrigerator/freezers that easily dispensed ice, Europe lagged behind. Instead, Europeans were shipped ice from North America and asked to pay laughably high prices for something they weren't even accustomed to using. As a result, ice never really took off there, and is sometimes even seen as a drink diluter [sources: Cutolo, Bramen].

The American fascination with ice could also be related to an early belief that it prevented illness-causing bacteria. In 1851 a doctor named John Gorrie obtained a patent for an ice machine because he believed that cooled air (accomplished by hanging ice from the ceiling) could make exam rooms less infectious. Then in the 1950s, Kemmons Wilson, who founded the Holiday Inn chain, became the first to install ice machines in his motels, thus ensuring free availability of the product from coast to coast [source: Julavits].

But the most likely reason Americans love ice might simply be because many areas of the country get really really hot for a significant part of the year (unlike say, England, France or Scotland). Thus, a literally ice-cold beverage brings much-needed relief.

8
Vacation Time
A couple looks at a church painting in Florence, Italy. The average American has two weeks of vacation per year while the average European has at least four. Sofie Delauw/Getty Images

Sure, some American-based companies like biotech firm Amgen, Inc. and Google offer generous vacation packages (three to five weeks) [source: Glassdoor]. But by and large, when it comes to the amount of vacation time the average employee gets, the U.S. lags way behind many other wealthy nations, particularly those in Europe. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor doesn't require employers to offer any paid vacation time to employees. Most companies offer two weeks' (10 days') vacation per year, with that figure rising at some firms for longstanding workers. But 25 percent of American workers get no paid vacation at all [source: Center for Economic and Policy Research].

This is a far cry from Europe, where the European Union requires countries to supply a minimum of 20 vacation days every year for full-time employees, with some companies going above and beyond that offering as many as 25 to 30 days off. The paid holiday situation is just as disparate, with most industrialized countries guaranteeing between five and 13 paid holidays every year, while the U.S. doesn't promise any. Sadly, the Americans who are most affected by lack of adequate vacation days are low-wage or part-time employees, as well as those who work for small businesses [sources: Ray, Mohn].

Several pieces of U.S. legislation have been introduced in Congress to mandate some type of paid vacation time for American workers, but all have died in process so far [sources: Govtrack, Congress.gov].

7
Lots of Languages
French and Corsican road signs dot the village of Vergajo, Corse-du-Sud in Corsica, France. Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

U.S. travelers to European cities are relieved to know they can put away their foreign-language phrasebook or app. Many Europeans speak fluent English, in addition to their native tongues, and often another language as well. The majority learn these at their respective educational systems, which almost always require students to study their first foreign language between the ages of 6 and 9.

In 2010, 73 percent of European children in primary school and 90 percent of secondary students were learning English. Additionally, more than 20 European countries required students to pick up a second additional language later on [source: Devlin].

By contrast, foreign language requirements vary in the U.S. by school system, with nothing set in stone by federal law. Typically, students aren't even exposed to another language until around age 13 or 14, which makes fluency hard to come by. Just 25 percent of American adults speak a foreign language, and of those that do, the vast majority (89 percent) learned it at home rather than at school [source: Devlin].

6
'Free' Health Care
Protesters hold a small peaceful demonstration in support of government-supported health care on Sept. 23, 2017 in Livingston, Montana. The state of Montana expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. William Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images

Americans might dream of a society where they don't have to pay out of pocket for health care services, save for the occasional prescription or optical and dental services. That's what Brits get, courtesy of their National Health Service (NHS). Some 64.6 million people in England, Scotland and Ireland get free health care at point of use [sources: NHS].

Of course, it's not really "free" since it's funded by U.K. taxpayer dollars. But Americans also pay tax dollars that find their way to health care systems (for instance for Medicaid and Medicare). Yet Americans likely still have to buy private health insurance, as well as pay deductibles, coinsurance fees and any costs not covered by their insurance [source: Romano].

European countries manage health care in different ways across the continent, but the governments usually funds some or most of it. Sweden for instance, funds most of its system with local taxes and patients pay a nominal fee for services. In France, it is compulsory to buy health insurance — premiums are deducted from workers' paychecks. When you go to the doctor, the cost of the visit is reimbursed by the government via a smartcard that is swiped when you visit [source: The Guardian].

However, as European populations age and need more expensive treatments, their governments face some of the same funding issues that America is dealing with. And the NHS, for one, is routinely criticized because patients are subjected to excessively long wait times, both for treatment and tests. The British Red Cross refers to it as a humanitarian crisis, and has been called in to help out in many hospitals [source: Dalrymple]. Nevertheless, the U.S. still outspends all European countries on health care (at 16 percent of GDP) and yet Americans have shorter life expectancies and higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes [source: Paun].

5
Gap Years
Holly Bull, left, president of the Center for Interim Programs, talks with Tommy Brown, right, a high school senior, and his mother Mary Brown, second from right, during the 'Gap Year' fair at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, 2008. Bonnie Trafelet/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

American high-schoolers have traditionally launched straightaway into college, technical school or the job market post-graduation. However, bit by bit they are opting to do what many Europeans has done forever – take a gap year. In fact, 2006 to 2014 saw a 20 percent uptick in Americans taking gap years [source: Bridges].

Gap years started in England in 1967 when three students went from Britain to volunteer in Ethiopia courtesy of a company called Project Trust. In 1977, an organization was set up in the U.K. to provide volunteer opportunities between high school and college [source: Sherifi]. In 2012, more than 5 percent of accepted British university applicants took a gap year, while just 1.2 percent of U.S.-based students did in 2011 [source: Moy].

The gap year is intended to be a time of personal growth, where a young person can find out more about career goals or themselves by volunteering, interning, traveling or learning a foreign language.

U.S. gap year programs can be pretty expensive, to the tune of $35,000 or so, and the more affordable options are difficult to get into. Some colleges (like Princeton and the University of North Carolina) do offer gap-year fellowships [source: McPhate].

But apart from the cost, Americans are less likely to do gap years because they usually have many opportunities to volunteer and study abroad while in high school or college. There's also a fear among U.S. parents that if their kids take a year off, they may not enroll in higher education [source: Moy]. But the American Gap Association reports that 90 percent of the students who participate in their programs enroll at a four-year institution within 12 months of finishing their gap year. Further, 96 percent of students who've enjoyed a gap year say that the experience helped them develop as a person [source: American Gap Association].

4
'God Is My Co-Pilot'
The Heddal Stave Church in Norway was built in the 13th century. In Europe, church attendance is much lower than it is in the U.S.A. Universal Images Group/Getty Images

In 2015, 53 percent of Americans said religion was very important in their lives, compared with 28 percent of Poles (which was the highest percentage for a European country). Just 21 percent of Brits and 14 percent of French people said the same thing [source: Pew Research].

So why has religion remained so popular in the U.S.? One theory is that since churches there aren't funded by the state, they have to be market-driven in order to survive — which may explain the popularity of megachurches tricked out like rock arenas, as well as prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen who have a message that Americans (and others) like to hear. About 37 percent of Americans attend church weekly. By contrast, 80 percent of Norwegians are baptized into the state-funded Church of Norway but only 2 percent attend services weekly.

"When a state creates a relationship with a religion, religious leaders no longer have the same impetus to go out and get people excited," researcher Philip Schwadel told NPR in 2017. "They get money from the state through taxes, so they don't have to collect money from their congregants."

There are signs that religiosity is declining in the U.S. as well. From 2009 to 2015, the percentage of Americans who said their religious affiliation was "none" rose from 16 percent to 23 percent of the population — among millennials, it was 35 percent [source: Pew Research].

3
Metric System
Only three countries —Myanmar, Liberia and the U.S.A. — do not use the metric system. Toshiro Shimada/Getty Images

In the U.S., measurement is all about feet, ounces and Fahrenheit. Most everywhere else, however, people use meters, liters and Celsius. American devotion to their archaic system, called the U.S. customary system, dates way back to 1821 when then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams said thanks, but no thanks, to going metric. President Andrew Johnson signed a law in 1866 that allowed contracts, court proceedings or dealings to use the metric system, but it failed to take off.

In 1975, the Metric Conversion Act was passed, along with the Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 making another attempt at encouraging adoption of the system. The inherent problem is that all of these "laws" are "voluntary," meaning that states, businesses and anyone else can adopt the system if they want to, but they don't have to [source: Guzman].

It's a pain in the neck to learn a new measurement system, so who's going to do it if it's not mandated? (Government mandate is how the metric system took hold in many countries. The U.K. went metric in the 1960s.) Experts claim, however, that failure to fall in line with the rest of the world makes doing business ultra-confusing and actually hurts the American economy [source: National Institute of Standards and Technology]. Oddly, the metric system has taken hold in some corners of the U.S. economy — such as the 2-liter soda. Which brings us to our next difference.

2
Supersize Me
Portion sizes in Europe were traditionally much smaller than in the U.S., but they have been steadily increasing, along with obesity rates. Caiaimage/Tom Merton/Getty Images

Back in the 1990s in the U.S., a cheeseburger was 4.5 ounces (128 grams) and a soda was 6.5 ounces (192 milliliters). Fast-forward 20 years and the typical burger is now 8 ounces and the soda is 20 ounces [source: NHLBI]. No wonder 36.5 percent of Americans are obese [source: CDC].

Portion sizes in Europe are smaller on average than those found in the United States, where restaurant portions have doubled, even tripled in recent decades [source: NHLBI]. WebMD reported in 2003 that a portion size in Paris was 25 percent less than one in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, a typical soda drink in Philly was 52 percent larger than one in Paris.

But the bigger-is-better trend seems to be taking hold in Europe too. Portion sizes related to obesity have been less extensively studied there. But a 2014 study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that portion trends in Europe are mirroring American habits, especially in the arenas of fast food and snack foods [source: Livingstone].

Some 23 percent of women and 20 percent of men in the E.U. are obese and the numbers are growing [source: WHO]. Experts have called for the European Union to follow the U.S.'s lead and mandate serving sizes and nutritional information on food packages. This would avoid confusion, because as it stands now, individual brands can determine their own [source: Michail].

1
Très Chic or No Très Chic?
American tourists Regina Proffit (left) and Tom and Pidge Tomlinson from Denver, Colorado, dressed in typical American traveling clothes, listen to a guided tour during their visit to Stonehenge, Wiltshire. Chris Ison/PA Images via Getty Images

Europeans often say you can tell an American tourist a mile off: the cargo shorts, T-shirt with a sports team logo and sneakers are dead giveaways. Meanwhile Americans say you can spot European tourists in the U.S. because they wear socks with sandals, know how to tie a scarf and never smile at strangers. Generalize much?

We can say this: While Americans will dress up at times, they usually don't. They put a lot of value on comfortable, functional clothes, like yoga pants, running shoes and loose-fitting tops — especially when traveling. Europeans are known to prefer tailored, form-fitting clothing, often in muted colors. In fact, some travel blogs insist that the American tourist who wishes not to stand out in Europe should avoid common wardrobe staples, like brightly colored jackets, running shoes and oversized T-shirts [sources: Polla, The Savvy Backpacker].

The advent of casual clothes stateside can be traced back to the addition of sportswear, then shorts into American wardrobes in the early 1900s. Women later began to don comfortable, all-purpose unisex clothes, like jeans, cardigans and T-shirts, further encouraging a shift away from binding, uncomfortable clothes.

Fashion historian Deirdre Clemente wrote in a piece for TIME, "To dress casual is quintessentially to dress as an American and to live, or to dream of living, fast and loose and carefree. ... But for all the hours and articles, I've long known why I dress casual. It feels good."

UP NEXT

Why Peter A. Browne Bizarrely Collected Hair

Why Peter A. Browne Bizarrely Collected Hair

Peter A. Browne put together a magnificent collection of hair. HowStuffWorks takes a look at the collection and how it was saved from the dustbin.


Author's Note: 10 Ways Americans and Europeans Differ

I've been to Europe and I've hosted Europeans here in the U.S. We always enjoy discussing and celebrating the differences between the regions. That said, there's no place like home, land of ice cubes, large closets and tall door frames that I won't hit my head on.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • American Academy of Arts & Sciences. "America's Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century." 2017 (Nov. 6, 2017) https://www.amacad.org/multimedia/pdfs/publications/researchpapersmonographs/language/Commission-on-Language-Learning_Americas-Languages.pdf
  • America's Future Foundation. "'Downton Abbey' Inspires Bill To Change Inheritance Laws For British Nobility." 2017 (Nov. 3, 2017) http://americasfuture.org/downton-abbey-inspires-bill-to-change-inheritance-laws-for-british-nobility/
  • American Gap Association. "What is a Gap Year?" 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://americangap.org/about.php
  • American Gap Association. "Research Statement." 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://americangap.org/research.php
  • Bramen, Lisa. "Why Don't Other Countries Use Ice Cubes?" Smithsonian. Aug. 12, 2011 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-dont-other-countries-use-ice-cubes-50361097/
  • Bridges, Frances. "Should You Take a Gap Year?" Forbes. April 29, 2014 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.forbes.com/sites/francesbridges/2014/04/29/should-you-take-a-gap-year/#71c57d82b119
  • CDC. "Adult Obesity Facts." 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
  • Clemente, Deirdre. "Why and When Did Americans Begin to Dress So Casually?" TIME. Aug. 5, 2015 (Nov. 5, 2017) http://time.com/3984690/american-casual-dressing/
  • Courtney, Nadine Jolie. "11 American Women Who Became Princesses." Town and Country. Feb. 23, 2017 (Nov. 6, 2017) http://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/tradition/g3220/american-princesses/
  • Cutolo, Morgan. "This is Why Americans Love Ice in their Drinks and the British Don't." Reader's Digest. 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.rd.com/food/fun/americans-love-ice-british-dont/
  • Dalrymple, Theodore. "The British National Health Service Is in Crisis: What Else Is New?" Liberty Law Site. Jan. 13, 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) http://www.libertylawsite.org/2017/01/13/the-british-national-health-service-is-in-crisis-what-else-is-new/
  • Devlin, Kat. "Learning a foreign language 'a must' in Europe, not so in America." Pew Research. July 13, 2015 (Nov. 4, 2017) http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/13/learning-a-foreign-language-a-must-in-europe-not-so-in-america/
  • Frejka, Tomas and Charles Westoff. "Religion, Religiousness and Fertility in the US and in Europe." European Journal of Population. March 2008 (Nov. 11, 2017) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10680-007-9121-y
  • Glassdoor Team. "25 Highest Rated Companies for Vacation and Paid Time Off." Oct. 26, 2016. (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/25-highest-rated-companies-for-vacation-paid-time-off/
  • Grayson, Alan. "H.R. 2096 Paid Vacation Act." Congress.gov. 2013-2014 (Nov. 6, 2017) https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/2096
  • Hereditary Peerage Association. "Lord Trefgarne's Female Succession Bill." 2017 (Nov. 6, 2017) http://www.hereditarypeers.com/MAIN.HTM
  • Julavits, Heidi. "American Exceptionalism on Ice." The New Yorker. July 8, 2016 (Nov. 6, 2017) https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/american-exceptionalism-on-ice
  • Livingstone, M. Barbara E. and L. Kirsty Pourshahidi. "Portion Size and Obesity." Nov. 2014 (Nov. 5, 2017) http://europepmc.org/articles/PMC4224223
  • Martin, Will. "The 16 Countries With the World's Best Healthcare System." Nordic Business Insider. Jan. 13, 2017. (Nov. 5, 2017) http://nordic.businessinsider.com/the-16-countries-with-the-worlds-best-healthcare-systems-2017-1/
  • Masci, David. "Europe projected to retain its Christian majority, but religious minorities will grow." Pew Research Center. April 15, 2015 (Nov. 7, 2017) http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/15/europe-projected-to-retain-its-christian-majority-but-religious-minorities-will-grow/
  • McPhate, Mike. "Malia Obama's 'Gap Year' is Part of a Growing (and Expensive) Trend." New York Times. May 2, 2016 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/03/us/malia-obamas-gap-year-is-part-of-a-growing-and-expensive-trend.html
  • Michail, Niamh. "Portion Distortion: The EU Must Define Realistic Portion Sizes, Says MEP." Food Navigator. May 12, 2016 (Nov. 7, 2017) https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2016/05/12/Portion-distortion-The-EU-must-define-realistic-portion-sizes-says-MEP#
  • Mohn, Tanya. "U.S. The Only Advanced Economy That Does Not Require Employers To Provide Paid Vacation Time, Report Says." Forbes. Aug. 13, 2013 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2013/08/13/paid-time-off-forget-about-it-a-report-looks-at-how-the-u-s-compares-to-other-countries/#3dfa56f96f65
  • Moy, Jennifer. "Why Are Gap Years More Common in Europe than the US?" Go Overseas. July 25, 2013 (Nov. 11, 2017) https://www.gooverseas.com/blog/why-gap-years-more-common-in-europe-us
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. "Larger Portion Sizes Contribute to U.S. Obesity Problem." 2017 (Nov. 11, 2017) https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/news-events/matte1.htm
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology. "The United States and the Metric System." Oct. 1997 (Nov. 9, 2017) https://www.nist.gov/sites/default/files/documents/pml/wmd/metric/1136a.pdf
  • NHS. "The NHS in England." 2017 (Nov. 6, 2017) https://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/thenhs/about/Pages/overview.aspx
  • Pew Research Center. "Religious Landscape Study." 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
  • Ray, Rebecca; Milla Sanes, and John Schmitt. "No-Vacation Nation Revisited." Center for Economic and Policy Research. May 2013 (Nov. 4, 2017) http://cepr.net/publications/reports/no-vacation-nation-2013
  • Rheinstein, Max and Mary Ann Glendon. "Inheritance." Britannica. 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.britannica.com/topic/inheritance-law
  • Romano, Max. "Obamacare is Not Universal Healthcare (commentary)." Baltimore Sun. March 26, 2014 (Nov. 5, 2017) http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/bs-ed-obamacare-medicare-20140326-story.html
  • Sanders, Bernard. "S. 1564 (114th): Guaranteed Paid Vacation Act." Govtrack. 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/s1564
  • Shapiro, Ari. "The Downton Abbey Law Would Let British Women Inherit Titles." NPR. Jan. 15, 2014 (Nov. 6, 2017) http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/01/15/262741340/the-downton-abbey-law-would-let-british-women-inherit-titles
  • The Savvy Backpacker. "FASHION ADVICE: HOW TO AVOID LOOKING LIKE AN AMERICAN TOURIST IN EUROPE." NPR. Jan. 15, 2014 (Nov. 6, 2017) https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/01/15/262741340/the-downton-abbey-law-would-let-british-women-inherit-titles
  • Travel.trade.gov. "U.S. Citizen Traffic to Overseas Regions, Canada & Mexico 2015." 2016 (Nov. 7, 2017) https://travel.trade.gov/view/m-2016-O-001/index.html
  • United States Department of Labor. "Holiday Pay." 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/wages/holiday
  • US Weekly Staff. "Pals: Why Olivia Wilde, Italian Prince Husband Called it Quits. US Weekly. Feb. 8, 2011 (Nov. 4, 2017) https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-body/news/olivia-wilde-pal-on-split-she-wants-to-sow-her-wild-oats-201182/
  • World Health Organization. "Data and Statistics." 2017 (Nov. 8, 2017) http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/noncommunicable-diseases/obesity/data-and-statistics
  • World Health Organization. "What is Universal Coverage?" 2017 (Nov. 5, 2017) http://www.who.int/health_financing/universal_coverage_definition/en/