What Are The True Differences Between American and European Culture, Really?

This goes a little bit deeper than coffee cup sizes.
Small red European car driving down a narrow cobblestone street

Why are Europeans allergic to air conditioning? Why are their portion sizes like that? Is “European lifestyle” more or less synonymous with “cigarettes“? What’s with all the mineral water already, geez?

These are all very accessible on the scale of cultural disparities between Europe and the U.S., but they fall short of expressing the fundamental mentality shift people experience when they cross the Atlantic Ocean. Whether we prefer air conditioning or the lack of it is mostly just a matter of what we grew up with. Where it really gets interesting is in the motivations behind our consumerist appetites, the degree of personal agency (and personal space!) we think is appropriate, and how much we buy into religion and patriotism.

Here are a few of the most compelling differences between American culture and the European lifestyle.

The European Lifestyle: Work To Live, Don’t Live To Work?

In America, our lives tend to revolve a lot more around work — and not just because we have a weaker social safety net. According to a Pew Research Study, Americans are much more likely than Europeans to agree that “hard work is very important for getting ahead in life” (73 percent, compared to the European median of 35 percent), as well as disagree that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” It goes pretty much hand in hand with this that Americans prioritize individual liberty, while Europeans are more society-minded and believe it’s more important that no one is in need.

What’s Mine Is Mine

Americans and Europeans have different concepts of personal space, and by extension, personal property. In some ways, this is also kind of related to our differing notions of distance. Europe is a small continent; America is a giant country with states the size of European countries.

Shopping Is Sacred

The United States is by and large a more religious place than Europe, with over half of Americans polled by Pew Research saying religion is very important to them (double the percentage of Poland, which scored highest among EU nations on the poll). More broadly, the U.S. way of living is also more faith-centric than is the European lifestyle. Americans have faith in religion, in their own sense of national pride, and in the sanctity of consumerism. In the U.S., we observe holidays (like Black Friday) that revolve around buying things, which is much less the case in Europe.

Smile! And Nod?

It’s true — Americans are a smiley bunch. Sometimes it really weirds the rest of the world out. But it’s worth considering how things got that way. The United States is a country of immigrants who had to (in theory) find common ground with people who came from very different backgrounds. Demonstrating friendliness was often necessary to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers, as was prioritizing agreeableness over honesty and bluntness. However, it doesn’t seem as though this translates into Americans being categorically more politically correct than Europeans. According to Pew Research, 77 percent of Americans believe in the right to say things that are offensive to someone else’s religion or beliefs, and 67 percent said the same for statements that may offend various minority groups – scoring higher than any other European country polled.

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