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Cultural differences: US and Eastern Europe

Updated on April 7, 2013

United States is very different from the rest of the world, that's a cliché, right? But as every platitude it holds the truth. Here are some of my observations:

Keeping appearances vs showing real emotions

Most Americans when asked "How are you?" will reply with a typical "I am fine, thank you" response. On the contrary, people from Eastern European countries will usually say "You would better not ask, life sucks" or something similar. Eastern Europeans love to talk about misfortunes that they have to deal with. This seems almost like a social norm and accepted custom to complain about life and your personal problems. Depending on a relationship with you they will open up and recite a more or less detailed list of their troubles. It seems safer to talk about negative aspects of life with other people. Why? Because nobody envies you if your life seems to be a drama. In Poland it was common to talk about adversities, bad luck and all kinds of disasters in communism era. It was a social norm to complain about anything and everything including the regim. At that time people needed to vent their frustration and grumbling about their lack of freedom and other difficulties was an expression of that vexation. But apparently they still love to complain even though the times changed.

Image: healingdream /
Image: healingdream /

In United States it is different. On surface everyone is doing great, there is a smile on the face and a nonchalant "I am great" response. It takes a real friend to confine that things are falling apart in your life. On the outside though you must keep appearances, pretend the life goes on like in my favorite of all times song by Freddie Mercury "The Show Must Go On". It took me a long time to get to a point where my relationship with American friends was strong enough to venture into a more personal questions.

image by markuso
image by markuso

Friend vs acquaintance

Americans tend to use a term "friend" very liberally, they address that way anyone whom they happen to know, more or less. Many times I have witnessed people introducing a new acquaintance as their friend. Of course, there are good friends, true friends and not so good ones. In Europe, however, there is a very deep distinction between friends, colleagues from work, people we meet at the grocery store, parents from a park and so on. A friend is a deeply trusted person, someone whom we feel safe to entrust our life with. A friend is welcome at any time of day or night in our home and is always invited to have a meal and a drink. A good friend doesn't need to call ahead to make appointment just to come over for a chat.

Palace in Plawniowice - old landmark in Poland

Image: Michal Marcol /
Image: Michal Marcol /

Addressing strangers

My friend visited Czech Republic a couple years ago. While in Prague, he decided to go for a morning jog. As he was enjoying a beautiful architecture and, in a typical American style, greeting strangers with his upbeat and friendly "Hi" and "Hello" he was shocked to discover that people were not smiling and not returning his polite greetings. Instead they were staring at him as if he were an alien from a distant galaxy. He was puzzled and shocked when he later discovered that Eastern Europeans don't have a custom to greet strangers on street with a polite phrase like that. Friendly greetings are reserved only for people they actually know.


It is considered extremely impolite not to offer food and a cup of coffee or tea to your guest even if it is only a short visit. There is a Polish proverb that says "when you have a guest it is as if God was visiting your home". Eastern Europeans stand up to this and are known for their hospitality. They are very often exceptionally welcoming and ready to go to great lengths to please their company. They will gladly offer their own master bedroom to accommodate a guest. It would be unheard of to offer a guest, especially a member of family, to stay at the hotel. Generally, Eastern Europeans love entertaining and cook up massive amounts of home made food, nobody ever leaves hungry.


Eastern European food is more like a comfort food. The ever popular mashed potatoes with gravy and a serving of stewed meat accompanied by a deliciously cooked cabbage side dish is a common meal. Families cook their meals from scratch almost every day and buy their groceries at a farmer's market. Fast food entered East European market only after the fall of Berlin Wall and while some of the popular American chains made its way into some of these countries, they are not as popular as in the country of their origin. Most of families choose to cook and eat at home, it is a tradition but they also have to factor in the cost of going out to eat. Restaurants tend to be expensive. Besides, who would not love home made delicious foods served by your own mother or grandmother? Lunch can be as easy as a baked pastry from a small local privately owned bakery or a fresh sandwich.


Europe was built not for cars and many metropolies have narrow streets that are perfect for pedestrians but not for car traffic. People walk as much as they can to their destinations or use public transport that is, by the way, very well organized. Children walk to their school, parents rush in the morning to catch a bus or a tram. Because the parking is scarce, Europeans will think twice before deciding whether to drive or walk to a nearest grocery. Taking walks in a park and strolling down the streets is still a preferred passtime for many.


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    • Monisajda profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from my heart

      Dziekuje bardzo, Hally!

    • Hally Z. profile image

      Hally Z. 

      7 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Fajny opis, Pani Monika...jestem tutaj urodzona, lecz dobrze znam te obyczaje Europejske. Tez czytalam troszke Pani opowiesci z Pani blog. Dzieki!

    • Monisajda profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from my heart

      Seafarer Mama,

      Thanks for your comment, I am sorry I wasn't able to reply earlier due to my overseas trip ;-)

      I am happy you enjoyed my hub.

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen A Szklany 

      7 years ago from New England

      Hello Monisajda. I've enjoyed reading this hub..and some of the comments made in response to it. Though I have visited Europe, I lived mainly in Ireland. Enjoyed my year abroad...and the formality factor is an important one to keep in mind.

      I agree that there is a real difference between regions of the US...which sometimes cause misunderstandings, too...but it's always worthwhile working to understand one another.....for that's the cultural education that makes us grow. :0)

    • Monisajda profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from my heart

      breathe2travel, sorry for not responding earlier (I haven't noticed your comment) and thanks for your insightful comment. I have heard about the differences between the South and North. I spent most of my time in Texas and California and my observations stem from my personal experience.

    • breathe2travel profile image


      8 years ago from Gulf Coast, USA

      I see differences between the South and the North with reference to "friends" and "acquaintances". In the South, people seem quicker to dub someone "friend" than in the North. Also, in the South, people are hospitable to a fault -- but in the North, people are more reserved in extending invitations to newly met "acquaintances". However, in the North, when invitations are extended, they are heartfelt and sincere, not just a closing remark thoughtlessly offered, "Y'all come see us," void of follow-up. LOL.

      On a personal note -- as I have "aged", I use the term "friend" more conservatively, and use the terms "acquaintance" or "colleague" more readily.

      I found your hub an interesting read. Thank you.

      Voted up.

      Warmest regards~

    • Monisajda profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from my heart

      Thanks lobonorth.

    • lobonorth profile image


      8 years ago

      Interesting and well written. Even in the US, there are great differences in behavior and custom between, most famously, East Coast and West Coast.

    • Monisajda profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from my heart

      Chris57, I totally agree with you. I grew up in Poland, then lived in Western Europe for a short while before moving to US. You are absolutely right about families having to stick together just to survive unlike in US where everything you desire was and still is available all the time. There was a time when all food was gone from the shelves in the stores and the only product that was available was vinegar. To buy food meant going on a hunt and relying on information from relatives or good friends. There were days when we were successful and managed to hunt 1kg of cheese and get toilet paper as well. This must be unimaginable to most Americans.

      You have made excellent points, thanks for bringing it to my attention. I am looking forward to reading your hubs. Thanks!

    • CHRIS57 profile image


      8 years ago from Northern Germany

      Moni, very well observed. I totally aggree with your observations. Looking back some 20 plus years and having experience with American culture, Western European living and the Eastern European, communist and post communist way of life i want to add some thoughts.

      For this i go back to Russia of the early Jelzin years. Private life was very cumbersome, lots of time and effort was spent to gather food and living essentials. There was little to buy. Information passing of where to get what was important. In this environment, people had to depend on each other. Families would tie together and share their ressources to get by. In this situation everyone not belonging to the "family" was treated to be a potential rival and competitor. Why greet a competitor and give him 3 cheers?

      Living standard was low. Wages and earnings were barely enough to get by, just skipping the time periods of hyperinflation. People had to very much fight for themselves and their families in private life. To survive they had to relax and regain strength in their working life. They went to work late, even slept at work, made plans for the next bargain on 100 kg of sugar sold in a remote place where a car had to be organised to get the supplies back home. Of course that diminished work efficiency and ended in a spiral of poverty and deprivation.

      At the same time in the US. Shopping 24 hours a day. No need to flock in groups and families to get by. Actually people live for themselves, easterners would call them lonely. But one habit remained from old days of settlement and westward movement. In old times few people settled in the west (which was not so much west at that time) and they had to stick together against dangers of wildernis. So they better take care of each other, asking for their well being - how are you today - i´m fine.

      Today this phrase and habit have lost their meanings. But it doesn´t harm either. People from other countries just think this is superficial and people from eastern countries may find it annoying because their time of needing each other is not long ago.

    • Monisajda profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from my heart

      I guess, the negativity is common especially between close friends, but certainly strangers don't put a fake smile.

    • JLClose profile image


      8 years ago from OreGONE

      Sounds like a very interesting and different way of life. I don't know if I'd be thrilled at hearing depressing answers every time I ask someone "How are you?", but, at the same time, the generic "I'm fine, thanks" doesn't really do the trick, either.

      Interesting hub!

    • Monisajda profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from my heart


      Thanks for your comment. Eastern Europe has changed a lot in many ways since the fall of communism. Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary were the first countries from the former Warsaw Pact to be invited to European Union. Meaning they reinforced positive changes in their legal and economic systems. Despite the fact that the standard of living is still lower than in US they managed to embrace the new econonmy and are implementing a more western mentality. In the past once you had a job it was for life, nowadays you need to be competitive. As for the old customs, they are still alive but as people are more on the go the old ways are slowly changing. However, food is still the same.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      8 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting observations Monisajda. Is this changing at all in Eastern Europe with the advent of freedom from the Soviet Union? I know this is probably different in the various countries. I gather that most of these countries are doing much better now. Is this true? Of course old ways are hard to shake loose. You are right that we are very cavalier in using the term friend here. True friends though are indeed rare so I feel you have it more right in Eastern Europe.


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