Europe: An American’s Cultural False Friend

Do you remember the lesson on false friends in English class? No, I’m not referring to the shady classmates who were pretending to be your friend but who really weren’t. False friends are words that look similar but have a different meaning. I also like to extend this terminology when comparing European and American culture. A quick glance at any American study abroad program shows that American students prefer to study abroad in western countries, aka Europe, just by the sheer volume of programs established in Europe by American universities. This is not to say that Europe doesn’t have great schools or great programs. They do. But so do many other non-European countries. So why is the demand so high to study abroad in Europe? I suspect because it is the belief that Europe and the United States share a similar way of living, students would have an easier adjustment. This is true – to a degree. Europe and the USA do share a scientific, political, historical, linguistic and cultural lineage. And certainly we are very politically and monetarily intertwined with our European brethren. However there are grand differences between the 2 continents.

Europe is a false friend in terms of culture because although the USA shares many similar traits, there are so many differences. These similar traits lured me into a false sense of security and belief that I did not have to prepare much for the differences as I could expect a very similar way of life. This false friend caught me off guard when I came into contact with things like strikes; French bureaucracy; the uncanny French ability to disagree with almost everything; the general union worker mentality; the inability to go against the grain; independent decisions discouraged in businesses; the customer is NOT in the right (try making a commotion at a French store when you are not pleased and see what doesn’t happen); the different relationship with government; the list does go on and on. These things are all in contrast to the American way of: money/business comes first before everything; the can-do attitude; live to work; the customer is ALWAYS right; workers being able to make autonomous decisions; unions mostly looked down upon; free market; independent spirit; no one is responsible for you but you. I am not here to assert that one way is better over the other. Merely, that they are different and that culture shock is real for American students who study in Europe. When choosing a study abroad program, make sure it is because it will have a beneficial impact on your major/career needs and goals and not because the culture resembles your own. You never know when you may encounter a false friend.