Oct 1

Communicating: America vs. Europe

Barcelonans, quietly, enjoy tapas and conversation at La Pepita in the Gràcia neighborhood. (You can’t see it, but on the door in the back of the photo, there was a huge MICHIGAN written on it. You can’t take us anywhere…)

There are thousands of languages spoken across the world. I recently had the opportunity to experience five of them over the course of two weeks. This past month, I took off for a two-week European holiday basked in the promise of good food, culture and excitement. While overseas, I visited five different countries, which meant five different languages – four of which weren’t my native tongue.

Of course, I was interested in how communication would be different – beyond just the language. While language may be one driver of communication, it’s not the only, or honestly, most important aspect. Ultimately, the nuanced and often the most interesting differences can be found in the little things.

Here are five differences I noticed during my recent travels:

  1. Smiling: It’s impossible to walk down the street in America without someone smiling at you and, especially here in the Midwest, probably saying hello. In Europe, no one smiles at you on the sidewalk. Even on a quiet street, there is no obligation to engage with anyone.
  2. Volume: When I returned to the States, I was reminded of just how loudly we speak. Seriously. It was a strange experience to sit on a patio and not hear the conversation of a table in the next restaurant over. Everything in Europe tends to be closer together – there are a lot of people in a small amount of space – so they have to keep to themselves. Since returning, I’ve tried to speak softer in an attempt to coerce those around me to a lower decibel. So far, I’m not succeeding.
  3. Niceties: In America, we tend to over share with anyone who will listen. I always give my parents a hard time because every time we get into an Uber, the driver knows our whole life story by the end of the ride. In Europe, while they are polite, there is less of an inclination to ask about your life. You say hello – and then you move on about your day. For how many people we interacted with, very few people actually asked us any personal details.
  4. Formality: I always am a little taken aback when a stranger says “hey, bro” to me. On this side of the pond, we tend to have a very casual repartee, even with people we have never met. While traveling in Europe, I never once received a “hey” (or salut, or bok or que pasa). Everywhere you went, there was a formal hello, which was very interesting. And though there was a sense of formality, it wasn’t stuffy – it’s just how it’s done.
  5. Silence: In America, we tend to avoid silence like the plague. If there is a momentary break in a conversation, we hurry up to add some random quip. And the second we’re by ourselves at a restaurant, we immediately pick up our phone so we don’t have to be left alone with our thoughts. It was refreshing to see people, by themselves, just hanging out at café or in the park with no electronics. There is a peacefulness knowing you can be lost in your own thoughts while being surrounded by millions of people.

I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend two weeks learning about new cultures, experiencing some adventure and, yes, resting. It’s a great big world out there, and we can learn so much from our fellow planet-mates.

One thought on “Communicating: America vs. Europe”

  1. Mary Helmic says:

    Hey Brian, thanks for the brief respite while reading about your travel observations!

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