6 American Customs That Don't Translate Overseas

One of the best parts of traveling is observing different customs practiced around the world and finding out that habits back home aren’t widespread. While ordering an iced latte to go might seem commonplace in the U.S., it’s not as prevalent in Germany or France. If you’re planning an international trip, you might want to consider these American customs that are uncommon overseas. If nothing else, these differences make great conversation starters.

Preparing Hot and Cold Drinks

Several drinking glasses on a wooden table filled with tea and ice cubes
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Loving cold drinks isn’t just an American custom, but the extent to which those drinks are chilled might be. In the United States, it’s considered strange if a soda is served to you without ice cubes. Yet, order one at the bar in a British pub, and you’ll almost certainly be asked whether you want “ice and a slice.” As ice dilutes the drink, a glass full of the stuff is equated with being short-changed.

But then, the practice of offering free refills is still rare in the U.K., while it’s commonplace in the US. Hot drinks can be equally problematic. Using a kettle to make tea was recently promoted by the New York Times as if it was a new invention, prompting howls of derision across the pond and precipitating fierce debate on Twitter.

Using the “Wrong” Date Format

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The majority of countries use a date format unlike the one used by Americans. For much of the rest of the world, the correct format when writing out a specific date goes from smallest to largest: day, month, and then year. For example, the 11th day of April 2022 would be written as “11/4/2022.” But if you’re in the U.S., you’d write “4/11/2022.”

This unusual custom even has a name — middle endianness. To avoid any confusion, take your lead from the International Organization for Standardization, which uses a third method. Under the convention set by ISO 8601, the format is year, month, date — also referred to as “big endianness” — which has been adopted by countries such as China and Mongolia.

Asking for To-Go Containers

Overhead view of biodegradable to-go container on a wooden table
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Portion size is typically larger at American restaurants than at establishments abroad, and as a result, it’s common to be unable to finish your meal in one sitting. Rather than have that food go to waste, it’s perfectly acceptable — expected, even — to ask for or be offered a to-go container so that you can finish your leftovers at home.

The practice of taking restaurant food home originated in America in the mid-20th century, when “doggie bags” were given to steakhouse customers to carry meal scraps home for pets. The doggie bag eventually became popular for humans in the United States, but to-go containers are still uncommon today in other countries.

While British pet owners happily embrace the idea of a doggie bag, they consider the request to be cheap. Over in France, on the other hand, doggie bags were once perceived as the height of rudeness and insulting to the chef. However, in an effort to reduce food waste, campaigns promoting initiatives such as Gourmet Bag are tackling outdated attitudes.

Turning Right on Red

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Overseas visitors in the U.S. might unwittingly hold up traffic if they follow the driving practice they’re used to back home and wait for a green light at an intersection before making a right turn. In the United States, unless signed otherwise, it’s perfectly legal to turn right on red, following a ruling that was rolled out in the 1970s as a fuel-saving measure. The last hold-out was Massachusetts, which repealed its no turn on red law in 1980.

But over in Europe, the practice is not the norm — do so and you’ll risk getting a fine. However, at some traffic lights you may find there’s a dedicated left or right turn as part of the phasing. But even in the U.S., if drivers see a sign prohibiting such maneuvers, they must comply. Meanwhile, in New York City, it’s the other way around — there must be a sign explicitly permitting a right turn on red for a driver to do so legally.


Dish with various types of currency placed on rustic wooden table
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Americans have a reputation for going big when it comes to tipping. Adding an extra amount to your restaurant bill as a thank you to those who served you isn’t unique to the U.S., but the scale of what’s expected sets the country apart. In Germany, for instance, if your café bill comes to €29, it’s perfectly acceptable to round up and hand over €30.

Most Brits would consider 10% adequate, though almost a fifth of respondents in a recent survey said they don’t tip at all. In Japan, tipping isn’t commonplace and though you won’t insult anyone if you leave a few additional notes on the table, you’re more likely to leave your server feeling embarrassed than thrilled.

There, providing excellent service is a matter of pride and not contingent on monetary reward. So what explains these differences? It’s partly to do with pay; in countries where the legal minimum wage already rewards employees, tips aren’t seen as a vital component of income.

Eating Dinner Early

Group of people sitting at a table surrounded by various foods and dishes
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When dining out, there’s nothing more awkward than being the only ones in the restaurant. To avoid such a situation, Americans traveling overseas might need to adjust their regular mealtime to coincide with local habits. At home, Brits will happily dine at six in the evening and many Norwegians and Finns will eat theirs a couple of hours earlier; they’ll all hold off for a bit if eating out.

At 7 p.m., Italians will still be in the middle of their passeggiata (evening stroll) and won’t plan to sit down for their main meal of the day until about 9 p.m. Spaniards dine at even later hours, and it’s not uncommon for them to be making dinner reservations for 10 or 11 at night.

The tradition of eating late is partly due to the hot afternoon weather that once made the siesta tradition so widespread. However, others explain it as an issue with the country’s time zone following a clock change under Franco’s regime in 1940 that has never been corrected.

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