You know when you go to an unfamiliar place and suddenly people do something that leaves you thinking… what the heck? Or maybe you were left speechless by a magnificent commotion, so you stand there contemplating or appreciating what you just experienced? That is what cultural differences feel like at times.
These are cultural shocks that most of us, international students, tend to get from Seattleites.
Americans generally value personal space and may stand farther apart during conversations compared to some other cultures. This may feel different if you come from a culture with closer personal interactions, especially those of us from Latin America. In my home country, Argentina, men who are family hug and sometimes kiss each other on the cheek… please, don’t ever try this in the United States (U.S.), it will not go well, especially between straight men (I speak from experience).
This is one of the things that I love the most here. Americans tend to be more direct and simple in their communication style compared to where I am from. They may express opinions openly, which can initially be surprising, or even uncomfortable if you come from a culture that uses indirect communication, or where it’s common to reserve your personal opinions. In Latin America it is usual to use a lot of euphemisms. We are not straightforward, especially when it comes to criticism between people who are not very familiar.
Now, something that I personally dislike. In the U.S., tipping is customary (and an unwritten rule) in various service industries. If tipping is not a common practice in your home country, it might be unfamiliar In my home country, we usually tip based on service quality, which can range from 0% to way above 100%. It all depends on the quality of your experience or satisfaction with the services provided, whereas in America, you are always expected to tip. For waiters, bartenders, or cashiers, this tip it is what they need for a (barely, sometimes) reasonable income. In the 1960s, the U.S. Congress permitted a so-called “tipping credit,” which allows an employer to pay the employee under minimum wage if they earn tips.
American cuisine can differ significantly from what foreigners are used to. Portion sizes tend to be large, which can be surprising for those accustomed to smaller servings. There is a wide variety of fast food and processed food available, too. One thing that me and my foreign friends find funny is the size of soda cups you get at fast food restaurants – and the fact that you’re allowed endless refills (in some, not all)! Dietary preferences, such as vegan options, might also require some adjustment. There are usually healthier options, but they’re more expensive. Fast and cheap food usually means an unhealthy choice. Food in Seattle also tends to be very expensive! If you struggle to make ends meet and get all the groceries you need, check out our article on Seattle’s food banks.
Cultural norms like greetings, eye contact, and physical contact can vary. Handshakes and casual conversations with strangers are common in the U.S., For big cities where people rush and everything moves fast, there is little if any personal interaction with strangers; for slower areas like suburbs or the country, everyone says “Hi” to each other and engages in lots of chit chat. Waving from a distance in welcome is common everywhere in America.
Seattle has a history of political activism and social justice movements. International students may encounter a politically engaged community that actively advocates for causes like LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, and environmental sustainability. These movements might be interesting for international students and lead them to explore and even take part in– we are constantly bombarded by all sorts of idealisms and beliefs. Students from other countries where political activism might be more reserved could find this a bit overwhelming, especially those from more conservative or religious backgrounds, like most Latin American countries. In Seattle, people are not afraid to express themselves and their values through words, clothes, makeup, stickers, and engaging in activism
Sustainability and Environmental Consciousness
One of my favourite things! Seattle has a strong focus on sustainability and environmental initiatives. The city encourages recycling, composting, and reducing waste. It also promotes the use of public transportation (which has its problems), biking, and walking. International students may appreciate the emphasis on eco-friendly practices. I personally love this because I love recycling, although the rules are difficult to follow because they are new to me. Especially if you are living with a host family, you might see many bins, each for a particular type of waste.
Music and Arts
Seattle has a rich music history, known for its contribution to genres like grunge and alternative rock: Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, the Foo Fighters, and Heart to name a few. The city hosts various music festivals and has a vibrant live music scene. Seattle also has a thriving arts community, with galleries, theatres, and museums showcasing local and international talents. Electronic music festivals, commonly known as “raves,” are extremely popular during the summer. People basically paint themselves and attend these concerts in the middle of the countryside half naked. Some students may find these musical activities wild and crazy compared to what they’re used to.
This is a love-hate relationship, with a lot of trust issues. Seattle’s weather and its reputation for frequent rain and overcast skies can be quite different from what many international students are accustomed to. Adapting to the damp and gloomy climate might take some time. With about nine months of nonstop rain and little sunshine, it’s not uncommon to struggle with seasonal depression. The summer in the Pacific Northwest, however, is paradise. With clear skies, hot weather, and snowy mountains in the background; the city comes back to life. Very long days can feel unreal and whimsical for those who are not accustomed to it. Moving from the Equator to the Northern Hemisphere, the seasons are noticeable. Spring actually comes; the city is almost immediately filled with colourful flowers all around. Fall makes its rounds as well, and suddenly the brown and orange leaves are scattered on the ground. The somewhat rare appearance of snow may also be a first-time experience for some of us from warmer countries.
The first summer I spent in Seattle, someone mentioned hiking to me. I was like, “No, thanks.” I found it silly and a waste of time, probably because I’m a computer guy. However, I eventually started appreciating the beautiful natural landscapes Seattle has. Nowadays, when someone suggests “let’s go on a hike!” as a date or a hangout, I don’t find it as weird. Seattleites are very outdoorsy, and often like hiking, skiing, kayaking, and cycling. I now highly recommend them during the summer!
Diversity and International Cuisine
Seattle has a massive international community. Where I come from, there’s pretty much only two ethnicities, white and a mix of European and Native Americans, commonly known as Hispanic. Seattle has people from all over the world, and Americans who have very diverse backgrounds. This offers a great opportunity to learn about different cultures. Being from Latin America as an immigrant in the U.S. can be very nuanced, and many of us may encounter new social identities (like what Americans insist on calling “Latinx,” but that me and all my Latin American friends find nonsensical and stupid).
The city also offers a diverse culinary scene with various international cuisines. From fresh seafood to ethnic dishes, international students can explore a wide range of flavours and culinary experiences in the city’s numerous restaurants and food trucks. One thing that I am a bit upset about however is, as an Argentine, when I read or hear “Hispanic cuisine” I get excited for finding something Argentinian. But no… in the U.S., it usually means Mexican food. That’s it…
Seattle is home to many renowned technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon. The city has a thriving tech scene, which can be both exciting and attractive to international students pursuing careers in this field, which a lot of us, including myself, are. International students cannot get away from knowing at least one person that is in the tech industry or studies a STEM-related field.
Coffee culture (…and Hipsters?)
Seattle is famous for its coffee culture, (and being home for the global coffee shop Starbucks) with numerous coffee shops and a strong preference for specialty coffees. International students who are not accustomed to this level of coffee consumption may find it remarkable. Somehow, but not strictly, I feel like this naturally forms the laid-back, old-fashioned hipster culture. Maybe it’s the cloudiness that makes hipsters think it’s so cool to wear beanies even when sleeping; with their flannels, long pants, old-style watches, and their MacBooks at the cafes.
Capitalism UX (user experience; customer experience)
Have you noticed that you have been greeted and even asked how your day is when going to a grocery store or café? The U.S. takes customer service very seriously, especially in start-ups and wealthy companies. Start-ups want to attract customers, and big companies want to keep them. Don’t be surprised that you are treated extremely well, and the staff shows a lot of affection and care for you when you go shopping or out for a refreshing or energizing beverage. It’s not that you’re special, it’s just marketing! And… it works!
States, AKA separate nations
You will soon realize that states in the U.S. are kind of like different countries. That’s the great thing about America; each state governs itself with its own values and its own rules. The local government and administration depend on what most of its population values. A federal ruling for all is not always the best for everyone since each region differs and America is a very large country.
Guns and Ranges
As an international student, I think it’s important to advise about gun culture. Not just in Seattle, but the U.S. in general. Gun culture is very popular around here, and is controversial. Especially if you make American friends, you will be most likely to hear about and see all sorts of firearms. When I first came to the U.S., a friend wanted to show me a very “American experience.” So, he took me to a range. I have been in a military school before, so it was no moving experience at all to fire guns at the range. Some foreigners might find going to a range for the first time an exciting experience, but for others it can be a very scary one. A friend of mine, from Brazil, had her first time ever seeing a gun in person here in Seattle. And it wasn’t a cop’s or an authority figure, it was simply one of her classmates casually carrying one in his car. It was a shock for her.’
At the time of this article being published, Seattle suffers a critical homelessness problem. Some international students might find this concerning if homelessness is rare or does not exist where they are from. Additionally, don’t be surprised to hear people screaming in the streets randomly; swear words, uncalled-for comments, etc. This is part of most big cities around the world, but it may be scary or shocking to some of us.
Police on Steroids
Have you noticed that police personnel look like SWAT or are futuristically armored and equipped? There are several historical reasons for that, which this article does not need to cover, but just don’t be surprised if you see Robocops everywhere.
Long waiting times at the customs/border
You’re not the only one, or you will not be the only one, who has been detained at customs at the border for longer than it would usually take to enter another country. Security will triple-check your papers and hold you for the time they need to verify that everything is where it should be: your visa, I-20, I-94, passport, past U.S. entries. Again, there are many reasons that this article will not cover, but basically after 9/11, these procedures intensified drastically. Additionally, the US does not make it easy for immigrants, in all senses.
Let’s put it this way: when I used to take the light rail to go to school, sometimes I knew the train stop was Capitol Hill because of that green smell entering the train doors when they open. It might also be a shock for some of us to witness the usage of heavy drugs (like smoking crack on the bus or needles the train station). A sad reality, but a Seattle reality indeed.
Driving and transportation
If you want to get your weekly food supplies, travel two miles; if you need hardware, travel three miles; if you need pet services, travel another two miles; medical treatment? one mile. Back home, even in the least populated towns, you just had to walk a few blocks for any of these services. I’m not saying every part of the world is like that, but I bet you will experience this as a foreigner in the U.S. Everything is far away, and it’s a headache to live without a car, which creates another big problem that I won’t get into right now. You must travel for everything! That’s the reason why I purchased a fast e-scooter. Also, traffic rules and driving customs can vary across countries, and foreigners may need time to adjust to driving in the U.S. Additionally, public transportation systems in some U.S. cities may differ from what foreigners are used to, requiring them to learn new routes and schedules.
Relatively clean streets (except downtown)
I don’t know if it’s because of the taxes, or just social/cultural commitment, but streets are relatively clean and well taken care of – except the streets with those darn potholes.
When the walking sign is red, you absolutely wait on the sidewalk corner and do not cross the street even if the nearest incoming car is on the horizon like 200 miles away from the crosswalk. If you cross, people look at you like a rebel punk. Here, you better respect the traffic signs, or you will pay the consequences of whatever happens, even if the waiting sucks.
The United States is a diverse country with people from various cultural backgrounds, and so is Seattle. Embracing the multicultural environment and encountering different ethnicities, religions, names, and traditions can be a new experience for foreigners. If you struggle to pronounce a name of someone, don’t worry… it LITERALLY happens to all of us! If the person corrects you, just say sorry, and clarify that you are not from here or you are still learning and adapting the mix of different cultures in Seattle. They would most likely understand since Seattle is a very friendly and welcoming city to all external cultures and traditions, and therefore, the most exotic names! Just ask Starbucks…
Patriotism and national symbols
Americans often display a strong sense of patriotism and national pride. The Fourth of July is a great example. The frequent display of the U.S. flag, singing the national anthem at events, and observing patriotic national holidays can be a new experience for foreigners.
Although Seattle is a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, it also embraces essential parts of American culture. International students and other immigrants will certainly face cultural differences and shocks, but also find a home abroad as well as personal growth and, of course, a tender love for this city which comes sooner or later.