First Cultural Observations in the US

April 16, 2023

Back from my first trip to the US! Was visiting Stanford University and decided to spend a couple of more days in San Francisco afterwards... The culture is very different than i know from Europe. Having spent the past 7 years in Zurich, Switzerland, I felt it was time to move beyond the Comfort Zone. Zurich has everything one might wish for, but I have this strong intuition that it is the right time to move to another country and expose myself to a very different culture before the end of my 20s. And there we are. I will move to Stanford / Palo Alto in September 2023 and spend the next 5 to 6 years there.

  • First thing I noticed when arriving in SF. Cars. There are cars everywhere. Fucking cars. Streets are much wider and there’s an insane amount of parking space. Lots of asphalt but also a lot of trees! I feel Zurich is definitely less green. I know these car vibes from all the movies I've seen and it looks exactly how I expected. No surprise in a sense but it still felt weird when first arriving.
  • SF appears to be culturally very diverse. Lots of people with Asian background in the mid 30s and 40s. All SF tech bros? Can’t say yet. I visited Japantown in SF and was blown away by the density of Japanese-speaking people. SF seems to have many subcultures in different neighborhoods. So much to explore here.
  • Doors in cafés seem wide open by default. The weather was quite cold these days. There was a lot of rain and the doors were still open and people were wearing warm jackets & clothes inside the café. For bars this seems to be a little different, i.e. their doors are closed, but cafés have their doors open all-day long. I’m sure there are cafés without non-closed doors in SF but I haven’t encountered them during my visit. There’s always a fresh breeze inside. Maybe that’s to increase volume / traffic / rotation of customers in the location and thus increase profit. I have no idea. But finding a comfortable location to work for hours with my laptop was pretty hard compared to Zurich / Berlin / Vienna.
  • There are lots of people sitting around in public spaces but rarely sitting outside and drinking coffee. Because they always work? That's what I heard. The notion of a typical "European street café” is definitely rarer here. I will mist this the most I guess. Just sitting outside and enjoying street life in a car-free zone. In SF, people tend to sit inside as there's usually no chairs on tables outside. Maybe it’s because of the rain which comes regularly for like five minutes every hour?
  • There's so loud music everywhere indoors. I’m glad I had my headphones with me. People already talk very loud but with this loud background music, they talk even louder. Maybe that’s just here in the SF area, but I haven’t encountered a single café without loud background music.
  • During all these days, I had not encountered a single meal with non-one-way tableware. There is only takeawaytableware. Huge waste production. It's insane. Are people always on the move? Doesn’t seem so. I don’t understand why then. Are people too tired to clean dishes? Too much going on and no time to clean dishes? I bought a reusable coffee cup while visiting the ferry building. Tried that one instead of paper cups. The sad news is that everyone was very confused by this. Usually, one person sits at the front desk and handles your orders while there are multiple people behind the coffee machines or in the kitchen. Passing this coffee cup to these kitchen people ended up very messy. My cup got lost multiple times while they gave me a paper cup again for my order. And where's my reusable cup? Lost in the kitchen. Doesn’t work yet, dear Americans.
  • The default coffee here is some HUGE drip coffee. There is definitely some good coffee around but I need to figure out how to distinguish good from bad locations. Also at Stanford. Never take medium again. It's already way too big. I should stick with "small" as default. Will be too big anyway. So how big is large then? I don’t even want to know.
  • People talk A LOT. I mean really a lot. Everywhere there is chatter and gossip and they talk fast and loudly. I know this from my trips to Spain / France / Italy / Germany, but it’s very different from e.g. Italian speakers' loudness. What I like is that there’s a lot of random strangers talking with each other on the street. Although it’s just small talk, it’s nice to see such interactions. I rarely have them in Zurich and even I am an outlier as my friends tell me that I am so often approached in the city because of my body language and appearance somehow.
  • Public transport is not too bad, but without Google Maps I would feel completely lost. Bus stations have no signs or route directions. Buses arrive completely randomly with random delays. Sometimes they don’t come at all (has happened a few times when traveling through the city these days). And sometimes, there’s not even a bus station there. I just wait there because Google Maps says there's a station there. So I usually wait for some 15 minutes and there may be a bus or there may not be, who knows. I haven’t figured out how public transport works here in SF. There are certainly some unwritten laws I haven’t decoded yet. I mean even France is better here.
  • So many abbreviations in spoken language and on street signs. The shorter the better and the cooler it sounds, the higher its cultural adaptation. Too long names don't sound cool enough. Maybe it’s the English language itself that fosters this. Although I wouldn’t say it’s that strong in the UK. They also often drop the article “the”.
  • SF Tech bros everywhere. I mean I wasn’t particularly aware of this before but there’s this very strong stereotype of people working in the tech scene here. Boys wear a black Patagonia fleece, some random Chino pant (usually in some “washed gray” color), Airpods Pro, and maybe some dark orange beanie for colder days. Literally the cheesy Patagonia hipster from a random Pinterest collection.