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6 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Hungary

by Ash Merscher Mar 7, 2018

We are all a product of our upbringing, and the country in which we grow up has a lot to do with the person we become later on in life. Despite my openness to new cultures and quick adaptability when joining them, I am still an American. Things like greetings, personal interactions, and how I define a strong work ethic are all shaped by my Americanness.

When I first moved to Budapest, I had to learn to let a few things go and to adjust some of my perspectives. It all ends up being for the best, anyway. These are the six American habits I lost when I moved to Hungary.

1. Small talk greetings.

One of the dead giveaways of being an American abroad is not actually white sneakers (shocking, I know). Rather, it’s our bubbly greeting of “how are you?” Americans do it all the time, expecting nothing more than an “I’m well, and you?” in return. It essentially translates to “hi” and there’s a general understanding that no one expects you to really talk about your day.

Asking someone how they’re doing in Hungary, however, is an actual question and elicits a truthful answer. Your innocent greeting could very well result in the entire saga of someone’s life. Every once in a while it still slips out, but I quickly learned that a polite “good morning” is all you really need.

2. Being uncomfortable with silence.

Sitting on the yellow tram, rocking side-to-side and watching my neighborhood quietly blur past me has become a welcomed part of my morning routine. Scanning the tram, everyone else is doing the same. Some read, some listen to music, on occasion some chat quietly to a friend, but many just sit in silence.

In the US, I was a little intimidated by silence. If a friend and I weren’t talking, it felt more like an awkward moment and my brain went into hyper speed trying to pick the next topic, blurting out anything that seemed relevant. Now if a conversation lulls, it doesn’t bother me. I just sit until it naturally resumes.

3. A fast-paced life.

When I first arrived at my new job in Hungary, I brought my highly valued American ambition and efficiency with me. I thought of the fastest ways to complete tasks, I tried to plan out my months in advance, and I was not shy in expressing my opinions. And, I failed. A lot. Different cultures value, or sometimes even define, things differently. In Hungary the pace is just a little slower, tasks are finished when they’re finished, and it doesn’t help to sit there anxiously waiting for the results.

I quickly embraced this new, slower pace of life. And it was for the better. It allowed me to make deeper connections with the people around me, it forced me to listen more, it encouraged me to snuggle deep into a cafe and sip my coffee, actually enjoying the taste, and it exposed all the little charms of my new city.

4. Being too polite.

All those thank yous and pleases and if-you-don’t-minds are completely cultural. In general, Americans are just way too polite. If you ask anyone to imitate an American accent, you’ll get a lot of awesomes and cools. We’re known for our upbeat filler words, but not a lot of other cultures do the same. And certainly not Hungarians.

Hungarians are direct, to the point, and they have a fairly neutral tone. At first, you can get your feelings hurt. When the servers at your favorite bar come off as rude (they’re not) or your employer only addresses your mistakes (it’s cultural), it can wear you down. But in a way, it has helped me to be more direct and more concise when I communicate. It has actually helped me be more efficient, even at a slower pace. It turns out that all the fluff isn’t always necessary.

5. Over-apologizing.

Bocsánat (sorry) is probably one of the easiest words to pronounce in the Hungarian language. You’ll quickly master it. At first, you’ll receive a smile and maybe a semmi baj (no problem). But overuse it and you’ll start getting eye rolls and whispers of what is wrong with this person? Why do Americans apologize all the time? We really apologize for everything, even when it’s completely unnecessary. I’ll always remember the confused look on a Hungarian stranger’s face when they bump into me and I “bocsánat”. Oops, I let my American show.

6. One-stop shopping at the grocery store.

I admit, during my first trip back to the U.S. I went to the grocery store and spent a good ten minutes just staring at the produce section. Not only was there so much variety, it was all perfectly shaped and shiny. Convenience (and presentation) is something Americans highly value. In Hungary, there are, of course, large and convenient grocery stores, but it’s not where the high-quality stuff lives.

Markets are a very cultural thing in Hungary and you can usually find what you need, but you pay for it all separately. You find your meat in one stall, produce at a few different stalls, bread at another, dairy at yet another, and if you’re feeling happy, a bundle of flowers on your way out. At some markets, you can even bring reusable bottles and fill them with wine from a row of taps. That’s right, WINE on tap. It isn’t as convenient as an American grocery store, but the food is better and I get to make relationships with the people who grew and sell my food.

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