Culture shock is defined as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” This can be physical like altitude sickness experienced by people who move to Colorado and aren’t used to the “Mile High City”. It can also be mental or emotional if someone is not used to the directness and “rudeness” of people in New York. However, moving to an entirely different country comes with a culture shock in all forms. Moving to Glasgow made me feel like a fish out of water. The streets not only had such different names but they seemed to go in every direction. It took a full week just to get my bearings of North, East, South, and West. The food was completely different. Grocery stores and department stores were always a game of roulette because you don’t know what products they have. I was used to going to Walmart or Target and doing all my shopping for home goods, toiletries, groceries, and electronics in one stop, but you don’t see huge warehouses here, only small shops the size of a dollar tree. I’m not sure if it is “American” of me to need to find a comparison of everything here to a place back home but I do. I compare grocery stores to Safeway and drug stores to Walgreens. It seems to help manage the “shock”. Now that I’ve settled into my home in Glasgow I have an array of cultural differences worth sharing.
People are Insanely Generous: I always thought the stereotype of Americans being rude was blown out of proportion but it’s pretty accurate. People are so kind and easygoing in Glasgow. It seems like people always genuinely want to help you. They don’t stare and they are always greeting people with smile. Most importantly for a study abroad student such as myself they don’t get annoyed or make you feel stupid when you don’t understand something. I expected lots of embarrassing moments moving to a new country but every time I would sheepishly ask a question or try to make it look like I knew what I was doing there was always a Scottish person willing to help. On the first day of one of my public policy classes I was sitting at a table with five other girls who all seemed to know each other since they were talking about their weekends and other classes when I sat down. They didn’t pay me much attention at first, but to my surprise they did not glare at me for intruding on their socializing which was honestly what I thought they would do. The teacher began class and explained the course handbook (their term for syllabus). When we broke out into groups to discuss and introduce ourselves the girls were very interested in me. They listened when I talked about the U.S. and being a study abroad student. They also asked me many questions and not just to make small talk, they were genuinely interested. I told the girl next to me that I didn’t really understand one of the assignments for class because we’ve never really done something like that in America. She immediately pulled up on her computer the same assignment but for a different class that she took last semester. She was so excited as she explained the whole assignment. She let me read her work and everything. I think in America people are less inclined to go the extra mile like this girl when helping others. I know I can rely on fellow students in my classes at DU but the way this girl was so excited and thorough in her explanation, I could see a difference. On another account, my friend and I went to a fish and chips restaurant near campus shortly after we arrived in Glasgow. Some of the items on the menu were unfamiliar to us so when we ordered and the waitress was asking questions about our meals, we looked at each other in confusion. She immediately sensed this and went into a full explanation of what we were ordering. She spoke clearly to make sure we understood her accent and even though she had about eight other tables to tend to, she took the time to make sure we got what we wanted. I am a server in the United States and even though I work hard to provide good, thorough service to my tables, if I were busy like her, I don’t know if I would have the patience to explain a dish that is so typical for me to someone who didn’t completely understand it. Her kindness is something I will never forget but it is probably her ordinary lifestyle. I could tell a thousand more stories about the kindness of servers, teachers, students, bartenders, grocery store workers, etc. but I suppose I should move onto other cultural differences.
Language Barriers: People in Scotland speak english so there is not so much of a language barrier as there is accent barrier. When people hear my American accent they tend to slow down and speak more clearly. The only time we run into problems is when the person speaks very quickly because their Glaswegian accent is so thick. However, similar to how people from around America have different accents (i.e. Boston, New York, Mid-West, South) people from different places in Scotland also talk differently. For instance, people from Fife sound more American than Glaswegian and are often mistaken as American. There is also an array of slang and different verbiage used in Glasgow. For example…
• “Wee” means small or slight. Example: “Take a wee sit over there for a second”
• “Sitting in or taking away” is the equivalent of “For here or to-go”.
• “I could not be bothered” means I was taking a break or I was not paying attention
• “Cheers” is a farewell used anywhere and anytime
• “Rubbish” means trash or garbage
• “Aye” is the term for yes. This is my favorite 🙂
Alcohol Awareness: Alcohol is just not that big of a deal. Don’t get me wrong, everyone drinks in Scotland. Beer and Scotch is huge and there are more pubs than any other store, but drinking is not a big deal. The drinking age in Scotland is 18 so by the time most students get to college they have already had their big celebrations of being able to drink in public. As a result, amnesty laws are not a thing. Also, during the first few weeks of school there were no alcohol awareness courses for freshman and no discussions of the sort. Of course it is still important to stay safe when going out but it’s not common for kids to get “black out drunk” or “puke and rally”. Drinks are also not as strong here. In America, a shot is about 1 to 1.5 ounces whereas in Scotland a shot is only 0.75 to 1 ounce and they definitely stick to that measurement. It seems like here alcohol culture is common sense whereas in America we can never really keep it in moderation. I think this says a lot about how Scottish culture views responsibility. For them, bigger is not better.
Tipping: America has a huge tipping culture. As a server and someone who has worked in food service my whole life, I tend to tip on the heavier side where a twenty percent tip is the absolute minimum. So imagine how difficult it was for me to get used to not tipping at all in the UK. At most restaurants it isn’t an option to tip. The servers here don’t need tips because it is accounted for in their wages. I was at a cafe doing some homework one Saturday morning and the bartender was very friendly. We were chatting about drinks, studying abroad, and he was giving me some good advice for visiting the Scottish highlands. When I was paying for my drinks, I saw a man sitting a few chairs down from me give the bartender a tip. I asked the bartender if they accept tips and he chuckled saying absolutely. I almost felt rude assuming not to tip, but I had not seen any sort of tipping in the first three weeks I had been in Glasgow. My bill was £12 and I had already paid with my card so I needed to tip in cash. I only had £10 in cash on me. This was no problem. The bartender had given me excellent service and like I said I tend to be a big tipper. I gave the bartender the £10 which he took and asked how much I would like back. I said it was all for him and the other bartender, they had done an excellent job. He was appalled. His mouth literally dropped and in a stern tone he said he could absolutely not accept it. I laughed and told him that would be very acceptable in America and he should just take it. He ran to the cash drawer and gave me £5 back in cash saying that £5 was plenty. The bartenders were very grateful and I said goodbye. This was so interesting to me. I knew my tip was a lot but in America a big tip is taken as a compliment. As a server when I get nice tips I show my gratitude and move on with my day whereas in Glasgow they would literally not accept it. If I had not told them I was American, they would have probably thought it was offensive.
Glasgow is a perfect balance for me. Sometimes I often think about if I had studied in Spain or Rome in a romantic city with warm weather and famous landmarks like the colosseum but I’m very happy where I am. Scotland has little reminders of home that keep me grounded while also being so different I am pushed out of my comfort zone in the best way. At first, it was difficult not being able to find corn tortillas or being able to hit the Chick-Fil-A drive thru for lunch on a busy day, but being able to speak english, see the mountains on the horizon, watch the leaves turn in the fall, and use the same shampoo and conditioner that I use at home are perfect for some stability. It’s important to hold onto your roots and be proud of them. My roots are in Colorado and I have so much pride knowing I came from a beautiful place. I know I’m lucky to be able to experience another culture, but I will always want to share my roots with the people I meet here because my roots made me who I am and they allowed me to go on this amazing journey.