Here are 13 culture shocks that expats have when moving here. Internationals living in Vienna: these will help you understand Austria a little better. As for the Austrians reading this – these are the things that most obviously make your country unique.
1. It’s 2 kisses on the cheeks, not a hug
If you enjoy observing awkward physical exchanges, just position yourself (with popcorn, if possible) in front of an expat greeting a native in Austria. The native will be giving a kiss on each cheek while the expat will be going in for a FULL hug, complete with upper body contact and arms around the neck. The combination of the two is never pretty. When the hugger is not met with a hug, they typically lose balance and fall onto the cheek-kisser. Or there’s the other alternative when the hugger leans in for a cuddle, but the Austrian is going for the kiss and you accidentally plant one on each other’s lips – Phew. Seriously, the first few months in Austria, we would get super stressed when we saw a greeting moment coming our way.
The other confusing moment is when you learn about the whole bussi, bussi thing, and you go to do it when meeting somebody for the first time – apparently a handshake is sufficient in such circumstances in Austria, so we’ve had many an awkward moment where we’ve got intimate with somebody on first encounter and then stood there after thinking – with this kind of awkwardness, we might as well have used tongue! How are you supposed to know when a simple handshake, or a cheek kiss is in order? It’s all very confusing.
2. The local’s insider elevator button code system
It’s not uncommon to find expats crying a little in an Austrian elevator after they’ve spent half an hour trying to figure out which floor they’re on, which floor they’ve come from, and/or which floor they need to go to (if they even can remember after all this emotional stress).
For example, we recently found an expat in an elevator with the following buttons: E-M-1-2-D. The expat was shaking their head bewilderedly and muttering, “whatwhywhere 2?” We’re not sure how the story ended. When we left, every button in the elevator was pushed and the expat was staring off into the abyss. We could have helped them, but…
3. The toilet culture
Nothing will test an expat’s personal strength like trying to use the bathroom in Austria. Light switches are often in the oddest places (well, at least to us foreigners) – on the outside of the door, or the light is a string you have to pull, or they are up really high on the wall where they are impossible to find in the dark. We can just imagine the electricians giggling as they installed these things: ”Hehe, nobody’ll find this one.”
And then there’s the shelf in the typical toilet found in Austria – the toilets in Austria double as display shelves for your poop, with most of them designed with a shelf, which is there so you can literally check out your…business…before flushing it down. Not to mention that a side effect of the shelf toilet is regular splash back happening when you pee. And while we’re talking about flushing – figuring out how to flush the toilet is like playing a game of Bop-it. Twist it, pull it, bop it! It’s all a game of trial and error. Going to the toilet in Austria is always an adventure at the beginning. Sorry, too much toilet talk?
4. It’s bedtime burritos, not bedtime lasagne
Many people from abroad are often surprised by the bedding situation in Austria. We’re talking about the 2 blankets for 2 people deal. If there are, for example, 2 people sharing one bed, there will be 2 separate blankets – one for each person to wrap themselves in. You know, like burritos.
Some expats are used to everyone in the bed being covered by a communal top sheet and one big duvet/ blanket. It’s more like a lasagne set up. At first, we thought this 2 seperate blanket thing did nothing for the hanky panky, intimacy of the fun bedtime activities, but with time, we realised it actually works quite well – first you do the hanky panky stuff, then each of you can cuddle up comfortably in your very own blanket. Embrace your inner burrito, expats, and scoot closer to each other if you have separation anxiety.
5. The dining dogs
This has to be one of the coolest things in Austria – that dogs can literally go anywhere! Our furry friends are welcome most places in this country – inside purses, on the subway, at the office, at the airport, and most definitely in restaurants and cafes. Lots of restaurants even have doggy bowls that supply water for the pouches. Don’t be surprised, expats, if a furry fella pokes his head out from under the table next to yours to say cheers. And one more thing – how are all the dogs in Austria so well behaved?!!
6. To “invite” somebody means you’re paying
Austrians might be a little surprised to have an expat they barely know ‘invite’ them to their birthday get-together. The expat might be even more surprised when the Austrian leaves them a bill for the 5 beers they drank at the party. We’re here to translate. Dear expat, when you say the words, “I’ll invite you,” the Austrian will think you mean that you’re “treating them” or that it’s your shout. That’s just how they say it here. Dear Austrians, when an expat says they’re “inviting” you to the bar after work, double check that they know what they’re getting themselves into. You could also play dumb and claim to be offended when the bill comes and they don’t pay. Awkward, but not a bad way to save money.
7. The rules of crossing the road
You might catch expats darting across the street at a red light when there are no cars present while the Austrians dutifully wait for green permission. Expats, expect a few dirty looks if you disobey the red man. They take their road rules seriously in Austria. Wait for the green man, and live like the locals do.
8. Save the small talk
Austrians are super friendly people, however, you’ve got to get to know them first. What we mean by this is that the familiar small talk like, ‘how you doing?’ or ‘how’s your day been?’ that you’ll get in supermarkets, and cafes etc. back home isn’t a thing here. Strangers are strangers, and social etiquette calls for more reserved social exchanges in public between two people that don’t know each other. We feel like such small talk is considered unnecessary here. Plus, even many Austrians will tell you that customer service is notably absent in most situations when you’d expect it.
9. Get those shoes off!
It’s not a big deal, but it kind of is. When you enter somebody’s home, don’t be surprised if you are politely handed a pair of Hausschuhe to swap your shoes for during your visit. We actually love this custom as it means you’re wearing comfy slippers instead of shoes while hanging out at somebody’s home, but it did confuse us at first. However, it makes sense when you think about it – it keeps the muck from the street outside, and it makes the visitor feel nice and homey.
10. Carry cash, or be prepared to do the ATM walk of shame
Many restaurants and cafes in Austria still only allow cash payment. We repeat, carry cash, or be prepared to walk the streets while muttering obscenities under your breath as you look for a cash machine. We’ve all been there.
11. Beware and be prepared for the cashier when visiting the supermarket
On your marks, get set, go! – this is exactly how we feel as soon as the person before us at the checkout finishes paying and it’s our turn. Keeping up with the cashiers in Austria’s supermarkets is no easy task. There should literally be a cashier olympics held in Austria. They have to be some of the most efficient and quickest workers in the country. So when your time comes at the checkout, don’t mess about – get your ass to the packing area and start throwing your groceries into your bags, and be sure to keep up. Start recording your PB (personal best) at the cashier – it makes it more fun.
12. The whole naked in public thing
This one is not just a cultural shock the first time you encounter it, but rather a cultural slap in the gob. We remember our first time – it had been in a sauna and nobody had told us about the strict naked policy in saunas. We went with it, but in amongst the steam, the nakedness had us feeling claustrophobic: bottoms rubbing against our cheek, nipples in our ears, pubic hair up our nose, penis poking us in the eye. There was nowhere to look, but the ceiling.
So Austrians are more free and comfortable with their bodies than in many other countries, especially when compared to the puritanical Anglo-Saxon world. What we’re saying is, getting naked in public is a thing here, well, in certain circumstances and places, of course (don’t go getting naked on the middle of the Stephansplatz, now). So when you’re biking along the Donauinsel and a random naked guy appears from the bushes, even though you’re social grooming from back home doesn’t prepare you for this moment, just act cool.
Once we got used to the whole liberating your body in public thing, it became another of the reasons we love living in this country.
13. That you can smoke inside bars, cafes and restaurants
If you’re a smoker, you’ll consider this an awesome freedom Austria still offers that takes you back to the good ol’ days (if you’re old enough to say, ‘back in the good old days’) otherwise, this is a matter of much contention and frustration for many who think that smoking inside should be a thing of the past. The fact that you can still smoke in bars, cafe and restaurants in Austria has even led to some people we know that have moved here, saying ‘fuck it, where else can you do this?!’ and taking up smoking.
Whether you love it or hate it, smoking in public spaces is unique to Austria (it’s actually one of the last countries in Europe to allow it), and something expats that move here have to get used to when settling in. But there are plans to forbid this in the near future so stay tuned.