1. People Will Stare at You
In Britain and America, openly staring at someone is considered rude, but in Austria it seems to be quite normal. Whether someone is admiring your outfit, or just likes the way you look, expect to be stared at – particularly on public transport and if you’re wearing anything unusual. We find a friendly smile soon makes the person staring feel uncomfortable and look away. Apparently staring is okay, but smiling back is frowned upon? We’re still trying to figure it out…
2. Amazing Public Transport
The public transportation systems in Austria are simple, cost effective, and efficient, and make the initial disorientation that comes with a new move less intimidating. Buses and subways provide transportation within cities, while trains and airplanes offer efficient transportation from one city to another. The idea of living without a car may seem shocking for those who come from a culture where most people own vehicles, but it is entirely possible to live in Austria and never own a vehicle. The cities are pedestrian- and biker-friendly, and this makes it easy to get groceries, travel to work, or meet with friends sans automobile. That said, a car offers you the ability to go anywhere at any time and with most of Europe just a day-trip away, that’s a tempting idea. If an expat living in the city decides to purchase a vehicle, it will be important to consider the availability of parking near their home. Many apartments come with a designated parking spot, while others only offer parking on the street.
3. They Love to Smoke Inside
In theory, Austria has a smoking ban. However, Austria’s smoking ban is much more relaxed than most other western countries. It is still possible to smoke in many restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs and even offices. For non-smoking Brits or Americans, the often very public smoking seems like something out of the 1950s. It’s a strange experience to return home from a smoke-filled bar to find that your clothes reek. Austrians will also light up at train station platforms, and after a couple of drinks the underground stations can become smoking zones too. Austrians have a sort of live and let live pragmatism about life and they just don’t seem to take the ban as seriously as we do.
4. Formal Titles and Greetings in Austria
For a laid-back American (or an even more laid-back Australian) Austrians can seem rather formal at times. Austrian people appreciate personal titles (such as Dr, Mag, Herr, Frau), and it is polite to use someone’s title when emailing them, addressing them in person, or introducing them to someone else. Colleagues often shake hands when greeting one another and again when they leave. If an expat is uncertain about what to do, it is safest to wait for the other party to extend their hand first. Close friends often kiss when greeting one another and departing. Typically, women will kiss other women, men and women will kiss, but men just shake hands with other men.
5. Political Incorrectness
Austrians are often “politically incorrect” from the perspective of an American or Brit. Perhaps because the US and Britain have such long histories of inward migration, the words German-speakers use can seem outdated to us. For example, Austrian citizens whose parents or even grandparents came from Turkey are still often referred to simply as “Turks” rather than Austrians. And Americans who find costumes like “Red Indian” and blackface offensive may also be surprised to find these readily available in fancy dress shops in Austria, where people might not understand the cultural significance. You’ll also notice some politically incorrect names on menus – such as the popular dessert Mohr im Hemd (a delicious chocolate pudding served with cream which is known as a “moor in a shirt”).
6. Austrians are very direct
Some cultures wind everything they say into convoluted sentences full of “compliment sandwiches”, for fear of being thought rude. Austrians tend to cut the small talk, and say it straight. “Pass the salt” will do nicely and won’t come across as impolite. And it’s not just trivial conversation either. You can meet someone in a bar, and rather than exchanging niceties, the first question will be: “So why did you Brits vote for Brexit?” It may take time to get used to it, but you do eventually realize it’s not impolite. In fact, you’ll soon find it saves time!
7. Food and Shopping or “Why is everything closed on Sunday?”
While grocery stores provide a wide variety of foods, spices, and fresh produce, expats may nonetheless encounter a few surprises when initially perusing the shelves for their favourite tastes of home, and it’s best to be prepared for the country’s little idiosyncrasies. Pre-packaged foods are not as readily available as in some countries, and organic milk, cheese, and produce are labelled with the word “Bio” – these can be purchased at most stores for reasonable prices. Most shockingly for new arrivals, many stores are closed after 7pm and closed on Sundays, so it is important to plan grocery shopping accordingly. At first, this is hard to get used to. But after a bit, you start to enjoy the fact that there is one day without any sort of commerce or business to do. Additionally, many grocery stores and some smaller shops are just now starting to accept credit cards or bank cards, but it is most common and most efficient to pay with cash.
8. Eating Out and Tipping
When it comes to eating out in Austria, tipping for drinks and meals is common, but the tips are small. When the waiter or waitress presents the bill, patrons decide on how much to tip them at that time. Usually, diners just round up to the next full Euro. A normal 15% American tip from a tourist can often be the high point of a waiter’s day.
9. Language barrier in Austria
The language barrier might well prove to be the greatest challenge facing expats moving to Austria. The official language of Austria is German; however, Austrian German differs greatly from what is spoken north and east of the border and is full of regional particularities. Learning some basic words and phrases – or even better, enrolling in a language class – will help expats with integrated into the culture; especially since Austrians are famous for starting up conversations with strangers on the street or in train compartments. While many Austrians know some English, they often hesitate to speak English unless it is necessary for foreigners to communicate with them. However, expats will be relieved to know that English is widely spoken in the business world in Austria, especially in the larger urban centres.
10. The Catholic Country
As is made clear by the churches, shrines and cruxfices that one sees every couple kilometers, Austria is very much a Catholic country. Austria has a long tradition of both Catholic and other Christian groups and that history is integrated fully into everyday life to the point where nearly all of the public holidays in Austria are actually religious holidays. However, it might not be “catholic” in the way that one from America or Britain expects. For example, it is not uncommon to find a brothel down the street from the local church – now that’s something that takes time to get used to!
Written by English Teacher Training College President, Frank Carle