Culture Shock in Austria
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.
English-speaking expats with no knowledge of German will usually be able to complete basic transactions, such as organising banking, setting up a cell phone account, or arranging Internet service.
That said, it is important to realise that not all Austrians speak English. For example, the person who sells internet packages to a new arrival might speak fluent English, but then the installer who comes to set it up in the home may not. In addition, most cashiers speak some English, but it’s nonetheless a good idea to learn the German numbers in advance.
Lastly, even if expats don’t know any German, and don’t intend to learn any, it is a good idea to memorise the phrase, “Do you speak English?” It is considered good-mannered to ask locals in German if they speak English, rather than walking up to them and assuming that they will understand.
Also, saying "please" and "thank you" in German goes a long way to show that an expat is making an effort to speak the local language, and will often improve the attitude of the person who is helping.
Austrian attitude toward foreigners
Austrian people are quite friendly and foreigners are typically received with a warm welcome. Strangers often chat while standing in line or offer to help if a foreigner looks lost or has a question.
That said, even though Austrians can be quite congenial during casual public interaction, they tend to lead more private personal lives, and it can be difficult to make friends with locals unless one interacts with them on a daily basis at work or as part of a recreational activity.
What’s more, Austrian people are proud of their heritage, and they tend to prefer locally grown produce and locally made products over imports. This charming national pride can make foreigners feel slightly ostracised, but try not to take it personally, and remember that Austria is a small country that stakes great importance in its heritage and traditions.
Transportation challenges in Austria
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.
The bus and subway systems provide an inexpensive and reliable means of transportation for traveling further distances for work, entertainment, and sightseeing.
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. Street parking is limited and usually requires buying a daily parking ticket, so it is best to find an apartment with a parking bay, if possible. Many apartments come with a designated parking spot, while others only offer parking on the street.
Food and shopping in Austria
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.
Many stores are closed after 7pm and closed on Sundays, so it is important to plan grocery shopping accordingly. Additionally, many grocery stores and some smaller shops accept credit cards or bank cards, but it is most common and most efficient to pay with cash.
Contrary to many countries where medicine can be purchased at grocery stores and convenience stores, most medicine and drugs can only be purchased at a pharmacy in Austria. Most pharmacists speak English, and will gladly help foreigners find the medicines they need.
When it comes to eating out in Austria, tipping for drinks and meals is common, but the tips are small. When the waiter/waitress presents the bill, patrons decide on how much to tip them at that time. Usually diners just rounds up to the next full Euro.
Meeting and greeting in Austria
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.
Tips for overcoming culture shock in Austria
- Learning German will make the biggest impact on an expat’s experience in Austria. Most business can be conducted in English, but learning German allows expats to communicate with people on a personal level. German classes are usually offered at local universities or through local schools that offer adult education.
- Upon arrival in a new place it is important to get comfortable with daily tasks such as using the transportation system, buying groceries, and doing laundry. Those moving abroad with a spouse will find it is best to learn how to do these things together and then go independently to complete tasks. Learning to complete errands independently will build confidence and help expats feel more in control of their situation.
- Depending on where a person lives, it can take a few weeks for the Internet to be installed in the home. So, once expats have a bank account, it is a good idea to meet with an Internet provider to schedule the installation.