Culture Shock in Austria

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Austria is a modern, cosmopolitan and efficiently-run state; and expats might even find that day-to-day life is 'easier' in their new home than it was in their country of origin. The nation is well-known for its well-organised systems of transportation, its contemporary housing, its excellent healthcare, and its moderate cost of living, and it follows that with such easy-to-adapt-to infrastructure most expats should experience a limited amount of culture shock. 


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 oneself in a language class – will help with feeling integrated into the culture; especially since Austrians are famous for starting up conversations with strangers on the street or in train compartments.
Austrian street culture
While many Austrians know some English, they often hesitate to speak English unless it is necessary for you 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’s, as stated, important to realise that not all Austrians speak English. For example, the person you meet with to arrange your Internet service may speak English, but then the installer who comes to your home may not speak English. In addition, most cashiers speak some English, but it’s nonetheless a good idea to learn the German numbers in advance.
Lastly, even if you don’t know any German, and you don’t intend to learn any, 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 ways to show that you are making an effort to speak the local language, and will often improve the attitude of the person who is helping you. 

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 you look lost or have 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 you interact 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 if you 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 you live in the city and you decide to purchase a vehicle it will be important to consider where you will park near your home. Street parking is limited and usually requires buying a daily parking ticket, so it is best to find an apartment with parking, 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” - they 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 your 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 in the apothecary in Austria. Most pharmacists speak English, and will gladly help you find the medicine you 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 comes to tell you the total for your meal, you decide on how much to tip them at that time. Usually you just round up to the next full Euro. For example, if the bill is 17.25 Euros, you tell them to charge you 18 Euros and hand them a 20 Euro bill. They will give you 2 Euros back and keep the extra .75 cents as a tip. 

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 you meet with them and shake hands once again when you depart. If you are uncertain about what to do, just wait for them to extend their hand first.
Close friends often "kiss" when greeting one another and departing. Typically, you touch cheeks and kiss the air, starting with the right cheek and ending with the left cheek. 
Typically, women will kiss other women, men and women will kiss, but men just shake hands with other men. 

Tips to help overcome culture shock

  • Learning German will make the biggest impact on your experience. Most business can be conducted in English, but learning German allows you to communicate with people on a personal level. German classes are usually offered at the local university or through a local school that offers adult education. 
  • Upon arrival in your new accommodations it is important to get comfortable with daily tasks such as using the transportation system, buying groceries, and doing laundry. If you are moving abroad with your spouse 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 you feel more in control of your situation.
  • Depending on where you live, it can take a few weeks for the Internet to be installed in your home. So, once you have your bank account, it is a good idea to meet with the Internet provider to schedule the installation.

Our Austria Expert

StephanieDutcher's picture
the USA
Innsbruck, Austria
Stephanie is a librarian who has worked in academic and public libraries. In addition to reading she enjoys traveling,...

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