Differences between Hungary and America: the littlest things

Sidebar: several of my colleagues (my Hungarian, British-English speaking colleagues) are positively enchanted with the word “littlest”. It does have its charm, I suppose…

Differences between Hungary and America is one of the few topics in which I would consider myself an expert. Not only do I know most of the stereotypical differences, I know a lot of the smaller ones as well. And, best yet, I think that I’m good at explaining them as well, both to the Hungarian side and the American one.

So it was interesting to get a question that I wasn’t prepared for: a few weeks ago, one of my students asked me something along the lines of, “What was the most unexpected difference you encountered?” This was a new one for me. It was hard to think back and try to remember what might have surprised me, because before coming to Hungary I think I read every single book / blog / article and attended every class about cultural differences that I could get hold of.

Then I realized that I don’t even have to think back that far. There are things which, even with all I know about American and Hungary, still surprise me regularly. And it’s always the same things; it’s always the little things; it’s always the mundane, everyday, trivial, mindennapi things; it’s the things you take for granted. The things which are such basic building blocks of everyday life that they barely register in your mind… until, suddenly, they’re different.

And it was also unexpected how many of them there are. Here is a very short and incomplete list; consider it my “Top Ten” little things list:

  • paper 
  • light switches
  • door knobs
  • sheets
  • showers
  • toilets
  • book spines
  • telling time
  • calendar
  • mail boxes

Paper sizes are not the same in Europe and America. Why should they be, since they’re based on two different measuring systems. American letter size is shorter and fatter than European A4 paper. Over the past few years I’ve come to admire the great logic and simplicity of the A-whatever paper system, but it did make my first few years here a struggle – all of those lovely papers I had lugged over from America didn’t fit anywhere. They stuck out of folders and were crushed into plastic holders. Seeing my precious papers not fitting in with their Hungarian environment sure didn’t do anything to help my own acclimatization.

A Hungarian never would have had a problem fitting a short, fat American paper into a long, narrow plastic holder, you know why? Because they fold paper different. Americans fold a sheet of paper in half width-wise; Hungarians fold it length-wise. Of all the hundreds of differences I know, this is one for which an explanation totally stumps me.

Next time when you’re groping in the dark for a light switch, be grateful that you at least know where to grope. Not only are the light switches different shapes and sizes, but the builders’ standard about where they should go on the wall is different. If you live in an American home, chances are that most of your light switches are 48 inches (121 cm) from the floor. In Hungary, they are higher – something like 55 inches (140 cm). So if you walk into a dark room on the wrong continent, you don’t even know where to feel!

Not long ago I read a story with my students which had a line in it about a very clever dog using his mouth to open a door knob. “Knob” was a new word for them so we defined it, but I could see that something still wasn’t clicking: the image of the dog opening the door was different in my head than it was in theirs. Because I was picturing an American door knob, the kind you grasp with your whole hand and rotate with your wrist, and they were picturing a European door handle, which you grasp with your fingers and push down on.

Of all the complaints/observations I hear year after year from the American in Hungary, here come the big three: first, the lack of fitted sheets. Logically, I understand that America has had standardized bed sizes for much longer, so it’s no wonder that fitted sheets (the bottom sheet with the elastic around the edge) caught on earlier there. And from the other side of things, if your bed is a foldaway in the living room that you have to unmake every morning, it makes sense that a sheet that grips the bed isn’t such a seller. Anyway, I think this has gotten better in recent years.

Secondly, the lack of shower curtains. Again, this is changing; shower curtains are very much available in Hungary, but it’s just not necessarily something that comes standard with your rental apartment… or at least, so I hear with every new crop of Americans. Here’s the difference in a nutshell (I know this a gross over-generalization, probably the worst of the many in this post, but bear with me): Americans shower standing in a stall, under a shower head fixed to the wall. Hungarians shower sitting or standing in a tub, holding the shower head. A couple weeks ago I had a sudden epiphany about why American and Hungarian showers are so different…. but that’s another post.

And thirdly, the topic which seems to come up way, way, way more often than needed: toilets. I’ve heard literally hours of discussion on this topic, and it all boils down to one difference, that American toilets have a bowl of water and European toilets have the poop shelf. That is all.

A little thing which I didn’t notice at first, until I had gotten some Hungarian books and lined them up next to my American ones: book spines go in different directions. Imagine a line of books on a shelf… you tilt your head right to read the American titles, and left to read the Hungarian ones. On the one hand, I understand the Hungarian logic of reading up from the bottom of the book. On the other hand, American books stack better horizontally, because it seems natural to lay them on their backs. Another difference that I don’t know the root of.

Of course, I already knew that Europeans are much more comfortable with the 24-hour clock than Americans are. Before I came here I even practiced telling time – in real 1st-grade style – by putting mini post-it notes on my clock with the hours 13-24. I made a real effort to learn numbers at the very beginning to help with telling time. But telling time in Hungarian is just plain difficult for an American to learn. Vice versa as well, and it doesn’t help that Hungarians trying to learn how to tell time in English have to cope with the differences in the American and British vocabulary. Wrap your head around the following: “7:30” is “seven thirty” or “half past seven” in English, but “fél nyolc” (“half eight”) in Hungarian. If you make it another quarter hour, you arrive at”7:45″ which could be “seven forty-five” or “quarter to eight” or “quarter of eight”, and “háromnegyed nyolc” (“three quarters eight”) in Hungarian. And Hungarian also has the possibility to make phrases like “háromnegyed tizenegy lesz öt perc múlva” (“it will be three quarters to eleven five minutes later”) which is a torturously wonderful way of saying that it’s 10:40. Long story short: I learned to make appointments on the hour.

After coming to grips with telling time, getting to know the calendar barely even made waves. American calendars start on Sunday, Hungarian (maybe all European?) calendars start on Monday. This seems logical to me, since the weekend shouldn’t be just two days as parenthesis to the work week. The weekend deserves its own chunk of the week, Saturday and Sunday together. The calendars around our home are a very Hunglish mix of the two styles, which often throws people off, but I’ve gotten used to always checking which day the week starts with.

And lastly, a difference that I just noticed recently and am still mulling over: the mail box. I mean, your own private one, not the one you drop outgoing letters into. Like a lot of things, I’m still not sure if this is a real cultural difference, or just a difference in the way I lived in America and the way I live here. So here’s the theory I’ve come up with; let me know in the comments what you think: in America, mail boxes are federal property which are used by the post office to deliver your mail. Junk mail is delivered via the postal system, and there are steps you can take to remove yourself from junk mail mailing lists.  In Hungary, mail boxes are regularly stuffed with any number of brochures, flyers, and advertisements by whoever feels like it, and good luck stopping them.

To be fair, I lived my whole US life in the country and my whole Hungarian life in the city, so I’m wondering if that’s where my ideas about the mail boxes are coming from. What do you think?

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2 Responses to Differences between Hungary and America: the littlest things

  1. Viktor says:

    Oh my god. I laughed for 5 minutes on the “háromnegyed tizenegy lesz öt perc múlva” joke. I used it several times in my life, and it is funny as hell, because it has really no sense. It is just more easier to use: 7:40. D
    By the way, the “quarter eight” (7:15) often confuse me. And i am 20 years old. Last time i lated 1 hour because i thought quarter eight is 8:15. So don’t panic, you are not alone. 😀

  2. stcoemgen says:

    Regarding books and: “you tilt your head right to read the American titles, and left to read the Hungarian ones.”. For my Hungarian books, they actually vary. Some go up and some go down. Lacking consistency is more the “norm”.

    Regarding the calendar, this is due to some “debate” about when the “Sabbath” is, and when the work week starts and ends. See, http://rcg.org/books/tsosw.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath_in_Christianity. The predominately historical Catholic Europe considered the “Sabbath” as Sunday, and thus the traditional European calendar week thus starts on Monday. Similar why some languages have text that read right to left versus left to right… it depended, before there were bound books, on which way they rolled and unrolled the scrolls. Some things we are “stuck with” are just historical artifacts.

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