A European in San Francisco: The unwritten rules

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

As a European that moved to the Bay Area, I quickly had to catch up with the cultural differences in order to run my chatbot focused startup. The difficult thing about a subtle cultural shift is that is not immediately apparent. If you move to, say, China, nobody will think you are being rude; you will be clearly speaking from a cultural difference standpoint, 100% of the time.

But if you move to California, the unwritten rules will be more similar to what you are used to. You may be off only 5% of the time. This means that people will think you are just being rude, since 95% of the time you were acting normally. It’s therefore important to get those unwritten rules straight from day one.

I’ve tried to condense the stuff I’ve learned in the last 4 months. I’m curious to know if other europeans find other stuff, please share in the comments!

1. Do not interrupt

In France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, people interrupt people anytime. It’s just how we talk. There’s nothing aggressive or rude about it. This is not the case here. Interrupting is very rude. Don’t do that. I’ve seen situations where an interruption may have been ok — “There’s the waiter behind you with your drink” — and still nobody interrupted anybody. Oh, and for the southern europeans fellows: Do not speak that loud. I’m Italian, I agree loud is usually better — but not here.

2. Being extremely excited is your standard emotional level

In Europe, it feels very weird to say that you are extremely excited about something, and that you think it’s extremely good and whatever you are doing is going to be very very big. Europeans do not like this kind of things; they sound kind of douchebaggy. So as an European you are wired not to express such feelings, even if (like me) you are very excited about what you do.

This is quite the opposite in the Bay Area; this level of excitement has to be your default level. If it’s not, people will be surprised by your lack of energy. Get used to this very quick, and just let it flow.

3. You have to ask

Asking is ok. In Europe you are more used to start a conversation and see where it leads, having it naturally flow to your objective, may it be an introduction, an invite or whatnot. In the Bay Area is the opposite; everybody will expect you to ask for something if you would like something. Nobody will put their brainpower in the European way of thinking: “Oh he may actually be asking me to get involved in X”. Everybody will expect you to ask, politely, but ask. “Would you be interested in doing X for this purpose?” “Can you give me your time for this purpose Y?” etc.

Let me be clear: People will be very helpful — much more than you are used to, without asking much in return. But they will also expect you to be clear: Ask what you need, why, and be polite in doing so.

4. Hunt for feedback

Understand what people think. In Europe, people will eventually tell you exactly what they think about your actions after some time they know you. This may be the case in California as well — but you usually have to hunt for feedback. And that’s normal.

In Europe, asking everybody “What do you think about my idea?” “What do you think about this X thing I did?” etc. all the time, to everybody, would be weird. People would go like “Is this person so not sure about herself? Why is she/he asking everybody for feedback?”.

That’s not the case in the Bay Area, actually quite the opposite. Not asking for feedback may be seen as “Who this guy think he is, a know-it-all?”.

Note that this does not mean that people will expect you to act on every feedback you receive. But not even hunting for it per se it’s not considered a good sign.

Have you found other unwritten rules of the Bay Area? Please leave a comment below!