20 Tips and Useful Behaviors Europeans Taught Me

John Lett (Book Sessions)

I have spent about four years of my life with a mix of traveling, studying, and working in Europe and have picked up some life-saving and practical pieces of information along the way. In the next hours and days I will be adding these tips gradually to this same link, but in the meantime please enjoy browsing through these 100 photos.


1. About Plastic and Metal

In 2012, while in Frankfurt, an older Italian man at a hostel was in the common area talking to me and another youngish traveler and we were all having a beer from the bar. I got up to open something in the communal kitchen that was in a metal can. He said very gravely to me, “You must never, ever buy anything [food or drink] that touches plastic or metal. The only safe material is glass. I always begged my daughters to do this.” In Eastern Europe, people constantly pass and bring back from home vegetables in glass jars from the garden and most commercially produced soups and sauces are in glass rather than tin. To this day I always try to buy beer or other liquids in glass because of the chemicals on other containers.

2. Water Usage

In Denmark, as well as many other places, you are charged not only for water usage at home, but what goes into the sewer is also measured somehow. I seem to remember my host mother there telling me (I was a student in the mid-2000s there) that it’s a good idea to get yourself covered in water, then do the soap and lathering, and then finally wash it all off rather than using water continuously.

3. Recycling, Especially Plastics

I watched a former girlfriend of mine in Poland in 2007 crunch plastic bottles down to the smallest possible size before discarding them to the recycled trash area. You must make your trash as small as possible so that bins are not overflowing and others are not deterred from recycling.

4. Transparency – North vs. South

In the north of Europe, in the most general sense, you really have to be careful to document and declare everything in terms of your business activities. In the south of Europe, the laws are generally designed to do the same, but it does not really fit those cultures. A business owner in Barcelona in 2012 told me that he declares everything and follows the laws but this results in more audits and trouble. In order to be successful, you have to figure out how much of a northern or southern mentality your business environment has or the finesse required to follow the rules but navigate the undercurrents or context. In a predominantly Catholic or Slavic country, it is better to be discreet in a lot of things… but everyone will find out or make up their own stories anyway. In the Germanic, Scandinavian, or northern countries, it’s better to be very explicit and clear about everything.

5. Do Not Cook With Oil!

One of my bosses in Italy in 2017 told me by no means should anyone cook with oil. It can turn carcinogenic more than people think (according to the local belief – I am not completely sure of the science of it). He said that Italians from that region would only ever use a very minimal amount of extra virgin olive oil in cooking at the end of cooking something but generally it is to be applied after the food is prepared.

6. Food Quality

This could be many books by itself. What stands out in my mind is in 2012 in Quebec a French woman who had relocated to Washington, DC told me that she tries to buy and consume the highest amount of quality per ounce possible and this is how a lot of people in France think. As an American, I would say we typically look for the best value of something in terms of volume intersecting with price (not necessarily the cheapest thing but some middle point of a good price and decent quality or a complex combination of things that makes a better price overall). In this lady’s case, she would buy caviar or something of the organic ilk and experience it very slowly rather than try to recreate or extend the experience by eating a lot of it.

7. Direct Contact With Politics

This is probably disappearing now, but in 2005, I attended a political debate in Denmark ahead of their parliamentary elections that year. At that time, I think there were seven political parties in the parliament (Folketing) but eleven serious ones in play that may have had a presence in recent years. The debate was in downtown Copenhagen but held in a gym or large assembly area and there was absolutely NO vetting of questions – anyone could ask whatever without being pre-approved, etc. Most countries have since adopted a more theatrical American style politics where there is a feeling of Coca-Cola versus Pepsi and never getting down to the real issues.

8. Don’t Ask People “What do you do?”

I can remember growing up in the US and it was quite common to ask people “What do you do [for a living]?” At some point in Europe I read that this is considered tacky in northern Europe – though no one I have ever asked confirmed this. When you think about this question, it is an indirect way of asking someone about their income and social status. Since being aware that this could be a rude question, I have instead always asked “What are you working on these days?” This has been especially useful in times with higher unemployment, since someone might feel nervous or ashamed about being unemployed or at a crossroads.

9. Avoid Debt

I would say that Americans in particular talk about avoiding debt a lot but Europeans practice it more. This could be pointed to greater risk aversion in Europe in general and more rigid repayment schedules much of the time (meaning that in some countries you can’t just go and pay off a loan suddenly if you have the money).

10. Libel

In the US, the right to freedom of speech has sort of extended to being able to say and write a lot of things that are highly speculative in nature. In Europe you really have to be careful about claims, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. In general, I believe slander is often avoided this way, but if there is something really horrible going on “underground” you’re probably not going to hear about it because it would be riskier to make claims.

11. Brand Loyalty

People have much longer relationships with brands in Europe, especially in Germany. Customers are less likely to switch around, but this is often because there are fewer players who can cope with the regulations of the market and there is more limited shelf space. One could say this also contributes to a feeling of predictability and safety in the market, but there seems to be more emergence of more specialized, organic products. My takeaway from this is that to be competitive in Europe, you have to work on very long term relationships and wait for the idea of what you’re doing to take hold. I have often tried to sell something or get someone to participate in an idea and they take a very long time to accept it or work through all the multilateral networks of their organization to convince and secure approval.

12. American “How Are You?”s and Platitudes

In Europe you generally do not have these kinds of superficial interactions the same way. Generally if you’re busy, you almost pretend not to see people or kind of avoid them in order to keep moving quickly. Further, one does not say things like “let’s get together” unless the likelihood is very high or possible.

13. Old Trees Should Not Be Moved

A Polish tip of wisdom I learned from a very good friend is that when someone is older, they really should not move or be forced to move because their roots are too deep and it might be too hard on them. I can sometimes see this in myself already – can you in yourself?

14. Dryers are a Waste of Energy

Some people in Europe have dryers but so many do not. Electricity can be expensive over here as well as space in general –  these factors combined with the environmental impact make many households opt to either not have or not use dryers, even in the north. Why not utilize the sun for free? In the US my neighbors often thought I was crazy for doing this but often the sun dries and irons clothes much better.

15. Less Thinking in Dualities

The left-right spectrum still exists in Europe, but I think due to the existence of parliamentarian coalition systems, people are more capable of thinking in terms of complex negotiating and blocks. It also seems to help people to think in more versatile ways living on a continent with dozens of languages and systems in such a small space.

16. A Bit of Socialism is Cheaper

The last thing we ever want to do is disincentivize hard work and ambition completely, but Europe generally has learned if you have some protections for workers who are sick or lose their jobs, the entire system is less volatile and it’s cheaper to maintain. In the US, your success can infinitely outpace that of your European counterparts generally, but one lives among much more danger, agitation, and uncertainty that can have much bigger long-term costs.

To be continued…

John Lett (Book Sessions)

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2 Responses to 20 Tips and Useful Behaviors Europeans Taught Me

  1. kalika kalika says:

    Wow, John, this is your best publication yet! So many beautiful photographs AND Tips to help people out in this crazy world that seems to be getting scarier by the minute.

    • Kalika, it is such an honor to have you here. My best friend here and I are always watching your videos and having a good time with it in spite of how heavy the information can be at times. You are kind of one of the pieces holding us all together right now. I have about 13 more tips coming – some are kind of explosive.

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