October 3, 2023

Moving from Berlin to New York: The Five Biggest Culture Shocks

Emma Brooke moved to New York in 2022.
Emma Brooke Nico De Pascual Photography / Getty Images

Emma Brock moved to New York City from Berlin in 2022 after working in Europe and Japan.

As a British citizen, she expected a smooth transition without language barriers, but she faced challenges.

In the United States, the cost of living was much higher and work-life balance was more difficult to achieve.

This is a machine translation of an article by our US colleagues at Insider. Automatically translated and checked by a real editor. Feedback at the end of the article is welcome.

I’ve been obsessed with traveling since I was a kid. While other kids dreamed of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, I wanted my career to take me to different places — literally. Now, as a 35-year-old creative director, I’ve traveled the world in my career. After a decade working across Europe and Japan, I’m moving from Berlin to New York City in 2022.

Like many others, I thought the actual move would be the hardest part. It is not easy to move your life across the ocean. Little did I know that the real challenge wouldn’t begin until after the last box was unpacked.

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Being from the UK and visiting NYC as a teenager, I assumed that working in another English speaking country would be easy. But in some ways, the differences are just as hard to control as they were when I moved to Tokyo. Here are some of the biggest culture shocks I’ve experienced and how I survived them.

1. The cost of living

Brooke on a picnic in New York.

Brooke on a picnic in New York.
Courtesy of Emma Brooke

In Paris and Berlin I met Americans who were not entirely surprised by their European salaries. But soon after discovering that coffee cost one euro, they learned that what seemed like a little goes a long way.

My experience was the opposite. After seeing my salary nearly double overnight, I imagined shopping trips on Fifth Avenue and a spacious apartment in Manhattan. But my first month in the States brought me back to earth.

Soon, tearful rents, huge grocery bills, and the cost of healthcare made me realize there was a reason why salaries were so high: so was the cost of living. My monthly rent of €1,000, or about $1,100 seemed like a lot in Berlin—until I signed a $3,000 lease in Brooklyn.

Before you move to the United States, you must educate yourself well. Use the salary calculator to estimate your after-tax income. Find out about local rental rates to find out where you can live. Most importantly, you must reset your thinking based on this research.

Your dream of glamorous downtown Manhattan could end in Brooklyn. But if you know what to expect, you might as well fall in love with this fact. After a few months I did.

2. Self promotion

In the UK, most people have a self-deprecating attitude. It is not a culture that encourages praising one’s accomplishments to heaven.

In the United States, people seem to find it easier to showcase their accomplishments. If you’re not willing to commit, it’s easy to get ignored when opportunities arise– to be successful, you have to be your own biggest fan.

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That confidence is one of the things I love most about America, but it was also one of the things I had to get used to a lot. My advice is to get used to the initial discomfort and treat it as a form of self-affirmation.

Talk to yourself in front of the mirror about your accomplishments. Say it out loud when you are alone. Pretty soon, what used to feel weird and unnatural will feel as easy as ordering lunch—and likely give you a huge boost in self-esteem along the way.

3. Communication

In international offices, communication is an art. Small talk may be superfluous in one country, but in another it is the key to successful negotiation.

Before moving here, I had to constantly adapt my communication style to accommodate cultural nuances. But in New York, I felt a sense of lightness and vitality. Finally, I no longer get scolded for not using the formal verb conjugations in Paris or for forgetting to bow to my boss in Japan.

Anyone working in a new country must accept that openness is the key to successful communication. First, notice how your colleagues treat each other. Do they address each other more formally than you’re used to? How and where are important decisions made? Being willing to adapt and instinctively challenge the way you work can reduce friction and open up new ways to work together.

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4. Work-life balance

Europe’s work culture is the stuff of legends – 30 days holiday, 2-hour lunch breaks and no emails after 5pm. While this is overkill in many settings, there is no doubt that achieving a healthy work-life balance is easier. In the US, I’ve noticed that people answer emails on dates, take calls on family birthdays, and never take a vacation.

This is an area that I have tried hard not to change. Sometimes it’s hard to turn off when you feel like the whole city is still on, but if I set limits for myself — like not having Slack on my phone — it’s possible.

When I’m not in the middle of an important project, I try to stick to a 9 to 6 schedule that allows me to perform at my best and keep my creative mind sharp.

I also found small ways to bring the benefits of my European job across the pond. I always book the bridging day between a bank holiday and a weekend. I don’t eat lunch at my desk. And even if it’s just 15 minutes, I make sure to grow a part of my life outside of work every day, whether it’s reading a non-fiction book or hanging out with a friend after work.

5. Identity

Brock is waiting for the subway.

Brock is waiting for the subway.
Courtesy of Emma Brooke

When I moved to the US, I was amazed at how quickly jobs came up in the conversation. Although I have a decades-long writing and creative career, I rarely used these two terms to define myself before moving to the United States.

I escaped this plagiarism in two ways. I couldn’t avoid associating my self-image closely with my career. But in my personal life, I’ve experimented with ways to talk about myself. Mentioning a new favorite passion project or hobby allowed me to define myself in my own way and helped people get to know me outside of my job title.

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Working in a new country continues to present me with challenges I never anticipated. But with every culture shock comes a new lesson, a new idea, or a new way of looking at the world, and this is one of the best crash courses in personal development I’ve ever taken. All the differences I encountered no longer frightened me and became a source of endless fascination.

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