Cultural Differences OZ - USA

When experiencing a new country, there are always differences compared with 'home' (with 'home' being North America for Mr Cooper). It takes time to adjust to the local way of doing things and to accumulate the local knowledge to find good coffee and restaurants. Describing another country's customs and differences as 'annoyances' is dismissive of that country's culture.

I recently moved from Canberra to Washington DC. I have encountered many differences, some I love, some I don't mind and some I dislike, but I would never describe the latter as 'annoyances'. All these differences exist for a reason and learning about North American culture helps understand and appreciate the differences.

Addressing some specific comments by Louis Cooper: The North American phone system is not that great. Bell Atlantic (now Verizon) were on strike when we were moving apartments and we could not get the phone connected for nearly a month. There is no real competition for local phone services in Washington DC because competitors had to wait for Verizon to disconnect their service before the competitor could connect theirs, thus the Verizon strike prevented people from switching to a competitor.

Australia is a smaller telecommunication market and it has taken longer for competitors such as Optus, Vodaphone and OneTel to establish. In spite of less competition in Australia, our phone bill was A$35 a month, much lower than the US$40 a month (A$70) we are paying in North America for a basic local call service. International calling rates from Australia to the US were only A$0.175 a minute, but are US$0.17 (A$0.30) from the US to Australia. Similarly mobile (cell) phones are much cheaper in Australia with a typical monthly plan around A$50 compared with US$60 (A$110) a month in America.

Cooper's concern over bushfires is interesting. There have been bushfires in North America almost continuously for the past nine months. As I write, there are massive bushfires in California. Teams of Australian fire fighters have been flown over to America to help control the fires. Australia certainly has bushfires, but Australia has the world's best fire fighters.

Auctioning property is just a different way of doing things. It is easy to obtain data on recent auction prices, by suburb, by contacting the Real Estate Institute. Newspapers regularly list the winning bids from the previous weekend's auctions. The cost of food: we found that an item of fresh meat or fruit that was (say) A$3.00 per kilo in Australia is about the same numerical amount, $3.00, in the US. Unfortunately it is $US per pound!

After converting into A$ and kilos, it is over A$10 per kilo. Our weekly groceries in Australia used to be around A$150 and for a similar basket in Washington DC is over US$150 (about A$260). When we lived in London, food was even more expensive. International price comparisons regularly confirm that Australia has the cheapest groceries in the developed world. Sugar is cheap in Australia because sugar cane is grown and processed domestically, not imported from afar. Our experience has been that unhealthy teeth-rotting food is far more abundant and cheap in North America and fresh healthy food more expensive, than in Australia.

The cost of restaurants: a main course at a decent one-hat or two-hat ranked Australian restaurant is around A$20 to A$25 (including tax, no tipping required). To get a comparable quality meal in North America you have to spend around US$20 to US$25 (around A$35 to A$45, PLUS tax and tip). Once you get to know the local area and avoid the tourist traps, there are many fine Australian restaurants, which are good value and allow Bring-Your-Own wine (North American restaurants are rarely BYO).

Overall, the cost of living in Australia is one of the lowest in the developed world (with the exception of renting in inner Sydney). This is claim is readily confirmed in regular surveys by the OECD and IMF. The concept of 'service': there is generally a greater level of service in North America, but you pay for it through tipping. Low-wage workers (the massive social class of working poor) provide this higher level of service in North America. The only way an economy can sustain a high-service system is to have a large number of people earning very low wages. The Australian economy has evolved differently - there are still rich and poor, but income is generally spread much more evenly and there are fewer people earning $4 per hour for performing basic services.

In our experience, the service in North America is not significantly better than Australia. We often have to tip for services that are free in Australia (particularly hotel staff, valet parking, taxis, waiters and bar staff). Restaurant servers in North American restaurants have generally been about the same standard as in tip-free Australia. Australia has never had the large waves of African and Latin American immigration and subsequent exploitation resulting in cheap labour. When complaining that Australia does not have the abundant cheap labour necessary to provide the service-orientated society and cleaner subways of North America, always keep in mind the historical reasons for this source of cheap labour and the social friction that it has created over the centuries.

One of the best things about Australian culture is that (while not perfect) is one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. There is not the divide between rich and poor that exists in North America. The side effect is far fewer low-paid persons to provide services to the rich. A classless society where everyone is treated equally is one of Australia's proudest achievements. Why would Australia want to change to the poor-exploiting, service-orientated system of North America?


I have found my National Australia Bank accounts and Australian credit cards very easy to access while in Washington DC. The NAB on-line banking system is very good and moving money around my Australian accounts is easy. On the contrary, I have found opening new accounts and using on-line banking with an American bank much less user friendly. We have had to correct several errors, such as an American ATM dispensing the wrong amount of cash, being charged fees for bank services we did not request and the bank deducted a large withdrawal from our account twice! It took five days for them to correct their error during which time our account was frozen for being overdrawn.

In the US we have to write checks for many regular bills. We have tried setting up direct-debits for some accounts like gas and water and were been unsuccessful (either direct-debit was not available or we sent in the application form and nothing happened). In Australia we rarely had to write checks, maybe 5 per year. From my experience the North American banking system is worse than Australia's. But that view is tempered by the fact that it is naturally going to be more difficult setting up accounts in a foreign country where you don't have a credit rating, etc. Drip filter coffee is hard to find in Australia because it is crap. Australians are a more relaxed and don't mind waiting a few minutes for a good freshly made espresso, latte, etc. Interestingly, Starbucks mainly sell espresso/latte type coffee individually brewed to order (but do also make bulk drip filter for the impatient types). I often encounter very long lines at Starbucks in North America, so I don't see how this would solve the queue at Sydney Airport.

More generally, North American people are very impatient. It is displayed in the way they drive aggressively, shout abuse at the first sign of a delay and prefer quick fixes and miracle diet pills rather than less invasive, but slower solutions. Elevator doors in North America are programmed to close after only a few seconds, otherwise people hammer the 'close' button until it breaks. In Australia the elevator doors take ten or more seconds to close, because Australians are more patient and hold the doors for others. I find the elevator doors here shut way too quickly and I have to really rush to get in, but I would not describe it as an annoyance - just an interesting cultural difference.

I am glad people like Mr Cooper don't like Australia and plan not to return. The things he dislikes about Australia are the very things I love about it. Once my two-year tour of duty in America is over, I definitely plan to return. Australia is not just a country, it's a state of mind.

Stephen Corcoran
January 6th 2001