Marc Mertens grew up in Austria, where he started his own design consultancy. When he was 22, he moved to Los Angeles as part of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, an organisation that sends Austrians abroad to work at international Holocaust institutions, to fulfil his mandatory military service. After 14 months in the US, he decided to stay and open another design office.
Particularly jarring to some expats in the US: the reliance on casual small talk and toss-off answers that are meant to be polite, not to start a discussion. “When Americans say, ‘How are you?’ or ‘We should do lunch’, it means they’re interested but nothing’s scheduled,” explained culture expert D’Angelo. “Building relationships is not as important to Americans — the US is very trusting but in other countries, you have to prove yourself first before they trust you.”
BBC Capital: What did you think working in the US would be like?
Mertens: Especially in LA, I was anticipating a superficial culture because of Hollywood [movies], but I ended up getting to know interesting and generous people.
BBC Capital: What surprised you about the American culture?
Mertens: In the US, people ask how you’re doing as they’re walking down the hall. I would stop to talk, but Americans don’t really want to know the answer. It’s not a real invitation to start a conversation.
BBC Capital: What was your biggest cultural issue?
Mertens: I like sarcastic jokes. Generally, if you crack a sarcastic joke in Austria, no one’s offended. I wasn’t aware that it’s helpful to say the words “just kidding” [after a sarcastic comment] because people don’t get it.
BBC Capital: What is the worst thing that has happened after you told a joke?
Mertens: I noticed I wasn’t anyone’s friend at a barbeque one day. One of my friends pulled me aside and said, “You have to say, ‘just kidding’.” It’s an explicitly embarrassing moment — I try to reduce my sarcastic jokes overall now. (Marc Mertens/Thinkstock)