Within the first couple of weeks abroad in Austria, I was told to “be careful who I trust” and informed that reputations and rumors in the small city of Klagenfurt (where I attend school) are very prevalent. Not shortly after this, I became aware of people referring to me as, “that American girl”. How original… Nevertheless, this sparked my interest. I began to wonder how teenagers interacted with each other and how the social aspect in general differed from my home, and then I began to silently observe the scene.
In the beginning, there appeared to be no cliques within the school. I’ve concluded part of this can be contributed to the lack of school clubs and sports. Many of the social groups at my school in Michigan are naturally formed as kids with similar interests and hobbies grow close through extracurricular activities. In the school I attend in Austria, each class has 20-25 students, and these students remain together in the same class for the majority of their school career. It seems this system creates a close class bond and students get to know their peers very well. After a few weeks of observation however, there did appear to be minor friend groups within the classes and grade levels.
These groups seemed to be based mostly on personalities rather than interests. The quiet, reserved girls stuck together, the loud and immature boys got on well, the more academic boys interacted, and the social, extroverted girls hung out together. Overall, all my classmates have interacted positively with each other, and this has been refreshing to me. However, there have been moments of gossip I have been able to distinguish despite the language barrier. It has appeared to me that rumors here are spread very easily and even more often and exaggerated than in my school in Michigan. This has been quite irksome as I suppose I thought I would be able to escape the drama and constant social climbing of my small hometown for five months by traveling here. But I’ve learned that wherever you go, people will always talk and there will always be a social hierarchy. It’s simply human nature. I’ve learned to accept this fact and disregard all the nonsense I hear about others as well as myself.
While sitting in on an English class, the teacher asked the students to describe Austrian teenagers using one general word. Majority of the class responded with “lazy”. This surprised me, as the overall Austrian lifestyle is quite the opposite of lazy. Many of the activities practiced by my Austrian peers are similar to those in America. For example, shopping at the mall, eating at McDonalds, playing soccer, or grabbing a coffee are common social outings. Despite these similarities, I have found it quite difficult to make close friends. All of my classmates have been very friendly, but not many of them have been very outgoing. I have often been the one who must initiate plans. Perhaps this can be explained by the language barrier. It must have been a little intimidating to speak English with a native speaker. . . Just as it was quite frightening for me at times to try my German with native speakers.
Because the drinking and smoking age is low (16 for beer, wine, and cigarettes, and 18 for hard liquor), both these activities are large aspects of teen life in Austria. Partying is a common topic of interest for most adolescents. Many teenagers meet and form friendships with those they meet at clubs, although they may not go to the same school. Almost every weekend, my classmates go to a disco where they meet up with their friends and classmates and party until around 3 o’clock in morning. This loose curfew has been another surprise to me, as my curfew in Michigan is 11:30-midnight (wanna reconsider that, mom and dad? Love youuu).
The most major difference I have observed in the social hierarchy, is the prejudice towards immigrants. While studying in the cafeteria one afternoon, I was joined by a group of four boys. After a few minutes of talking with them, they expressed that they were surprised I was interacting with them. This puzzled me, so I inquired what they meant. They explained that most girls in Klagenfurt neglect to talk to them, as their families immigrated from Bosnia, Serbia, Romania, and Afghanistan, and because of this they are viewed as “gangsters” or “gypsies”. This discrimination was shocking to me. I’ve been told this is not too common, but can be found in many schools. Of course similar discrimination is also present in America, however it seems more prevalent in Austria (perhaps this can be explained by the fact that we were all immigrants to America not too long ago). I believe much of this contempt stems from the European Union border control policies. Because anyone from the EU can immigrate to Austria and receive its free health care and insurance, many native Austrians believe the immigrants take advantage of this.
It has been fascinating for me to observe how people my age from a different part of the world interact with each other. Overall it’s not very different than my home in Michigan, but I have learned several valuable lessons that I will be able to carry with me for the remainder of my life. I believe I have grown to be more outgoing and confident in forming relationships. I have learned to make sincere apologies when necessary. I am now able to accept myself without comparing to others. I have acknowledged ever-existing social hierarchy and gossip, but have learned to pay no attention to it. Most importantly for me, I have learned to let people in on my life rather than pushing them away. I’m going to miss my friends and family so much as they’ve taught me an infinite amount of valuable information about Austria, culture, independence, language, relationships, and myself. However, I know the relationships I’ve formed will last a lifetime.