Ashley Warren had been in Albania for work for about a week when she realized it: She was really, really thirsty — and nobody else around her seemed to be.
Like many Americans, Ms. Warren carried a water bottle around with her wherever she went, but she noticed that none of her European colleagues did. When they went out for meals, they all drank roughly the same amount of wine or espresso, she recalled, but Ms. Warren, 32, was always the one hogging the table’s water.
In an April TikTok video, she posed “a serious question” to the entire continent of Europe: “Why are you all not more thirsty?”
“I just thought it was funny,” Ms. Warren, a native of Washington, D.C., who has lived and worked in several different European countries, said in an interview. “My colleagues even started noticing and joking around, calling me a fish or a frog because they didn’t need to consume as much water as I did.”
The video set off a spirited debate that’s still plugging along three months later. After three years of pandemic travel restrictions, American tourists are flooding cities like Paris, Venice and Athens in record numbers this summer, and their presence has spawned dozens of TikToks complaining about how little water the locals seem to drink. The cups at cafes are like thimbles, they argue; tap water isn’t immediately offered at every restaurant; and how, they wonder, do Europeans drink so much espresso and never feel dehydrated?
One popular TikTok, which has more than 1.4 million likes, shows three American tourists in Barcelona guzzling from giant bottles, with this caption: “Us the moment we can find water because Europeans don’t believe in water.”
Many Europeans have expressed amusement at the trend: “as a european it’s been so much fun watching the internet theorize on whether we regularly drink water or not,” the Dutch influencer Cindy Kimberly tweeted. Others are quick to call out what they see as a lazy generalization: “Europe,” one commenter deadpanned, “the big country where none of us drink water.” Americans who can’t find water, Europeans argue, simply don’t know how to ask for it or where to look.
Or perhaps Americans are actually drinking too much water. Ms. Warren’s in-laws, who are Bulgarian, have wondered whether she was sick after seeing how much water she drank while visiting. “They’re like, ‘You get water from the tomatoes and cucumbers,’” Ms. Warren said. “Well, not enough for this lady.”
At one point or another, most Americans have heard that they should drink about eight glasses of water a day to stay hydrated. Specifically, the National Academy of Medicine recommends 13 cups (104 ounces) a day for men and nine cups (72 ounces) for women, though how much water you actually need depends on factors including your environment, lifestyle and weight.
But the recommended amount of water consumption in the United States is still higher than that of many other European countries. In France, for example, it’s 1.5 to 2 liters a day (about 53 to 70 ounces) and in Italy, it’s slightly more.
According to Jodi Stookey, a nutrition epidemiologist who specializes in hydration, it’s difficult to measure how much water people are actually drinking, and how much their bodies need because Europe and the United States use different methods to measure water consumption. Dr. Stookey got her start in hydration after moving to London, where she pursued a master’s degree in nutrition. During her time there, she ate “like a local,” consuming a lot of fried and salty food and alcoholic beverages.
“I was just so thirsty,” Dr. Stookey recalled of her time living in Europe. “I was dreaming about water.” That thirst is what got her interested in hydration in the first place. Still, even after years of research into the topic, “we don’t have the right data sets,” she said. “So we’re still trying to define what hydration means.”
Yet the scientific uncertainty over hydration hasn’t prevented Americans from applying a moralistic lens to water consumption. It seems that not even a bodily need like thirst is exempt from the American culture of excess. Americans buy status water bottles to carry around like fashion accessories and enter their daily water consumption into fitness-tracking apps. Many even brag about how much water they drink every day, as if the simple act of hydrating is worthy of praise.
“Americans have this mind-set of, they’re not just drinking water, they’re competitively drinking water,” said Amanda Rollins, an American who has lived in Paris for the past six years. “I feel like everything that Americans do, we turn into a competition.”
“A French person would never walk up to another French person and be like, ‘Hey bro, I just finished a liter of water,’” Ms. Rollins added. “That would be the weirdest thing in the entire world.”
Martin Riese, a professional “water sommelier” whose TikToks ranking water brands and explaining the intricacies of hydration have earned him more than half a million followers, said that ostentatious water drinking was “classic America.”
Mr. Riese, who was born in Germany but lives in Los Angeles, sees a stark difference in the culture around water in Europe compared with the United States. “In Europe, we don’t sleep with our water bottles next to our beds,” he said. “It’s not like we’re dehydrated, we just have a more balanced diet, and therefore our diet already provides us with a lot of liquids.”
“This idea of ‘I need to have my bottle of water with me’ has been created by water companies because they want to sell you water,” Mr. Riese added.
Ms. Warren, whose TikTok helped kick-start the trend, said she had heard all the arguments before — that European diets and mineral waters are more hydrating — but she wasn’t buying it. “I lived in Spain for three years, and I never got my thirst calibrated,” she said. “The whole time I just felt thirstier.”