From the moment I landed on American soil as an uninitiated Brit in 2015, I became aware of a gaping chasm between our cultures. Quite bewildered by this alien country, and unclear as to how to navigate it, I began writing this blog. The strap line was A British wife attempting American life and I assumed that my effort would dry up in a few months when I ran out of things to say.
Only, I didn’t run out of things to say and still haven’t. I remain fascinated by our two nations divided by a common language.
Now that we are back in the motherland, I have compiled a mixed bag of musings on some of the differences I have observed between America and the UK.
Far from exhaustive, but as a starter for ten:
The overt patriotism in America is striking. Drive around any residential street in our old New York suburb of Rye and it won’t be long before you see the trademark stars and stripes proudly flying from flag poles in front of houses.
In a survey conducted by The Daily Telegraph a few years ago, a quarter of English people questioned said that they viewed the St George’s flag as a racist symbol. People tend to identify more closely with the Union Jack, although it is very rare to see one of these flapping outside a British front door. If there was a political or royal occasion to mark, perhaps…
Personality and Humor
In general, Americans are more open than their reserved British cousins. I always rather enjoy striking up a conversation with a stranger, which I suppose makes me not typically British. Many was the time, during our stint in America, that I would make friends with a jovial Yank in a supermarket. Ordinarily, these new friends would be more than happy, apropos of nothing, to share an anecdote, recommend a brand of frosting or discuss the latest erratic weather patterns.
I found that sarcasm, satire and irony were harder to come by in the States than in the UK. American humor is slightly more slapstick, rather more obvious and a bit more literal. The Brits can be quite subtle, dry and cutting, with self deprecation and sarcasm featuring heavily. I remember several occasions, during which I attempted to be amusing in the company of Americans. I would bandy about a couple of gags, which tended to be received with blank looks and bemusement.
Hugs and kisses
I do much of my communicating these days on WhatsApp and usually sign off messages with at least three kisses, even if sending messages to people I don’t know very well. Sometimes friends will also receive a hug or two.
But soon after sending a handful of heartfelt messages concluding with kisses to Americans, it became clear that this just isn’t really done. I would receive short responses, devoid of kisses, which I took to mean that the American sender didn’t like me. Maybe this was the case, but I also now understand that Americans are much more direct in their communications than their British counterparts. I frequently pussy foot around a point, employing far more complex communication methods than are necessary. The Yanks are more adept at getting straight to a point. Efficient – I need to take note.
It is a delight to be back in the bosom of the great British supermarket. I am a seasoned supermarket shopper and can confirm that in the UK, regardless of whether you head for Morrison’s or M&S, your experience will be preferable to that offered by most of the American supermarket chains.
True, the soft rock 80s music that could be reliably heard in all Stateside stores was always a treat and I did enjoy Trader Joe’s, but I could never understand why there was no supermarket that stocked everything you needed or why prices were so exorbitantly high. Whole Foods was wonderful if you didn’t mind spending $12 on an apple.
British supermarkets are so inviting, with their clever aesthetics and special deals. I defy anyone entering Waitrose in a bad temper to emerge in the same state of mind. You can’t fail to feel cheered by a session in Waitrose. The cheaper American supermarkets, which I remember carrying a scent of putrefying meat or synthetic apple and cinnamon, were often housed in cavernous warehouses, groceries piled high on palettes, displays either ill thought out, or not at all. With 318 varieties of pasta and 533 sugar loaded breakfast cereals to choose from, a shopping trip could often turn into an unwelcome two hour marathon.
I left America with a few unanswered questions about the country’s food. The widespread demand for cheap food is such that food production seems to be a murky business – food is produced rapidly, with shortcuts inevitable in order to make food production easier and more profitable.
Just some of the suspects I discovered routinely skulking around in everyday foods:
Trans fats – are said to interfere with cellular metabolism and neural function.
High fructose corn syrup – ubiquitous, lurking in everything from Coca-Cola and Heinz Tomato Ketchup to bread, breakfast cereals, jams and snacks. This cheapo sugar substitute has been blamed for the rise in obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.
Monosodium glutamate or Flavour Enhancer 621 can cause numerous reactions, including rashes, headaches, asthma, sleep disturbance and obesity.
Antibiotics – American meat is packed with antibiotics – overuse of these is said to be responsible for the rapid rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases.
Bovine Growth Hormone can be found in non-organic dairy products and is thought to contribute to the increased incidence of premature sexual maturity.
Pesticides like glyphosate are apparently sprayed willy nilly on American wheat, oats and barley. A host of artificial colours, preservatives and various other suspect chemicals also regularly worm their way into the food.
Of course there are plenty of organic options in America and British foodstuffs are hardly devoid of all of these beasts, but I think it is a little easier here to know what we are consuming. British Coca-Cola, for example, does at least contain bog standard sugar, rather than High Fructose Corn Syrup. Animal welfare standards are more stringent and food seems to be slightly more traceable. Much of the American crops are genetically modified – if ingredients are not, you will know about it – NO GMO!!! – screams the packaging.
Tea drinking is embedded in British culture – we reportedly quaff 165 million cups of tea a day in this country. When you are living abroad, thousands of miles from home, there is something very comforting about a hot cup of tea. Only I didn’t realise quite how hard tea as we know it would be to procure.
Soon after arriving in America, I bought a box of Lipton’s and was astonished. Lipton’s: purveyors of quite possibly the weakest tea ever invented – around ten teabags are required to create the strength of tea that a Builder’s swilling Brit will approve of.
When offered a cup of tea by an American, I used to have to think carefully before accepting.
It took some time to realise that tea is not always taken hot. It is often drunk iced. Or black. And if not black, it may be a herbal creation laced with something exotic like licorice or lemon balm.
Returning to the idea of milk in tea – this is anathema to the Yanks. My friend Brandi, originally from Ohio, never bought milk – only cream, which I would decline when offered it with my tea. A cocktail of cream and milk called half and half is popular in the States but is definitely better reserved for coffee.
My British friends and I always played it safe and used to ship vast quantities of tea back from the UK.
The pub is an integral part of British culture. Never did I find anywhere closely resembling a British pub across the pond. America does coffee shops and bars. We have pubs, which, certainly in rural areas, are usually relaxed affairs burgeoning with children and dogs, rather than sports bars filled with colossal screens and sporting fanatics. Many of our pubs are housed in ancient buildings with crumbling beams and flag stone floors.
Rye’s one and only pub, which was imaginatively named The Pub, was more like a northern English town’s working men’s club with its prefab structure, stark walls and lino floor. It did stock all necessary liquor, it just wasn’t quite as appealing as the pubs across the pond.
The health care in America was exemplary, but then we were fortunate enough to be given a generous health insurance package by Henry’s employer when we moved out to New York. Just as well, given that Rory’s six hour stint in a children’s hospital following his accident came to $34,000.
It is refreshing to be back in the UK with the trusty NHS which, I really believe, does deliver incredible free health care and is pretty adept when it comes to the management of both acute and long term health issues. True, it is common to have to wait 6 weeks for a non-urgent appointment with a specialist but you won’t have to pay for it.
In the UK, the price the shops say is the price you pay – taxes are built in to the price advertised on the goods for sale. From the day I arrived on American soil to the day I left, I was unable to grasp the fact that I would need more money at the till than stipulated by the product’s label. Baffling. Still.
In the UK, you tend to tip generously if you have received an exceptional service. Tipping in the USA, however, is ingrained in the national psyche and tips are expected as a matter of course. The standard of service provided doesn’t always equate – tipping is just what you do. By not, one is committing the very worst sort of faux pas and is consigned to the cheap person pile. Unfortunately, a large proportion of those working in the service industry tend to be paid a pittance and tips form an essential part of their earnings. I learned to routinely dish out 20% extra for services ranging from pedicures, haircuts, taxis or restaurant when we lived in America.
Our friend Adam went out for a beer with a friend at a bar in Manhattan after work one evening. Adam went to the bar, ordered two bottles of beer and handed over payment plus the customary $2 tip ($1 per drink) before returning to a table with his friend. The waitress followed him over…
Hey guys! Just checking everything’s ok with your drinks?
Er, yes thanks..? said the friends.
Only I was just wondering about the tip you left – I thought there must be a problem.
Adam and his mate couldn’t fathom what sort of tip they should have given the waitress for opening their two bottles of beer.
Oh the space, the space! How I miss the preponderance of American space – the basement, the closets, the refrigerator, the gararge.
The average house size in the UK is 1,063 square feet. In America, it is more than double this at 2,330 square feet. And this I find incredible: some 25% of American single-family units occupy plots of one acre or more.
A worrying indictment of the level of trash that must be produced by the households of an upscale, upstate New York suburb is that landfill collections are made from homes in Rye, NY, twice a week. Here in the UK, we have fortnightly rubbish collections.
The average Brit reportedly fills their bins with 560 kg waste per person per year, while the average American produces 760 kg per year.
Energy consumption was impressive in our upscale suburb – admittedly the climate was extreme and the demand for energy was high. The houses in our neighborhood tended to have their air conditioning on full blast throughout the summer, the heating on constant all through the winter.
The boiler man was truly stumped when he came to service our boiler and I asked him to show me how to put our heating on a timer as we do in the UK.
Why have it on a timer when you can have it on constant, 24/7? he asked.
We have returned to driving a manual car on the right hand side of the road, as opposed to an automatic on the left. I do miss our dear Jeep, but it is rather nice not to be constrained by a 55 miles an hour speed limit on the highway.
I have had to refresh my memory on roundabouts. It was rare to come across roundabouts in The States. If I ever did, I found that the American drivers were never quite sure what to make of them and always kindly gave me right of way, even if it was theirs.
I loved the fact that in New York State, turning right when a traffic light is red is allowed, unless there is a sign indicating otherwise. Neat, hey? Filling up at the gas station was a cheap affair and usually involved flexing the credit card and paying at the pump before filling up.
So there are just some of the differences I’ve observed between life in the US and the UK: two nations divided by a common language.
But wait up! Do we share a common language? I haven’t even touched on the differences between American English and British English, of which there are many. Whole books have been written on it, such as the excellent Bum Bags and Fanny Packs by Jeremy Smith.
The language subject is far too unwieldy to cover here, but perhaps another time…