Most of the world is exposed to US pop culture whether it likes it or not. This exposure has long been primarily one-way: without seeking it out, Americans did not often come across foreign pop culture until the recent advent of social media and streaming video platforms offering foreign content.
That being said, British content has long been an exception, and when I was a kid plenty of that made its way across the pond to my eyes and ears. As with any cultural inundation, this instilled certain expectations in me about what “life in England” must be like. Now that I live in the UK, I can tell you that some of those expectations have been fulfilled (the Brits really love tea) and some disappointed (but they’re actually not that polite, sorry-not-sorry). However, there are a few little things about living here that have taken me completely by surprise.
Disclaimers: Firstly, some of this is going to sound suspiciously like generalization and complaining, but I swear it is all in good fun and underlaid with love for the British and this country (much like my best and worst lists for French expat life). I’ve stayed in the UK for many reasons and often feel my personality is more stereotypically British than American… so thank you, rude tea-lovers, for having me – and please don’t kick me out! Secondly: fellow Americans, I know I can’t speak for all of us and this is only based on my personal experience. Lastly, I realize that London (where I live) is in many ways not representative of life in other parts of the UK!
Disclaimers done. Here are 14 of the things that have surprised this silly American about living here.
1) Bad news, Americans: the Brits don’t like your accent. If you’re a woman who sounds like a Southern belle, you’re in luck: straight British men apparently love this – go figure. But otherwise the general consensus seems to be a massive thumbs-down, which is disappointing, really, given that Americans like a British accent so much that in London there are ads on the tube for Las Vegas sporting the tagline “where your accent is an aphrodisiac” (OK, fellahs, calm down, it’s not that great – especially when you’re a few pints in and breathing in my face). You’d think our love for accents from this part of the world would at least be reciprocated . But the nicest thing a British person has ever said about my accent is (and I’ve heard this more than once), “yours isn’t offensive”. A British gentleman once explained to me on a date that “British men don’t like American accents on women because it sounds brash.” Oh, thanks so, so much for clearing that up, sir.
2) US drinking culture has nothing on the UK. In the US, many of us spend our late teens and early 20s binge-drinking in forests, basements, and dorm rooms, but after around age 23 or 24, sloppy drunkenness on an average night out is generally no longer socially acceptable: if you puke on or punch someone after one too many drinks (or even slur your words a bit too much), you’ll for sure be making the humiliated apology rounds the next day and maybe one or two people will suggest you need professional help behind your back.
My experience in the UK has been that sloppy drunkenness is not at all unusual at any stage of life or on almost any occasion.
Meeting an American friend in a popular neighborhood in London one weekday evening (around 7:30 or 8:00pm), we both showed up looking shell-shocked, having walked gauntlets of grown men throwing up in gutters and taking pavement nose-dives. “Is there a comet headed for Earth we didn’t hear about?” one of us said. We proceeded to meet three or four British friends-of-friends at the pub, all of whom were already so drunk they could barely stand.
Several months later, a professional superior texted me at 9am to tell me he’d be late to work…because he’d been so shit-faced the night before that he’d dropped his keys down a sewer grate, missed the last train, and spent an hour standing outside his building screaming at 3am.
I’ve been proposed to and projectile-vomited on by drunk strangers in London, and watched countless bachelor and bachelorette parties go awry.
3) British people are allergic to compliments, giving and receiving. Americans give compliments often: it is our way of ingratiating ourselves and putting people at ease. We are trained to do it and trained to expect it. I don’t see it as disingenuous – I’ve honestly never given a compliment I didn’t mean because there’s always something nice to be said about someone – but I have noticed that abroad this practice is distrusted. When I compliment them, I can tell British people are pleased but sometimes they don’t seem to know how to respond. If they’re drunk, they get quite excited: if they’re sober, sometimes they simply act like they haven’t heard anything at all…
Because Americans trade in compliments, we also crave them for our self esteem and feel insecure when we don’t receive them. The men I’ve dated here, despite getting many lovely compliments from me (e.g. “you look hot” – it doesn’t have to be poetry, OK?), have rarely (if ever…) sent similar sweet nothings my way. The total absence of compliments, or the failing to at least return them, feels like an insult. Please love meeeeee.
4) I’m direct and outgoing in the UK! Part of it could be the natural increase in self-assuredness that comes of getting older, but I also find there’s something freeing about leaning into my “Americanness” here. I’ve come to learn that no matter what, people here seem to expect me to be a bit more direct and a bit more outgoing. Whereas at home I tend to be relatively reserved when compared to my compatriots, here I am more willing to put myself out there (and I have to, because I find that if I don’t force my way into conversations at parties it’s unlikely I’ll be invited into them – not because British people are intentionally unwelcoming but because for whatever reason there seems to be less of a playbook for engagement with strangers here), and I am more likely to be described as sociable.
There’s less mystery, in friendship and in dating, in the States: people are more willing to say what they want, how they feel, explicitly communicate problems, and interact with people they don’t know. The lack of directness in the UK leads me to be a bit more confrontational than the average Brit, something that some Brits have told me they find refreshing (though I’m sure there are plenty who find it obnoxious).
5) The meaning of the term “middle class” is different here, and it’s led to some especially confusing conversations. In the US, when someone says “middle class”, they generally mean the middle 50% of people by wealth. There are shades of meaning you can then apply with modifying words like “upper” or “lower” and various contextual cues and vocabulary about types of jobs such as “blue-collar” and “white-collar”… but broadly the term “middle class” denotes “the average Joe”.
But here in the UK, the meaning of the term “middle class” on its own is closer to what we mean in the States when we say “upper middle class” or “bougie” and it’s usually voiced with contempt or self-deprecation. The sentiment is different enough that a British colleague once turned to me and asked why on Earth a North American politician was running on a platform “for the middle class”, thinking that the guy was effectively declaring himself “for the elites”.
And thus the slightly puzzled looks I used to get before I understood this linguistic difference and made comments like, “I’m from a solidly middle-class background,” without irony.
All of this is further complicated by the UK’s class history, the implications of which seem about as easy for a Brit to explain to a non-Brit as US race relations are easy for an American to explain to a non-American (i.e. not easy at all). All that being said, wealth and racial inequality certainly aren’t limited to one side of the pond or the other– in fact despite the myths of the “American Dream” and the “self-made man”, these days UK policy is arguably more conducive to upward mobility. And on the flip side there’s certainly no shortage of institutionalized racism in the UK.
6) The weather in London isn’t “good”, exactly, but it definitely does not deserve its terrible reputation. In my years here, the fall and winter months have been gray and damp, yes – but I’ve seen not a single snowbank and not a single rainstorm that sustained itself longer than a few hours. I expected it to rain all the time in London, but after my first few months I asked the Google machine and discovered my suspicions were correct: it rains more – much more – in Boston.
Here in southern England, the grass stays green and flowers bloom all year round. The first comment New England friends and family make when they see my wintertime photos is, “oh, but it’s so green there already!” I hate to tell you this, Stateside pals: it never stops being green.
7) Same with British cuisine: it’s honestly not that bad. Sure, you could find healthier fare than fish and chips, or meat pies, or a Sunday roast covered in gravy, or scones slathered in jam and cream, or a full English breakfast – but these are all pretty objectively delicious dishes deserving of more respect!
That being said, Jaffa Cakes are disgusting, mince pies are disappointing, and whoever came up with the term “digestive biscuits” should be jailed.
8) The term “America” seems to be the go-to name for my home country. I get it: the only name we have for our nationality is “American”, so it would follow that the country would be called “America” by default. However, these days I don’t think Americans use the word “America” to refer to the literal place very often, if ever. “America” is more of a concept or an ironic term, partly because it’s become so grandiose and romantic and partly because we catch a lot of flack for saying “America” and meaning only the “United States” (i.e. ignoring the rest of North America and South America).
I refer to my country as “the US” or “the States” and alternatively cringe and giggle on the inside when Brits ask me something about “America” or say “I’m going to America next week” or “my mum’s from America”, etc. It’s quaint and it amuses me, calls to mind old-timey posters encouraging people to move to the land where streets are paved in gold, but once a Brit started to lecture me about how “America” was really quite politically incorrect and I wanted to retort, “BUT I’M NOT THE ONE SAYING THAT”.
9) Why. do. so. many. sinks. have. a. separate. faucet. for. hot. and. cold. water? In my bathroom sink, warm water is literally impossible, because turning the tap only controls volume, not temperature: you either have to hurry and try to get done what you need to get done before the left tap goes scalding, or settle for cold-to-frigid on the right. Who is responsible for this!?
10) In the U.S., especially in big cities like New York, people keep pretty consistently to the right and, if walking around the same speed, one behind the other, so that sidewalks become de facto two-way walking “streets”. Here, unless you’re on an escalator (at which time you are meant to keep right despite the fact that everyone drives on the left – lending more evidence to the idea that driving on the right makes more sense to the human brain, which also favors writing with the right hand, than driving on the left), sidewalks are mayhem. People walk at the same speed across an entire sidewalk, people don’t seem to favor right or left, no one seems attuned to foot traffic patterns at all. It’s CHAOS, I tell you! And it belies the supposed British love of order. I call shenanigans.
11) Believe it or not, despite my ancestry being only half Italian and belonging to only the second and a half generation post-immigration, I was semi-facetiously known, growing up, as “Italian” by friends and people who met me. I have an instant bond with other Italian-Americans, and I’m from a part of the country with an extremely high percentage of people with Italian ancestry. But in my experience so far, British people often deride the American desire for connection and identification with immigrant roots.
I get it: an American who shows up in a tiny Irish town, posing in front of shops with which they share a surname and telling everyone they meet that they are “Irish” is pretty obnoxious. But it does feel odd here to have to pivot and pretend I identify with broader “American” culture, because I don’t. The States is a big place: cowboy hats feel as foreign to me as lederhosen. If pressed to name a homeland, I’d say New England – as different a place from Texas, in many ways, as the UK is from Belgium.
I can’t really blame the people I’ve met here who have such deep contempt for many Americans’ desire to connect to far-flung ancestral roots, but I also think it reflects a deep misconception of the non-existent cultural unity of the “United” States (see also: the time I heard the phrase “tater tot hot dish” for the first time). Arguably, one of the most beautiful concepts that does unite Americans is the fact that they’re from everywhere and nowhere.
Anyway, I don’t really feel like I can say my family’s “Italian” here, at least not without a million caveats. I know we’re not Italian. But when I say I am in New England people know what I mean.
12) The NHS is a great and I wish British people appreciated it more. OK, this wasn’t exactly a surprise, since before this I lived in France and that was my first real exposure to nation-wide, socialized health care. But on the whole I have been deeply impressed by the public healthcare on offer here. Sure, it can feel inconsistent and it’s certainly underfunded – but healthcare is just as (if not more) inconsistent in the States, where it’s also prohibitively expensive for anyone but the extremely wealthy. I went on a very rare Twitter rant once about this…
1/9 The last time I went to the doctor in the US (as a tax-paying, employed citizen but w/out insurance), I was made to meet with a financial counselor immediately beforehand, who informed me my half-hour appointment would cost at least $1200. In tears, I canceled it.
— Jill Russo (@jillrusso) August 2, 2018
13) Christmas cheer is on another level here. Not really in the religious sense, but in the decoration/drinking/tradition/coziness sense. Come early November (too early but OK!) you can count on twinkly (and very drunk) festiveness until January.
14) Last but not least, I spend a lot of time with my head inside a giant bag, trying to get a giant floppy cushion to fit into it. In the long, dark winter months of suburban Massachusetts, I always had what’s called a comforter on my bed (warm filling sewn into a patterned blanket shape that can be thrown whole into the wash), plus fitted sheet, flat sheet, and top sheet (and sometimes another blanket if it was really cold). Here in the UK, I have yet to see a comforter.
What they favor instead here is a duvet and duvet cover. The duvet part is basically a white comforter, and it’s meant to go inside a doubled-over blanket case that buttons up across the bottom (i.e. you’re meant to wash only the cover). This sounds like not much of a surprise difference… but have you ever tried to fit a duvet into its @#$%ing cover?
A truly maddening task, and I welcome any helpful tips.