Separated by the Same Language

Some snarky, some important advice about America and England.

About ten years ago, I moved from Chicago to London for grad school. I intended to spend a few years in the United Kingdom, but my best laid plans saw me there for about five years. This is a much longer span of time than the typical study abroad or a backpacker’s tour. This summer I returned to England for an extended visit and observation. Time has clarified some non-intuitive quirks I didn’t know I had learned while living here. So a list for future expats, tourists and the curious:

  • London dominates English culture, far more than New York or Los Angeles dominates American. It is the largest city in the European Union, sprawling bigger than Paris or Rome, and probably the most diverse. On the ground, London fashion leads New York and Los Angeles by a few years. Yes, even New York City. Really.
  • The most bureaucratic aspect of a very bureaucratic country is consumer banking. Everything about English checking accounts, ATMs and credits cards is mind-boggleingly difficult, inefficient and wasteful. Things are still mostly done on paper, with proofs of residence, reference letters and other signs of class being the necessity. Plan to spend literally ten times the amount of effort screwing around with English banks as you would in America.
  • The opposite is true of The Internet. When it comes to healthy competition among mobile phone providers and ISPs, England is incredibly high-tech. This is probably because England is geographically small and wealthy. So pay-as-you-go plans with dumb phones are convenient and dirt cheap, and getting fiber optic broadband to your flat is trivial.
  • The English are far more sensitive to class than Americans, especially around verbal accents. People in England can be extremely wealthy but still “low class,” and vice-versa. Differentiating wealth from class is probably the most alien aspect of English culture, for Americans. My favorite breakfast place in Bristol has a reputation for being posh (a.k.a. high class), but is actually less expensive than most supposedly bohemian hipsteraunts in the city. The English are more likely to “unlearn” a low-class accent, and Americans mistakenly think splashing a lot of cash guarantees privilege.
  • Restaurant servers in England rely less on tips for their income, which makes the service either atrocious, or more honest — depending on your politics. American-style tipping is becoming more common in England, but still the exception. Go with 10% atop the bill if you had good service, otherwise keep the change. You always have the right to dispute any gratuity automatically included in a bill. Do not tip if you pick up a round of drinks at the bar.
  • Speaking of which, English drinkers take turns buying full rounds of drinks for the group. This is good etiquette, and something Americans should take up. The English will notice if you never happen to run for a round, and you will get a bad reputation. Americans think of themselves as heavy drinkers, but we are actually more teetotaling than the English.
  • “In America a hundred years is a long time, and in England a hundred miles is a long way.” Because English culture is so old and the country so densely populated, there is a lot of diversity even between neighboring towns. Driving a couple hours for a visit is nothing to an American, but can baffle an English person.
  • Most English do a good job of differentiating American politics from the American people, even if we do elect those goofballs in DC. Politically speaking, our country is seen as an isolationist and violent bully. But culturally, everyone loves our hip hop and big-budget movies.
  • The English are as likely to think of themselves as European as not, so membership in the EU is a constant point of political tension here. The English are a bridge between the New and Old Worlds. The snarky newspaper headline is “Fog in the English Channel: Europe Cut-off!”
  • Being invited into an English home for a meal, tea or supper is a big deal, more so than in America. Take it as flattery and bring a bottle of wine.
  • The English can hate their (elected) government, but still love their country. This is one surprising upside of still having a monarch. Americans who hate their elected leaders are more likely to be seen as “unpatriotic.”
  • Taxes in the UK are actually not that much higher than in the US, despite what American politicians imply. My nominal tax rate as an evil banker in London was only a few percent more than it was working in Chicago. The English love to hate on the National Health Service (NHS), but it does a decent job of providing widely-accessible health care. There is a parallel private health care system for the wealthy, which is much more American in style. Most English see health care as a civil right like suffrage, unlike Americans who usually see health care as an expense.
  • That said, the English are not necessarily more healthy than Americans, but they are definitely thinner. You can usually spot the American tourist by their weight and the fact that they do not smoke.
  • The geography is confusing but easy to memorize. Britain or Great Britain is the large island off the coast of Europe. It contains the countries of England, Wales and Scotland. So the Scottish are British, but definitely not English! However the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland, which is not (Great-) British. Sometimes the UK is represented as a whole (i.e. at The Olympics), while at other times the individual countries in the UK matter (i.e. soccer). The UK flag (the Union Jack) is an overlay of the English, Scottish and old Irish flags. The English flag is about St. George the dragon slayer, and looks like a red cross on white.
  • The English are a pretty secular people. They are not necessarily atheists, but religion is just not that big of a deal.
  • Beer is the only inexpensive thing in England. Well, maybe eggs and milk in the grocery store also. The best and most traditional beer is the hand-pulled sort you find at a pub. Start with these bitters, and then try the bright, alcohol-heavy and bubbly lagers. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is a fine example. (Most Americans only ever drink lager or the occasional stout like Guinness.) Yes English beer is served warmer than American, but the English weather is cooler too. Cocktails in England usually mean carefully measured 25ml shots, leading an English friend to flatter America as the “land of the free-pour.”
  • The best fish & chips is not found in pubs, but in dedicated shops called chippies. To find a chippy, look for counter service, paper-wrapped fries and a small menu. Good fish & chips -fish has a tasty, crispy batter around surprisingly delicate fish. Greasy fish inside is not good fish & chips -fish. Examples are the Fryer’s Delight on Theobald’s Road in Bloomsbury in London, and Fish Lovers on Whiteladies Road [sic] in Bristol.
  • The solution to late-night, drunk munchies in England is your Middle Eastern kebab shop. Mayonnaise-heavy garlic sauce on your chips is a must, especially after a few pints.
  • Talk is of “the pub” as if there is only one, but this is just a quirk of language. There is not a place called The Pub, or ever just one pub in an area. You just say “meet me at the pub.” Similarly, English folks will refer to “my local [pub].”
  • The weather in England is grey and wet, but actually very mild. This is because of the North Sea jet stream, even though the island is on latitude with Scandinavia. Despite the Dickens novels, snow is rare here. And compared with America, there are very few bugs and insects. There have been people living in every part of England “forever,” so there is very little actual wilderness even though the countryside is green and pretty. The high latitude also means very dark winters, and long summer days. There is nothing like leaving the pub at nine o’clock in August while there is still plenty of sunshine.
  • Americans are terrible with European and British geography, but the English are just as bad with ours. When I mention my hometown of Chicago to many English, they presume it is near the East Coast because of movies with skyscrapers and organized crime. Explaining that Chicago is a seventeen hour drive from New York City usually stuns the table… Two friends from Barcelona and the Black Forest in Germany actually grew up closer to each other than my wife and I, from Manhattan and Chicagoland.
  • Traditional businesses in England have flaky and frustrating hours, especially as an American used to working from nine to five, and running errands outside of this window. While I lived in England, pubs were granted more flexible hours (2005) and smoking was banned (2007). So thankfully pubs are no longer required to close early and go lock-in.
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5 Responses to Separated by the Same Language

  1. Brilliant. I can relate to on a number of levels. Growing up west of Chicago (Rockford area) but now having lived in Britain going on nine years, this is all spot on.
    As for the class awareness, I remember being woken up by a guy at a garden party next to my shared house in west London. He was arguing angrily about how he was still working class even though he was doing quite well for himself. Class in British society originally baffled me. A dear friend told me how her parents were very happy when she was dating a manager from Marks & Spencer, a solid middle class retail institution, but were horrified with her choice of husband. He sold cars, which was seen as somehow beneath their station. But he didn’t just sell cars. His family owned a number of dealerships and had a proper villa in Spain. Completely baked my noodle at first, but it is tied up in symbols (and language) not just in your bank balance.
    My wife has spent endless time explaining (or trying to explain) not only snobbery but ‘inverted snobbery’, which I suppose manifests itself in different ways in both countries.
    Thanks again!

  2. Mat says:

    Really spot on and to the point (as judged by a Brit living in the US, with an American wife).

    I won’t argue the banking paperwork, but I would say easily transferring money between any two bank accounts (online, within 2 hours, for free) is a massive win over anything the US banks offer. Oh, and related: The US still using signatures for most credit card transactions is oddly antiquated too.

    • ben says:

      Good points about no chip-n’-PIN or real interbank transfer in the U.S. Hopefully Square or Stripe or Chase’s thing will fix this!

  3. Carl Morris says:

    There is a lot to say about this statement:
    >[...] So the Scottish are British, but definitely not English [...]

    People who live in Wales, England, Scotland and northern Ireland all belong to a political entity called the UK. That much is known. But it’s usually best not to assume how these people will self-define. To follow your example, some of the people living in Scotland will define themselves as Scottish, others as British, and others as both – plus a sizeable remainder as other identities and hybrid identities. There are sensitivities here which the London-based media can overlook, never mind visitors from outside. Be prepared for what may be a long and detailed conversation if you decide to mention these issues!

  4. Spot on, from what I experienced on this recent 2 week visit.

    One other thing worth noting—and related to thinness—is that, contrary to now woefully out-of-date stereotypes, the food in England is often fantastic. Thanks to Pret a Manger and similar chains, you can get fresh, healthy, delicious, locally made food anywhere in London and often in the main streets of smaller towns. My pub meals were generally lovely and included fresh vegetables, properly cooked. That’s not to say horrid (but nostalgic in their way) greasy sausage roll isn’t to be had still, but it’s no longer the rule.

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