Cultural Misunderstandings: Britain & America.


– George Orwell, Animal Farm, Ch. 10

A common saying is that we are two nations divided by a common language. The author of this statement forgot to mention the difference in cultures. This year, a Brasilian contestant on Big Brother UK angrily exploded when a British housemate told him to “shut up”; this took over YouTube UK that week. Thousands of comments were left by the YouTube community, some explaining that the harmless phrasal verb in English carried a much stronger meaning in Brasil, where the purpose of use for the words “shut up” was far ruder than English speakers were aware of. Sadly the backlash to this was the “well, you’re in Britain now, get used to it” mentality. This Brasilian had only been living in the UK 2 years, since 2007. Since when did other people decide when an immigrant’s time of adjusting was over?

This got me thinking. When I met my other half, we spent at least 2 years getting over the various cultural differences between Americans and Britons. The question I am most asked by any Briton or American is, “Is it different over there?” My answer is, yes but do you really care to know? Despite my great efforts to adjust to the American life, I have found that most Americans I have met have very little interest in understanding what not to say to/how not to offend a Briton. For these few people, the thrill of hearing my dull explanation of what it’s like to drive on the left for the 300th time that day, or what the word “bloody” means, is enough for them. They quickly dream up the first thing they know about Britain, open their mouths without thinking, and throw it at me. Not at any, any one point, do these people stop and think, “Wait…is what I am about to say, offensive to British people?”

“You guys drive crappy little cars, don’t you? And they’re all old too, right?”

“You guys have centralised healthcare don’t you? What’s that like?”

“Don’t you have accidents because you drive on the left?”

“Do you all listen to the Beatles?…What about Oasis?….I like Blur. Do you all listen to Blur?”

“I heard you all have really bad teeth in Britain. Is the dentist expensive over there?”

(The trick here, is to look at them, blink, and stay silent for the first 5 seconds. That way, they hear themselves.) The sad thing is, Americans are not stupid. They are warm, lovely, intelligent people -for the most part. But coming into contact with a Briton is like sudden sensory overload; the bubbling overexcitement causes them to completely lose their decorum…..and they talk without thinking. This leaves British people with a bad impression….which they then take home with them and perpetuate.
The same thing happened to my husband. He lived in Europe at a time where Americans were despised, and British people lost their minds talking to him:

“Why is your whole country so fat?”

“So are you just another ignorant American?”

“Your president’s a ********”

“St Louis? Never heard of it. Anyway……”

The problem with the British, is that we have a very inflated sense of who we are in the world. In one respect this is understandable, thanks to the British Empire, the years before the Boston Tea Party, and our position in the world as far as economics and politics go. Har har, we all poke fun at the Americans, but if that is all you say to an American in your midst, don’t be surprised when he returns home with a bad report about you. No native of a country big, small, great or weak, should ever have the right to talk so badly to a foreigner that it permanently damages their trust in you and wrecks their opinion of your population, never mind the country.
Going deeper and past small encounters, there is then the nonchalant American, which most British immigrants to America end up either living with, close to, or working with. These are the Americans that British expats will take their adjustments from as they learn the way things work in the US, whether they are in-laws, colleagues/co-workers, business clients or friends. The trouble is, while we are silently studying, taking notes and making our adjustments, these Americans have no idea that we are any different to them because guess what? They’re not studying us. This is where cultural misunderstanding begins and ends. This is the defining line that keeps our two countries at arm’s length.

There is this song about immigrants that is echoed around the world by natives living in their own countries. It goes like this: “You’re in (insert country name) now, get used to it.” I think it is completely unnecessary for anyone to say this to an immigrant unless it is glaringly obvious that the legal alien is exhibiting absolutely no signs of adaptation. To the fervent immigrant trying desperately to learn their new life, it is unhelpful, callous, segregating, conceited vain-glorious talk that damages their trust in you. Some of you may be shocked to hear this, but my fellow British people treated my American husband this way in the 3 years he lived in London. We are all, not one person exempt, ALL guilty of having treated a resident foreigner in our country, this way at some point in our lives. The average person’s response is, “Well you’re the minority! Do you expect the rest of the country to bow down to you?” NO! That is not what is being asked of you. Law-abiding immigrants want help from natives, the kind of help that puts love into a handshake, the kind of help that listens, studies, and most importantly applies your own personal adjustment to us.

I am now wearing my husband’s shoes and it is not pretty. There are British and European customs I have extended to my fellow inhabitants, that people have inadvertently mopped the floor with. I spend entire evenings reminding myself to give people the benefit of the doubt, every single day I leave my house. The few small times I’ve had the courage to be able to communicate back that “I know you didn’t mean it, but where I’m from that’s really rude because….” I have quite often been met with “So what.” That’s not an answer. That’s not helpful. That stops me trusting you because it took me some courage to explain that. I’m not asking you to become British. I’m asking you to step beyond your comfortable little boundaries to get to know what makes me tick, how not to hurt my feelings, because I’m really, really trying to understand you, understand your peoples, understand your culture and your country. I am learning about what is important to you. Does it kill you to learn what’s important to me too? How will we ever get along?

When my dad first arrived in Britain he could not believe how, when friends were joking with each other, they playfully tapped each other round the head. In Thailand and a lot of Eastern countries, this is a grave insult and a great disrespect because your head is where you carry your crown of authority. Many British people couldn’t care less about this and refused to respect his beliefs, so my dad discarded them as friends. He made a few good, life long friends who took the time to respect this belief and many many others, people he’d bend over backwards for.

I’ll put you out of your misery and stop with one last note. Respect the person you are talking to and listen to them.

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  3. Guy said:

    Interesting article but, with all due respect, I don’t think you should take it so personally. I am a Brit who married an American wife and I have lived in the US for 8 years now. Everything you said is true but only at a superficial level. Once you speak to someone for longer than two minutes all the preconceptions and silly questions go out of the window. I can understand your father’s position, and taking a stand was his prerogative, but it is also the prerogative of others to tell him that he’s in a different culture now. That does not mean people should not consider his feelings but there has to be give and take.

    When I first arrived here I could not believe how people felt so comfortable asking me my financial circumstances. At first I was insulted because that doesn’t happen in the uk but now i just give a funny reply to fend off inquisitive minds. I also can’t believe how much people judge me for being an atheist and feel free to lambast my ideas in public, but once again, it’s just how it is out here. I personally think it’s my job to learn about the culture I am coming to rather than the culture to bend over backwards for my national quibbles! Brilliant article though, always interesting to read about other experiences of my fellow Brits 🙂

    • Carolyn Fernandez said:

      Thank you for your response. A few things I should clear up. You ought to know that I wrote this article within a few months of moving here. I was having a very hard time adjusting to a brand new culture, leaving a bustling metropolis to live in a spread out, comparatively isolated area. I was further isolated because I was out of work and had no friends, I knew nobody, and the few people I crossed paths with for the first year somehow happened to be total fools. Your point that “once you speak to someone for longer than two minutes all the preconceptions and silly questions go out of the window.” Well, that was just it. I never got to hold a conversation with anyone for longer than a few minutes in my first year here, because I really and honestly didn’t have any friends in this new city. Without a job for the entire first year, and having never grown up here, it is near-on impossible to make friends in St Louis. So with all this considered I’m sure that you can see that, as a result, everything about my interactions with others in my new city, became hugely magnified. So, yes, I did take it personally. My friends back home had already written me off as no longer relevant and I had no way of meeting new people in my home city, since I had moved at the peak of the recession in a year where people were losing jobs by the dozen, not getting them. I went from everything to nothing, very quickly. That’s a lot of very intense psychological pressure for a new expat.

      In January I will have been here 5 years. I am not the same person that wrote this article. Most of my British friends cut me off within the first 2 years, which incidentally worked out fine since I have a wide circle of friends in my home city now. I have fully assimilated, become naturalized and consider this to be home now. Sure, it’s all academic now that I have 20/20 hindsight and it would be awfully cliché to say ‘I’d do it all over again if I had to’ but I don’t think I could stand going through that sort of hell twice. You and I have been in the US a similar length of time, and it’s easy for us to stand here right now saying ‘Oh, stop fretting, you’ll get over that.’ Everybody was new to something once! I meet new expats in my job frequently, who speak in the same disgruntled way, and I discount their attitudes because I remember what it was like being slapped in the face with so much new and different culture.

      The pendulum stopped swinging so wildly and the scales have been balanced out quietly for some time. Since I am now such a changed person, one might consider why I haven’t decided to take this post down. The sole reason I don’t is because it’s a polaroid of my life in 2009, and a fantastic gauge for how far I’ve come.

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