Friday, January 14, 2011

Explaining cultural differences: apples to llamas

Going back to the US for the holidays, it's always striking confronting the differences between it and the UK.

I catch myself saying "moe-byel" instead of cell phone and "toe-ma-toe". At a restaurant in Michigan, the server asked if I wanted chips or fries with my sandwich. It took a while to respond, as my muddled brain was thinking, "But they're the same thing!"

Of course, the big differences are the more intangible ones. Not just what people say, but how they say it, the way they behave, the things that are important and not so important. I'm being vague here for fear of offending both Brits and Americans!

But it's something I get asked about all the time. Why do Americans do X? What do Brits think about Y?

I don't think many people understand what complicated questions these can be. For example, I was chatting with friends about driving on the left side of the road, and someone asked if Brits walk on the left side of the sidewalk. No, they don't. In a busy train station sometimes escalators or stairs will be marked so people stay on the left. Otherwise, Brits tend to walk wherever there's space.

My friend found this bizarre. In his mind, since Americans drive on the right and walk on the right, Brits should systematically be the same, except reversed.

But there is no systematic difference. The US and the UK are just different. Apples to oranges. Or rather, apples to llamas.

It threw me when I first came here, too. But I've come to realize that different cultures develop independently, have been for thousands of years. Driving laws, government, education, all have developed in completely different ways. It's fascinating.

And difficult to understand, let alone explain.

So yes, the Brits walk on both sides of the sidewalk (which isn't called a sidewalk, but rather pavement). And even though the US has much more of a car culture, I've also found the US to be more pedestrian friendly. Why? I don't know.

My British friends ask questions, too. Recently, many have been wondering about Americans' fascination with guns. I can explain about second amendment rights, and frontier life, but at the end of the day, there's no clear cut answer.

But I never stop wondering about these differences. Why does the UK have so many more fair trade products available at major supermarkets? Does it have something to do with their history of imperialism? Why do I have better recycling service in the UK than I've ever encountered in the US? Is it because America has more climate change deniers? More Big Oil money? Why is the US at the forefront of sustainable fishing, well ahead of Europe? I have no idea.

Maybe it's not so much nationwide differences as community differences, individuals leading the way, or politicians devoted to certain causes. Or any number of other variables that are near impossible to quantify.

What would really be a blessing would be if we could learn from each other. Often during the American health care debate, I wished that instead of conservatives ripping apart the NHS, politicians, researchers, and health care providers could learn from the NHS and work to develop more humane and efficient systems for both countries.

That would truly be a global revolution.


  1. My mind is boggling that you guys walk on the right side of the pavement! I didn't know that.

    We get a lot of ground floor/first floor confusion from tourists. Even more bizarre, I had a lady get angry that we used the ground floor system, even with clear signs and markings about it. I really wanted to point out that I adjusted to there being no ground floor just fine when I was in the US--why was it so difficult for her, especially when it's the norm in Ireland and the UK.

    Neither system is inherently better than the other; it's just the way it is.

  2. oh lordy - Anne, you and I could have some conversations over coffee, I think! I was in the UK for 18 months after leaving the US and before moving to the Land of Cheese and Chocolate.

    The other night I was watching the news on ITV and it cracked me up to hear the reporter say, "Maybe this is one thing we could learn from the US." The surprise and incredulity in her voice cracked me and the husband right up!

    Other than that I will refrain from further specific comments as I'm sure I could manage to offend people on both sides of the pond! [snork!]


  3. Hah! So funny, Helen! Yes, Americans really truly do walk just like we drive! =)

    I hear a lot of stupid comments like that, too. Lots of people seem to assume their home country does things the right way, and can't understand why other countries won't switch over. I joke about it with friends, but it is true... there's no one right way to do things.

    Though I have to say, that was another problem I had when I was visiting last month! I was in a giant shopping mall and had no idea if I needed the first floor, the ground floor, the basement, or indeed which level I was even on!

    Oh, Elisabeth, I hadn't realized you lived in the UK for a while too. We really SHOULD get together. So much nasty, global gossip! =)

    That is exactly the way the Brits talk about Americans! When they're not ogling the latest Hollywood movies or software development, that is. Cracks me up, too!

    I keep joking with my husband that I need to have a pat, sensible answer whenever anyone asks about cultural differences, as it's so hard to not offend anyone. Course, I've yet to come up with one...

  4. I just realised that my ground floor/first floor comment could have come off as offensive, which it wasn't meant to. It's just the first example that came to mind because I hear it so often.

    (Though the ground floor is on the ground. ;)

  5. Helen, I didn't take it that way at all, but then again, I'm used to talking and joking about this stuff. I appreciate you posting again to clarify and make sure no one is offended. I probably shouldn't have used the term "stupid" in my response.

    Speaking of differences between the US and the UK and why they are, there's a fascinating article in the Guardian today about how different the makeup market is for black women in the UK and the US:

  6. oh yes - I'm sure we could fill an afternoon at least, between talking about the expat life, and writing!

    Ironically I feel much more comfortable here, even though whilst living in England I (in theory ;-) didn't have a language barrier, as I do here (I moved here not knowing anything more than Auf Wiedersehen!). I feel much less judged here.

  7. That's really interesting, Elisabeth. I'm glad you're so much happier now. Unfortunately, having lived in the UK for three years, I can completely imagine it.

  8. Okay, you've blown my mind with the sidewalk thing. I've never thought about it, but if I had, I'd assumed Brits walk on left side because. . . it just seems logical. (My husband gets so annoyed with folks who walk the "wrong" way in stores, public venues. He'll go nuts when I tell him that the British don't have a right/wrong way.)

    I'll leave off on my thoughts on a certain, um, attitude towards Americans. Ironically, I think America's fascination with guns started as a reaction to the British. If only they hadn't tried to disarm our ancestors in 1775 . . . LOL.

  9. Completely off-topic but. . . do you have a RSS feed button that I'm missing? I use RSS and Google Reader.

    Just wondering. . .

  10. Interesting post. I'm English, and the thing that really surprised when I went to the States for the first time was that people couldn't understand my accent. My US friend had to order me a tomato juice because I pronounce tomato differently :) Oh and my mind still boggles at the Over 21 drinking age - I can't imagine UK universities where drinking is illegal LOL.

    Plus I think we Brits swear a lot more than most Americans ;)

  11. This definitely resonates with me! I sometimes wish I could put all the good things I've found living abroad into ONE country. From the U.K. I'd choose the NHS, self-deprecatory humor, and the availability of Fairtrade products; from Japan, self discipline, the incredible politeness and efficiency you find in stores and businesses, and public-spiritedness; from the U.S., our easy camaraderie, superior restaurants, and ethnic diversity; from North Cyprus, a society safe enough that children can still play outside.

    I NEVER pronounce 'tomato' with an 'ei' vowel or use 'pavement' for 'sidewalk', but for some reason, diapers and nappies have blended into one for me and my husband, and I frequently use 'tea' when I'm talking about dinner. The other day I told an American friend I was worried my daughter might have glandular fever and it took me a few seconds to realize she had no idea what I was talking about.

    That fair-trade products are more easily found here surprised me too. But colonial past or no, the British people were responsible for bringing down the slave trade. I think the fair-trade issue is a legacy from that time.

  12. Bridgette: The sidewalk thing was one of the biggest challenges I faced moving here! Drove me nuts! =)

    It is funny how the countries are so different, but have a history together that might explain so of it, isn't it? The Revolutionary War's offered up some funny conversations over here, too! =)

    Usually for Google Reader I just select the blog's name and paste that into the "Add Subscription" box. But you're right; I DON'T have an easy RSS on my blog. Will add one, thanks so much for noticing (and for wanting to add it!).

    Girl Friday: Think it depends what you consider swearing... or maybe where you are. I've been under the impression that Americans swear a lot more, but maybe that's just my Chicago side. =)

    And yes... the university culture is quite different! But that's also partly because of campus culture, which Brits don't have so much of... see, so many facets!

    I think Brits are quite used to hearing American accents, but not the reverse, and especially not anything but standard BBC English. I bet that was incredibly frustrating! Thanks for stopping by to share your side of things!

    Mary: How fascinating to hear your perspective, having lived so many places--thanks for sharing!. It really frustrated me when I first moved here that I couldn't fall in love with the UK. But of course, every place is different, with different things we admire based on our own cultural backgrounds. Now you've made me want to visit Japan and North Cyprus to experience those cultures, too!

    It's definitely funny the different words that slip into our vocabulary--and the ones that don't! I frequently used the British pronunciation of tomato to make buying sandwiches easier, and now I can't get rid of it! I love a lot of the little descriptive words: rubbish, naff, etc. But I never use tea for dinner--that always confuses me! =)

    I think you might have a point with the abolition of the slave trade. The church community that rose up around that is very similar to the one that first pushed the fair trade products.

  13. Bridgette, I now have a "Subscribe to Critically Yours" widget on the sidebar. Thanks!

  14. I had the opportunity to "work" (really volunteer) at the British Museum in 1985 during the summer. I was in the Drawing & Prints Collection and I'll never forget the curator of the department pulling out an atlas of the US to see exactly where Alabama was. It was the next question that blew my nineteen year old mind. She looked at me in her very proper British accent and asked, "Is the South of the United States really like the Dukes of Hazzard?" I about blew my tea out of my nostrils. I've never forgotten it. Never will.

  15. @Girl Friday: I was in NYC almost two years ago and trying to find a book called DULL BOY. I had to write it out to show to booksellers because they couldn't understand what I was saying. (Possibly because real Irish accents never sound like they do in movies.)

  16. Jennifer: Oh, what an incredible summer that must have been! And what a hysterical story--I can totally imagine it! I had to do the atlas thing when I first started at my job in Bristol, too. And I had a coworker ask me if I knew any cowboys! It's good to know we're not the only country with some outdated stereotypes of other countries! =)

  17. Thanks Anne! I am an official subscriber now. :)


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