During my travels I have experienced many things that annoyed me and made me laugh simultaneously. I once saw a couple in Thailand complaining to reception staff at their hotel that it was raining too much (during rainy season). And I once met a traveller whose holiday to China was ‘ruined’ because none of the taxi drivers spoke English. I’m only guessing here, but I imagine they spoke mostly Mandarin/Chinese instead?

But even when I’m back in the UK there are cultural and geographical misunderstandings that puzzle me. For example many Brits refer to ‘Europeans’ as distant others, as if the English Channel somehow means the UK is its own separate continent. Little annoys these folk more than pointing out that they too are actually Europeans – though if I really want to annoy them, I remind those proud Anglo-Saxons that the Angles and the Saxons both came from Germany, and therefore ultimately, so do they! One English guy even said to me once that the UK should be part of the continent of North America as the UK is ‘closer’ to America than it is to Europe.  This really baffled me not only from a geographic perspective but also culturally as personally, I think Americans and Brits are miles apart (perhaps a bad phrase to make my point as they are two of the only countries in the world wedded to using miles instead of the infinitely more sensible kilometers!)

Anyway, metric system aside, the cultural approach to talking to strangers is probably one of the biggest difference between Brits and Americans that I’ve noticed. Chris and I both worked in London for many years and if there is one rule everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, has to obey it is that under no circumstances are you allowed to start a conversation with a stranger. This is especially the case on the tube (aka the subway). When we went to the US a few years ago people talked to us on public transport all the time. They asked us where we were from, how long we were going to be in the US for, and a range of other highly invasive questions (to a Brit, anyway). One couple even invited us to dinner, to which Chris’s immediate reaction (whispered to me in German) was that they must be serial killers.

white house

On the flip-side one of our American friends is always amused by the fact Brits apologize all the time. I once informed Chris that statistics show on average, British people say sorry eight times per day. He didn’t believe me until I conducted an informal experiment on the streets of London where I bumped into people on purpose and without fail, each time the person would apologize, much to my, and eventually Chris’, amusement.

One of the biggest differences though is probably the socio-economic environment. Unlike in Europe (yes, that includes the UK) in the US people can get sacked at a moment’s notice. In fact, it doesn’t even end there because a cousin of mine, who once left an American company, was then threatened with legal action when he tried to join another company! Even more startling from a European’s perspective is that the richest country in the world (by miles/kilometers) is still having a debate about the merits, or not, of universal healthcare. This socio-economic divergence can be seen clearly in US work contracts. For example a friend of mine recently showed me an extract from her contract with a US company which read.

Acceptance of Risk

Performance of the Work may expose the employee to a variety of risks and dangers, including disease or infection, political and criminal violence, robbery, actual or threatened armed conflict, including, but not limited to, unexploded land mines, bombs, shells, and other ordinance. These risks could result in injury, illness, short term or permanent disability, psychological trauma, or even death.

It then went on to say of course that she was solely responsible for all of those risks, and any others, obviously. This stands in stark contrast to the UK, where recently a policewoman tried to sue her employer, because she fell over while undertaking her policing duties. So the moral of the story is if you want to travel abroad or work for an American company you should feel free to openly talk to strangers, but you might want to get in touch with Southern Cross Travel Insurance because if it all goes bad, your company may not want to know! 🙂

About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

3 Thoughts on “American cultural habits that Brits will never understand

  1. That’s really interesting to read, especially being a German who lives in the US now, looking at the cultural differences from the exact opposite side. First, I am shocked: What do you mean, Brits don’t talk to you on the subway? Are they scared of strangers? Is it considered impolite? Do they think you might have a bag full of explosives?
    And if you think people from the UK apologize a lot, meet the Canadians, I think it’s safe to say that they are the apology-kings of the world 🙂
    As far as insurance goes, Americans just love to sue. So employers, restaurant owners, business people etc. etc. they are all so freaked out about the million ways that they could possibly be sued that they just want to make sure, VERY sure, that they are not to be held responsible for anything! You pretty much have to sign that “at your own risk” slip all the time!
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    • Tammyonthemove on October 25, 2013 at 7:57 pm said:

      Ha ha, Brits are not scared to talk on the subway, they are just far too grumpy. They are quite reserved and like their privacy. 🙂

  2. Really? I remember them being really sweet and friendly … but than again, that was coming from Germany where “grumpy” is on an entirely different level 😉
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