Observations of an American Expat in Britain

I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK in the last few years. Whenever we come back to visit, I can’t help but notice the differences between Americans and Brits. I know I’m massively generalizing here. I know that not all Americans are the same and that not all British people are the same. We’re all vastly different. But there are certain things I never question about my home and the strangely American things that people do there. Instead, I only notice the weird and wonderful ways in which British society works.

They love a placemat

Every house I’ve been to, every family I’ve visited, from Aberdeen to Londontown, people use placemats when they sit down to a meal at the table. Even if they don’t use them, they own a set of four. There are definitely matching coasters, too. I haven’t used a placemat since I was a kid and it had a map of the United States on it and I would smush my peas into all the different panhandle states.

They’re not entirely sure how to greet strangers

Do you kiss on the cheek? Is it once or twice? Do you hug? In the US, there’s no question about it, when I meet a new person I shake their hand. In the UK, no one really shakes hands unless they’re in a more formal business setting (although, according to Luke, new guy to new guy, they do usually shake hands). Sometimes when I meet a new British person we both just stand there awkwardly and introduce ourselves. I wave because I don’t know what to do with my hands.

They don’t use umbrellas

Even though it’s raining all the damn time. They’ll put their hood up, I’ve seen numerous people use newspapers and magazines (so you’re saying you carry a newspaper around, but not an umbrella?), but I rarely ever see someone using an umbrella in the rain. Why?

Saying goodbye takes forever

WHY does it take so very long to part with someone, either in person or on the phone?

“Bye! Bye! Let’s get together again! When do you want to do that? What are your plans for the weekend? OK, Great! See you then! Bye! Bye! How are you getting home? Do you need a lift? Bye! See you later! Bye! Drive Safely! What road are you taking? Bye!”

They know the entire road network off by heart

I have never known a nation so aware of the names of every highway and bypass. There are M roads and A roads and B roads all with tons of numbers after them, loads of roundabouts (rotary circles), tiny town names to pass through and everyone seems to know every single one. They will tell you exactly how to get where you want to go and no one will agree on which way is the fastest.

Talking to strangers is a no, no

I grew up constantly embarrassed about how my dad would just start talking to perfect strangers everywhere we went. Now I find myself doing it as well, seeming like a perfectly normal thing to do since we’re all just waiting and doing nothing.

Squished on a bus or train, standing in line at the register of the grocery store, all times when you can have a random chat to a perfect stranger. Not in the UK. I once made a generic comment on the bus about how busy it was and not a single person even nodded or looked my way.

They don’t speak out when they’re upset

A British friend of ours is a vegetarian. She went to a restaurant and ordered a fish curry. When it arrived and she started eating it, she was pretty sure it was meat, but she wasn’t positive. She didn’t want to make a fuss, so she ate the curry. It was a lamb curry.

The other day I was chatting to Luke’s mum about taking the train. She was concerned that it was going to be busy and I said, “well you reserved a seat right?” and she said “yes, but if it’s busy someone will probably be sitting in it”. She said she wouldn’t ask anyone to get up from her seat. Luke said he’s done the same many times.

Maybe I’m just a brash American, but I’m going to tell you if you’re sitting in my seat and I’m going to send back my order if it’s wrong. I’m going to talk loudly to strangers on public transportation and when it’s time to go, I’m going to say goodbye and I’m going to leave. I’m not going to remember the difference between the A1 and the M1 and I’m going to constantly ask how they decide what’s an A road and what’s a B road. I’m going to shake your hand unless you initiate otherwise because I’m simply tired of my awkward little wave and I’m likely going to forget to put a placemat down unless they’re already on the table. I’m sorry.

Ever lived in the UK? Or anywhere other than your own country? What have you noticed about the culture that is different to yours?

Read more: This post about understanding British slang words from The Thought Card is absolutely hilarious!

1 thought on “Observations of an American Expat in Britain”

  1. This really made me smile. Being a Brit it’s funny hearing how odd stuff we see as normal is. Are we really the only place that loves a placemat?! Ha!

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