Jessica Yin reflects
I did not know there was a wrong way to make tea until I got to the UK.
I am a first generation American, born to immigrants and raised in a very Chinese household. I have never considered myself to be stereotypically American in any way. That is, until I ended up here. Then, suddenly there were all these little things I did and believed that seemed completely normal to me, but made me distinctly American in the eyes of my British friends. At the same time, I could not understand certain aspects of their mentality and more than once, I have failed to stop myself from shouting, “you are doing it wrong!” After three years of heated debates, weird stares, and many passive-aggressive comments, here are a few cultural differences that I have noticed between Brits and Americans. This list is by no means comprehensive, is based on blatant generalizations, and is not intended to be a criticism of one culture or the other. It is just two different ways of looking at the world that sometimes do not see eye to eye.
The biggest cultural difference for me is over how Americans and Brits respond to problems. Americans, especially extroverts like me, are quick to point out if we have a problem with something, whether that is with the outcome of a haircut or the messy habits of a flat mate. We tend to be more proactive and direct; if something or someone is bothering me, I will go to the source, let them know I have some concerns, and then work towards a solution until I am no longer unhappy. My British friends are more likely to internally grumble about the lack of whipped cream in their hot chocolate or write passive-aggressive notes about 100 issues other than the one that is actually frustrating them.
This difference, I think, stems from a British aversion to bothering people. Even between friends, I have only recently figured out that saying nothing does not mean nothing is wrong and I am expected to ask, usually many times with multiple assurances that they were not being bothersome, before the heart of the problem will be revealed. I, on the other hand, expect people to tell me immediately if something is wrong or if they have had a bad day. Many conversations with my other American friend start with, “hi, how are you. Here are the awful things I am currently worrying about.”
This leads into the second difference I found between American and British personalities. Americans tend to be more expressive and forthcoming about our emotions. Even in the middle of a crowded pub or street, we tend to show a range of expressions from extreme excitement to inconsolable grief. This is not to say that Brits do not feel a full spectrum of feelings; only that Americans are slightly more excitable and then more comfortable showing that emotion. For example, after a particularly frigid walk to tutorial, I sat down next to my tutor with a huff and exclaimed loudly about the damn weather and how the wind had nearly blown me over. My tutor seemed so taken aback, sitting there in her cardigan, clutching a cup of tea. I apologized.
I think Americans are more likely to be expressive because we are less concerned about being inadvertently rude to those in our immediate surroundings. We would expect others to tell us if we are being annoying, so until something is said, we assume we are okay and continue on. I think the potential exists for us Americans to be better listeners and a little bit more sensitive; but there is something to be said about being more assertive and believing that what you want is just as important as what other people want. If it bothers you, then it is worth bothering to mention it.
When it comes to cultural variations surrounding food and drink, I will avoid talking about pronunciation and the usage of zucchini versus courgette because that is just a difference in language we will all agree to disagree on forever. Instead, I will point out that Americans do not have Sunday roast dinners, fish and chips are not a Friday staple, chip shops do not exist (unless you count McDonalds), bacon butties or chip butties are pretty unheard of, and pies are very rarely savory. Friday nights in America tend to be reserved for pizza, and burgers or hot dogs are more common than fish suppers. Additionally, tea is not as integrated into American culture as it is here. In the UK, guests are always offered a cup of tea and a biscuit, whereas Americans tend to supply coffee or sweet iced tea in the summer. I can almost see the shudders of any British readers right now at the concept of iced tea; I will just say that it is amazing and even better mixed with lemonade to make Arnold Palmer.
Lemonade, by the way, that is not sparkling because why would you ruin lemonade by making it sparkling? Anyway, even when it is consumed in the US, tea is just a drink. Here, tea is its own culture. If there ever were a time when the calm reserve of a Brit could be broken, it would be over an argument about how to make the perfect cup of tea. I swear the electric kettle is almost sacred in this country, an item Americans tend not to have by the way. I think this stems back to the fact that I have found the American lifestyle to be more fast-paced. Americans tend to work more hours and take less vacation time; with this kind of rush, a cup of coffee is consumed on the move as a means of survival, not as a chance to relax. Tea, to me anyway, comes with the connotation of chatting with a friend, or taking time to read a book with a sleeve of digestives. Perhaps it is just the small sleepy coastal town that makes the British lifestyle seem more relaxed, but in general, I feel the tempo of life is a little slower here than anywhere in the States.
So there you have it. There are more differences that I have not mentioned, from the drinking age and drinking culture to the existence of Irn Bru (the worst drink in the world, sorry). Though I will never lose my trademark Americanisms, it has been interesting getting to see another way of living and learning to appreciate the different ways that people see the world. But just for the record, it is an eggplant, not an aubergine, and the back of a car is called a trunk, not a boot. Just saying.