The UK Versus USA Culture Shock

I was born in England and spent most of my life there, apart from a year in New Zealand in the late 1980’s, but although I am well travelled, having visited many countries around the world both on vacation as well as for work, the cultural differences between the UK and the USA never cease to amaze me.

In 1994 I moved from the UK where I had been living for 15 years, to Northern Indiana, where I would spend the next 12 years, before heading south to Florida.

Most people think that the biggest difference between the UK and the USA is that in England you drive on the left side of the road, and in the USA you drive on the right side, but it’s really far more than that.  There are a myriad of cultural and social differences that only really become apparent when you spend a significant time in the other country.

There is an awful lot that I don’t like in the USA, I have to admit that.  Let’s face it, I didn’t grow up here, so things are not what I am used to, and that is normal for anyone to find.  However there are also a lot of things I do like here, and a lot of things that I don’t like about England too.   In a perfect world I would take a blend of ideas from multiple cultures to get the best of everything.

I have learned that paradise doesn’t exist, since nowhere is perfect.   Take that dream of a tropical paradise for example.  It sounds perfect doesn’t it!  Golden sands, the sound of the ocean, little tiki bars and restaurants, swaying palms.  On the other hand you have maybe a high cost of living, limited entertainment, limited shops, theaters, museums or any of those things that you take for granted in the big city.  Hurricanes!  Did I mention those?  Frequent power outages… just to name a few things that you might miss.   Have you ever wondered how many people who live in places like Jamaica and The Bahamas actually go to the beach?  Relatively few actually.  Like most people, you don’t visit places that are on your doorstep.

However I am digressing instead of writing about the original topic, which was differences between the UK and the USA.  I’m good at getting sidetracked, as Debbie well knows 🙂

I found so many odd differences between these two countries, that I have actually pondered whether someone said “we have to be different to England, so let’s make everything work differently to them”.  Read on and you too might wonder, but I also wonder which came first, the American or the British version…

We all know that electricity in the UK runs on 240 volts, and in Europe and most of the rest of the world on 220 volts.  The USA and it’s neighbors runs on 110 volts.  Why is that?  It seems that 220 volts is more stable, but I have no idea why the difference.

Now driving on the other side of the road I can understand, and it historically goes back to horse drawn transport centuries ago, but other things I have no idea about.

Take the old rotary phones, which I grew up with.  In the USA the dial and numbers went the opposite way around to in the UK.  Fortunately I didn’t have to use one, because it would make calling really hard.  It was bad enough in the UK, especially when the phone slipped on a high digit, causing you to mis-dial and you had to start again.

Many locks on doors turn the opposite way in the USA compared to the UK.  What’s the logic there?   And light switches go the other way.  In the UK you flip the switch down to turn a light on and up for off.  In the USA it’s the opposite.

One thing that you will never change my mind about is chocolate.   To my dying day I would declare that Cadbury’s is the best chocolate in the world and not Hersheys!

But take something like health insurance.  In the UK it’s free!  If you go to see the doctor, or need a triple bypass – it’s free!  In the USA you could end up spending a small fortune if you got sick, and you have to pay high premiums on health insurance.  It’s also almost impossible to afford if you lose your job or your work doesn’t provide health benefits.  However, if you get sick in the UK and your treatment isn’t urgent, you could end up on a waiting list for a year.  The quality of treatment is often better in the USA, but it comes at a price.  Good if you can afford it.

The thing that really hit me hard was when I got my first job in the USA.  I had been living in the USA for 5 years before I got my first job, having been employed by a software house in London since I relocated.  I had a horrible shock when I was told by Human Resources that the working week was 40 hours (but they expected more like 60), and that there was no vacation time the first year (“come again?”), 5 days the next year, and then 10 days off – but wait – you get 3 weeks off after 5 years service!   I was shocked!  In Europe by law companies have to give you a minimum of 23 days off a year, and many companies in the UK expect you to take a 2 week chunk of that during the summer, rather than have constant long weekends throughout the year.  Many places also have a 35 or 36.5 hour working week.  My heart sank as you can imagine when I heard that.   But I have gradually got adjusted, except when I hear from friends in England who have been on an exotic trip for 2 weeks, and then are planning another week somewhere in the fall, whereas I have to figure out how to make the most of my 10 days, allowing for trying to take time off over Christmas, which leaves maybe 4 days for the rest of the year.

Easter always hit me hard too, since in the UK everyone gets both Good Friday and Easter Monday off, making it a 4-day weekend.  This falls in the middle of the 2 week Spring Break for the schools, so it’s great for parents.  I couldn’t believe that a country that is far more religious than the UK would not have time off for Easter, at least in many companies.   Then Christmas of course, where in the UK we have Boxing Day, the day after Christmas Day.  It’s hard to think about going to work the day after Christmas, but so far I haven’t had to and hope I never have to.

There are so many things that I can think of.  If you know of any differences that I haven’t listed, or have any theories, please leave a comment.   You can also find some more information on Cultural Differences between the UK and the USA on another article that I wrote at Associated Content.

3 thoughts on “The UK Versus USA Culture Shock”

  1. That was an interesting read, and it kind of put me off living and working in the US, to imagine a 60 hour week makes me rather depressed!

    I’m Australian (Italo-Australian to be exact) and I went to the US in 2006. I stayed for 3 months with my then boyfriend, the intent being that if I liked it there (and if money held out) I might extend my visa to six months. Needless to say things didn’t work out, (we’re still great friends though and keep in touch all the time), so I left at the end of three months. However, one thing he just couldn’t understand that I talked about constantly was culture shock. In the coming weeks it actually took me by surprise how different living was there. It was overwhelming and I was surprised to be so homesick so quickly, even within days to be exact. Just not being… used… to things, was so jarring, and when I explained being culture-shocked to him, he of course wondered how it could be possible since Australia and the US share a similar culture. But of course, it really is, and I don’t think people understand unless they visit each place, and ‘live’ there (i.e. not in a touristy/hotel setting) for a little bit.

    Also, being Italian-Australian (and having traveled) I completely get what you’re saying when you say ‘no where’s perfect’ and ‘I’d love to take the best of each place and combine it’ I often tell my (current) boyfriend this, who is also American (hence my worry about 60 hour weeks).

    As for the differences… I wasn’t there long enough to notice big things. However, things like instant coffee… somehow, they all tasted like dirt to me compared to my Nescafe Gold I have in Australia. And in Vegas where I was, two things stood out– the complete feeling of isolation (looking around and being in the middle of a desert) and it being 40C every single day in summer. My boyfriend said, ‘Australia is hot anyway isn’t it?’ but it’s really not… THAT hot every day. Another thing that I found odd, but I guess in hindsight isn’t that weird– in Australia, our grocery stores are separate to our department stores. They’re never ever together. I don’t know if it’s this way in the UK, but where I am in Aus, there are no combined grocery/department stores. So to come across Walmart, and have clothing on one side, and lettuce across from it, it was definitely weird.

  2. Hello Tony,

    You are correct on a lot of the cultural difference between the USA and the UK but let me clarify a few things.

    1. Driving on the left or right is totally irrelevant in terms of true comparison between two countries. Bear in mind, most of the world drives on the ride side of the road.

    2. There is an awful lot of things that both Americans and British do not like about their own countries and each others’ countries. As you said, that is normal for anyone to find.

    3. You are correct that there is no perfect place in the world. You are correct that people in places like Jamaica and the Bahamas do not take advantage of their backyards. That is because Jamaica and the Bahamas are poor countries. However, you say most people do not visit places that are on their doorstep. This is not really true. Most middle-income Americans do visit places in their back yard for holiday (vacations) because it is cheaper than travelling long distances. On an average, there is more to see and do on the Mainland (USA) as compared to small island or poor nations.

    4. What American said “we have to be different to England”? This is not an official US policy or a US cultural thing.

    5. The differences between 220 volts AC and 120 volts AC has to do with the evolution of economically distributing power for different power applications in both continents. You just have to do more reading on this in other sources.

    6. On the telephone dialing issue, well it is not really an issue on both sides of the

    7. On door locks and light switches, it is not really an issue whether turn up or down or left or right. These things are extremely minor.

    8. Since taste in food is subjective and varies, I will not challenge you in chocolate or food in general. It is still a minor difference.

    9. The health insurances is not free in the UK, it is paid for by taxes. British Citizens pay more in income taxes than US Citizens. The difference not paid by US Citizens in income taxes for health care is paid in private health insurances. Plus there is socialized health care for the poor and elderly in the US.

    10. Holiday time for most Americans is about three weeks and the work week consists of 40 to 60 hours, depending on the type of job. In some jobs, Americans get three weeks off after five years service. Unfortunately, some jobs are like this because that is what the market will bear in certain areas. Anyway, most jobs allow 10 federal holidays in addition to the three weeks of holiday. Also, if you work 60 hours a week then you get paid 60 works of work, unless you are on salary. If you are on salary then you do not always work 60 hours a week but it varies from week to week; this is just to get the job done on a timely basis.

    11. All people around the world who move to another country will always experience homesickness in one form or another not to mention associated isolation. I am an American and I had a 2.5 year job in Utah and experience homesickness and isolation. This did not happen when I lived in Germany. So it is not just living in another country but could happen within you own country as well.

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