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.