It’s really very easy to confuse an American who is visiting the UK for the first time.
Many Americans who arrive in the UK and have never been here before can find things very confusing, not the least of which is the language difference.
While Americans speak English (after a fashion), it’s not only the spelling of many words that is different between American English and British English, it’s the use of words and phrases that will very often completely confuse the visitor.
This is the tale that recounts some of the problems that a naïve American visitor to the UK might experience. I hope you enjoy it.
Just traveling within a building can be difficult enough, until you learn that it’s not an Elevator, it’s a Lift. This always makes reminds me of a cartoon that I saw many years ago, where a visitor to the UK came to a door that said PULL, so he pulled the door open and went through. Next he came to a door that said PUSH, so he pushed the door open and went through. Finally he came to a door that said LIFT, and proceeded to try and lift it.
Ok, so most people now know that an Elevator is called a Lift in the UK, but be prepared to be confused further as we explore the differences in language and culture.
Many things in the UK are called differently, for example we have Crisps whereas in the USA they are called Chips. We do have Chips, but you call them French Fries. Here is where in the USA you are already creating your own problems, since you do order Fish And Chips, but expect to get French Fries not Crisps, so just be aware that in the UK you might not always get what you ask for.
Let’s say a group of you go out to a pub (bar) for a drink, and you decide to order some beers. In the UK beer mostly comes as Draught but also in Bottles, just like in the USA, however we not only have Lagers on Draught (refrigerated fizzy beer with CO2 pumped into it), we have Real Ale, which is pulled from a hand pump, and is usually stored in casks in the cellar.
People may have told you that in the UK we drink our beer warm, but it’s really not true, it’s just that it hasn’t been put through a refrigeration unit before serving, and it’s the temperature of the cellar, which is always close to being icy cold.
Don’t think of ordering a Pitcher Of Beer however for your party, as you might get a strange look. Beer in the UK is sold by the glass, usually a pint one, and unless the person serving you has been to the USA, your request might be met with a blank stare.
Even if they have been to the USA, chances are they have been to Disneyworld or somewhere similar, and not to a neighborhood bar where they might have seen pitchers of beer being served.
Don’t order something like a Long Island Iced Tea either, not unless you are in a cocktail bar, and even then they might not know what you mean, and it’s likely to taste different.
Lemonade is also something completely different in the UK, it’s clear and similar to Sprite or 7-Up but not exactly. American Lemonade is called Old Fashioned Lemonade, and it’s possible to find it in a pub that sells food, but don’t guarantee it.
A Shandy is also something that you might not be aware of, and this is a good refreshing way to drink beer, especially in the summer. A Shandy is a 50-50 mix of Beer (usually Bitter) and Lemonade. You can also get a Lager Shandy, which as you might guess is a mix of Lager and Lemonade.
Now after all that beer, you are probably in need of a snack, but even though a few places do now serve American style appetizers such as Jalapeno Poppers, they are usually called something different.
Well if you don’t think there are many differences, just think how much you have read already, and I am still barely touching on the surface of drink, let alone anything else.
So trying not to cause a lot of confusion, you decide to play it safe and order a bag of chips, however you are met with an unexpected blank stare, and told that there is a “chippie around the corner”.
This is of course because a bad of chips is what you would eat with fish, and you would normally go to the Fish & Chip Shop to get this, where of course all you really wanted was a bag of crisps.
So sufficiently enlightened, you ask for a bag of crisps, only to have the question of flavor thrown back at you. Your response is also very likely to invoke another blank stare, since although we do have regular chips (plain crisps) and Doritos are getting more popular, you are unlikely to find Tortilla Chips, or Regular chips being asked for.
In the UK, apart from Plain Crisps, the most popular flavors are Cheese and Onion, Salt and Vinegar, Roast Chicken, and then all kinds of bizarre flavors like Tandoori Chicken and Prawn Cocktail. Don’t worry, you will quickly learn to adapt.
Assuming you need something a bit more nourishing, you might well ask for some good old English Fish & Chips, but to your horror there is no wedge of Lemon to squirt on the meal.
You ask the waitress for lemon, and you might possibly get a puzzled look, although the use of lemon juice on fish and chips is more common these days, however most people put salt and vinegar on their chips over here.
The chips might also be different to what you expected, since shoestring fries like they serve at McDonalds are usually only served at establishments like that. When we have chips in the UK, they are more like American Steak Fries, made with real potatoes and deep fried.
Now assuming you have now got a good buzz from drinking our strong British beer, and decide to go out partying and see if you can make good friends with a young lady, you might feel the need to purchase some “protection” in advance.
Now here in the UK we don’t have Drugstores, although people will generally know what you mean, and point you in the direction of Boots, which is a leading chain of Chemists, which is what a drugstore is called over here.
All the brands are different of course, and it’s possible that what you want is hard to find, since the stores are laid out differently here too (just to confuse the tourists as I tell people), and so you pluck up courage, go to the counter and ask if they have any rubbers.
Well surprise, surprise, yet another blank stare, and you are advised to go to the Newsagents, something else you really don’t have in the USA, although they are somewhat close to a 7-Eleven store.
So off you trot to the Newsagent, who points you to the stationery section, and a box that has Erasers in it. Yes you failed the language test again, since a Rubber is what we use to erase mistakes, not another term for a condom. If you want to order condoms, say it, or use a brand name like Durex, which is the main brand, equivalent to Trojan in the USA.
After all this confusion and delay, it’s getting late, and the beer is getting to your head, so you decide to head back to your hotel, and have trouble finding the room, because it’s on the first floor, but the numbers of the rooms are all wrong.
This is because in the UK the lower floor is not the First Floor, it’s the Ground Floor. The First Floor is called the Second Floor and is upstairs.
Eventually you get to your room, having struggled to find an elevator, either because it’s marked Lift, or because there isn’t one, and your only option is to take the stairs.
So you get to your room, where again you get confused because the light switches all go down for on and up for off, the opposite to what you are used to. Oh joy…
It’s possible that in the summer you will get hot in your hotel room, since many small hotels still don’t have air conditioning in the rooms, and in the winter you might get cold too, since the heating doesn’t always work that well.
So, you call housekeeping, assuming you can find a number for it in the room, or just wander down to reception which is probably easier, since between trying to figure out how to work the phone and the beer taking it’s hold, you are struggling and just want to get to sleep.
Being cold, you ask if you could have a Comforter, and naturally you get a blank stare, maybe a look of embarrassment, quite possibly a slap in the face if it’s a woman on reception, or to add to your confusion you might even get the number of a local escort service.
Yes of course a Comforter doesn’t exist in the UK either, it’s called a Continental Quilt, or just Quilt these days, or as spare ones are not usually available, you would be better to ask for an extra blanket.
Finally, you get back to your room, crash into bed, and succumb to a deep sleep, the result of total confusion, English beer, and the other travelers nightmare, jet lag.
If you enjoyed this tale of an American’s first day in the UK, keep your eyes peeled for Day Two and Time For Breakfast.
The author was born in England and recently returned to the UK having spent the previous 15 years in the USA experiencing the many cultural differences that exist between the two countries.