The UK Versus USA Culture Shock

The UK Versus USA Culture Shock

UK USA FlagsAnyone who emigrates from England to the USA will almost certainly face a 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 and have 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 for a further 3 years. Following that, I returned home to the UK and found that over the past 15 years, the way of life there had evolved. Of course you can’t spend 15 years in another country without adapting to the way of life there, and even now I still find some things that are better or worse in the UK than the USA.

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.

Paradise doesn’t exist!

I have learned that paradise doesn’t exist, since nowhere is perfect.

Take that dream of a tropical paradise for example. Have you ever thought how wonderful it would be to move to Florida or California with their lovely beaches? 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?  The UK doesn’t really have those, or if it does they are far and few between, and nowhere near the intensity of the massive storms that you can get in the USA.

Frequent power outages… The more tropical the climate you live in, the more fragile the power supply often is. I have rarely experienced a power outage in the UK since the coal miners strikes in the 1970’s, and yet living in the USA I experienced regular power outages, and having to use a surge protector and UPS (battery backup) for the computer and the television became a necessity to help prevent them from getting “fried” during a storm.

Many parts of the USA have lovely beaches, but have you ever wondered how many people who live in close to the ocean actually go to the beach regularly?  Relatively few actually.  Like most people, you don’t visit places that are on your doorstep, and all too often life gets in the way and you never seem to find the time to just take a day off and go to the beach.

I know a lot of people who visit England often return and either say that English folks are so friendly, or in some cases just rude. The same happens when we visit places like New York, where people are often thought to be too loud or just rude, but I for one know this isn’t the case, like everything, it depends on your personal perspective.

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 🙂

The differences that most of us are aware of

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 misdial 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! However since Cadbury’s has now been acquired by Kraft, the quality might just go downhill, but I sincerely hope not.

The big differences between the UK and the USA

Health Insurance

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.

Working In The USA

The thing that really hit me hard was when I got my first job in the USA with an American company.

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.

When I went for my first interview with an American company 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).

Everywhere that I had worked in the UK had either a 35 or 37.5 hour working week.  My heart sank as you can imagine when I heard that my working week would consist of 40 hours.

Then I was told that there was no vacation time the first year (“come again?”), 5 days vacation the next year, and then 10 days off after that. 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.

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.

Other Ways Of Life That You Might Not Be Aware Of

One thing that I really did like about living in the USA was going to the bank or the post office. Here in the UK both usually have a small opening for the teller with glass and bars, and you have to talk to them through a crackly microphone. All too often neither of you can understand each other, and the service is usually without a smile. In the USA the banks and post offices have open counters, and you could often strike up a chat with the staff who seemed a lot more pleasant and happy to help you than those in the UK. It was a much more pleasant experience.

Almost every company in the USA has an 800 number so that you can call them without incurring any costs. Here in the UK very few companies have this, and many in fact have a premium rate number for you to call, which isn’t that much less than calling an adult dating service (so I believe!). So for example, if you want to call about your electricity bill, or to call your insurance company or bank, you have to pay an extortionate rate. I really do not like this, and the American way is so much better.

Banking is another area where there are a lot of differences. In the UK we have had free banking for 20 or more years, with the bank sending you a new checkbook automatically when the old one is close to being used up. We also now have “chip and pin” on our credit cards to reduce fraud, and have to enter a pin number when using a credit card. In the USA I always had to pay for my checkbooks, and in the early days there I had to pay for my bank accounts too. Thankfully this seems to be changing.

Filling up with Gas/Petrol was a better experience in the USA, since many pumps have a lever that you can set on, so you don’t have to hold the handle while filling up, and can clean your windows while you are waiting. I have never seen a pump like this in the UK, and it’s very frustrating having to stand in the cold and the rain to fill up. Of course there is the price of petrol/gas as well, which is far more expensive over here in the UK.

On the subject of Gas, I find it a lot easier over here putting Petrol in my car and using Gas to cook with. And when someone blows off they pass wind. In the USA the word “Gas” is used for all three, so if someone asks about the Gas Bill, is that the cost of heating the house, filling up the car, or a fine for creating a stink?


There are so many things that I can think of, especially when it comes to language differences.  If you know of any amusing scenarios or differences that I haven’t listed, or have any theories, please leave a comment.

If you would like to read more about the funny side of the UK versus USA cultural differences, you might enjoy reading How To Confuse An American Visiting The UK.

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