Ten Cultural London Surprises (from an American Midwesterner’s point of view)
- My Love. For a city known for its aloofness, strangers sure can come on strong. Don’t take it seriously when the Tesco bloke (grocery delivery) or cashier at Wilko (a wannabe baby Target) refers to you as My love. Your love? I hardly know you!
- You alright? Americans only ask, “Are you alright?” when someone is obviously not alright. If one has tripped or is crying or throwing up. When something bad has happened, that’s the time to ask, “You alright?” So you can understand my alarm when, a couple months after moving here, not one, not two, but three people at church asked me, you alright? I thought I was alright, but apparently, I wasn’t. Was something on my face? Did I look ill or irritated? Who had died? What did they know that I didn’t know?!
When back for a visit in the States, “You alright” slipped past my lips when I greeted my brother-in-law. His look of confused suspicion coupled with a drawn-out speculative “yeeeeees?” no doubt mirrored my reaction a year earlier. Now I know better. You alright? is equivalent to the American How’s it going?
- Pants = underwear. Always. Spare yourself the humiliation. Practice saying trousers. You’re welcome.
- Fancy and Proper. Two very common words that don’t mean what you think they mean. In the U.S. fancy and proper mean just about the same thing. Not so here:
U.S. Proper = formal. “Look how prim and proper she’s acting at the wedding.”
UK Proper = actual, real. “This is a proper rain, not a mere sprinkle.” The burgers
served at UK restaurant chain Proper Burgers don’t come with tiny top hats, they’re merely claiming to be the real deal, not like the greasy floppy discs you get at McDonald’s.
U.S. Fancy – adjective. “You look so fancy in that frilly lace dress.”
UK Fancy – verb. “Fancy a walk? Fancy a cuppa?” I’m a big fan of the UK’s definition of fancy. Not only is it efficient, it sounds better than, Do you wanna…? I suggest Americans embrace this usage immediately.
- xxx. At first the tiny x’s that appeared at the end of texts or emails from British friends left me confused. Could those really be kisses? Like the kind five-year-old Americans reserve for Mommy’s Valentine’s Day card? Yep. How sweet is that? It’s customary (and automatic) for women to include one, two, or three kisses at the end of correspondences. Maybe the number of x’s mean something (I haven’t seen more than xxx), I’m not sure yet. At any rate, I’ve implemented this charming little practice with a few American friends, although as typical excessive Americans, we’ve gone overboard:
- The weather. The English can talk for decades about the weather. With good reason. The weather here can be as erratic as a cat on crack. You know that scene in Mary Poppins where one minute the wind carries away all the nannies and the next minute the sun bursts through the clouds? Yeah, that’s accurate. I kid you not, one day it was sunny in my back garden and raining in the front. But talking about the weather comes with hidden depths apparently, as a friend explained. Taking to someone about the weather is a social test of sorts, an invitation for potential connection. When you bring up the weather you are, in essence, saying to the other person do you accept me? Therefore, you’re always supposed to agree. It’s like opening the door for a guest and saying, come in and know me better. Wish I would have known that.
Stranger, to me, trying to be nice: What a ghastly day! It’s so terribly cold today, isn’t it?
What I should have said: Yes, simply horrid! Hopefully tomorrow will be better.
What I – being both too literal and from Wisconsin – actually said: Oh today’s not so bad. Where I’m from this is nothing!
Whoops. Sorry person at the bus stop. Sorry for trampling on the olive branch of friendship you were tentatively holding out to me.
This ceremony underscores a greater difference: Americans default to talking about themselves, their experiences/opinions/feelings (“I had the best hamburger there” “I hated that movie”) whereas the English readily talk about information and, at least initially, steer away from themselves. (“That pub was established in 1663” “According to The Sun that movie lost over 1 million pounds”) Both groups certainly know how to operate outside out of their cultural comfort zone, but we generally and often unknowingly default to it.
- Public Transportation may take over your life. Or at least your day. Like the weather, we’re all at its mercy. When public transport (buses/tubes/trains/trams) operates as it should, London is the best city ever. But when it turns fickle and you find yourself in a downpour waiting for the 163 bus that, unbeknownst to you, went on strike, or you’ve already tapped in but missed your train by a nanosecond and the next one’s not due for thirty minutes, or when you’re in Paddington Station and have to trek your weary self from the Bakerloo line to Hammersmith and City, London is drained of all its charms. Not all Tube lines (or busses) are created equal and you learn to play favorites. The Northern line screams at you like a banshee, the Victoria line, while endearing, is a bazillion degrees all the time, (Fahrenheit or Celsius, take your pick) and the Piccadilly line holds too many tourists and their too big suitcases. (Which, yes, is me at times). Give me the roomy, air-conditioned District line with its rooftop views any day.
Frustrations notwithstanding, London’s transportation system is a marvel, a cosmopolitan beast that induces respect, a little fear, and frequent jolts of exhilaration. Descend to the bowels of the city and partake in the magnificent maze that makes up London’s underground (192 feet at its deepest point!) but for the love of life, stand on the right!
- Laughing, smiling, and Customer service. Americans, don’t leave a nasty TripAdvisor review if your London waiter fails to smile. Unknowingly, Americans often have high expectations for customer service, because the good ol’ U.S. of A does customer service really well. The rest of the world, however, might not match what you’ve come to believe as “standard service”. Sometimes you pay for the toilet. You have to ask for water, and sometimes you end up paying for that, too. The customer is not always right. People visit America to experience these indulgences. (I once asked an English teenager what she thought of her first trip to America and her first response was, the toilets are huge!) If you keep smiling at your server, chances are you’ll get a smile in return. But don’t expect it. The rest of the world just doesn’t think smiling is as normal as we do.
Americans are trained to give feedback. From the tiniest of babies, we’re taught to flash our “big toothy American grins” as one British friend put it. We laugh more than the rest of the world, too. When something’s funny, or when it’s not. If we’re feeling uncomfortable, or if the room is too quiet. (We don’t do well with long silences.) And if we’re sarcastic and joking, we often actually say the words, “I’m joking!”
The Brits, and probably the rest of Europe? Not so much. I’m not saying they don’t laugh and smile, it’s just not a cultural pastime. They’ll take the mick out of you, they just never tell you it’s happening, so you might not know. My advice? Just laugh regardless. It is the American way.
(To be fair, the English seem to do a better job of serving one another inside the home. In the States, it’s a sign of friendship if I tell you to rummage through my fridge and get the milk yourself whereas here, a good friend would make and serve you a cuppa just how you like it.)
- Instruction & Process. The English person’s appreciation for following a tried and true process is best expressed by examples of my observations:
On the bus, one high school student to another: “You ought to eat more fruit while you’re revising (aka studying) and be sure to go to bed early.
A friend to my husband: “You ought to be wearing a scarf; it’s cold outside.”
At the park, a dad training his son who was training the dog: “No, stand here, right here, speak firmer, and maintain eye contact.”
At church, the minister to the congregation at a candlelit service (my favorite) : “In the event of a fire, please remain calmly in your seats and someone will give you instructions on how to exit.”
Following the proper process leads to well-trained dogs (they put American dogs to shame), order and calmness during a fire and, another thing I’ve noticed, children who are promptly tucked into bed at seven pm. The fact that I’ve even noticed these, and other, instructional statements showcase that things are different here than in the States. Generally speaking, Americans don’t like to be told what to do and don’t relish telling others what to do. The positive side? Lots of freedom and generosity in individuality. Entrepreneurship, exploration, and innovation. But we might get the teeniest bit defensive if we sense someone might be encroaching upon our “right” to do things our way. Which is why I was fascinated when a dinner guest (originally from mainland Europe) asked, “What does it mean when Americans say, It’s none of your business?” What does it mean? It means we love our freedom, thinking outside the box, exploring possibilities. And we sometimes, sadly, forget that we’re accountable to society on a whole. Sometimes we aren’t as respectful to authority as we should be. (And the fact that I’m comparing the U.S. to the UK, an independent, western civilization, only further highlights America’s strong independent streak.)
- Words. When it comes to vocabulary, the English have a large, vibrant arsenal.
Coming from America, where we tend to recycle a handful of adjectives (Awesome! Cool! Great!) and overuse superlatives (“We had the best time!”), I find this both inspiring and intimidating. Even kids throw around words like conundrum and repugnant. (Don’t get me wrong, you’ll hear your fill of four-letter words as well.) Such meticulous attention to words is mostly exhilarating, yet sometimes exhausting. I once heard a lady correct her young (maybe four-year-old?) traveling companion that people weren’t merely getting off the train, but that passengers were alighting. When my teenage daughter asked a stranger if she could please tell her how to get to Wimbledon, the woman responded with, “I could” and waited for the proper execution of would. Sometimes fifty words are used when ten would have sufficed.
In closing, I’ll let two literary giants, British writer Charles Dickens and American writer John Steinbeck demonstrate this difference in their own words:
“In the year 1775, there stood upon the borders of Epping Forest, at a distance of about twelve miles from London–measuring from the Standard in Cornhill,’ or rather from the spot on or near to which the Standard used to be in days of yore–a house of public entertainment called the Maypole; which fact was demonstrated to all such travelers as could neither read nor write (and at that time a vast number both of travelers and stay-at-homes were in this condition) by the emblem reared on the roadside over against the house, which, if not of those goodly proportions that Maypoles were wont to present in olden times, was a fair young ash, thirty feet in height, and straight as any arrow that ever English yeoman drew.”
Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge
“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath