How to Explain Britishness to an American

 No PDA please. (

Ever think that your personality quirks merit extra explanation stateside? Use our handy guide to help U.S. folk understand how coming from the U.K. has shaped who you are.

1. What Brits want to talk about
When we chat to strangers at bus stops, it’s likely that the weather will get top billing, but not because we’re particularly enamored by meteorological happens. It’s just easy to roll out a stock conversation we’ve rehearsed all our lives. In fairness, Americans talk about the weather too, but theirs does tend to be more varied and compelling than drizzle and light misting. With friends, meanwhile, topics range from TV, dogs and football to that-toff-Cameron and which high-profile person died recently.  We seek intimacy by trying to make our co-conversers laugh rather than share emotionally (see below). 

2. What Brits don’t want to talk about
Our “feelings” are not up for discussion, unless we’re confiding in someone we inherently trust, like the family Labrador.  Money is also a danger zone. Only known eccentrics reveal how much they make or what they have in the bank. You might, however, allude to your riches by boasting about exotic holidays or nod at your impoverishment by “forgetting” to buy a round.

3. What Brits laugh at
We like our funnies dry and dark or silly and strange. What might seem unsettling to Americans is nectar to us. We love to see people fail, whether it’s falling on their face or crumbling emotionally. Most Britcom-literate Americans know this already – and might feel similarly disposed – but if you want to educate a novice, point them at Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers, Father Ted, Black Adder, League of Gentlemen, Peep Show and This is Jinsy

4. What Brits like to eat
There’s been a gastronomic explosion in Britain, so the notion that we still oscillate between dinners of meat and potatoes and takeaway chicken tikka masala is a misnomer. Of course, some stick rigidly to this bland food template, but they’re largely older folks. While our OAPs prefer their vegetables boiled to the point that they fall apart on your lips, young Brits own Jamie Oliver cookbooks, watch Masterchef and know their way around a bouquet garni.

5. What Brits don’t like to eat
We can be fussy and we hate to share. Explain to baffled Americans that when British people eat curry or Chinese (perhaps adding that we would never insert the word “food” here) – cuisines that suit what Yanks call family style – we tend to order our own meal instead of deciding on a batch of dishes to split. We’re also not as adept as Americans at mixing sweet and salty foods on the same plate. From an early age, we’re taught that only if we eat up all of our (savory) main course will we be allowed dessert. Which is sugar-packed, unless you’re that weirdo who decides to order the cheese.

6. Brits love an underdog
We consider ambitious, confident overachievers to be loathsome creatures who need knocking down to size. I think this is one of the few Britishisms that Americans, who openly covet and laud success, find genuinely baffling. We do quite like back-of-the-pack, A-for-effort types, so long as they greet their eventual success with humbleness so extreme it borders on self-flagellation.

7. Why Brits might seem cold and uptight
American style sincerity creeps us out. Gushing is acceptable behavior in waterfalls, not humans. Even our speeches at weddings and funerals are about affectionate humiliation, not swooping, saccharine declarations. We find this kind of conduct, and premature displays of openness, disingenuous and untrustworthy. Understandably, some Americans view our unquenchable desire to mercilessly mock those we love as unkind and call our resistance to public displays of earnestness inhibited.

8. Why all bets are off when we’re drunk
Disregard any of the above if the Brit in question has consumed more lager than they have blood, which for most of us is once or twice a week starting from mid-adolescence. Booze allows us to loosen our laces and, temporarily, become huggers who want to tell their friends how much they love them. Of course, there’s a tacit understanding that this kind of nauseating carry-on will be airbrushed from history as soon sobriety arrives.

Does this describe you?

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • expatmum

    Hilarious. My mother is always aghast at how much Americans give away when they’re walking down the street or sitting on a bus, and talking on the phone. They quite openly discuss their therapy sessions at a volume that allows everyone in on the conversation. In the UK, if anyone even goes to therapy, they certainly don’t talk about it.
    Translation for the Americans who might need it – OAP = Old Age Pensioner.

    • Ryan Haber

      Haha! Brilliant. You know, my mom and dad (we are all Americans) always advised us to keep private things private. Once when I was a child, I asked my father’s income when a friend was standing by, and my mother responded, “The Joneses don’t need to know your father’s income, and neither do you!” Some of us are shocked, too, to hear someone discussing their own credit card debts, ex-husband’s indiscretions, or children’s school grades, loudly, on the telephone in the supermarket.

  • Laura

    This settles it. I am a long lost British person.

    • Ashley Callaway

      I feel the same way!

  • Christian Lopez

    Fawlty Towers, Black Adder, Good Neighbors (as it was called here rather than The Good Life), Doc Martin,and on and on. I grew up with those shows and continue to watch them. I’ve often wondered if I was kidnapped from Britain and transplanted here as an infant. Alas, my California birth certificate seems to indicate otherwise.

    • ollieboy

      Saaaame here. It’s actually sort of depressing.

  • Natalie

    I’m British at heart….

  • Estefania Elisa

    I’m peruvian and I can honestly say that you people are COMPLETELY different from us . But It is interesting to know more about your culture. :)

  • bill

    part of it describes me but you cannot describe all brits quite so sweepingly. we like eccentricity and I reserve the right to be myself so call me eccentric but I don’t mind pda’s for example and have found that more americans are cold in public than Brits I have known.

    the one thing that first occurred was that most americans really don’t want to know about british people at all. they have their opinions which are usually negative about british people don’t assume they care to know about our characteristics whatever they are.

    I have lived here for a generation and do not feel at home though I have met some great people who are americans. there is a lot of arrogance about being american and if you’re not american you are nothing seems to be the attitude I run into fairly frequently.

    the american is a poor student, full of himself. american women are nasty and self centered. I wish I was home but I’m kind of stuck here.

    • Deb

      Wow, WHERE do you live? I am American and I am in no way negative about British people nor is anyone I know negative about them. We tend to love people from “across the pond” and love nothing more than discussing how things are there and how they differ from here.

      I was an A student, my child is a Gifted/Talented A student. He works hard at school and I work hard at my job.

      I am proud to be American even if at times I am not proud of America. I
      do consider my country a great place to live but I also understand
      there are other great places to live as well. I have always considered
      Great Britain to be one of those places.

      I am a woman and I know many American women who are kind, caring people. I do know some that are self centered, but I dare say there are quite a few self centered Brits also (your post tends to make me think you are one of them).

      • Nick

        I agree with you. Most Americans have a positive view of Britain and the British people.

    • Lindsay

      Just keep in mind that you have not met all Americans, even you did not want Brits to be described so sweepingly, what about describing Americans so sweepingly?

      and while even I will agree with you that many are arrogant and self centered, I will not for a minute think that describes us all. Great scot, do I ever wish I could disagree with you about many being arrogant and self centered…

      Certainly there is reason to have pride about where you are from, but that does not for an instant make it acceptable for us to make it feel as if you are nothing if you are not an American. The dynamic is not limited to Americans to Internationals- I have lived in the city for a few years now and am still looked down upon as the country bumpkin despite the fact I could logic them into a corner in addition to out ride them on a horse. The same people that think the only way to be is American often look down on anyone that didn’t grow up exactly as they did and throw in a plethora of assumptions while they are at it- Which would be why I still roll my eyes when people think I know nothing of the world due to my upbringing in a small town. In NYC many look down on you even if you are not from the same borough as they are- don’t take such things too personally, rest assured that if they treat you like that they are misfortunate enough to treat many like that. If you never ran into such people when you lived in your home country I would be surprised.

      Logic pills. We should sell them along side a pint of understanding with a sprinkle of reason. I’ve had a fantastic marketing campaign for such things in my head for years, I just can’t think of the right formula for the product…

      Also, no offense intended and I’m sure this has occurred to you, but the more you think of yourself as stuck the more stuck you will feel.

  • Chris

    Yea. Grandmother is British. Guess she rubbed off on me more than I realized!

  • Lindsay

    …Thank goodness not all Americans are as described here, it would drive me mad…
    People vary wherever you are from, even from one part of the country to another. Being in one community in which all Americans behave as such does not mean that they would act the same another town over or even a few blocks away.

  • NewYorkJulie

    All those things are precisely why I am a hopeless Anglophile! As an American tired of everything revealed everywhere to everyone, I devour PBS and the BBC to see people who are politely reserved and civilized! Of course, I love the Brit sense of humor (with Graham Norton added to the list of classic Brit-coms). We don’t want to change you! If I ever make that dream vacation to Britain, I promise NOT to hug you but I may gush just a bit. Keep on Keeping Calm!

  • renniep

    No one has mentioned discussion of politics. In the UK you can openly discuss politics at a dinner party, disagree vehemently, and still remain friends at the end of the evening. Try this in America! I live in a very conservative area of Florida and the only friends that I have are from the liberal side. Tried making friends with many Republicans but if you don’t see their viewpoint (and watch Fox News) you no longer are their friend. I find this a real shame since, as I said, in the UK you can discuss issues and sometimes you can learn from the other person.

  • Devary Shmaya-Smart

    How to explain Americans to the English: The US is an adolescent country. We are, in an historical sense, teenagers. We’re brash, arrogant, full if ideas and criticisms of everyone, and eager to get out there and make it all the way we think it should be. A few more hundred years and we’ll have the same adult perspective, reserve, and partial submission to reality that Europeans and English think makes them so grown up and sophisticated. But grim and depressed is not better or more urbane, it’s just dull and dejected. Just like a teenager needs life to kick her in the teeth a few times for her to get over herself, the middle aged Auntie needs to lighten up and stop being such a been-there-done-that-and-it-all-sucks frowny face. Life is good. People are basically trying to get their needs met. Give everyone a break, including yourself. And enjoy the gifts providence rains down on you when you can.

    • Alex Barron

      What a beautiful response! True and elegant.

  • DD

    This article was spot-on! -Didn’t realize how British I & my family’s roots were & that we inherited more than just a British surname. Wording of explanations were hilarious!