10 British Habits Americans Will Never Understand

(Half Moon)

When in doubt, make a cuppa. (Half Moon)

Admit it: we’re a nation of oddballs whose conventions and mannerisms defy logic. Read on for a rundown of our most bewildering traits.

1. Apologizing unnecessarily
How often do you — a Brit living in the U.S. — auto-deliver a completely unnecessary, “Sorry?” I’m a 10-a-day gal. Sometimes, the American on the receiving end, instead of simply ignoring me or looking confused, will ask: “Why are you apologizing?” I’ve never given a satisfactory answer. (See Toni Hargis’ post for an in-depth look at this phenomenon.)

2. Drinking too much
In America, all-day boozing sessions are for alcoholics, tramps and the seriously miserable. A happy Brit, meanwhile, is one whose weekend pub-crawl starts at 6pm on a Friday and ends Sunday evening.

3. Forgetting to eat
Often because we’ve indulged in point number two, Brits are terrible at remembering to feed themselves at regular intervals. Food-focused types like myself will always check that a night out is scheduled to include a meal stop; it’s never just assumed. Americans, meanwhile, make brunch, lunch or dinner dates. All other activities, like drinking, are supplementary.

4. Enjoying the misfortune of others
Nothing brightens a Brit’s day like discovering someone we didn’t particularly like lost their job or misspelled a status update. I get a smugness buzz every time I clock an acquaintance’s incorrect apostrophe usage. Americans, meanwhile, seem to spend less time thinking about other people, in a good way.

5. Doing ourselves down
As previously mentioned, Brits revel in the downfall of others. But we don’t want to come off as mean so we also make a point of knocking our own achievements. This makes us miserable. On the plus side, there’s the option of an “I never boasted about my Nobel prize on Facebook” gravestone inscription. (Note: a posthumous brag is borderline acceptable.)

6. Thinking tea will fix everything
A brew is our go-to panacea. Whether you’ve chipped a nail, broken up with your boyfriend or narrowly avoided being murdered, the first person on-scene will offer you a cuppa. This way, they get to keep busy, feel useful and put off coming up with soothing, wise words.

7. Our reluctance to fix our teeth
Having aesthetically displeasing teeth is every Brit’s right. Turn up at an American dentist’s with a gob full of wonky enamel, and they’ll probably assume you’re British, or grew up in a vile cult that outlawed orthodontics.

8. Poor communication skills
Since living here, I’ve noticed that Americans are much better at looking you in the face and saying what they mean. Brits are abysmal at eye contact, telling you how they feel and what they’d like to happen. We overuse phrases like, “I think maybe…” and “Perhaps we could just… ”

9. Driving a stick-shift on the wrong side of the road
I’m convinced that some Americans believe that driving on the left is an eccentric choice made by individuals, not a rule laid down by British law. And while U.K. drivers think performing maneuvers in manual cars is the height of masculinity, tell someone here you prefer a stick and it’s like admitting you do laundry in the river.

10. Our desire to laugh at ourselves
Might I leap temporarily out of character and deploy a small boast on behalf of my nation? (Yes, yes, I realize this basically invalidates about four previous points.) Brits are masters of the self-deprecating gag, and this is confusing to countries like America with aggressively high self-esteem. Whole sitcoms — most recently Twenty Twelve – have pivoted on the point that we’re reliably incompetent.

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

    You mean a brew doesn’t fix everything?

    • georgina Phelps

      It does, the writer was lying. Don’t believe it for a second.

    • Jen

      Caffeine in general fixes everything!

    • David Grierson

      There are no problems in life that cannot be solved with enough high explosive.

  • MKAT

    Perhaps I was born British and adopted by Americans?

    • Lisa Baggerly

      me too!!
      especially about the cuppa and the apogizing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/acummings79 Anita Cummings

      I was thinking the exact same thing…thanks, genes!

    • Leah

      Same here! Especially with the apologizing, communication and laughing at myself. X)

  • Joyce Elizabeth

    I am an American from the State of Rhode Island. (Most people have never heard of us….it’s the smallest state). My grama came from Preston in England and YES a cuppa does work in a crisis……. I do love reading MIND THE GAP becsuse many things written in it remind me of grama.

  • Becca B

    Hmm. In our house, tea and cookies makes every thing better. Perhaps it’s my English/Welsh/Scottish/Irish heritage.
    The only one I don’t get is number 7.

    • Mark Brassington

      Probably because you have to be super rich to even be able to look at a Dentist in the UK. Going to the dentist in the UK is the equivalent of being mugged for all of your valuables. I know many people that just cannot afford to go to the dentist.

      • Leslie

        I heard dental treatment (including orthondics) is covered under National Health from two Brits. But, anything considered cosmetic is not covered.

        • Mark Brassington

          Good luck finding an NHS dentist!

          • Sreedevi

            Exactly, it’s 16.50 a visit, but you can never find a dentist, because they only need to accept a certain number of patients by at a certain date- or or something like that.

        • http://www.facebook.com/timboy.bach Tim Boy Bach

          That is correct Leslie!

      • justin

        never a truer word said. they would probably take your house too.

  • Mark Brassington

    I love it when I watch American TV and they get all funny about “day time drinkers” – cracks me up.

  • Jeff K.

    On the cuppa – one of my favorite scenes in the book, _The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy_ is Dent inadvertently tying up the entire computing power of the space-ship in order to produce a serviceable cup of tea. Adams seems to me to have been the quintissential Brit.

  • therealscruffy

    I think re: 2, for a lot of Americans it’s seen as irresponsible to drink to excess during the day, at least on weekdays, and here’s why. The United States is a huge country, and quite a large segment of the population lives outside of metropolitan areas, which means if you’re going somewhere chances are you’re driving. The implication here is obviously that if one is drinking to excess during the day, then one is almost certainly driving under the influence. This is, for obvious reasons, bad. Some would say wildly irresponsible.

    As to the others on the list … I don’t know. Do people really get that bent out of shape when they encounter people with different habits?

    • expatmum

      Interesting. I am constantly amazed at the number of American friends who get behind the wheel having had a few (although not excessive amounts). In the UK, probably because of the massive crackdown that began in the 80’s, most people if they’re driving, won’t even have one alcoholic drink.

      • richardo

        You should try New Orleans.. they get mad at you there if you won’t drive them home drunk and insist on a taxi.

        Mind you pretty much everyone stays for more than 30 days either becomes a functional alcoholic, leaves town altogether or dies. It is like being in the UK in the 70s (life on Mars style)

  • Selina Lynn Maeder

    I do believe I might also be adopted by some strange American family. I do love them dearly though.

  • colonel_loki

    I apologize unnecessarily, however if you’e never met anyone over here that thinks that driving a manual is the height of masculinity, you’ve been living under a rock. The majority of my friends are of that opinion, and love to drive manual, myself included.,

    • Max_Freedom

      I’m the same way. I prefer driving a manual. A man without the skill is just silly. Women think you’re manly. A woman that can drive a manual is awesome.
      The apologizing makes people uncomfortable if it’s done for no reason.

      • Alyson

        I’m awesome! Sweet. I’ve also done it on the left side of the road. Fun since I’m left-handed

        • Max_Freedom

          Yep! I’m a lefty too.
          Driving on the left side of the road must have been tricky. Extra awesome points!

    • http://www.facebook.com/kathy.mcintosh.16 Kathy McIntosh

      I drive a manual, my husband does, my children will. As an American, I think it is foolish to not be prepared. Plus, I believe a regular car with a stick shift is less likely to get stolen simply because the majority of Americans don’t know how to drive one, and they are also not as desirable by the general population.

      • http://www.facebook.com/kathy.mcintosh.16 Kathy McIntosh

        “regular car” meaning not one for which one must pay an amount equal to buying a nice house in a nice neighborhood in a nice area of the city or countryside. Your fancy fast cars from Europe, generally….anything featured on “Top Gear” which is not a part of some sort of challenge entailing A-Team style modifications.

  • C*

    I get therealscruffy’s idea that going out drinking means you will have to drive far. USA is a big country with little ways for people to get around out in the sticks. Therefore, save the drinking for when everyone is home afterwork or on the weekend so you have a DD.
    As for cars with the steering wheel on the left, to me that makes more sense. A majority of people are right handed right…that’s a fact. So it makes sense that if you need to shift you do it with your dominant hand. Whether that has anything to do with why we drive on the RIGHT side of the road, I have no idea. It’s all perspective I guess!

    • lexatoz

      It’s my understanding that right-hand drive/driving on the left, goes back to jousting days. Most people being right handed, wanted to use their lances in their right hands. This necessitated passing on the left….ergo, driving on the left..and today, the right hand and arm are still free or resting on the door. The other explanation given was that even though Henry Ford invented the automobile with the left side drive, British Leyland didn’t want to have to compete with American cars first and eventually other European manufacturers, the company had enough pull to make a right hand drive and Britain has made short left turns and wide right turns, since then.

      • Northern lass

        Actually, using the left side of the road dates from Roman times. You’re right, it’s related to having the right arm free to draw one’s sword in case of an encounter with oncoming enemies. So the left side, in our case, is the right side. Unless you’re left handed in which case you’d have been a goner…..

        I love the nod to British Leyland – down the road from where I live. They’re not that influential though……
        By the way, they also drive on the left in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries I believe.

        An interesting post on our mannerisms but I need to add that this Brit cannot abide the taste of tea and I ( and most of the people I know) have nice white STRAIGHT teeth too!!!!

        • ReggieA

          Close, but not quite. The brake rigging and handle need to be on the outside of a wagon or cart, to clear the cargo. So the handle will be on the left or right side, worked by the left or right arm. Most folks have stronger right arms, so the handle (and driver) were normally on the right.
          Since the driver needs to mind the ditch or curb, he will stay close to the ditch on his side. Meeting another wagon, the two will naturally pass to each others’ right. Antique American cars have the controls on the right, curb side as well. (So do boats, locomotives, aircraft, etc.)
          When cars became common and roads wider, drivers needed to mind oncoming traffic more, so Americans took to left-side (traffic-side) controls, and kept to the right side of the road. (Some delivery vehicles still can be had with right-hand drive.) Brits took to going to the left of oncoming traffic, keeping their left-hand drive controls.

      • Milkeebar

        Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile.
        A German called Karl Benz did.

  • Spencer

    I understand about half of these, which would explain why I’m an Anglophile.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lena.c.duncan Lena Clark Duncan

    That is fantastic! There must be something wrong with me as an American!

  • Lisa

    My parents from Hastings,East Sussex. LOVE THE UK AND U.S.

  • Max_Freedom

    9 is wrong. It’s less common here, but is a respected skill.
    I prefer it. My current car is a six-speed, and I love it.
    A man without the skill is just silly. Women think you’re manly. A woman that can drive a manual is awesome.

    The apologizing makes people uncomfortable if it’s done for no reason.

  • Rachel Polner

    As much as I enjoyed American habits the British will never understand, I don’t really agree with these as much. First of all how you cannot have “Queuing” on your list is beyond me. Also I don’t think all Brits drink constantly and don’t care about food. Now I’m off to have a cup of tea and make everything better.

    • Mark

      My routine for drinking

      Mon – beer after work
      Tue – Above

      Wed – Local around eight until last orders at twelve
      Thurs – Student night in town Student girls Student prices ( not a student )
      Fri – Town pub craw
      Sat – Different city ( Newcastle, York, Manchester, Liverpool)
      Sun – hanging like a bitch all day

      Typical life of a twenty something single bloke, with the same group of mates that do this.

  • sub specie aeterni

    I find that Brits are always astounded at the amount of self-help/therapy Americans seek out. Well, when your whole life you’re told to stop apologizing, that self-deprecation and minimizing our own accomplishments is a weakness, and driving a stick is stupid when we could experience the luxury of an automatic transmission, it’s hard to look oneself in the eye every morning and just put the kettle on and get on with it.

  • Katie

    For that drinking too much thing, you obviously need to come to Wisconsin sometime. We don’t think it’s a bad thing

  • Meaghan Walsh Gerard

    I’m an American but these all make PERFECT sense to me. I need to move…

  • http://twitter.com/JamieTrex James Trexler

    Maybe it’s just Western Pennsylvania, but we do almost all the same things. At least, I know I do. Then again, I come from a college town where the pub crawls begin on Thursday. Sometimes Wednesday. Actually, we’ve gone out on Tuesdays. Come to think of it, Mondays aren’t that…okay, point is, the pub crawl lasts all bloody week.

  • Madison

    I literally embody all of these, except for number 9. But especially 1-6 and 10. The conversation that happens the most in my life is:

    “I’m sorry.”
    “Stop saying sorry.”

  • miracatta1

    When I was in England, I wondered why on earth I was asked if I wanted “egg mayonnaise” with all kinds of food! That included spaghetti.
    One restaurant had a cat. I loved that.

  • Bill46260

    can understand a number of these. Had I been almost murdered, run down by a bus or stubbed my toe I would feel much better if someone offered me a nice cup of tea.
    I also like the idea of an entire country of people who can laugh at themselves and (I think this is the phrase) take the piss out of themselves and each other openly.

  • Manfred

    8. When my father, who is British, was installed as a new department head at a major American publication, he needed to give some corrective guidance after several months of substandard performance. After the meeting, one of the Americans noted “That wasn’t so bad” to which one of the English employees said, in so many words, “We just got royally reamed out”. Apparently, absent screaming and four letter words, some people just don’t get it.

  • Rod

    One British tendency I just don’t understand: the British compulsion to talk about themselves. There seems to be nothing as quintessentially British as the need to assess the inherent Britishness of anything British.

  • Caro C

    I admit to 1 & 6!

  • LobsterGator

    To represent all of the manual-drive Americans across the proverbial pond: I drive stick, taught my daughter to drive stick, and won’t even consider an automatic transmission, even in my golden years. I’ll be pumping the clutch when I’m 80 and beyond.

  • LobsterGator

    BTW, #6: American women of my mother’s generation believe the panacea for any occasion is well-applied lipstick. “Johnny’s in the hospital? Let me put on my lipstick and then we’ll go.” Wearing a housecoat, slippers and curlers with a policeman at the door? “Where’s my lipstick?”

  • Anon E. Moose

    I have no problem driving a stick-shift car. I actually prefer it. It’s just that the market has spoken, and aside from some overpriced, undersized, and highly over-compensational roadster, its nearly impossible to buy a car with a stick shift here in the US. If I did find reason to drive a right-drive manual, I expect it would be a bit of struggling to shift with the opposite hand.

    I was looking forward to driving a manual on a trip to Germany, my hopes dashed when the rental counter was out of the estate car I reserved, and helpfully ‘upgraded’ me to an Opel minivan with a autoshift transmission (couldn’t take a smaller car — family in tow).

  • Shelly Leit

    These puzzle me somewhat because most British people I’ve met are aggressively self-congratulating know-it-alls.

    • ricardo

      haha.. that’s why we got kicked out! 😉

  • formerroadie

    Missing from this list: Americans don’t understand how Brits can actually like and want National Health Care. I get it. Some complain, but they wouldn’t want to do it our way (which, frankly, is stupid).

    • formerroadie

      Meaning our way of doing health care is stupid…. not the “not wanting it”…. I need to proofread more and no, Brits, don’t come on and correct me 😉

  • Matthew Wright

    I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was doing all those things! I’ll just change gear and go and make a cup of tea, err, if you don’t mind…in a minute…where did I put the teapot?

  • Matthew Wright

    You forgot an important one, though possibly not top 10, Marmite. Spread thinly. No matter what warnings you give our darling colonial cousins, anything on bread must go on an inch thick. Good for dares at ‘mixed’ parties though, the expression of shock has to be seen to be believed.

  • TheWanderer22

    I agree with most of these except the teeth one; as us Brits are lucky enough to get free orthodontic treatment as teenagers, it seems like we are far more likely to have nice, straight teeth. My husband, who is American, has lovably crooked teeth thanks to the steep prices of any form of American healthcare. It’s just those Hollywood types who walk around with gleaming pearly whites.

  • Frances

    I even end up saying sorry to myself :/

  • Kassie

    I see nothing strange about those. Tea does fix everything, apologising constantly is the polite thing to do and drinking is…well, it’s fun! :)
    Those Americans don’t know what they’re missing out on.

  • John

    Regarding point two, many of my friends (myself included) Half started drinking as early as 12 A.M. and gone on until the early hours of the next morning. Most notably for the wales Vs England six nations game.

    Granted, a few people had to go home before the match even started but most of us paced ourselves.

  • Shane

    I love how they assume all Americans are like this. It’s pathetic.

  • Kahana

    I was laughing, cause just about all of those things describe my way of thinking…except for the driving a stick shift…Noooo, I couldn’t do that for the life of me.

  • thatcharlie

    Well, I agree with about two of the things you’ve posted on here. I like tea and I like to have a drink certainly, but I don’t plan my weekend thinking I’ll get as insanely drunk as possible so I can walk around the streets vomiting over myself and lurching for the first kebab van I find. I certainly don’t revel in other people’s downfall although I do admit that perhaps I try to see the funny side of a mishap. I do care about my teeth and always have done. I always look at people square in the face when I’m talking to them. I was always told its rude not to look at someone when you’re talking to them. Perhaps you’re just not quite as classy as you think you are and maybe, it’s just you giving the Americans a bad impression of the British. I’m British and I don’t understand you either!

  • Mike

    brita r cool. They are very much like us. some differsnces the same u would find moving to other places of the U.S. But still they are our European partners. We share the same language and have very similar values. We want to basically live the same.want the same things out of life values etc. Except Royalty lolol

  • Mike

    corrections Brits differences ok