A British Houseguest’s Guide to the American Home


In some American towns people still leave their doors unlocked. (TOH)

Brits who first arrive in the U.S. often have a false sense of security. Not only do we all speak the same language (ha!), but the houses are pretty similar too. Well, a word of warning fellow Brits — it all looks very familiar — until you attempt to do anything.

First off, many homes have air conditioning, which comes with its own set of unspoken rules. Resist the urge to throw the doors and windows open at the first hint of heat; American air conditioning (called A/C rather than air-con, btw) will be one step ahead of you and in full throttle. Opening a window is therefore akin to leaving the fridge door open and will be met with variations of “What? Are we trying to cool down the whole neighborhood?”  The question “Do you want the A/C turned down?” actually means, “Do you want this room to be even colder than it is?” since turning A/C down refers to the temp rather than the ferocity. When you wake up in the middle of the night, with chattering teeth and an ice-cream headache, resist the temptation to turn the A/C off. The room will become Hades Revisited in the blink of an eye and the A/C then has to work even harder to cool it back down.

Homes in the States often have screens on doors and windows and I have to say, nothing beats British visitors and screen doors for pure entertainment. The tendency is to forget about them and bounce straight off when trying to enter a house; one poor guest hit my screen door so hard he grazed the end of his nose and bore the scars for a week. Just a note though, as a guest, one surefire way to drive your American hosts crazy is to leave the screen doors open.

And if you want to drive yourself crazy, try switching off a ceiling fan/central light combo when you go to bed. Basically, the fan can be controlled by the regular switch on the wall or by a chain hanging from the fixture itself. The lights above or below the fan are also controlled this way, and often by an additional switch elsewhere in the room — next to the bed, for example. You have more chance of winning the lottery than of both light and fan simultaneously coming on when you first hit the wall switch, and thus begins the dance.


Which chain goes to what? (FIF)

Usually the fan goes on, but not the light, which means you have to walk to the center of the room and pull one of the chains; the chain you pull will turn the fan off, but you won’t notice till you’re back at the wall switch and the blades have begun to slow down. Now you can’t remember which chain you pulled so you go back and pull a few at random. Something activates the light, so now you have a light on but no fan and you’re not quite sure which chain you pulled to turn the light on. (It often helps to have a two-man team at this point — one at the wall and one pulling the chains.)

Incidentally, some homeowners also use their ceiling fans in the winter to push warmer air back down into the room. As this useful website explains, the blades should move in a counter-clockwise direction in summer and clockwise in winter.

Many kitchen sinks contain a handy dandy waste disposal, down which you can throw all your food waste and prevent it stinking up the kitchen. Make sure to check that it actually is a waste disposal before you do this, as some sinks have large plugholes masquerading as disposals. Not everything can be tossed down there mind you, so here’s a useful list of do’s and don’ts. The main thing to remember is to run cold water when disposing of food, and keep it on for 30 to 60 seconds after you’ve finished. Without wishing to state the obvious, never put your hand down there until it’s switched off and the (very sharp) blades have come to a complete stop. Also, if you hear an odd, clanging noise coming from the depths of the disposal, switch it off immediately — they tend not to like forks and other hard objects getting in there.

Oh, and the banging noise coming from the kitchen in the dead of night? Probably the ice-maker in the fridge.

10 Things Brits Say… and What Americans Think We Mean
10 Ways to Use Britishness to Get What You Want in America
How to Explain Britishness to an American
Gosh, Sorry: Over-apologetic Brits in America
Summer in the United States: Not Always a Picnic


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Kate

    Not to mention the confusion on how to turn the shower on! No 2 are ever the same – push, pull, turn??? Then do you pull up, turn or push again to get the water out of the shower head??

    • expatmum

      And the fact that you often have to stick your hand through scalding water to adjust the temp? What’s that all about?

      • kazikian

        Wait, how do you do in Britain? Have you somehow solved this horrible problem? Teach me your secrets.

        • Emily

          My shower had a button which switches it on/off and a twisty thing for temperature. You change the pressure using the shower head. Simple Pimple! :)

    • MoodyFoodie

      The electric showers do take some getting used to!! And they all seem to be different.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joyce.chamberlain.35 Joyce Chamberlain

    Great laugh! BTW. Britain doesn’t have screened doors and windows? How do they keep bugs like mosquitoes and flies out when the window and doors are open?

    • expatmum

      We dont, we just live with them . And use lots of fly spray!!

      • JT

        Fly… spray? Like the stuff you put on your own body to keep bugs away, or is this something different?

        • expatmum

          Like Raid – you spray it in the air or at the flies and they die. I actually have Raid ant and bug spray here in the US. (I keep leaving the back door open LOL).

        • expatmum

          Now laughing my head off at the thought of spraying fly spray on your skin like you do bug spray. The stuff stinks!

      • MoodyFoodie

        We never used stuff like that. A fly swatter was OK. It wasn’t really that big of a deal. I have to say in general our lives in the US are SO much more saturated in chemicals than they were in the UK!

    • Ejbsix

      We don’t. I don’t miss the sound of flies banging against windows to their death :)

    • PJ

      Not just mosquitoes, but bees and birds too. I just don’t get not having screens, particularly if A/C is less common and you have to open the windows in summer.

    • UK lass

      They don’t have nearly so many bugs over there, so just closing the curtain if the light is on is usually sufficient. Having said that, I’ve never seen a Brit struggle to work out a screen door.

      • expatmum

        No, they’re pretty easy to use, it’s just remembering to shut them after you’ve walked through them that some of us aren’t so good at.

    • MoodyFoodie

      So funny people don’t realise that a country located 1000s of miles away from them has a different climate and different wildlife…..

  • http://twitter.com/emmakaufmann emmakaufmann

    Since I am expert at breaking things, mainly electrical appliances but also very talented at blocking toilets, my husband won’t let me put any kind of waste down the garbage disposal which kind of defeats the point of having one but at least that way I won’t break it!!

  • gn

    When I visit my family in the UK, they never have a toilet plunger. Is this absence common in Britain? Yuck.

    • ry

      decent plumbing my friend 😉 LOL

      • Aaron Macke

        I don’t care what kind of plumbing you have… My wife and/or 4 year old /will/ find a way to clog it.

      • MoodyFoodie

        This is true. Without getting too graphic, I have issues here that I never had trouble with in the UK! And our US toilets manage to waste more water!

  • Rin68nyr

    I’ve lived in the US all my life, and turning down the AC, means turning it to low from high.

    • Mike

      I think this is actually a regional thing..

    • in

      On the US West Coast I’ve never heard of anyone that thinks it means anything other than turn the temperature down.

    • David Bornemann

      Same here, in the southeast I’ve always heard turning the AC down as either turning the speed of the fan down (typically in a car) or turning the temperature setting up (making the need for automatic home AC go down).

      • MoodyFoodie

        I’d assume the opposite re. AC. If I wanted it not so cold I’d make it clear. But that’s difficult. Some people really do keep their house like a fridge!

    • Asher Gilles Tesserant Balfour

      I grew up in California and Washington and moved to Florida as an adult. Turning the AC down always meant making it colder – so yeah, it is a regional, and where your parents are from, understanding.

    • JT

      I’m from California, and “turning down” the AC always meant making the air conditioner work less hard. I have no idea where other Americans got the idea that the phrase should mean the exact opposite of what it actually says. It defies reason and sanity.

      • Olivia

        That’s what it always meant to my family here in Oregon. Turning down the a/c (or heat) was done if it got too cold (or too hot) and it kicked off the unit (or furnace).

  • ape

    On ceiling fans, the chain that comes out higher up (closer to the ceiling) usually works the fan, and the lower one works the light.

    • swattz101

      I think the point is, good luck seeing which chain comes out higher in the dark of a room you are not familiar with. Even if the pull chains are a different length, if it is not your house, you won’t know which is which.

      You really want fun, some ceiling fans even have wireless remote controls. Now days, you can probably even get an app for your mobile device.

      For what it’s worth, any ceiling fan I have ever owned had only one wall switch by the door that controlled power to the whole device. You then control the fan speed (usually 3 speeds) with one pull cord and the light with the other. As mentioned, good luck remembering which is which in the dark when you are half asleep. :-)

      • tomsans

        it’s the one closer to the center, but a lot of models, including mine, only have one chain with an end piece for the light, and a bare chain for the fan, so you just fine the one with the plastic know at the end.

        • BigRedEO

          I have really nifty chains on the ceiling fan that came with my new place – at the end of each chain is a medallion that looks like a light bulb for the light and one that looks like a fan for the fan!

          • Pablo

            That’s pure genius.

  • in

    As an American reading this I’m baffled… This is all such elementary stuff here that I can’t imagine why these sort of things would even have to be explained. Perhaps you could follow up with an article for Americans visiting Britain? How are things over there used such that an article like this would even be necessary?

    • tomsans

      Want to move to the U.K. with me and open up a widow screen business? We could revolutionize the whole country.

      • MoodyFoodie

        Well they don’t really need them. In the UK, we used to leave the windows open and occasionally a fly would get in, sometimes “mosquitoes” – which didn’t bite?! but it was no big deal. and you may not know the windows are all different types, not just the up-down sliding sash windows we have here. Some of them open out. And plus you have window-washers. Screens would be in their way!

    • expatmum

      Elementary to Americans, yes.

      • Justin Summers

        Pretty sure that was the point of in’s comment, and subsequent request for an article on things that seem elementary to the English that would baffle us yankees.

    • Nappyvalleygirl

      Most UK homes don’t have fans or air conditioning, or waste disposal units…

      • William Barker

        Exactly! No jacuzzi tubs, let alone hot tubs! Nor in-ground pools… nor even above-ground pools. Nor the amount of property for that matter. I mean, the UK certainly isn’t the Third World… but post-WW2 and particularly post-80’s “middle class” suburban lifestyle is far beyond what you’re going to find “across the Pond” comparing job title/function to job title/function.

        • MoodyFoodie

          That’s deceptive. Our quality here in the US of (modern) houses and consumer goods is so shabby and energy-inefficient compared to the UK. You’re not getting apples to apples. People do have hot tubs. And you can talk about “lifestyle” but you realise you probably don’t have half the vacation or 1/4 of the maternity leave. And then there’s your medical costs even when you have insurance…!

          • William Barker

            Hmm… I lived in Kensington. Again… no “bragging.” Just telling you my experience. Row Houses in the London suburbs? Sure… it’s no longer all “Queens, NY,” but neither are we talking the suburbs of America… nor even the suburbs of Canada. No one every said “no one” in the UK has a hot tub… or pool… but be honest… there’s simply no comparison in “scale” of what might be called “luxury housing” in terms of MIDDLE CLASS vs. MIDDLE CLASS. As for your vacation days… sure… you get more. No one’s arguing. As for medical care… insured middle class Americans get the kind of care foreign big-wigs fly in for. If you’re really SICK… and you want the BEST chance of having your illness cured… America is the place. As long as you’re not actually sick… facing death… the NHS is fine.

    • Shinrai

      You realize the fact that these things seem elementary to us is the whole point of the article, right?

    • Brainlock

      yeah, I seem to notice on TV that a lot of British doors have knobs in the middle(!?) of the door, and it’s apparently common to have a slide lock on/near the top? Sucks to be short, huh?

      also, I’m used to having the doorknob built with an embedded lock, not two separate parts, aside from a deadbolt.

      • MoodyFoodie

        Some of those doors with knobs in different places are old and still being used because they still work fine!

    • MoodyFoodie

      They do often do an equivalent article of British things, expressions, etc. that Americans might not know.

  • J

    “Turn the AC down” has some US regional variations. In some places, it means “make it colder,” in others “make it less cold,” and in others “turn the fan speed itself down” (usually in the context of window units or car AC).

    The ceiling fan control bit varies as well. Most places I’ve lived have a single switch on the wall and the pull-chains control the lighting intensity/fan speed. I did live in a rather fancy place for a year where the fan and AC were all remote-controlled; that was pretty nice until batteries died.

  • David Bornemann

    Next article: “How to log on to dial up internet, driving a car with automatic transmission, closing curtains, and using a refrigerator ice dispenser.”

    Having spent some time in London myself, I can’t imagine that any of these are problems for the average Brit visiting America.

  • Chompachangas

    The ceiling fan, yes. The chains are usually trial and error. I use this as a rule of thumb: Long is for the Lights. That usually works.

    • Brainlock

      I find the more central cord is lights, and the fan cord comes off of the side, as seen in the picture. of course, this varies by model.

  • Virginia Postrel

    Newer ceiling fans have remote controls.

    • MoodyFoodie

      I’m sorry, I’m American myself and I just shake my head sometimes at what’s become “necessary” to us. Having grown up having to get up & change the channel.

  • Alisha

    This reminded me of when we had some Brits stay in our home a few years ago. We were leaving the house when one of the women walked straight into our glass storm door! She hit it so hard I thought it would shatter — left a huge nose & forehead print. She was terribly embarrassed, so we tried *really* hard not to laugh. Didn’t work though.

    • MoodyFoodie

      That happens to Americans too. I know someone who had a really nasty accident.

  • PJ

    Also, you’ll have to find the special room where the clothes are washed. Hint: It’s not in the kitchen.

    • JB1

      That’s not always true. My mother’s was, indeed, in the kitchen as was mine in one house in which I lived.

    • MoodyFoodie

      Depends on your house!!

  • http://www.legalinspiration.com Marc Whipple

    That hideous noise coming from the direction of the refrigerator during the *day* is the ice-dispenser. Americans do not drink anything except some kinds of wine at room temperature. It will either be iced or hot. period. (Although please note that most of us who drink beer or wine do not actually put ice *in* it. We may be barbarians but we are not *savages.*) We like crushed ice, and the ordinary hideous noise of the ice-cube dispenser is often dialed up to become the What-in-God’s-Name-Is-That noise of the ice-cube dispenser in “dispense crushed-ice mode.”

    • Shinrai

      American here – ice is a tool of the devil, I drink room temperature water.

    • CP

      I think that is a regional thing also, I grew up in AZ and can’t stand drinking cold water, or soft drinks. What’s the purpose, it will be warm in a few minutes anyways. Milk is the only thing that should be cold.

    • Brainlock

      Ice only goes in tea or water, unless some savage leaves their offered soda out at room temperature. I keep mine in the fridge.

    • Brittany

      I’m from the US, and I don’t use ice.

    • MoodyFoodie

      Followed by random “clunks” as ice chunks go flying out of the ice dispenser into the freezer. We barely use ours.

  • bittercling

    I live in AZ and we prefer to open doors and windows, when the temperature allows it.

    Fans are easy. The pull chain in the center is always the light. The one on the side and higher up is the fan. The switch usually has four settings: off, low, med, & high.

    • Shinrai

      This probably works great for you, but is waaaay less than ideal in a more humid climate. It’s an extreme example, but leaving your windows open in Southern Florida is the best possible way to get mold growing

      on every surface in your home.

      • MoodyFoodie

        Agree, that really depends on the climate of your region! It’s still a little misleading to say “all Americans do this or that” when it comes to windows vs. AC.

    • Danny Sauer

      The most recent ceiling fan I bought redirected both chains through the light fixture, bringing some much-lacking symmetry to the design.

      Of course, when I installed it, I removed the switches from the fan altogether and wired them exclusively to the wall switch, bringing some much-needed sanity to the design. 😉

      BTW, several companies make single-gang swiches that control a fan and light separately – usually with speed/dimming at the wall switch; Leviton (among others) even makes one that just uses two wires (so no rewiring in the walls is needed). We’re talking $45 for a switch, but getting 8 digital speeds for the fan and fade-in/fade-out dimming on the lights is pretty darned neat.

  • Warcopwife

    My father is quite tall, and when visiting the UK, he would routinely come home bearing bruises and abrasions from his encounters with low doorways. Mostly when he visited older homes. I’m sure he is to polite to say it, but I know he would find a screen door incident to be proper retribution for his many head injuries! :-)

    • Brainlock

      There are some areas in the US where lower doorways are standard. Cape Girardeau, MO for example, was a French built town, and many people of average height have to duck under/into their doors, which are barely 6ft if you’re lucky.
      (silently LOLs at 7ft friend!)

    • Polly

      When my American friend visited my low ceilling (5ft in places) beamed 16th Century cottage, I gave him a hard hat, which worked a treat (when he remembered to wear it).

  • Shannon

    I’ve seen many fellow Americans, some family members, walk into screen doors as well. So don’t feel so bad, and remember we are laughing with you. Plus the fan/light switches and pull cords drive us crazy too.

  • Warren Karben

    Mostly to answer for my friend here in the States who asked about cold water/disposal bit. The cold water keeps the motor in the disposal from burning up.

    • LJ

      Heh, we can really start confusing people by discussing how a broom handle can unjam a disposal unit :)

  • Jessica

    And to further confuse the ceiling fan situation, if you are really lucky (or unlucky depending on your POV) you may get a remote control as well! Hours of fun! Enjoy!

  • LJ

    There are some states that do not use A/C. The western part of Washington State, parts of southern California, Alaska, etc. It’s rare for people to use A/C. Instead, we’ll open windows and allow the screens to keep bugs out (screens being the metal mesh things and not glass).

    Some of us also use electric blankets. I don’t see that listed above. Do they use those in the UK?

    Oh, and my old ceiling fan had a dimmer control/switch. Dimmer for the lights and switch for the fan.

    • MoodyFoodie

      Electric blankets, not so much in the UK I’d say. OTOH they’re common in NZ where they don’t tend to have central heating or air so much. We use AC as little as possible and have our windows open more than many of our neighbours, but in summer you can’t help it!

  • Brainlock

    ceiling fans – I recently saw a set of weights/knobs for the pull chains that were a lightbulb/mini-fan combo to tell them apart. I remember a friend had a bird for fan, and thimble-esque(?) hanger for light. What I did to mine was yellow highlighter for the light, black marker for fan.

    My sister’s plumbing, however, I’m still trying to figure out. Her bath is a lever, and straight down/6:00 is off, while slightly less than quarter (to 3:00) turn is perfect for me, but it does go all the way to upright/12:00! her kitchen sink is similar, but you twist the lever back to turn on, down for cold, up for hot. at the same time. At least dad’s “crystal ball” sink handles had a red and blue arrow to lend a clue.

  • JDuck

    The a/c is a regional thing. I always refer to turning the thermostat up or down! Never have had a garbage disposal.

  • http://www.britishessentials.com/ Ryan Palmer

    I think the unfamiliarity leading to embarrassment can be attributed to one thing really. Here in the UK we never get enough sunshine or heat to warrant the use of a Fan or let alone think about buying an AC unit. The flies are too cold themselves to even worry about bothering us, and ice in the drink? Please. Fetch us the kettle!

  • Jorjana Lindsay

    You know… most of our ceiling fans have a tiny mark on the pull of the chain to let you know which is which. If you can’t find it or if it is an older fan, you can always put a mark on it yourself. Just saying.

  • JAdams

    Actually, IIRC, the screen doors are a carryover from the days before air conditioning. Older homes used to have something called a breezeway. It was a corridor or stairwell with a door to the outside, and it allowed air to circulate through the house. The door could be left open during hot weather, but the screens kept the bugs out. Depending on the region, you might see storm doors, which help to protect the main door from damage due to high winds, rather like window shutters.

    • MoodyFoodie

      This is true. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ronald.touchet.92 Ronald Touchet

    Well that’s because we just do things so perfectly here in America ;).

  • Amanda

    A tip regarding the light/ceiling fan combination: The shorter chain usually controls the light. In fact, sometimes there won’t be a chain for the light at all.

  • hoppytoad79

    I’m Western NYS, born and bred, and turning down the a/c, to me, means turning down the speed or temperature. To cool down the room, you’d turn it up.

    • Julie Bestry

      Williamsville (Buffalo) born and raised. I’m with you.

  • MoodyFoodie

    You should point out that the screen doors and window screens in the US are your friend, unless you like being eaten alive by voracious mosquitoes! And something you didn’t mention, ironically although there may be people in America who still leave their front door unlocked, our bedroom doors have locks & in the UK not so much!

  • applechan53

    I’ve had a ceiling fan my whole life, and even though I know how to use it, I never seem to stop getting infuriated by the thing! I think the trick is just to remember what setting the fan was on before you turned off the wall switch, and adjust accordingly… and maybe you should add something to each chain, like a tag or string, so you know which chain controls which feature.

  • Kyle

    I HATE those combo ones with a passion!

    One thing that would be nice I have not seen ANYWHERE on the internet is a guide to British homes for Americans and Canadians.

    Me and my family have orgins both in Scotland and England to make a very long but fascinating story short so I guess I have that British instinct as I do everything that is described by the British above including the temptation of throwing opening the windows at the first sign of warm weather.

    We live in Western Oregon and for a while we didn’t need AC until the year 2006 because of a string of long hot and sometimes unusually summers just before hand and it took me a few summers before I got truly in the habit of making sure the windows were not open.

    We mostly use the AC in the early evenings and night time unless it’s in the 90s or a forecast of.

    This year we got a good workout as we had many days with the dew points above 60F and highs in the upper 80s at the same time! Yuck!

    Inside it has been getting hotter in the nighttime hours recently.