6 British Customs That Will Puzzle Americans

No, Americans will never understand Morris dancing. (Photo: Rex Features via AP Images)

No, Americans will never understand Morris dancing. (Photo: Rex Features via AP Images)

We’re a wonderfully eclectic people who will defend our regional weirdness and national idiosyncrasies to the death. But don’t expect your American friends to appreciate Britain’s funny little “ways.”

Celebrating the defeat of ye olde terrorists with displays of explosives
On November 5, we commemorate the foiling of the 1605 plot by English Catholic Restorationists and their top dog Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament. And what better way to mark the traitors’ downfall than by burning “Guys” on bonfires, watching fireworks and munching toffee apples and candy floss prepared by carnival folk. The more miscreant members of the British society like to express their excitement by purchasing boxes of substandard but still extremely dangerous home fireworks and launching them at cars, cats and pedestrians.

Morris dancing
This hilariously twee English folk dance is a tradition made only slightly more masculine by the wearing of three-quarter length trousers with bells on them and waving handkerchiefs. Someone observing Morris dancing for the first time would be forgiven for thinking they’d stumbled across a desperately polite cult of middle-aged gentlemen seeking to hypnotize onlookers with jollity and sticks.

A U.S. citizen might have won one of the races at this year’s “Cheese Rolling and Wake” but most people in the States still haven’t heard of the ancient annual competition. Tell an American that some Brits like to spend the late May bank holiday pursuing a nine-pound double Gloucester cheese down a steep hill in the Cotswolds and they’ll probably think you’re making it up. They’ll also ask: “What’s a bank holiday?”

Wolf-whistling builders
Fat, tattooed and topless (weather permitting) British workmen missed the memo that deemed sexism unacceptable in the workplace. Consequently, they make the executives on Mad Men look like raging feminists. One of the best things about moving to the U.S. as a lady person was an end to the leering, jeering and wolf whistling when I’d amble past a building site. Incidentally, adopting an unsmiling, hands in pockets stance does you no favors either, merely eliciting cries of “Cheer up love, it might never happen.”

Extreme sunbathing
We’re so vitamin D deprived in the U.K. that the merest smattering of sunlight combined with an above freezing temperature reading has us reaching for towels and splaying ourselves on a the ground. I’ve seen this happen at roundabouts, motorway service stations and on the embankments of the M25. There is nowhere Brits won’t bed down and bask. People lucky enough to live in the U.S., where summer all but guarantees fine conditions, are more discerning.

Having toast for breakfast
Only in Britain is lightly charred bread considered a meal. Everywhere else, including the U.S., it’s an accompaniment. But toast dressed with a stingy smear of something you found in a cupboard is all the average adult Brit will have to eat pre-lunch. Some won’t even have that. What’s more, they’ll boast about it like it’s an achievement. (“I’ve only had a piece of toast all day!”)

See more:
‘Real Americans’: Five Widely Held Stereotypes Debunked
10 British Habits Americans Will Never Understand
10 British Insults Americans Won’t Understand

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.
  • gn

    Americans celebrate the defeat of “ye olde British” every year on the fourth of July with explosives and bonfires. The shocking thing about Guy Fawkes Night is not the pyrotechnics but the burning in effigy and especially the anti-Catholicism (the latter is toned down these days in most, but not all, celebrations).

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    When I wrote my first book, I talked about Morris Dancers, and an American (who had lived in London for all of five years) basically told me I’d made it all up ’cause he’d never seen them. It was a few years before the Morris Dancers movie (A Life with Bells On) came out but I hope he was a little shamefaced when he heard about it…

  • Jane

    So what exactly is a bank holiday?

    • KD

      A public holiday when the banks are closed. We don’t have enough of them.

      • Angie Poole

        The banks are closed because the Federal Reserve Board is closed. The US has banking holidays and postal holidays that often but don’t always coincide.

  • Olivia

    I’m from Chicago and you are right…I have never heard of any of these! We would never eat toast alone or eat beans on toast – but we tried it and my kids liked it. :) Everyone I know either has only coffee for breakfast or cereal. Cereal is a big thing here.

    • RaeRae

      I think the only time I only ate toast for breakfast was during a stomach bug lol

      Cereal is big there too. A Brit friend of mine says that’s become the popular breakfast over there, for the most part. At least with the younger generations.

  • Winfrey

    I have heard of Morris Dancing but I admit it always sounded like either something Monty Python would have dreamed up or a joke the locals were playing on tourists.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      What, like cow-tipping?

      • Kendra Nigh

        I -almost- sprayed my keyboard with nose-milk because of you! I suppose that teaches me not to drink anything while reading on this site. 😀

    • MontanaRed

      Now, see, I would have put the cheese rolling in that category!

  • lin

    Morris dancing is held in West Virginia, USA :) Familiar with it!

  • Bennett Seacrist

    I think Americans understand rather well the shooting off of explosives in celebration. We do it every fourth of July in celebration of our breaking free from the shackles of British oppression. :)

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      And we Brits call it our own special Thanksgiving. The day we got rid of that pesky colony. (Kidding, kidding.)

      • MontanaRed

        Well, it was. Pesky.

        • arklatexan

          Yeah, we were (she said with a huge grin).

      • Irené Colthurst

        All thirteen, thank you! 😉

    • RaeRae

      yeah and now we’ve stuck ourselves into our own oppression lol

    • Anglo-Irish

      There was no oppression by Britain. If so, then Americans/America has been just as, if not more, oppressed than under British rule.

  • Denise

    I eat toast alone, sometimes it’s even dinner…

  • Avery

    “Celebrating defeat with explosives”? I won’t use the word terrorists but yeah, have you heard of “INDEPENDENCE DAY” that happens every July 4th in the United States? Cities all over the US celebrating our independence from British rule with EXPLOSIONS?? Hmmm, “wolf-whistling builders”? Sorry but that happens all over the US, Britain does not have a monopoly on that. And toast for breakfast? I have that frequently only I have sourdough toast with coffee for breakfast. Cheese rolling? I will say its weird but we have heard of it so not a real big deal. Have you heard of the sun tan mom here? http://www.tmz.com/2013/06/30/tanning-mom-patricia-krentcil-tanning-bed-florida/ I think she qualifies as “extreme suntanning”. She just does it in a suntan bed instead of roundabouts! Morris dancing? Sounds weird but not too bad, just sort of a “shaking my head at the weirdness” type but nothing more.

  • Amanda Huggins

    We have “wolf -whistlers”. We call them “cat-calls”. Agree with the 4th of July everyone is letting you know about. Have heard about everything else… I believe cheese rolling originated in England, but is found in various other countries today. I don’t think many of these are very puzzling to Americans. We have crazy dancing too.

  • Callie Yaeger

    I learned of Cheese rolling and Morris dancing from reading Terry Pratchett’s books. :-)

    Wolf-whistles are cat-calls over here.

    Any other British customs and culture I know about is due to BBCAmerica, Harry Potter and Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. I love Monty Python, but I’m assuming some of that is gross exaggeration and satire of the British culture.

    • MontanaRed

      I feel a bit nitpickish here, but at least where I’ve lived in the U.S., “wolf whistles” are the two-note whistles that men direct towards attractive women. “Cat calls” are a high-pitched one-note whistle usually equivalent to “Booooooo!” from an audience.

      • Callie Yaeger

        Well, I can only go on what I’ve heard those kinds of gestures being called since I was younger. Perhaps the people around me had it wrong. Maybe it’s geographical thing.

        You might to correct Amanda, above my comment, as well. She seems to think cat-calls are the same thing as wolf-whistles, too.

        • MontanaRed

          Yeah, I saw her comment after I posted a reply to your comment. We could all be right… It’s a matter of usage. I’m going on what I’ve heard and read living in the south, the midwest, and the Rocky Mtn west.

          • MontanaRed

            This is what I get for not fact-checking BEFORE posting — I’m replying to my own post. Hmph. The definition of “cat call” does indeed include both the wolf-whistle and the boooo meaning. Phew!

  • K J Van Houten

    As everyone says, 4th of July fireworks… :-) I’m from Texas — grew up using the term bank holiday, did not know that was a Britisj thing at all. And wolf whistles, while not as common as the term cat calls, not unknown. Morris dancing had been a favorite part of Ren Faires for decades. And toast with jam or honey has been a common breakfast for as long as I can remember — just pair it with milk, juice, or coffee. So cheese rolling was the only thing on your list that isn’t already common in some part of the US that I can tell.

    • K J Van Houten

      Well I forgot to mention the extreme sunbathing — yeah Americans don’t typically just do that any old place, unless you are on a college campus maybe, lol.

  • Sandra

    The sunbathing one sounds like Oregon to me.

  • Brittany

    I eat toast for breakfast sometimes. I even eat it for dinner sometimes.

  • Cynthia Parkhill

    We have Morris Dancers here too. I’ve seen ’em.

    • MontanaRed

      Yes, we certainly do. And the Morris groups usually include women here. I friend of mine was a Morris dancer for years and took part in tours of the UK, coordinated with local Morris groups there.

      I do get a big kick out of seeing Morris dancers in ANY British TV episode that has a local fete involved. I look for them now, seeking to prove my theory that it is one of those unwritten rules of British television programmes.

      An unwritten rule of American television is that any episode set in London (or anywhere in Britain, for that matter) must have a stock shot of Westminster’s Big Ben tower. Ditto Paris/France and the Eiffel Tower.

  • Debbie Zamarelli

    I love toast. I eat it every day on it’s own!

  • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

    Thanks for explaining Guy Fawkes. I had an idea of what it was about, but really wasn’t sure. We have bank holidays too (Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day), when the banks and all government offices are closed, but most people work.

  • Lynn Michael Rappolt

    my mom use to do the toast for breakfast all the time. and we are american

  • Jordan D. Leising

    Isn’t Morris dancing featured in “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang” (The song “the Ole’ Bamboo”)?

  • CarolEme

    I’ve actually heard of ALL of these – I live in New England of course. We have Morris Dancers performing every Summer in western Massachusetts so also not strange to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cameron.hufault Cameron Hufault

    I guess it depends what part of America you are talking about, because being from Massachusetts which consists largely of English and Irish decent we share some of the old traditions. Where as people from say kentucky or outside of new england will be confused

  • Cate Amos

    I saw a lovely documentary titled “Way of the Morris” by Tim Plester at South by Southwest a few years ago. It was my introduction to that form of dancing and I really enjoyed it.

  • arklatexan

    1. Fireworks for the 4th of July
    2. Line dancing
    3. Log rolling
    4. Sorry, but construction workers have been whistling at women forever.
    5. Have you never seen George Hamilton? Snooki? Every old person in Florida?
    6. Okay, that one’s kinda weird.

  • Spr.

    Guy Fawkes > Independence Day.
    If you get really enthusiastic on Guy Fawkes, you can dress up all Phantom of the Opera and prance around with fireworks. For Independence Day, you’d probably just look like a loon doing that.

  • Anngillian Cruz

    Toast is a meal!

  • Bill

    OK, I get the stick dancing…maybe. But why are these guys doing it in Blackface? http://youtu.be/ctYuGYwTqZg

    • elfpix

      read the comments on the link

  • John Joseph O’Brien

    I went to visit my cousins in Manchester in 1990. For breakfast we had, “gulp”, beans on toast.

  • Boxman

    You must have missed the memo about Morris Dancing in America. Not only do we understand it, many of us have been actively promoting, nay, living it, for decades, here in the colonies. http://morrisdancing.wikia.com/wiki/Morris_teams_in_United_States

  • elfpix

    Hmm. Morris dancers. I’d estimate there are at least 600 people in the US who now do or have done (when younger) morris dancing, and another couple hundred who regularly dance all the different sword dances of the British Isles. And the bells are not attached to the trousers, either!

  • smendler

    Morris dancing “hilariously twee”?? Not at all! I saw my first troupe in Harvard Yard as a freshman, and was immediately smitten. Don’t mess around with athletic men waving sticks – the bells are a WARNING to WATCH OUT.

  • Irené Colthurst

    I am happy that the author of this article happens to have never been on the receiving end of a cat call in the U.S. But it does happen, trust me.

  • Lindsey

    American here, and I have toast and tea for breakfast all the time. Occasionally toast comes in the form of other bread-things like a bagel or english muffin. It’s not an accompaniment, it is the meal.
    Also, construction workers here are just as pervy. It would be a rare sight to walk past a construction zone with workers sitting outside on their break and them to not stare/leer/whistle/etc.

  • Adara

    Ha.. Brits are such light weights.. “I’ve only had a piece of toast all day” good for you mate.. Toast is more breakfast than I have eaten in years, and that’s true for many Americans.. “I’ve only had a triple espresso all day” is a more likely statement here(and we are definitely bragging..).