5 Practical Things Brits Need to Know Before Working in America

Your office supply room may be stocked but with items that go by different names. (Paper Mate)

Your office supplies may go by another name. (Paper Mate)

If you’re a Brit in the U.S. for work reasons, you’ll know that, once again, there are a few things that are slightly different. In other areas of life in the U.S., you can usually assimilate at your own pace and ability; at work, you have to hit the ground running.

1. Dates
Probably the first difference you’ll encounter is with dates, but your understanding is crucial. In the U.K. it’s written date, month, year, whereas in the U.S. it’s month, date, year. June 4th, therefore, is written 6/4/2013 or 6/4/13. (Note that Americans say “June fourth” with no “the” in the middle). When written out more fully, the date becomes June 4, 2013 with a comma after the number.  If you set your word processing software to American English, the date and format will be suggested as soon as you start typing the month. The year (2013) is said either as “Two thousand thirteen” or (less frequently) “twenty thirteen.”

2. Time
You rarely see the 24-hour clock format (“military time”) in the U.S.; appointments are made in the 12-hour format with the “am” or “pm” suffix; 21:00 hours therefore becomes 9 pm.  Spoken times can also differ. Brits often say “half four” instead of 4:30, which may not immediately be understood, depending on where you are. The British pronunciation of “half” doesn’t help here either.

3. Work hours
It’s difficult to generalize about U.S. work hours but one thing you might notice is Americans taking off for lunch at 11.30 am. Obviously not everyone does this and lunchtime may depend on a shift or cover needed in the office. It’s safe to say however, that they eat lunch earlier rather than later.

4. Equipment
A lot of your old office equipment should be tossed or left back in Blighty. Binders (files) are typically 3-ring, as are hole punches. Yes, you can probably find them somewhere, but my search on the Staples and Office Depot web sites produced no 2-ring binders. Similarly, paper sizes are different on this side of the Pond. “Letter” size paper is the most common for daily office use. Measuring 8.5 by 11 inches (and it’s usually inches), it is slightly shorter in length than A4, which means that if you’re using American binders or folders with British paper, the paper will be too long.

5. Nomenclature
Some things merely go by different names. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the old “rubber” trap? An American rubber is a condom; if you want a British rubber ask for an “eraser”, that’s eraser with a “s” not a “z.” “Biro” isn’t used much around these parts, but ask for a pen or a ballpoint pen and you’ll be OK. Marker pens are often referred to as “Sharpies” (after the brand) although Sharpie also makes skinny pens and highlighters.

Here are a few more U.K. to U.S. translations:

Blue tack = sticky putty
Brackets = parentheses
Canteen = cafeteria
Cheque = check
CV = résumé
Drawing pin = push pin/thumb tack
Full stop = period
Hash sign = Pound sign
Leaving ‘do’ = leaving party
Oblique = slash
Sacked = fired
Sellotape = sticky or Scotch tape
Skive (off) = play hooky or shirk work duties
Tick = check
Tipp-Ex = Wite-Out

Oh and schedule is pronounced “skedyool.” If you hear anyone say “86 it,” it means to delete something or otherwise remove it. It is mainly used in the restaurant and bar industry and again, the etymology is much debated.

One thing that’s absent from the American work place is the diary. It’s not that no one makes appointments or otherwise plans ahead, it’s just that it’s all done in a calendar.  Diaries are usually records of a personal nature, so if your response to a question is “Let me look in my diary,” your co-workers might be slightly bewildered by your apparent introspection.

And while many American work places have great on-site cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and vending facilities, there’s no tea trolley!

Are you an expat working in the U.S.?