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.? 

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • dp

    Most US folks will understand “blue tack”, but we also call it sticky tack or stick tack. Brackets here refer to the squared off parentheses [these] most commonly used in mathematics as far as I’ve seen. Resumes normally call for a slightly different format than CVs (and the expected format can vary based on the career field one seeks a job in.) Though it’s becoming rare, the pound sign can be used in place of “lb” as units on a weight measurement. It’s most often part of phone codes though- e.g. “to make an external call, press pound and then the number” or something similar. We say sacked, but it’s a slang term about equally as jarring as “kicked the bucket” for died- not appropriate in some situations. I missed the Spellotape pun in Harry Potter for years because we don’t call it cellotape here.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      And let’s not forget, the “pound sign” in the UK is the one for the currency – £, – and not what they call the “hash” sign.

    • http://jeffontheair.wordpress.com Jeff

      From what I’ve always understood, a resume is shorter and a CV can be longer and more detailed. A resume is generally one page, but a CV can be multiple pages.

      • http://mangabotblog3000.popanime.net/ Brand

        A resume can be multiple pages. But generally we are told no one will ever read more than one page, so only make it one page.

        • Pat Weiser

          They won’t read more than the first 4 lines.

          • Angie Poole

            That’s not always true. I always at least skim through the first page ;).

    • American Whovian

      The pound sign is also referred to as the number sign and, more increasingly, the hashtag (which isn’t that far from the UK term), thanks to Twitter.

    • Kelsey

      oh…i just got that pun from Harry Potter lol

    • Beth Kaliasak

      Being from Illinois to be exact, we typically say ticky tacky for sticky tack, at least where I’m from. IDK what other Midwest states say. “i’m sacked” usually refers to being fired. but “I’m going to hit the sack/hay” refers to going to bed. I’ve never heard “i’m sacked” referring to being tired. When I go to NY, my friends tease me for what we call some things here.

  • Kelly

    When I was in the Marine Corps, my Gunny was talking with me about a project. As we spoke, a Colour Sergeant came in to ask him some questions. He made a mistake on the papers and asked Gunny for a rubber. I don’t know who was more shocked, myself or Gunny. We looked at the Colour Sergeant with totally blank faces and he mimed his hand back and forth across the paper, saying ‘you know a rubber, to rub it out’. Gunny and I both said at the same time, “oh, you mean eraser!” The Colour Sgt blushed, I blushed, but we all laughed. It is one of my fondest ‘laugh about’ memories of nearly 30 years past. That was one of my first experiences of how words just might not mean the same thing with different people.

  • English Rose

    One of my girls came home on her first day of school in floods of tears because she’d asked for a rubber in class and one of the kids asked her why she “talked so stoopid.” Not a good start…

    • Jeanette Ladd Horn

      @English Rose- that was me 25 years ago , I always said everything “wrong”, still do sometimes. School was difficult at first but it will get better.:0)
      Flannel=wash cloth/face cloth

      • Lizzie Jericho

        @Jeanette, not sure where you are, but when I hear flannel I think fuzzy, warm, and plaid as in a shirt or pajamas.

    • http://mangabotblog3000.popanime.net/ Brand

      My one friend came to the states when he was about 6. The school made him take speech classes so he would stop talking with a British Accent. He also said kids made fun of him for saying spade instead of shovel.

      • Dawn Delo

        Also mean. When I moved from the Eastern (U.S.) Seaboard to the Deep South, my third-grade teacher called my mom in to discuss my “speech impediment”. (As soon as Mom opened her mouth, though, she realized NEITHER of us had one!)

        • Fiona Wilson

          And that’s neither = nyther not neether.

          • Beth Kaliasak

            I say “neither” both ways. either are acceptable & understood where I’m from.

      • Brycen Tara

        I moved from NYC to small town Florida when I was 8. I got the speech therapy bit too because it was bad to talk like a dirty northerner. I need to talk like a hick.I really hate this whole competition of we talk correctly you do not that some school speech therapy programs have. We all talk just the way we were supposed to.

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          Wow – that is unbelievable. (Although I believe you.)

          • Benighted

            I’ve been here 17 years and I still get people taking the mickey out of me for “talking funny” and using “made up words” (fortnight and surname both came up recently). I even had one man tell me once “you people should learn to speak English”! I don’t where he thought I was from.

          • Fiona Wilson

            I have found in the South that the inhabitants love to listen to you talk. I have been here 14 years and still get stopped every day for speaking so ‘nice’ or as we might say in UK where the use of adverbs is widely used ‘nicely’.

    • Dawn Delo

      That’s mean. :(

  • kprochas

    Ha ha ha! If I had to suffer learning British terms at a company I worked at in England and being sniggered at for my American expressions then you can suffer the same fate here in the US!

    • Robert Guilfoyle

      Don’t be a berk.

      • silentnonrev

        I can’t see the word “Berk” without remembering John Cleese’s explanation that it’s actually rhyming slang…I never knew that before!

    • kprochas

      Of course I say all this in fun. It was good to learn a different way of identifying things in the office and viewing the way of doing business in a different light. I benefited greatly from the experience. I had a boss in England who was a very kind and helpful man.

    • hello please

      pfft… you said sniggered

  • dw

    Made redundant = laid off.

  • Charles Heyen

    good for Aussies too….

  • Cait

    I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone say “shirk work duties”. Also, twenty thirteen is much more common than two thousand thirteen, at least where I live in the States.

  • http://jeffontheair.wordpress.com Jeff

    I think people say “twenty thirteen” more often than they say “two thousand thirteen”. Especially if they’re speaking casually. Prior to 2010 we generally said “two thousand”.

    • Leah

      I’m going to back Jeff up on this. 2013 is more commonly expressed as Twenty Thirteen in most settings whereas anything prior to 2010, like 2004, is expressed Two Thousand Four – because Twenty-O-Four just sounds awkward.

      • Angie Poole

        I always say two thousand thirteen because I hate the way “twenty thirteen” sounds. I can’t deny I hear it often, though. My way is my preference, not necessarily the most common way.

  • http://sasetbelle.tumblr.com/ dalia

    All sounds pretty Canadian to me.

  • Pat

    There’s no acute accent on the first ‘e’ in resume. I’d also add that parentheses only refers to brackets in the () sense, not the shelf support sense – those are still brackets.

    I might also add redundancy which, in work terms, doesn’t really have an equivalent since most US work is ‘at will’ – employment contracts are uncommon, especially in the private sector. The closest equivalent would probably be ‘laid off’.

    Oh, and Americans take lunch at 11:30 because they usually start work at 8, unlike most British organizations. The typical US workweek is 8-5, with 30-60 minutes for lunch, which may come as a nasty shock to Brits.

    • Pat Weiser

      What else would it be?

      • hello please

        Typically in a UK office job it’s 9-5.30 with an hour for lunch.

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          These days I know very few people in the UK who start their office job at 9.

          • Pat

            I used to work 10-6 before I left the UK. What hours do people work now?

        • Pat Weiser

          Saying Americans get 60 minutes for lunch is pretty ambitious. Usually 20 minutes or eating at your desk is the norm. Only executives can take that hour. My hours are 7:00 – 3:30. No breaks, 30 minutes lunch if I’m lucky.

      • Fiona Wilson

        More like as early as you can get there to as late as you can stay without caving for the need for food. I found Brits tend to work longer unofficial days, but we did get longer holiday periods (2 weeks minimum) whereas I have been told in US never to take longer than a week at a time, which is very inconvenient if you want to go home to Blighty to see relatives

        • Jason Gallegos

          i get two weeks for x-mas

    • Jason Gallegos

      My Skesh-doo-ale is 7-4 with a hour lunch at noon. Others have been 10-10 with a 3 hour lunch, and 2-11 with an hour lunch.

    • dw

      There should be two acute accents (or none at all if you don’t go in for them).

      • Pat

        No, only on the second e, which forms the past participle. The first is pronounced as if it has an accent but does not require one.

    • dw

      “Americans take lunch at 11:30…”

      Depends a lot on where you work. Not all workplaces are the same.

      • Pat

        My wording was just echoing the wording of the original article. Of course lunch times vary according to an individual’s work schedule. As my shifts alternate between 9-1 and 1-5, my lunchtimes alternate between 1:30 and 12 noon.

    • Plunkitt_of_Tammany_Hall

      The French word résumé has an accent on each “e”. If one wishes to use the French spelling, then one should use both of the accent marks. One may also treat the word as if it were English, leave off both accents, and spell it as “resume”. However, spelling the word as “resumé”, with “no acute accent on the first ‘e’” simply indicates a pretentious desire to use French accent marks without any real knowledge or understanding of where they go — and the pairing of affectation with ignorance is not an attractive combination.

      • Pat

        I bow to your pedantry, which is clearly far superior to mine :-)

  • luigie

    The half four instead of 4:30 reminds me that people also used to say half past four . . . also quarter to five for 4:45 and quarter past 4 for 4:15. Learning German was confusing because they would say (translated) half four and mean 3:30! Digital clocks probably means all these terms will no longer be used . . .

  • Cherie DeMichele Manzano

    Schedule here in the USA is pronounced SKED JOOL and not SKED YOOL as the article states. Maybe outside of the northeastern US where I live, it may be a regional thing, but I’ve never encountered it.

    • jcthai

      This is correct. Almost no one says sked yool.

    • hello please

      The article states it’s pronounced “skedyool”, not “sked yool”. The space makes a difference and when pronounced by a Brit, to whom the article is aimed, “skedyool” is spoken the same as “sked jool”.

      • dw

        Not for many Brits. I say “skedyool”, definitely not “skedjool”.

  • Lori

    A “skip” = a “dumpster” in the US. Yes it is a dumpster… You can say it without laughing.

  • Cynthia Donatelli

    A couple more terms that we learned while traveling in the UK. Storm pegs are clothes pins and sleeping policemen are speed bumps.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Have never heard of storm pegs (called ‘em clothes pegs) but love, love sleeping policemen.

      • Debbie Sterbin Sercely

        Sleeping policemen is about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. WHY do we not say that here?? :)

  • Jcthai

    Mostly spot on. You see Americans believe in working. We get to work at 7 or 8 and leave at 5. We have dinner at 6 or 7. We don’t swan off to wine bars on Friday afternoon, we actually stay at work and finish our work. We typically return from work at lunch time when we are done eating our lunch. We don’t then retire to a lounge to spend another 30 minutes over coffee. Yes, Americans work harder and longer here than the Brits. I hate it. The two weeks I spent in London working with JLP were the best two weeks of my life, LOL!

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Yup, that’s where Americans are going wrong. All work and no play….and all that. Plus, you definitely need more annual vacation. ;-)

      • Jane

        I think most Americans wholeheartedly agree that we need much more vacation time but changing the working hours thing is tricky (and unlikely to happen) when your company has offices scattered from coast to coast with 4 time zones to contend with in the 48 continguous states.

        • Jane

          …contiguous…

    • Accipiter

      That’s a laugh! Yes we work ‘harder’ but we don’t work ‘better’. Running yourself ragged with no end in sight (i.e. vacations) results in poor work. You have to have a balance of work and rest, and that ‘swanning off to wine bars’ on a Friday afternoon means you don’t want to jump off your office building when you return on Monday! :) There’s a reason Chinese factories have suicide nets on their buildings – push human beings too far with labor and they break. :(

    • Benighted

      I think it depends on what trade or business you’re in. When I moved to America and found I needed a master’s degree to do the job I had been doing for eight years in England with just an A-Level, I ended up in industrial cleaning because there was pretty much nothing else available for which you didn’t need a professional qualification. I have never seen such a lazy bunch of skivers as American industrial cleaners! Not all of them, of course, but in an eight hour work day some of them probably weren’t on the floor more than two hours. I used to get moved constantly from building to building to clean up the messes that previous cleaners had left behind. I worked for four differnet cleaning companies over the next ten years or so, and it was the same everywhere.

    • Fiona Wilson

      Find exact opposite in the South, but maybe that’s their way. See above.

    • dw

      I work in Silicon Valley. People tend to come into the office between 10 am and noon (if they come in at all), and leave in the evening. Most people have lunch in the office, some at their desks.

  • jmsjbf

    I also need more differences. I read a lot of mystery and thriller novels by Brits and once in a while, I can find an American meaning for a word in my American dictionary. Is there an American/British dictionary?

    • James Barnwell

      Look for the latest edition of British English A to Zed.

      • John Keller

        Zed? He was great in Men in Black.

      • John Keller

        Take off Zedbra baby doesn’t sound right….

    • dw
  • Sandy Belota

    Schedule is not pronounced “skedyool”. It is pronounced “sked-jew-ul”.

    • Fiona Wilson

      But in Britain it would be pronounced ‘ shed-yool, by those not already infiltrated by Americanismization.

      • John Keller

        Is it shool bus or skool bus?

        • silentnonrev

          this discussion is going to skit

      • dw

        It was originally pronounced “sed-yool”.

  • hello please

    I’m from the UK, Southeast. Now in my fifth year living in Houston TX.

    One thing I cannot get used to is:
    “I could care less that…”

    So you *could* care less, but you don’t. In fact, you care more than the minimum amount of caring.

    Personally, I couldn’t care less about all the other differences, but this one really gets my goat.

    • Jane

      Saying “I could care less” has nothing to do with Houston or any part of the US. It’s just poor (lazy) grammar no matter where one lives.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        Some people say that it’s pure sarcasm as in “Like I care?”. I agree though, it’s probably people not thinking about what they’re saying.

  • newburyuk2

    I complimented my new niece on her “pants” when I first met my husband’s family 25 years ago in England. They all laughed and explained it meant underwear. In the past few years I’m now hearing pants used to mean crappy or bad. “Fanny” is another one I learned about the hard way.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Yes, if something is “pants” it’s not very good. Have never quite figured out how that came to be.

  • Brenda Stevens

    A CV and a resume are different things.

  • Jayne

    On the number thing, Americans around me frequently say “one forty five” instead of “one hundred and forty five.” That was confusing as all get out. And I still frequently mix up words and say things like “Sainsburys” instead of “Safeway.” I’m glad my husband knows what I mean! Having been here 18 years I feel like some kind of funny hybrid Anglo-American.

    • Debbie Sterbin Sercely

      A very late welcome to the States, Jayne. :)

    • newburyuk2

      During a flight to the UK several years ago, I was sitting next to a lady talking. I’ve picked up quite of bit of slang after 25 years of influence from my english husband. (none of the accent though) She laughed and said I was bi-lingual.

  • John Keller

    Two People separated by a common language.

    Can’t we fix this?

  • George Armstrong Bluster

    American businesses often use “CV” instead of “resume” these days. Also, if we’re focusing on business here, brief mention should be made of what a “Post-It” note is (the same in the UK?).

    • Alexandra Weitershausen

      I think it’s called a “sticky note” in the UK. We in the US call it a Post-It because that’s the original brand name.

    • Emily Marian Stone

      In Britain we definitely refer to Post-It notes…I’ve never heard anyone call them sticky notes…

  • Random American Dude

    FYI, A CV and resume are actually two separate things in the US. A CV is a document outlining academic studies, papers, positions held, etc. A resume is just your own personal advertisement for yourself. What jobs you’ve held, skills, references, etc.

  • evil_genius_42

    There are quite a lot of places that use the 24-hour format. Hospitals, large industrial companies, military, etc all use 24-hour format for inner-workings, though when conversing with the general public it reverts back to 12-hour (my mother frequently yells at both my father and I when she asks for the time and we tell her it’s 1921).

  • Hunter

    Also, most Americans don’t know what a timetable is. If you mention it, they might think of a 10×10 chart of multiplication equations they memorized in primary school. A timetable is often referred to as a schedule as well.

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  • Kerrie Mackey

    Nipping to the loo also flumoxed the secretary that was training me when I first started work in North Dakota in 1988 – we’d sat most of the morning looking over things that I’d be doing and then I told her I needed to ‘nip to the loo’ … she had that ‘what the heck was that’ look on her face by the time I returned. That and my Welsh accent really helped the situation.

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