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Those of us who were born and raised in the U.K. have our own special, but not necessarily sensible, way of doing things.
1. When someone knocks into us
If someone bumps into an American, the victim will most likely take issue with his accidental aggressor and expect an apology. If, however, the wounded party happens to be British, their inappropriate “sorry” reflex will kick in, probably before the perpetrator can muster their own apology. The scenario is deeply confusing for anyone who isn’t British.
2. When we order food
As far as Brits are concerned, menus are set in stone. On home turf, we would never ask for changes or substitutions to our plate of restaurant food. We’d rather pick the walnuts out of a salad when it arrives than suggest that people we’re paying to make and deliver us a meal do it for us. Americans, meanwhile, think nothing of asking a waitress to “hold the bread” when they order a sandwich.
3. When we don’t finish our food
Having spent half the meal plucking out the unwanted parts, we wouldn’t think to capitalize on our dining experience by taking the leftovers home. The food is somehow “tainted” once we’ve poked at it with a knife and fork or, worst still, our mouths. In America, wrapping it up to take home (people don’t even pretend it’s for the dog anymore) is standard practice.
4. When someone opens up to us
I suspect a Brit came up with the phrase “uncomfortable silence” so they’d have something to call the dead time between being subjected to someone’s deeply personal revelation and thinking up a way to change the subject. Spill your guts to an American, however, and they’ll handle it like a professional, dabbing at your tears and spewing cushiony sentiment.
5. When a stranger sits next to us
Ever noticed how Brits will only take a seat next to someone as a last resort? Many of us would rather stand on crutches for a 45-minute bus ride than chafe flanks with a fellow citizen. So when someone breaks with this unwritten rule and puts their bottom next to your bottom, it makes you furious. What if they expect us to have a conversation? The only Brits who have comfortably abandoned this revulsion are the over 65s. People raised in the U.S., however, seem comfortable having individuals they’ve never met enter their personal space and talk to them.
6. When we get dressed for dinner
Don’t get me wrong. Brits don’t all change into evening dress for our supper like Lord and Lady Grantham. But we do tend to make an effort when we go out for dinner somewhere nice. Americans, I’ve noticed, aren’t averse to wearing the jumper they bought in Disney Land circa 1993 to a fancy eatery. They’ve probably got the right idea. It is borderline preposterous to don your nicest clothes only to ruin them half an hour later with a misdirected mouthful of bisque.
7. When we get ourselves a hot drink at the office
If you’ve worked in both a British and an American office, you may have noticed the following: Brits will always offer to make a “round” of teas and coffees for their nearest workmates (or risk becoming a pariah), while Americans tend to fetch their own. U.S. workers will, however, take their colleagues’ orders if they’re going out to buy coffee. It’s a subtle but not insignificant difference.
8. When we get into a taxi
Brits traveling by cab will give the driver an address then assume that’s it for interaction until it’s time to pay. Even if it looks like we’re being taken from one bit of London to another via Glasgow, we’re unlikely to interject. In America, however, imparting a destination would merely be phase one of the passenger/driver interaction. Most Americans will think nothing of telling their temporary chauffeur what route to take. Full-on rows can break out if the cabbie and customer don’t see eye to eye on this.
Do you have any additions to the list?
See more posts by 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.