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Cultural adjustments (Q&A, part 3)

There was still one question from Jeri – who graciously saved me from an embarrassment of having an “ask me a question” day without hearing a single question – that I neglected to address thus far.

What were the hardest cultural adjustments for you and your family when you moved to the UK?

The quick answer for this is I don’t think that British and Americans are drastically different culturally. Nor were we entirely new to some of the European features of living when we came over. There was hardly anything that can be pinpointed as a big cultural adjustment.

There were plenty of things that I would call everyday trifles that were – and still are – inconvenient to bear with. I explored quite a few of them in the past, starting with the things we take for granted in the US. They bother us occasionally – or provide reasons for ridicule. We learned to accept them and pay them little mind.

Here are a few examples.

Natasha is still shocked that in many houses, B&B’s and even some hotels, the cold and hot taps sit on the sink independently, without a mixer. That suggests a washing procedure that does not involve running water – a practice I thought obsolete for decades in industrially-advanced societies. We thankfully have a proper mixer in the main bathroom, so we did not really have to adjust our washing routines.

Reliance on written communication is mostly amusing, but occasionally is hard to stomach. I forget to enclose a check with my tenancy renewal, and the agent – who knows me in person, by the way, – thinks it more appropriate to send me a full-page letter pointing out my mistake, as opposed to giving me a quick phone call. That’s amusing. Calling customer service to resolve a problem and finding yourself being advised that they cannot open a case over the phone – it needs to be initiated via post – is irritating.

The most obvious thing – driving on the left – becomes natural very quickly. Walking is another matter. “First look left, then look right” is so ingrained in me as a SOP for crossing the road that I occasionally forget that the cars are moving on the opposite sides here. I’ve been teaching my kids not to put a foot on the driving surface until they looked in both directions first. (The funny thing is that pedestrian crossings that are broken into two phases by having an island in the middle are marked with signs on the edge of the pavement. If I am crossing the half of the road with cars approaching from my left, the sign in front of me says “Look Left”; for people waiting to cross towards me, the same half of the road will be marked with “Look Right”. If you are like me, you might absent-mindedly glance over the upside-down letters facing those other people, register that they command you to look in a different direction, and then realize that you are totally confused and unsure of what you are supposed to be doing.)

Letting Becky use public transport on her own was seemingly the biggest cultural turn-around for us. I’m sure in big cities in America children do travel short distances on public transport on their own on the way to and from school. But if the school is five miles away from your place of residence, then there is a very good chance that a yellow school bus will pick up and later discharge your offspring on the nearest corner. With no such concept in place in the UK, we drove Becky every day for about a year and a half. But we daily saw large numbers of schoolchildren, in their uniforms, boarding public buses and trains by themselves. And at some point, we decided that 13 years is an old enough age to be able to do that. I can’t imagine us thinking that in the States.

But then, the public transport is itself one of the things that I find the most impressive about UK. Other European countries may have it even better, but London, with all the scorn regularly heaped on its transportation problem, is still served tremendously well by numerous modes of public transportation. We live about as far from my offices in Canary Wharf as Park Slope in Brooklyn is from the Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. I suppose there might be multiple ways to make that trip in New York – I don’t know. I have several different alternatives – all taking about the same time – that pick and choose between various modes of transport: Commuter train, bus, subway, DLR. It makes you think of public transport as a viable alternative to getting places.

On a personal level, Europeans are well-known to be considerably more reserved than Americans. And, more often than not, are rather attuned to the notion of politeness. A brash American with a louder-than-average manner of speaking can find it hard to avoid being thought of as a crude. That was, in fact, a considerable adjustment for me in workplace – learning to speak softly and less assertively than I normally do. When I’m back in an American environment, I may struggle simply to make sure that people register the fact that I’m speaking.

No! Not really 🙂


  1. Jeri

    Very interesting post. I had the hardest time learning to drive over there, and never did get the hang of doing it in congested downtown traffic. (not that East Anglia’s traffic is ever ALL that congested, by definition)

    When I was there, in 1990-92, our UK bank wasn’t computerized. It still used paper ledgers. Our American bank on base, of course, had been for some time. That’s remniscent of your requirement to do business by mail rather than phone or email.

    I had a hard time with the smaller fridge, washing machine and dryer but adjusted. Also the open grey water system – it seemed to make my house a little buggier.

    Also, we couldn’t seem to buy fresh (albeit pasteurized) milk in local stores – it was either shelf stable, or we had to sign up for dairy delivery service. I don’t know if that’s still the case. The farmers’ markets – less prevalent here in the US – were excellent though!

    I developed a taste for strong black tea with milk and bitter orange marmalade over there. What will you miss? (hey – another question!)

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