This is not America: an essay about British and American cultures and attitudes

Whilst the genius that was David Bowie was referencing America in a different context in his iconic song, I can’t get this lyric out of my head. It’s a blend of his Britishness, his love of NYC, and his many references to America in his songs that have caught my imagination and perhaps inspired this essay. (You might need a cuppa for this one – it’s long, and slightly contentious!!)

Yep, this is UK that I am living in again and this is definitely not America.

 

And, during my time back in the UK I’ve noticed and listened to many British comments that make direct reference to the fact that they’re very happy that this country is not America. Whilst I’ve always acknowledged many of America’s failings that I experienced or was aware of, and alluded to some of its more odd, amusing or problematic characteristics through my blog Desperate English Housewife in Washington during my three years there, I am still stunned when I hear Brits let rip at the USA and Americans.

Over the past five months I’ve heard many Brits comment with real negativity about the country and its people. Yes, there is a slightly racist brush which we Brits feel it’s okay to sweep across America.

Oh, I get how the brashness and the commercialism and the bright lights and the fear of those middle States taking over the politics might be a cause for concern, or how ripe certain topics are for scrutiny and that these naturally and legitimately can bear the brunt of our very British wit and sarcasm, but there is also often a real condescending, superior tone from many Brits which I’ve witnessed, especially when I say I used to live in the USA.

You know, that tone. The one that’s saved for looking down on someone who you think has got it wrong, someone who isn’t very classy, someone who doesn’t live up to your standards, someone who you think is dumb, or inferior. You know, that bullying tone.

And whilst it is very clear that, when America sticks its head above the parapet and does make great big dickhead mistakes, or is unjustly arrogant, or there are issues that we feel need to be resolved faster and with more balls – the gun issue, gay rights, race issues, or abortion (for instance) – the country does lend itself to general piss taking or mocking, or is a cause for concern in our modern society.

But, otherwise, what I hear is just bullying.

Yes, yes, I know the USA has positioned itself as a super power and is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and should take it all on the chin, but behind that facade, there are deep-rooted issues and vulnerability. But we Brits like to bring people down. It’s part of us, we say – that’s how we roll. Or is just tiresome and slightly xenophobic? Think about the most successful person on TV, or in your life, that you know – as a Brit, don’t you just love to bring them down? We don’t big them up, we don’t often say ‘you’re amazing, carry on being amazing!’. No, we don’t do that – or, at least, not enough. I bet many a Brit would be loathe to admit that they secretly don’t want that successful person to succeed. We naturally support the underdog – that’s the way we’re inclined. And America is not, nor would it want to be, the underdog.

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Are we slightly jealous that once upon a time there was us, the British Empire, and then, well, there wasn’t….? Maybe that’s just history. But our relationship with America is complicated. We’re kind of cool to have you on our side and all that, but we laugh at your commercialism, and your CocaCola, and your obesity problem (Britain – we have one too, you know!), and your guns, and your ‘uneducated’ states in the middle that we don’t really know the names of but mock anyway. Yes, the sweeping stereotypes we like to place on America.

We Brits, with our heritage and culture and etiquette and constant nod to the age of ‘better days gone by’, do we see America as that ‘new money’ place? Is that how this one goes? Silly, immature America that got the money and built the big house, but which will never quite shape up to the expectation of our esteemed order, because it doesn’t ‘have history’ (I beg to differ), and it doesn’t, quite simply, have class (again, I beg to differ).

Don’t get me wrong, I love Britain and am very proud to be British. I love British culture, theatre, our sense of humour, popular music, art, London, the general cultural vibe – that’s my favourite thing about Britain. And I love America. I love its different cultures in one country, its embracing of arts, its genuine desire to better itself, its sense of politics, its new-worldness.  And I love the two countries’ differences and their similarities, and I recognise both of their flaws. What I don’t love sometimes – and it really does grate – is the attitude that some Brits have to the USA and Americans, because it does reveal an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance.

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There is a perception that all Americans are ill-informed about anything outside their own country, and pretty ignorant of where other countries are, and any facts about them. Of course this is going to be true in some areas – I liked to share facts about Europe and the UK in general with these peeps who didn’t have a vast knowledge. But, in truth, my knowledge about the USA was pretty minimal when I went there. I mean, it was mostly based on West Side Story, Fame!, The Wire, Dallas and Deperate Housewives, for goodness sake.

America is a big old country, and it still makes me smile when I hear the NATIONAL travel news on Radio 2 in the morning here in the UK, whilst in the States my Baltimore radio station would only do the traffic report for a certain length of the I95 (which goes from NYC to Florida) based in their immediate area. That’s just how it works. It’s a big place!

The American people that I met and hung out with on the East Coast were warm, friendly, very very smart, progressive, classy, educated, open-minded and intuitive. They created a fantastically spiritual, welcoming, intelligent environment for me to live in and I thrived on that.

Some of the comments that I’ve heard recently left my jaw hanging slightly. Yes, the crass open-gobness of a Brit who’s obviously been injected with some American non-culture. That’s me!

Many of the comments I’ve heard have been based upon media perceptions and ignorance, and possibly a mix of fear and snobbery.

‘Oh I don’t think I could cope with living in America.’

‘Have you ever been there?’

‘No, but I wouldn’t want to.’

‘Why’s that? I had a great time.’

‘I think it would be….too “American” for me….’ 

Who said ‘people fear what they don’t understand’?

They were right.

Some Brits actually appear quite horrified that I enjoyed living in America so much. In fact, they seem slightly disappointed and mortified that a fellow Brit feels this way, and no doubt come to the conclusion that I must have been taken there without consent and consequently brainwashed by some American cult. 😉

One fundamental difference about being there in the States and being back in the UK is realising just how much Americans love us Brits. They do. They flippin’ love us (most of them, anyway!). My American friends were always wanting to know more about Britain. Americans I met found us intriguing, they were always asking questions about us and about our culture (and not just Downton Abbey and One Direction and the Royal family!). The Americans I got to know welcomed me, brought me into their community, they were warm and friendly, and they made me feel I belonged. And, honestly, they made me feel special. Do we do this to Americans, British people – do we? Do we see or hear an American in our community and make them feel special? If not, we should.

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David Bowie was right: this is not America. Right on. And you also know what, America is not Britain. And that’s why I was so very glad to live in America for a while.  But now I really am glad to be back – and in part due to the fact that the positivity I enjoyed over there in the States is actually happening right here, right now, in my little bit of the world in Cheltenham, The Cotswolds. You see, much of the work ethic and philosophy that I’m experiencing in the business community in Gloucestershire, of which I am now part, is based on many very American sentiments. It’s all about making the change happen, living and fulfilling your dream, overcoming the hurdles, bigging up people and supporting their success, not drowning  yourself and others in criticism, and networking and embracing new people and new ideas.

So, I’m glad to be back in the UK at what is a very positive, driven time – and it appears there has been an injection of American culture that’s making its mark in the UK, and, whether folks like it or not, I get the impression it is here to stay for a while!

Finally – don’t we tell ourselves, like we tell our kids, to accept everyone; that one way is not right and the other way is not wrong, but that they are just different…….? I like the sentiment about taking a moment to appreciate each other and our differences. We should do it more.

Peace out my many friends 🙂

Comments very welcome!

 

 

 

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25 thoughts on “This is not America: an essay about British and American cultures and attitudes

  1. I am glad that you had such a positive experience here in USA Claire, unfortunately not all of us have, as you so rightly point out, USA is a huge country and not all parts of it are as welcoming as others 🙂 I am here for the second time, the first time I spent two years in California and had a very similar experience to you. When I came back 18 years ago, it was tot he midwest and it was a different story entirely. it was not at all welcoming or friendly.

    That said, I have encountered the attitude back in Britain that you are experiencing, but not from many people, I found most people were interested to hear what it was/is really like to live here, and would like to try it too.

    For the most part, I have found that both countries, (and this true of just about every country I have visited) have the same types of people, from the friendly to the rude, from the interested and interesting to the boorish, from the gentle people to the angry, the stupid and the smart.

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  2. Great article although I don’t recognize some of what you say. When I moved to the US the first thing I realized was how HUGE it is, and how it’s impossible to make broad brush statements about “Americans”, just as about Brits. Your experience of life of on the East coast is so different from mine on the West coast, where passive aggression rules and the famous “Seattle Freeze” means everyone is super polite but you’ll never receive an invitation to dinner. I LOVE that in the UK we’ll strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere; at the bus stop, in the doctor’s surgery, the local supermarket – that simply doesn’t happen here. I’ve been going to the same small store almost every day, for three years and never got past the “paper or plastic (bag)?” conversation at the check out counter – it’s like they’ve never seen me before. So “warm and friendly” is something I recognize from the UK, but definitely not my experience of the US. However, I LOVE the culture of entrepreneurship in America that means even the daftest of ideas can be developed into a business, and I’ve definitely benefited from that. I often wonder if I’d be able to take a little bit of that spirit back home with me, or whether the British cynicism would beat it out of me again! So I guess, as you say, it’s all about recognizing that we are all indeed different, and that we can only speak about our own experiences. It’s interesting following your journey home, look forward to more.

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    • Isn’t it so interesting our different experiences? I know what you mean about entrepreneurship – love that! It’s developing here! My brief encounter with the West Coast was a Scooby Doo van and it was nuts, so I can’t reference it with authority! How large a country it is… x

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  3. Hello, I would like to make a correction to your article you state that the I 95 ends in New York, when it actaully goes for another 20 hour or so
    drive north to a place in northern Maine called Fort Kent

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  4. I think that is just the UK culture, to be snide to anyone who is getting too big for their boots. I think it is also based on the class system where everyone must constantly show where they are in the system by making fun of others. I would say the UK arttitude to life is just more realistic although it can border on the negative. On the other hand sometimes I think there is a sort of tyranny of optimism here….people think you are nuts if you point out problems.

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    • Hit the nail on the head with our realism – convo I had today. And we don’t want to get to the stage where everyone is a winner – for instance, not everyone gets Valentine cards or a date, no matter how much you’ve tried (or how long you’ve been married!!) 😉

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  5. I totally agree – I’ve heard a lot of those UK comments when I’ve been talking about my experiences living in America, and my parents still haven’t been able to bring themselves to visit… In DC I’ve certainly found Americans to be warm and friendly, and surprisingly tolerant of British opinions about their country. I was speaking to someone last night about the fact that the UK Parliament was debating banning Donald Trump, and he was very gracious about it – though a little surprised!
    Maybe the ‘special relationship’ between our two countries needs some work. I’ve been thinking for a while that when we get back to the UK I must make plans to seek out American ex pats and make them feel welcome.
    Thanks for your thought-provoking posts. As someone planning repatriation, I find your blog essential reading!

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    • Thanks Angharad. Wow, you parents still haven’t visited….gosh!
      I miss American history and culture a great deal. When I hit 50 I’m getting another camper van and totally pretending I’m 25 and going to travel to all the bits I haven’t been and all the bits I loved!

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  6. Thank you so much for this Claire; really interesting. As an American who loves Britain as well as my own country I’m always interested in British perceptions of us and vice versa. Sometimes when I hear Brits put Americans down I don’t know if they mean it affectionately or if they actually just think we’re inferior. (Doesn’t make me stop loving your country in any case though:)) The comment about taking down anyone ‘getting too big for their boots’ was interesting to me. Do you think America’s status as a former British colony has anything to do, even in some subconscious way, with some of the anti-American attitudes you describe? Like, if Mexico for example was the ‘superpower’, would people still feel the need to take them down a peg or would they not care as much as there was not the same historical relationship of ‘getting too big for your britches”, etc.? Just a thought that came to me based on some other commentaries I’ve read on the same subject.

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    • Just so interesting isn’t it? Yes, we have a tendency to bring peeps down a peg or two – that’s our nature I think. I wonder what happens when we champion the underdog and then they succeed? Do we then bring them down because they’re now successful….?

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      • This is interesting too because I think Americans also tend to root for the underdog (we started out as one after all), but I don’t think it translates to wanting to bring down those that become successful….We like to make fun of authority figures but (unless someone has done something truly reprehensible) I don’t think we usually like to see someone fail. I think what’s more important to us is that someone earned their success (through hard work, fair play, etc., rather than simply being handed success without effort)–we are happy for them that their hard work paid off and maybe it inspires us to work harder and pursue our dreams too…I guess there can be different ways of supporting the underdog…

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  7. Isn’t it funny how different people can experience such vastly different reactions. When I tell people that I voluntarily returned to the UK with an American(Dual citizen) wife in tow after two years living in Massachusetts, they look at me like I have suddenly grown a second head, and the face that belongs to that head has told them that they are adopted.
    I suspect(maybe wrongly), having read some of your posts, that the people who express such things as outlined above are further along the social strata than the folk who express disbelief at my revelations. I find my working class associates much more excited and intrigued by the US, and interested to hear firsthand accounts – warts and all.

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  8. Thanks, Claire. I actually stumbled across your site while researching weather in England. As a an American born and raised in Westchester County, just north of New York City (part of the NY Metro area), it’s nice to hear your kind comments about the U.S.A. You’re right. Most Americans today really like the Brits and it is pretty tough to constantly hear the negatives spoken in other countries; even when one goes to the country of Canada (at least that was my experience in eastern Canada). What surprised me about a visit there was how quickly and openly the USA was criticized right in front of me. No one I know would ever be so rude in front of a visitor to the US from another country. What also strikes me (even in your comments after your 3 years living here) is how misunderstood Americans are by natives of other countries. I think it’s because non-natives forget our complicated history and the fact that we did not evolve as most nations did but came into being as a totally new idea that we invented, relatively quickly. When I see the racism brush being used, it makes me realize that most non-Americans also don’t remember that we are one of the only (if not the only) countries to fight a civil war to free slaves in which thousands of people died in order to accomplish that. Our current president was also elected with many hands of every color putting ballots into the boxes on election day. No matter what some of us think of our current president, we are proud of that. And, please, non-Americans, don’t say unkind things about the middle states of our country. That’s our moral compass that keeps the “coasts” in line. We are a nation founded on the Protestant ethic (right from the Pilgrims!) and no matter where you come from (my ancestors all came from Italy 120 years ago and were Catholic) you absorb that Protestant ethic of hard work and self-determination. That’s why most of us still hate big government and don’t trust it to do anything else but protect civil rights and fight our wars if and when it’s needed. It’s also what makes us cringe at government handouts. We are a country of 300 million people. So far, countries with that many people who gave the government control of everything ended up in pretty bad shape (Do I hear Stalin and Mao?) So, lots of us want no part of that. Of course, the first things those governments did was to take the guns away from the population but I’ll spare you further yacking on that. Remember, too that we are a country settled by immigrants from different countries, often to specific regions of the US (for instance, lots of Germans and Scandinavians originally settled the midwest) These migrations created some of the differences you feel in the people as you go from region to region. I had a co-worker who was raised in Madison, Wisconsin who misread my metro New York tendency toward emotion and hyperbole and the tendency to vocalize a lot of my work related frustrations. She actually thought my complaining was done to bring about action when it was only the local tendency to “kvetch”. It was a tendency with which she had no previous experience, having been raised in the upper midwest. She always played her emotions much closer to the vest, at least at work. As Americans, we don’t expect people to like us, because we are going to be self-determined, sometimes over-the top Americans no matter what. It’s who we are. We are not Americans because of our government. We are Americans because there’s a little piece of the original idea from 200 plus years ago in each of us and no one is going to take that away. Just let ’em try! What would be nice is that others try to understand us before they sling the insults; especially in what’s a very difficult time for our country when some people who have grabbed the microphone (right here at home) are speaking untruths about who we really are 😀 Sigh…But, we’ll still love the Brits, no matter what you say about us…And “good job” we do, ’cause we love listening to your funny public school accents 😛

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  9. Hi There! I have only just found your blogs as I and my family (Hubbie and 3 boys) are soon to be moving from Sheffield U.K. to Connecticut USA. We have also lived for 6 years in Tasmania before returning to the UK three years ago. I wonder how you’re doing with your re-settlement? It gets easier – it doesn’t get easier to listen to Brits bagging out other countries and cultures that they haven’t experienced but you miss the places you’ve lived in less often. I am still driven to tears on occasion by sudden heartache brought on by hearing “Down Under” 😆 .
    Anyway – if there’s any advice you can give me it would be welcome. Here’s hoping you settle back well and continue to thrive and prosper – you are incredibly inspiring! Many Thanks – Sara Dodds

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