The British playwright George Bernard Shaw once famously observed that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” It’s true that American English, with its differences in vocabulary and accents, has diverged quite a bit from British English. And yet, language is far from the only element that separates the two countries.
One could even argue that there are more differences than similarities between the cultures of the UK and the US. From general attitude and outlook to daily habits and customs, here are five essential cultural differences between the UK and the US.
- Brits tend to show more reserve
- The British sense of humor tends to be darker
- Brits are less openly patriotic than Americans
- Pub culture is a real thing in Great Britain
- Driving habits are different in the US vs. UK
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1. Brits tend to show more reserve
Ah, the famous British stiff upper lip! And yet, there is some truth beyond the stereotype. British people are generally less direct, less loud and less apt to wear their hearts on their sleeves than US Americans. So, you may need more time to break the ice in Great Britain. This sense of reserve also reveals itself in a number of quintessentially British attitudes and polite phrases. Hugging is much less common than in the US, and you’ll often hear British people say “Sorry!” even for the smallest peccadillo.
For a similar reason, Brits tend to be less over-the-top when giving compliments. You’re much less likely to hear a British person say that something is “awesome.” In fact, such praise may sound exaggerated (and even potentially fake) in the UK.
2. The British sense of humor tends to be darker
On the whole, the British sense of humor can be characterized as drier, more sarcastic and definitely more ironic than its American counterpart. While Americans tend to nurture a more optimistic outlook on life, British people tend towards self-deprecation. They typically won’t hesitate to mock others and laugh at themselves in turn, highlighting the absurdities in our world along the way. It may sound nasty if you’re not used to it, but it’s simply part of the daily banter.
While Americans like a winner, British people have a thing for losers. Indeed, from John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers to Ricky Gervais’ David Brent in The Office to Jennifer Saunders’ Edina Monsoon in Absolutely Fabulous, many British comic characters are the opposite of successful people.
3. Brits are less openly patriotic than Americans
Unless there is a game of soccer (or “football,” if you favor the English term), you’re unlikely to see people wearing a t-shirt with the British flag on it in the UK. The Union Jack is also much less likely to fly proudly outside British homes than the Stars and Stripes is in the USA. In fact, this may even be frowned upon, as it may be linked to certain political trends among the extreme right wing of British politics. It’s also telling that contrary to the celebrations of Independence Day in the US, there is no official national day in the United Kingdom.
4. Pub culture is a real thing in Great Britain
Much more than a place to toss back a drink or two, British pubs remain a staple of social life in the UK. Every area has at least one pub where locals can meet to watch a game, play pool, listen to a band or take part in a pub quiz. On a Sunday, you can go for lunch with your family to enjoy the famous Sunday roast. During the week, it’s not rare for colleagues to go for a drink at the end of the working day.
5. Driving habits are different in the US vs. UK
One of the most enduring American habits is to drive just about anywhere, no matter how short the distance. But in the UK, as in pretty much everywhere in Europe, you’ll walk rather than take the car if you only need to travel a few blocks. Drive-thrus are also much more rare in the UK than in the US. In big cities like London, it’s fairly common to forgo a car entirely, as public transportation and taxis are widely used. If you do take your car, don’t forget that people drive on the left side in the UK.
Spot the difference between the UK and the US culture
Of course, there are many more cultural differences between the UK and the US than just the five in our list. Yet, they give a good inkling of how Great Britain diverges from America, both in its approach to life and in its daily customs and habits. As such, they’ll help you to navigate your way through everyday life, no matter which side of the pond you happen to be on.