Hannah Drake

Embracing the Britishisms

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Instead of my usual Expat Diaries post, today I want to talk about some of the differences in British culture that I've experienced in the last 14 months. Before my first trip across the pond, I naively thought the UK was simply a better extension of the US in many ways. And while a lot of it feels familiar, there's quite a bit that different. There haven't been huge things that have given me culture shock during my time here, but instead it's little things that I should know that just don't feel right. Like opening a bank account. My days sitting across from a Wells Fargo banker opening a new account or discussing my current accounts aren't that far off, but somehow opening a new bank account last summer was insanely frustrating and complicated for me.

A lot more is different than you would think, like I said, so today I wanted to highlight just a handful of those differences that I've noticed, some of which I enjoy, some I'm indifferent about, some have been difficult to adjust to.


I'm sure most Americans have their own idea of what words and phrases British people use. Some are probably fairly accurate, but I'm here to tell you I have never heard someone seriously say "pip, pip, cheerio" or "hello, governor". While I've embraced much of the wording and phrasing that Luke uses (for example, I say bin instead of trashcan, cinema instead of theatre, trainers instead of tennis shoes or sneakers, jumper instead of sweater), and I think I've fully accepted British spelling thanks to my time in the workforce, I still struggle with some of the phrases. Every once in a while, someone will use a phrase I've never heard. (The other day two people said "he likes to throw his toys out of the pram" as in he throws fits.) It happens less and less frequently with Luke now where we have to kind of find out what we're trying to say. Like when Luke said aerial, meaning antenna. I've also developed two pet peeves about British English. Firstly, people seem to use "myself" and "me" or "I" interchangeably and that just doesn't work grammatically. Secondly, a lot of people at my work call lunch "dinner" and dinner "tea" and while it might sound quaintly British, it drives me nuts. But I've also noticed that even if we have the same phrases, some are considered rude to the other. Maybe this isn't just a US vs. UK thing, but here's the biggest example in our relationship: If Luke asks me if I want something and I respond with "sure", he feels that's disrespectful, no matter my tone. On the flip side, if I thank Luke for something and he responds with "it's okay", I feel that's disrespectful, no matter the tone. We're trying to be better for each other. And for the record, I may not be great at recognising accents yet (unless its from Liverpool), but I'm happy to say that I at least understand more accents than I did 14 months ago.


It might not be a surprise that the UK uses different units of measurement. They use a 24-hour clock instead of a 12-hour clock. (I changed my phone and computer to be 24-hours a few months before I moved last year to try to get the hang of it. I think I've finally done it, but for some reason 17:00 and 19:00 always trip me up.) Baking was tricky at first because they work mostly in grams. I kind of straddle the line between grams and cups since most of my recipes are American, but I did convert some since we didn't have measuring cups for the longest time. Now I almost prefer grams because it's more accurate and seems to require less washing afterwards. Obviously they use Celsius instead of Fahrenheit, which has proven to be the most difficult. Truth be told, I'm a bit (okay, alot) resistant to it too (outside of the kitchen, because I have no choice but to use Celsius in our oven, of course) because 32 to 100 in Fahrenheit is only 0 to 37 in Celsius. I just feel like there's a difference between 74 and 75 and Celsius doesn't accommodate for that! ;) The UK does, however, use miles, which is different than the rest of Europe. They measure fuel efficiency in miles per gallon, but buy it in litres. I mean, what?!


One of my favourite things about the UK is that taxes are included in the price on items at stores. So if you see that something is £25, you don't need to worry about trying to figure out the tax so you know how much you need to give the cashier. You'll give them £25 and they'll give you a receipt. So simple! One thing I can't make up my mind about quite yet is store hours. Shops close fairly early around here, mostly by 8:00 on weekdays and Saturdays, even the big stores at the mall. On Sundays, it's even earlier. Also on Sundays, grocery stores over a certain size are only open from 10:00 until 4:00, so you have to plan accordingly. There's nothing worse that realising on Sunday evening that you don't have everything you need for dinner. Smaller grocery stores will be open later because they're under a certain square footage, but they obviously have fewer items, so if you need something specific, you might be out of luck. However, I do like their reasoning for having shorter business hours. They're giving their employees opportunities to have a life outside of work and to spend time with their families. And if I remember correctly, most places were open a little longer around Christmastime, but it wasn't anything too extreme. And you would never see anything like Black Friday hours over here, especially running into national holidays. 


Here, you're going to get charged 5p per bag, no matter where you are. I experienced that in Boulder before I moved, and I'm reading that more cities and states are working toward that now, but it's e v e r y w h e r e here, even beyond grocery stores. If you want a cart, you have to put a pound coin (or a token you bought for a pound) into the handle to unlock it from the rest. That means you have to return your cart to a designated spot otherwise you won't get your coin/token back. There are no carts left around the car parks. It's genius! You also can't take the carts off the property, as they have a magnet in the wheels and will lock when you get to the edge of the lot and I think that's pretty cool. Grocery shopping is otherwise the same. I always feel like it's cheaper here, especially produce, but I haven't actually crunched the numbers with an exchange rate. And it's not like all American foods and products have made there way over here. Some ingredients that I would consider standard seem a bit more rare, but we're often able to find them in the Indian section. Like cornmeal or popcorn kernels. The grocery store we go to has a small "American" section where we often buy Kraft Macaroni. They also sometimes have root beer (you'll never see it on a menu), marshmallows, pop tarts, Reese's peanut butter cups, Mike & Ike's, and more. I guess I'm just an adult because I kind of love grocery shopping, hence why it has its own category.


I've never really worked in a large office before, so maybe this is true in the States, but there really seems to be a tea culture here. At work, people offer to make tea or coffee for everyone else and most people prefer tea, especially in the afternoons. Are people just nicer here or do people do that in the States too? Because so many people enjoy a simple tea with milk and or sugar, there's less of a Starbucks (or Costa) culture of running out for a £5 coffee even just once a day. But that might just be the demographic of people I work with. Either way, I just think it's nice that people drink tea all day and make tea for one another all the time. By the way, the UK Starbucks rewards app sucks. Oh yes, you can't forget that people definitely have a preference on what shade their tea should be depending on how much milk is in it. Afternoon tea isn't a regular thing either. People may go out for a special occasion or every once in a while, but don't picture the whole country stopping every afternoon so we can all sit down for a tea and some cucumber sandwiches.


I've talked about this on my blog before, but going to the doctor was a bit of a different experience. I made an appointment at Luke's GP's office to get established here earlier this year. They offered me really bonkers times, like 8:07 or 8:23 and my OCD brain just couldn't take it. When I went to my appointment, it was super quick. I didn't have to pay a co-pay and I pay for the NHS out of my pay check. (I also paid an NHS surcharge with my spousal visa.) "Free" healthcare is awesome, you guys. At my appointment with my GP, they referred me to a cardiologist (I'm fine, but I have a history of heart problems) and they said it would be about a 16 week wait. It's a non-emergency appointment so I'm lower priority, but even in the States you'd have to wait at least a couple of weeks. And bonus, I'm not going to have to pay anything out of pocket to have an appointment with a cardiologist!


If you've been around here long, you probably know I don't drive in the UK. I'm actually kind of terrified about it, and no it's not because of being on the other side of the road or car. I'm used to that now. I could have driven on my Colorado license until June, I think, during my first year abroad. And I even have a UK provisional license, but I've never used it. It's the narrow roads, the roundabouts, and different traffic signs that worry me. It seems like a lot of people here take driving lessons, at least the people I know, and Luke's been hoping I'll agree to take some soon. Also, you can't get your license until you're 17 in the UK.


One of the things I found most strange about the UK when I first visited was the lack of flat sheets. They only have a fitted sheet (although you can find plenty that don't have the elastic in the corners to really hook around the mattress) and a duvet. It certainly makes the bed easier to make in the morning!

You always have to ask for water at a restaurant and you'll have to specify that you just want tap water. A lot of places will give you small cups and the server won't be around every five minutes to top it up. Though, I haven't experienced having to pay for tap water in the UK like I have in restaurants in Denmark and Sweden.

Movies. Movies are different here sometimes. From what I can tell, there seems to be a small UK market that releases films here that I don't think would come out in the States. But on top of that, sometimes film titles are changes (and it's reflected on my IMDb since they know where I am!). Like The Avengers. Here it's called Avengers Assemble to avoid confusion with a previously released film. Or I noticed on one of our TV apps that instead of the final two American Pie films simply being called American Wedding and American Reunion, they're called American Pie: The Wedding and American Pie: Reunion. Sometimes films will have different release dates too. We got Thor: Ragnarok and I believe Black Panther a week before the States, and we were supposed to get Avengers: Infinity War a week early too, but they moved up the US release date. It seems like we got Jumanji weeks earlier than the States, but other films, like Lady Bird and now Ant-Man and the Wasp have been a month (or more!) later. We saw the former while we were in Colorado in July, but it didn't come out here until 2 August. Also, with all this Movie Pass news happening across the pond, I feel I should say Luke and I both have unlimited memberships to our cinema for less than £18/month. It's a large cinema chain in the country and we can go to something like all but two locations. Plus we get discounts on concessions.

Phone plans seem to be incredibly cheap compared to in the States. Luke and I don't share a plan because it doesn't make sense. In total, we pay something like £30 a month for our phone plans, which seems like a drop in the bucket compared to some plans available in the States. Before I moved, I contributed something like $40 to a family plan to pay off my phone, have unlimited calls and texts, and less data than I have now. Phone plans don't need to be so expensive, America! Do you hear me, cell phone companies?!

People give each other their bank details to pay each other all the time and I still can't get used to that. You can't use Venmo here, so instead you'll just give someone your account number and sort code and they'll just pay you directly into your account. Both numbers are even printed on your debit card! Also, we've moved on to contactless payments, up to £30 per transaction, instead of just the chip. That means you just tap your card on the machine and don't have to enter your PIN. When we were in the States last, there were still shops that didn't accept the chip.

From what I've heard, the school system is a bit different here. I still don't fully understand it and I probably won't unless we have kids using it so my apologies for the lack of information. The school year is different, with school starting the first week of September, breaking for Christmas at the end of the first term. (They don't have Thanksgiving so no Thanksgiving break.) Then they go back to school until Easter, when the second term ends, and get another break. The final term starts when they return and then they go until mid-July. So two two-week breaks and a six-week summer. There are more differences, like what they call the grades (Year One, Year Two, etc.), requirements for how long they have to go, plus continuing with either school or formal training, how they apply to colleges (including only being able to apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, if interested in either), and more. Maybe part of why Hogwarts seemed so magical was because it was such a different system from the US school system, but it's quite obviously inspired by the UK schooling system, including O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s.

Bathrooms are a bit different here too. The toilet bowls are shaped differently, but it's hard to explain without having seen an American toilet for a bit. There also aren't usually outlets in bathrooms, even in homes, unless it's a new build and there's a plug for an electric shaver and that's it. (So people have vanities in the bedroom instead.) In public bathrooms, the stall doors don't have gaps around them so you can't see into the stalls, which is really nice. I've also noticed that a lot more public bathrooms are going green with dryers and environmentally friendly toilets. (See, climate change isn't a debate here. It's widely accepted to be fact and it's a non-partisan issue, with both sides working to curb our effect on the environment.)

The best part about living in the UK has got to be the number of holiday days you get per year. My company offers 25 days to all full time employees, plus eight bank holidays (including Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Years Day), and the option to buy up to ten more days off. It still boggles my mind. Especially because by January, Luke and I had essentially planned our whole year and used up all our holidays, including the five extra we both have. (With two long trips back to CO this year and our honeymoon, it was quite easy.)