5 Culture Shocks Faced by British Expats in America

By: Laurence Brown

It has often been said that Britain and The United States are two countries separated by a common language. But any British expat residing in one of the 50 states will tell you that language is only the beginning; that American life itself is chock-full of idiosyncrasies, routines, and practices that differ so noticeably from those of Britain. Here are 5 culture shocks faced by British expats in America.

1. Everything is so much bigger

For most British expats, living in the United States can sometimes feel like a scene from Honey, I Shrunk The Kids; many of the everyday amenities, services, and items with which you were once so accustomed have been given an upgrade; a size upgrade. Instead of that Vauxhall Astra, Americans are driving large SUVs, Jeeps, and family vans; the roads that these drive along are also considerably wider; in restaurants, a medium pop drink (soft drink for many of my American readers) is the equivalent of what the British know as a large pop drink; a small back garden (yard) is still bigger than most gardens in Britain; America itself is some 43 times larger than Britain and, depending on where you live, some Americans don’t necessarily think of a 50-mile work commute as being too out of the ordinary. So, if you are British and are planning a move to the United States, prepare to feel small for a while.

2. Driving Is Back-to-front

If you are considering relocating to the USA, chances are you are already aware Americans drive on the right and that the steering wheel is on the left (though this wasn’t always the case). This can be slightly disorienting for people who have spent many years doing the complete opposite, but as with anything, it is something to which you will eventually become accustomed. What is less known about American driving is that vastly different terminology is used to label, for example, features of a car: instead of windscreen Americans say windshield; instead of indicator they say turn signal; instead of bonnet they say hood. For a full list of terminological differences, click here.

3. Sales tax

This one catches a lot of Brits by surprise. You’re in a shop (store) and you see a pair of trousers (pants) on sale for $15. You, with just three $5 bills, think this is terrific news and opt to buy them. The checkout assistant scans the item and, shock of all shocks, those $15 trousers are now $16.78. This is because on most store purchases sales tax is added at the point of sale. So always remember to budget for this, especially if you are hard up for money (short on finances).

4. Terminology

As mentioned in part 2, there exist numerous linguistic variations within the world of cars. However, the United States and Britain are rife with other terminological differences. In Sports, football becomes soccer; in Food and Drink, chips become fries; in Banking, a cash machine becomes an ATM; in legal circles, solicitor becomes attorney; in education, pupil becomes student. The list of differences is almost inexhaustible and, in order to avoid the confusion experienced by many British expats, it is a good idea to become familiar with as many of these variances prior to your move. To get you started, here is a partial compendium of British/American word differences.

5. The Landscape

As mentioned in part 1, the USA is a very big place, with land winding on for hundreds of miles  – often without so much as a single house gracing the landscape. For the British traveler, this can be both an exciting and overwhelming characteristic of American life. Furthermore, the natural features that make up the landscape are as varied as most Brits can imagine. In the Midwest, much of the land is flat with a seemingly endless myriad of crop fields dominating the terrain; The Rocky Mountains stretch 3,000 miles from Canada to New Mexico, while the Appalachian Trail is a hiker's dream; much of the south west – such as Arizona and Nevada – is home to some of America’s most famous deserts; the East Coast – especially Vermont – is notable for its large forests; and many South-Eastern states are graced with shimmering wetlands. If you are one of those travelers who plans to experience more than just one state, be prepared to be awe-inspired, to be overwhelmed and, yes, to feel small for a while.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingLaurence Brown is a British expat living in USA. Blog description: From language variation to obscure cultural differences, the United States and the United Kingdom differ in ways most of us aren't even aware. Here's a look at just a billion of these differences.
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Contest Comments » There are 3 comments

Bonnie wrote 11 years ago:

The sales tax always gets me when we go back to the US. I remember having to pull out a quarter for my son who had counted up the exact amount to pay for small toy at the $ store. Good points made.

Melissa Hill wrote 11 years ago:

My hubby is British and I am American. We moved to the states 6 years ago after living the 1st 4 years of our marriage in Nottingham,UK. (we met online and I made the move across the pond to be with him). One o the things that completely stunned him was "drive-thru everything"! Banks, fast Food, dry cleaners, chemists,etc. :-)

Richard wrote 10 years ago:

Something that drives me insane about the US is the measurements. I recall the many issues I had with the farms. Everything is different - They speak of bushels and that varies from one product to the next. That had me. Lets not even go on about inches and yards.

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