"Apparently we speak the same language" - 9 ways to get along in New York City

By: nyc-newbie

I live in New York City. I am from the UK and I’m here with my family and we are one year into a three year stint. I want to talk about language. I speak English, Americans speak English. Good start, you would think, but think again.

My first tip starts with the obvious: learn the important words which are different. I have two small children, one of whom is just 2 years old, so the lexicon of toddlers is at the forefront of my mind. I also have a nearly 8 year old, so I have already ingrained in me the language of children and I can’t adapt. I cannot say ‘diaper’ or ‘stroller’; I completely refuse to say ‘do you want to make pee pee’ or ‘go potty’ and I wince when anyone says ‘that’s a no no’ to their charge in the park.

Tip number two is all about the letter ‘t’. I live on a numbered street in Manhattan. I have tried and failed miserably to drop my ‘t’ and replace it with a ‘d’ when I say ’80-something’. I just feel like I’m taking the piss. I am an expert in dealing with taxi drivers who want just my street and my avenue and a response to ‘which side d’ya want?’, which means the right side for me and occasionally ‘nearside’. Any visitor from the UK is perplexed by this and has many a frustrating taxi ride home.
Speaking of ‘t’ and ‘d’, there’s the confusing question of water. It’s hot here in the summer and it’s hard to go far without needing some. There are vast numbers of kiosks on the streets selling water and snacks and at a dollar a bottle, it’s easy to access, but beware your ‘t’ as you will have to say it at least twice to be understood. Pointing helps.

For tip number three let’s talk about where you live. If you live in Manhattan, you are likely to live in an apartment building. You do not live in a flat. You do not go to your flat in an elevator. You will always say ‘hi, how are ya?’ (as if it is all one word) to anyone you meet in the lift and you will say ‘have a nice day’ to anyone who leaves the lift before you. If you do not, you will be considered a rude foreigner. In your flat you have faucets, not taps; you will not have a grill pan because they don’t exist, so forget about cheese on toast; you will use copious amounts of Bounty kitchen towel because no one sells dish cloths (eh?). And your bedding will be a different size, so make sure you bring your own from the UK, because otherwise you will struggle to fit it onto your UK sized bed.

For tip number four it’s time to think about cash. At the bank I am forced to put my cheque in checking, but I have to remove my ‘que’ (not a line) and replace it with a ‘ck’ to make any sense. With my bank I get a facsimile of my cheque when I deposit it in my ‘checking’ account. So that’s checked off my list. The banking system in the US is light years behind the UK. Getting a direct debit is painful and called ‘autopay’. Getting a bank account is hard work and without a social security number almost impossible. Get yourself down to the super grim social security offices downtown and hope for the best. Want to get a mobile phone without a social security number and a credit history? Forget it. I still have pay as you go as monthly phone tariffs are exorbitant.

Public transport is the focus of tip number five. I used to live in London and I used the tube a lot. I was a hardened commuter and I had an annual gold card programmed into my Oyster card. Here in New York City, the Metrocard is vastly inferior. It is bendy and prone to fold and therefore won’t work if your toddler gets hold of it. It takes two weeks to get the MTA to send you an ‘eazy pass’ to allow you to automatically top up your card once it gets to a certain level. It’s good to see that the subway ‘minute’ is as unreliable as the ‘tube’ minute in London. Accessible New York City is light years away as the subways force you to push the emergency door to get through with your buggy and on the bus you have to fold it before you get on, forcing an act of generally impossible origami under the bored gaze of your fellow travelers.

Tip number six just makes me cross, it’s all about manners. They are confused here. People are all about the ‘how are you?’ but less about the ‘thank you’. You can walk down the street and give way to someone because it seems the right thing to do and they will breeze by you like you don’t exist. I have got used to this now, but it does annoy me. In fact now, I generally don’t bother saying thank you anymore because it’s kind of pointless.
For lots of people, New York City is all about shopping. For tip number seven, I want to give you some advice about this. You are not in a queue, you are ‘on line’. You are a ‘guest’, not a customer; you will ‘step down’ not just move towards the check out and you will have plastic bags foisted on you at all times. I would like to introduce the United States to the metric system. No one told them that the UK switched to it in 1971 and whilst the UK was brought kicking and screaming into the world of grammes and kilos, it is fairly common there. Here there are quarts, gallons and pounds. I can’t cope with gallons of milk, it’s just too confusing, so I just go by size. It looks about right, it must be right. I’ll ask for ‘a quarder (sic) pound a coleslaw’ and generally be understood. I will say ‘can I get it’, not ‘could I have it’.

This is my favourite tip: number eight is all about food. I do like the food in New York City. I love the variety and the freshness that you generally get in every supermarket. I love the fact that I can get a cup of tea (teabag on the side, with hot water in the cup – not a proper cup of tea) anywhere, any time and invariably with a high calorie bagel packed to the gills with a filling of my choice. Learn the words ‘delivery’ and ‘tip’. You can get pretty much anything delivered at most times of day and it can be as little as a sandwich. Give the nice delivery man a few bucks for the tip and he’s happy and you didn’t have to leave the house. Manhattan is filled with men on bikes wearing tunics emblazoned with the names of local delis, restaurants and cafes. Mind yourself when you cross the road as you’ll end up underneath their wheels as the Cycling Proficiency Test must just be a British thing.

Which brings me to my final tip, number nine, which is don’t get sick. Here’s a name that doesn’t exist here: National Health Service. God I miss it. I miss being able to go to a GP and be grateful to get an appointment, sit in a stuffy hot waiting room, be talked to like I am the most boring person in the world and somehow get treated for whatever is wrong with me that day. I worked, I paid National Insurance and I got access to healthcare free at the point of delivery. It couldn’t be any more different here. Where a 15 minute visit to a specialist ear doctor to unbung an ear full of wax costs $1000 you know you are on a different planet. Where access to a doctor is quick and easy through ZocDoc (known in the UK?) and an appointment scored for the next day, there is a real cost to this and it is never cheap. Hope to hell you have decent health insurance and that you are never very ill, because despite Obamacare, healthcare in the US and in New York in particular is a racket and you will never be a winner.

Someone told me before we came to New York City that there is a huge cultural difference between our countries and I must admit I dismissed this, thinking how different could we be. But in reality they were right, we do speak the same language, but our culture, our history, our accents and our use of different words sets us wildly apart. And that’s the fun bit: working it all out. Happy Holidays!


About the author

Expat Blog Listingnyc-newbie is a British expat living in USA. Blog description: I moved from London to New York in Nov 12 with my husband and two small children. My blog records my observations on the differences between the UK and New York. It is light hearted and done with humour.
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Contest Comments » There are 22 comments

Melissa wrote 10 years ago:

I really enjoyed this post! I'm both an American and a former New Yorker and, like you, would not have assumed too, too many differences between the UK and US. But it's always the little things, right? (And some big things--like healthcare.) P.S. If you stepped to the side to let me pass while on a sidewalk in NYC, I promise that I would say thank you! : ) Enjoy the city this time of year--I miss it terribly!

Kate wrote 10 years ago:

Great to read your post and feel like I am not alone in quite a few ways 8 months into our adventure! Keep it up!

Jo wrote 10 years ago:

Another excellent post from my favourite expat blog. Always well observed and well written - love the wry-but-affectionate Brit point of view. Helps bring everyday NYC to life by looking at things (often food!) from a fresh perspective. Keep it up!

Neil Marsden wrote 10 years ago:

I really enjoyed this blog - it struck just the right balance between being informative and amusing. Like others, I was surprised at the differences as you kind of assume that there would not be many so it was a bit of an eye-opener.

Asma wrote 10 years ago:

Great post! Very familiar to anyone who has lived abroad before!

Margaret wrote 10 years ago:

I loved your blog. Your observations are spot on.They remind me so much of the time I spent living in America many years ago. I also experienced many differences between American and English word usage. Things haven't changed much! All your blogs are perceptive, humorous and well written.

Karine wrote 10 years ago:

Great post, it will inspire me to look out for similar differences down under as we go through our adventure in Sydney - 3 weeks in I can already spot a few!

Maxine wrote 10 years ago:

Great blog. I really enjoyed it. Very well written and witty.

Roy wrote 10 years ago:

Your blog reminded me of the saying about America and the UK namely 'two countries separated by a common language'! You describe well the joys of living in another country with a common tongue but with different attitudes and behaviours some exciting some annoying some strange but always adding to an experience you will always remember.And you will have your excellent and insightful blogs to keep those memories vivid.

Pamela Cole wrote 10 years ago:

This blog is like a breath of fresh air - a terrific way to see NYC through the eye of a Brit expat - and a clever one at that!

Rob wrote 10 years ago:

Great comments, and I would add number 10: Tipping... in NYC it's 20% for a restaurant meal vs a much more reasonable 10% in London. Who thought that was a good idea?!!

Camelia wrote 10 years ago:

Loved this blog thoroughly!Real eye opener for those who want to visit or relocate in the USA.

Janet wrote 10 years ago:

A perceptive well written blog with a touch of humour.

Jo wrote 10 years ago:

Sharp and smart - you can really hear the author's voice here. More please!

Jennie wrote 10 years ago:

Great blog can imagine what life is like in New York with a young family glad you havent gone down the "pee pee" route!

Lucy Gofton wrote 10 years ago:

I always enjoy reading this blog. The writing is informative and witty. I haven't visited NYC but would love to some day.

Gursev Chima wrote 10 years ago:

I couldn't stop laughing when I read this, everything is so true!!! I remember the first time I asked for 'waTer' and eventually had to substitute with the 'd' before I was understood! I really enjoy the writer's style of writing - very conversational, smart and witty! I also have moved from the UK to the US and have children of a similar age. The blog really captures the reality of a British expat living in the US so well!! Thank you for making me laugh and realise that I am not the only one experiancing these trials and tribulations.

Jon wrote 10 years ago:

Nice post, and sadly all too true. Road names are the thing I miss the most. I can't get used to being just a number and a side.

Tim wrote 10 years ago:

As an occasional visitor to New York, it had not dawned on me quite how many obvious differences there where with London. On short trips you spot the differences in singles or pairs, I think that I will now be using your list to play a game of 'cultural difference spotting' when I am next over the pond. :_)

Aimee wrote 10 years ago:

I enjoyed reading about all the differences between the UK and the USA that the author points out-- I have recognized some of them (especially the specific word differences) but I hadn't thought of others (the banking and metro details.) I'd like to mention one added advantage to being a British ex-pat living in New York: many New Yorkers really appreciate the good diction, courtesy and manners that come to our shores with citizens of the UK. We'll welcome you!

Genevieve wrote 10 years ago:

As a Canadian who has lived in London many years it is fun for me to read your perspective. I can relate to 50% of it and find the other 50% surprising as I didn't know some of the New York quirks. I think you'd get the hot cup of water and tea bag on the side in Canada too. Yuck! For me that's a no no.

Michelle wrote 10 years ago:

Loved this blog - I've lived in London all my life and makes me want to go and explore somewhere else! So well written and funny too.

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