I recently returned from three weeks in the U.S. This was my first trip back to my home country since living in England. So after that and a year in England, I think I might finally be in a position to point out some day-to-day differences between the two countries. These observations are small – nothing earth-shattering – and have probably been noted by many others before. But, they were moments of realization in the US and when I returned. I’ve had several people ask me, “What’s the biggest difference between the US and the UK?” It’s really more little things than just one big thing… So here’s an attempt at answering that question.
You could say there’s been a bit of history between England and the US surrounding taxes… But, a few hundred years later, of course taxes still exist in both countries. There’s a major difference between the two countries in the realm of sales tax. In Ohio, sales tax differs by the town, but in my area it was 7.5%. Here in England, sales tax (called “value added tax”) is a whopping 20%!
However, to soothe the pain of seeing the price increase that drastically at the register, the UK includes the VAT in the listed price. So, if the tag on a shirt says £16, the 20% income tax is already added in. That way, if you’ve just grabbed £90 worth of groceries you don’t cry and pitch a hissy fit as the screen on the cash register shows your grand total as £108. Just imagine the tantrum you would throw when seeing that increase if purchasing furniture, a car, or a house! Best if you don’t have to be constantly reminded of it…
When I was back in the US, I popped into a small store to buy a tube of chapstick (Sidenote: why can I never find my chapstick? I think the pots of gold at the end of rainbows are actually filled with half-used chapsticks, hair ties, bobbypins, and matchless socks. Ugh!). The sticker said $3.50, so I counted out my change. She rang it up and said, “$3.75.” I stood there confused, with the $3.50 in my hand, and asked if she could please double check the price on the sticker. This woman, by the way, is known in the town for her grumpiness and lack of customer service skills. She looked at me like I was an idiot who managed to squeeze through the public educational system without knowing how to complete a sales exchange from the easier end of the transaction. (Hear money, hand over money! Simple!) Realizing her glare wasn’t successfully communicating the problem, she managed two words: “Sales tax.” OH YEAH! That exists. And it’s not added in already. And I’m not in England anymore, Toto.
By the way, I’m all in favor of adding the tax into the price before you get to the register. It would have saved me at least two periods of teaching time when covering percentages in math class.
Muscle memory is a fascinating thing. My body is trained to reach around the corner when entering a room to find the light switch and flip on the lights. When I first got to England, I kept trying to flip switches that are in fact unflippable. They are more pushable, like a button. A picture will help explain this better… Note the UK switch on the left, and the US switch on the right:
It might seem like a small difference, but it is amazingly confusing when entering a dark room in a jetlag stupor. I experienced this again after returning from the US… my brain had flipped back to the US flip-switch in just three short weeks.
Another interesting light switch phenomenon in the UK is that bathroom (or “toilet”) light switches are often outside of the room in the hallway. There were numerous occasions when I first moved here, where I’d go into the bathroom and try to simultaneously close the door and turn on the light, only to end up awkwardly standing in a dark, switch-less bathroom. I’d have to reopen the door and sheepishly stick out an arm to switch on the light before continuing with my business. The switch’s outside-the-room placement also provides the opportunity for cheeky friends to leave you in the dark. Lovely.
Driving is very different in both countries. In the US you will see many more traffic cops, sitting along the highway waiting for someone to speed by. In England you’ll see speed cameras, but not before being warned by numerous signs on your approach. It makes it pretty easy not to get a ticket here.
Besides the fact that we drive on different sides of the road, the most iconic difference between US and UK driving is the stop light/sign vs. roundabout debate. First of all, know that both countries do use both types of intersection maneuvers, but each is clearly associated with one place.
Which do I prefer? The roundabout. Hands down. Even when people are hesitant and don’t know what they’re doing, the roundabout seems to be faster and more efficient. Mythbusters even proved it, so you know it’s true.
Bonus: every now and then while driving ’round a roundabout I get the awesome song Roundabout by Yes stuck in my head. That never happened with stop lights or stop signs. No cool song associations there…
In England, they abbreviate air conditioning to “air con,” much like how we abbreviate it to AC. This was one of the first things Sam and I giggled at when we arrived in England. After hours, and I mean many many hours, of travel to move here, we sat bleary eyed in the office of a rental car company. The woman renting us the car explained that we would love our car because it had a, “brilliant air con.” Sam and I made eye contact and chortled sleepily.
The difference is not in the vocabulary alone. We in the US looovve our air conditioning. With hot and humid summers that seem to never end, it makes sense. Almost all shops, churches, restaurants, homes, etc. are air conditioned. The main exceptions to this seem to be college dorms, prisons, and oil-change garage waiting rooms. In fact, a group of prisoners in Texas are currently taking legal action to get their dormitories air conditioned; temperatures in their living areas soared to over 100 degrees, hotter than is even allowed for livestock holding areas.
But, it usually just doesn’t get hot enough in England to justify spending the money on air con. Our home doesn’t have it. Most don’t. In fact, it feels like a wonderful luxury to walk into a shop or restaurant that has that crisp, artificial AC’d air. It’s usually not a problem, but last week I returned to a very hot England. I was experiencing those same temps in the US, but there I had the option of just popping back into an air-conditioned home when the heat became too much. But, thankfully, we never get more than a few weeks of “summer” weather in England, and I think we’re already coming out of it. It was a pleasant relief to wake up feeling chilly two nights ago, and I was actually thrilled to wake up to the sound of rain today. Bring on Autumn! 🙂
This may be an unfair assumption, but based on what I’ve seen, we have a much more diverse restaurant scene in the US. Yes, even in Ohio. Perhaps it’s our unflappable American ability to take any food and think, “Hmm, I should add cheese and bacon to that.” or “I could make this more fattening.” But, before you get carried away with bashing Britain’s food… yes, I’ve heard the joke about how in hell the British do the cooking… let me just say that we love the food here. The beef has more flavor. Everything seems slightly less greasy than its American counterpart. And man, do they know how to do meat and veg! A well made Sunday Roast is a thing of beauty. Sam has even converted from his potato-hating ways since being here.
All I’m saying is that in the US there seems to be a bigger variety of restaurants than what I’ve seen around here. Obviously there are exceptions. For example, you can probably find whatever the heck kind of food you’re looking for in London. But, bear with me here. In the time I was in the US, I had wonderful
fried pressure cooked chicken and waffle fries, a “three-way” (spaghetti, chili, and cheese) and chili dogs (both with Cincinnati-style chili containing chocolate and cinnamon, no less), the absolute best thin-crust pizza stacked high with finely diced toppings, thick crust pizza with award-winning sauce and ooey gooey stringy cheese, yeast donuts with icing and sprinkles, cake donuts with cinnamon sugar, soft-serve peanut butter frozen yogurt with bananas and chocolate mixed in, hand-dipped ice cream galore, snow cones, burrito bowls, enchiladas, queso dip and tortilla chips, and much much much more. But I’m sure the fact that us Americans like our food won’t come as a surprise to many.
This does bring me to another thing I’ve noticed about life in Britain. Processed food seems to be less of the norm here. Yes, there’s junk food. Yes, there’s processed food available. But I rarely see a British recipe that calls for cans of condensed cream-of-something soup (or a British equivalent) or a pound of “cheese food.” Recipes and menu items alike seem to have fewer ingredients and are just simply done well. I’ve grown to appreciate that simplicity.
Fit (But my gosh, don’t they just know it)
(*Note, in England “fit” often means attractive, while it means “healthy” or “in shape” in the US).
I had an epiphany after returning to England. I was jetlagged, so take it with grain of salt, but here it is. And remember, I’m talking big picture.
Americans can be very extreme in their health choices. On one hand you have morbid obesity and McDonalds. On the other hand, you have marathon runners, Beach Body consultants, and don’t even get me started on CrossFit. Both extremes can be a defining characteristic of someone’s life, or at least their Facebook feed. 😉
However, in England, I’ve noticed people seem to be much more moderate in their health. It is very common in our area to see people walking or riding their bicycle to work. Yes, even if they live miles away. And yes, the infrastructure is better suited to handling it than in parts of the US, but maybe that’s because there’s a demand for it. Here in England I see far more active senior citizens than I saw in the US. They’re still walking their little terriers daily or riding their bikes into town. It’s a lifestyle, once again, but less extreme. I’ve grown to embrace this as well. I love walking into town to pick up a few things.
I’ve noticed as I’ve been writing this post that I’ve used the term “we” to refer to both England and the US. Though I am clearly American and have spent much more time there, I do feel at home in England and there are so many things I love. I noticed as I was back in the US that I was a bit homesick for England. I missed a good cup of tea, walking Toby around town, my British friends and church, the markets and pubs, the more relaxed attitude. But when I’m here in England I miss my family, friends, the convenience of Target, the cheaper cost of living, and – of course – the variety of food.
Both feel like home in different ways, and that’s okay.