Random trans-Atlantic claptrap

Choice: An American-only option

I have a cold. My nose is runny, my eyes itch and I feel tired. So I have taken some Lemsip.

Lemsip is a lemon-flavoured powdered cold medicine that you put in a cup, pour hot water over and then drink. That’s what you do when you have a cold in the UK. That’s what everyone here does. And you’re meant to buy it at Boots, the country’s biggest chain of drug stores / chemists / pharmacies. So when you have a cold, you go to Boots, where you will find Lemsip, which is the medicine you will take. There’s not really other options. If it’s a big Boots outlet, they may have blackcurrant-flavoured Lemsip in addition to the lemon. But that’s about it. Or you might find Boots’ own-brand generic version of Lemsip. But it’s still Lemsip and you’re still buying in Boots. I suppose you could go to the one other pharmacy in the UK, Superdrug, but who does that for Lemsip?

Britain is all about the lack of choice.

It’s good enough for everyone. It’s good enough for you. Go to Boots, take your Lemsip and don’t make a fuss.

And this is one of the core cultural differences between Britain and the U.S.

In virtually any American pharmacy, you would find the following options in the aisle for “colds and flu”:

  • Do you have a chest cold, or a head cold?
  • Would you like daytime or nighttime cold medicine?
  • Pill, gelcap, powder, melting tablet, liquid or effervescent tablets?
  • Expectorant or cough suppressant?
  • Fast-acting or 12 hour relief?
  • Regular strength, extra-strength or severe strength?

All of these categories are mix and match. So you might have a regular strength, Robitussin liquid nighttime, 12-hour head cold medicine. Or you may want to take a Tylenol fast-acting gelcap with an expectorant. Or how about an Alka-Seltzer plus day and night non-drowsy severe cough mucus and congestion liquid gels. That’s a real thing – here’s the link. It’s all about “choice” and “options.” If you have a cold, probably the last thing you want to do is navigate a complex matrix of symptoms, treatments, strength of dosage and delivery systems for your cold medicine. But that’s America. That’s how it works. You get more choices than you can handle. In Britain, you get Lemsip.

Shelves in American supermarkets are like patchwork quilts, different colours and options filling your field of visions. In the UK, the aisles are more orderly, more colour-coordinated. Oh, you’d like a biscuit? We have those, with chocolate or without. You can’t miss them, they are in the biscuit aisle. Digestives or hobnobs. Off you go.

And it’s not just cold medicines and biscuits. It’s everything.

In America there are 10,000 types of jam/jelly/preserves/marmalades/compotes. 500 types of pita breads. 12,000 health insurance providers all offering a dizzying array of benefits and deductibles. Speaking of which – do you want to be covered for plague and childbirth, or just plague? $500 annual deductible, or $40 co-pay? Catastrophic or HMO? In the end, it doesn’t really matter, all the American insurance companies are crap, and you’re more likely to go bankrupt from health problems in the USA than any other cause, even if you have health insurance. But at least you got to choose. In Britain you get the NHS. Kind of boring really, but I guess at least you don’t have to worry about dying due to lack of funds if you give birth to a plague baby.

Full British Breakfast, any way you want it

American expat comedian Doug Stanhope captured some of this, talking about breakfast options in the U.S. compared to the UK in this epic rant:

A full English breakfast doesn’t involve much choice. It consists of eggs, baked beans, sausage, bacon, fried mushrooms, and grilled tomato. There could be some slight variance to this depending on what cafe you’re in. You might get blood sausage instead of regular sausage. But they won’t ask you. You just get what you get. And for those readers who are quick to complain when I conflate England with Scotland, Wales, etc… let me be clear- the entire country is this way. This is a full British and not an English phenomenon. Go to Scotland for breakfast and you’ll get a “full Scottish breakfast” that is more or less the same as the English one, but you might get fried bread or haggis instead of mushrooms, and blood sausage instead of regular sausage. If you’re a Yank you’ll be expected to pretend that these slight variations make for a wildly different culinary experience. But you and I know it’s all the same all across the entire UK. You ask for breakfast, you get what everyone else gets.

What- do you think you’re special? 

Special-ness and having choices is very much frowned upon in the UK. Uniformity is to be enforced whenever possible. Even the holidays don’t dare try and be too individualistic. Of course Easter and Christmas are a little bit special. But other national holidays get names to ensure they don’t get too full of themselves. Enjoy your “Early May Bank Holiday,” comrade!

What are you doing for “late May Bank Holiday?” That’s always been my favourite! Last year I went to Benidorm for “Spring Bank Holiday,” but it gets far too crowded at “Summer Bank Holiday.” 

But I suppose there are some instances, and honestly I can really only think of two, where British people are allowed a range of choices. They don’t get to choose their cold medicines, health insurance, monarchs, or holiday names, but they do get to choose……  crisp flavours.

A panoply of potatoes to pick for your palette

To Yanks, potato chips are a rather lowly snack. But in the UK, crisps, as they are known, are held in higher regard. The British people love them, and it is here where British people transform from 1 shade of grey to more options than a turkish bazaar.

Salt and vinegar, cheese, cheese and onion, prawn cocktail, beef, worcester sauce, bacon, marmite, barbecue, thai sweet chili, roast chicken, sausage and mustard, chorizo, roast lamb, lamb and mint, pesto, pickled onion, soy ginger, wasabi, tomato ketchup, and more. And you’ll get variations within flavours, don’t fancy cheese and onion, alright Guv, how would Red Leicester and scallions suit you, nudge, nudge?

Some of these flavours are probably a bit dodgy, but overall I approve of the variety of options available for British potato lovers. But there is another category of choice that shows the dangers of granting people too much freedom: telephone numbers. 

Give me a ring, my number is oh treble three, pause, pause, something, something

In the USA, every phone number follows a set format. First the number “1” followed by a three digit number, another three digit number and then ending with a four digit number. If you want to call Donald Trump, his number is 1-917-756-8000. If you want to call the makers of spray cheese, the number is 1-877-535-5666. See – always the same format. But here, you get a choice. A terrible, confusing choice. Worse than Sophie’s choice.

In the UK, people can say their phone numbers any way they choose. You can give 1 digit, then 3 digits and then 8 digits. Or you can say all 12 digits at once really fast. There’s no structure, no uniformity and it makes it really hard to write down or memorise phone numbers. Is the number to call the people who make Ribena to complain about the taste 02037272420 or is it (0) 203 7272 2420? Or maybe its 020 37272 24 20. It’s utter anarchy in the UK! Some parts of the country seem to even be missing a number or two. For example, the Truly Scrumptious cafe in Langholm, Scotland (which I found at random via TripAdvisor), can be reached at 13873 80402. THAT’S ONLY 10 NUMBERS – and they don’t list the ‘0’ at the beginning. Do I use the ‘0’ or don’t I? Are you asking me to choose? This isn’t truly scrumptious at all – it’s just confusing!

Why are there different amounts of numbers for different phones and regions? How am I meant to know if I copied a number down right, or if I just missed a number? Are there some people who get to have phone numbers with just a few digits? If I pick up my phone and dial “1” do I get through directly to the Queen? Has someone already claimed the phone number “oo7,” or can I have it? If I get it, do I describe my number as “double 0, and then 7” or do I say “0, then 07?” Should I include an extra ‘0’ in the beginning? Is my number really ‘(0) 007’ or ‘(0) 07?’ WHY CAN’T YOU JUST SORT THIS CRAP OUT ! ARRRGHHH!

…..Sorry about that rant, I ran out of Lemsip while writing this blog and I feel like absolute rubbish. Maybe I have baby plague. I’m going to ring Superdrug and see if they have non-drowsy, fast-acting baby plague Lemsip. Now if I can just find their telephone number….

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4 thoughts on “Choice: An American-only option

  1. Americans are slowly learning about beer as well. A few years ago it was a choice of ice-cold urine coloured and no flavour options. They are beginning to make some different and interesting brown beers. Still haven’t worked out that to taste them they need to be above zero.

    Phone numbers – at least no one wants us to call 1-800-chicken.

  2. You’ve been out of the country for too long. We’ve pretty much dropped the “1” before the area code. In fact I can’t remember the last time I used it, other than that time I didn’t have my cell phone and had to use a (rare) payphone.

    Your larger point, that Britain sucks, is a good one.

  3. Oh sorry, I misunderstood. I thought a post describing a neo-Bolshevik society where lack of choice not only is accepted but praised by a weird herd-like population of drones would be a criticism. I didn’t realize you were praising them.

    Also, you don’t know much about the U.S. health insurance system. I live in NYS, and I can assure you there are not that many choices under the ACA. And the ACA has standardized coverage so that providers have to conform to a basic menu of services, e.g., drug treatment. This is why my old perfectly good private policy was cancelled, and why I lost my doctor, because the plan didn’t cover drug treatment. And premiums have soared, not surprisingly.

    In other words, just like the “1” before the area code, you’re about 25 years behind the curve. It’s funny how you set yourself up as an authority on American affairs. You really can’t keep up with things here by reading Politico.

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