Welcome to America, British person.
I know you think you’ve got it all figured out. Americans drive on the right, and most people walk around fully armed with semi-automatic rifles, right? They say “dude” and “awesome” and drink “root beer” (which isn’t really even beer). Everybody shops at Walmart and most of them are on mobility scooters due to their morbid obesity. So when you visit the USA, you can confidently stride through the country like some kind of post-colonial, cultural savant. After all, you’ve seen every episode of Friends. You watch American films, listen to Beyonce and you sometimes shop at the Gap. What more could you possibly need to know to get by in a country where the vast majority of the population eats cheese out of a spray can?
It’s Americans that need cultural advice after all. They can’t pronounce “Edinburgh” or “Leicester.” They walk around London in tacky clothes, sporting “fanny packs” around their waists, loudly asking for directions to BuckingHAM palace.
But trust me, if these are your assumptions, your visit to the USA will probably wind up with you resembling Mr Bean more than Mr Bond. You’re lucky I’m here to help.
Here is Expat Claptrap’s visitor’s guide to America for British people; so you don’t make an ass out of yourself. Yes an ass, not an arse. You see, we’re already making some progress!
Customer service and tipping:
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard about British tourists who were shocked to find themselves chased down and berated outside a restaurant by a server angry about a poor tip. The defense is always the same: “I’m sorry, but I’m just not tipping if I think I’ve had poor service.” Let me make this perfectly clear: you must tip between 15 and 20% in American restaurants. Every single American is fully aware of and abides by this social contract. In the USA, tipping isn’t some kind of magnanimous gesture to be occasionally bestowed upon worthy servants, it is an obligation, one from which visitors are not exempt. By not tipping properly, you are not making a grand statement based on superior European principles, you will instead come across as an embarrassing cheapskate and bumpkin. If you really can’t abide by the cultural requirements of American tipping, you probably shouldn’t visit the USA. It really is that serious. No need to tip me for the advice.
Shops and sales tax:
I’ve heard many British people complain that the price marked on merchandise isn’t the real price that you wind up paying. You get up to the counter or register (those are the American words for a till) and discover that you’re paying seven or eight percent more for those Levi’s jeans than what’s on the price tag. It’s called a sales tax, and most US states charge it. You won’t know what the exact amount is until you are asked to pay. Yes- I agree that it’s a bit weird that American stores don’t just display the full ‘real’ price including the tax. I don’t know why this is the case, but most Americans are just used to it.
You could always ask what the tax is, before you agree to pay for anything, but do you really want to wait in line (don’t call it a queue) just to ask if those $19.99 jeggings really cost $19.99 or $21.72? Back home they will set you back £40, so maybe you should just get on with it.
American portion sizes generally are much bigger than you’re used to. It’s not only acceptable to ask to take some of the food home in a “doggy bag,” in many places it’s actually expected and considered part of the service. Don’t be shy- just say “Can you wrap this up for me?”
Another food tip: try different things. American food is incredibly diverse, from Louisiana Jambalaya to Southern California fish tacos. There is no brown sauce, we don’t eat meat pies, and chips don’t come with everything. Try the local specialities, and avoid fast food chains. If you do insist on going to McDonald’s, be aware that Americans don’t pronounce the “t” in the word filet. You really don’t want the shame of some pimply-faced teenager at Mickey Dees correcting your French when you order a Fillit of fish sandwich, do you?
Coffee not tea, cookies not biscuits
I’m sorry to break it to you, but you probably won’t have a single proper cup of tea during your entire trip to the USA. Americans don’t order tea when they’re out and they don’t make it for themselves at home. In fact, electric kettles are virtually unknown and tea is seen as a drink for little old ladies. Asking for “tea” might get you a big glass of iced tea in some states- which you should give a try. Americans drink coffee, loads of coffee, which you can have any way you want it. You’d like a venti half-decaf soya latte with a splash of hazelnut? No problemo. Hot tea? No way Jose.
Also you should learn the American words for things. ‘Pudding’ doesn’t mean dessert in the USA and if you ask for it, you might be given a gloopy chocolate mousse that is usually eaten only by little children. And biscuits are called cookies in America- ‘biscuits’ are a kind of savoury bread muffin served in the south. By the way- Americans don’t use the word “savoury,” which is a really common term in the UK. I don’t think Americans are missing out- it’s pretty useless to have a word that means everything that is not sweet in the universe: bread, meat, cheese, rocks, radiators, houses- everything without sugar is such a broad category that I just don’t find it that useful. Neither do any Americans. So, er, don’t call things savoury!
Again, tipping matters- you should tip a bartender at least one dollar per drink when you order an alcoholic beverage. Unlike in Blighty, there is no obligation to buy rounds for everyone present, but it wouldn’t be considered strange if you did.
It’s also worth knowing that, outside of college fraternities, Americans generally don’t view being really drunk or really hungover as an accomplishment to be proud of- particularly in the workplace. People never drink at lunchtime, and they don’t ever confess to missing work because of a hangover. In fact, drinking is viewed in America a lot like the way sex is viewed in Britain. Everyone does it, but it’s a private affair that you don’t really talk about with your co-workers, unless of course they were there doing it with you.
Greetings and getting along with people:
Sometimes Brits find Americans to be superficial. One of the first things you’ll notice on your visit, especially if you’re outside of the big cities, is how frequently people smile at and talk to each other. Unlike Britain, where people still seem to rely on letters of introduction from mutual acquaintances before they will exchange even their first names, we Yanks will frequently just walk up and introduce ourselves to you. I know, shocking, right? But in America, friendliness doesn’t indicate over-familiarity and impertinence. I would wager ten bucks (that means dollars) that most Americans have never used “impertinence” and “over-familiarity” in a sentence in their entire lifetimes. So smile back and be friendly- or else you’ll come across as a snob, even if you have proper souf London working class credentials.
Speaking of which- another thing to be aware of is that listening to an American’s accent won’t really tell you anything about that person’s social standing. You’ll actually have to pay attention to the content of the words being spoken, rather than the way they’re being pronounced to get a handle on a person’s character and background. Pretty cool, innit?
God, guns, religion and politics:
I know you’ve all seen those Louis Theroux TV shows about how America is filled with dangerous criminals and crazed right wing extremists. Or maybe you’ve seen the Stephen Fry specials where he meets Pentecostal preachers speaking in tongues and redneck survivalists teaching their nine year old children how to fire automatic weapons? Or perhaps you’ve watched Stacey Dooley meet homeless glue-sniffing teens in California, then later watched her frolic with puffy-faced libertarians staring through rifle scopes across the border at all the “Messicans?”
You’ve got loads of opinions about America, its culture and its politics, and you’re inclined to share them. I’d strongly advise against it. God, guns, gays and the government are all sensitive topics. Unless you’re hankering for someone to open a great big ol’ can of whup-ass on you, don’t start sentences with the phrase: “You know what the problem with America is?” Stick to talking about movies. Americans love their movies. Except Withnail and I. No one has seen that shit in ‘Murica, so shut up about it already.
Invariably, British people are surprised at how many American flags are on display everywhere they go – even in huge, liberal cities like New York. But FYI, unlike the St George’s Cross, the American flag hasn’t been co-opted to become a short-hand symbol for xenophobia. Old Glory is often displayed side by side with flags of other countries to indicate that while everyone in the USA originally hails from some other country, they’re also still Americans. I grew up with my parents proudly displaying the American and Italian flags together, and they weren’t the only ones on our street to do so. After the September 11th attacks, American flags became even more ubiquitous, as a sign of national unity. As a result, we Yankees treat our flag with serious reverence. You’re not meant to ever put one on the ground. Don’t step on it. Don’t display it upside down. And don’t make fun of it. Just leave it alone and you’ll be fine.
Questions about your country:
Americans like British people. They think your accents are cute, and they think that you all wear funny hats and carry umbrellas. So when they ask you to put on a bowler, play along. Don’t get annoyed when they keep asking you questions about “England” when you know they really mean “Britain.” Resist the many opportunities you will have to educate your former colonials about how England doesn’t have a President, and that beer isn’t served warm in England, and have you ever met the Queen of England, and how they heard on Fox News that England’s socialised medicine is just terrible with everyone dying on account of 47 month waiting lists. Try to show some patience, and remember many Yanks will compliment you on your ‘oh-so-posh’ English accent- even if you’re from Swansea!
Size and scale:
America is so large, and so diverse, that British people often have a difficult time comprehending it. One can be flying on a plane six hours and never leave the country. Pretty much every American owns a car, but not everything is close enough to drive to. The only place with a reliable inter-city train network is the northeast, between Boston and Washington DC. Don’t talk about America as if it were all the exact same from place to place, and be careful not to make travel plans between cities that look close on the map but may be hundreds of miles apart.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Americans come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. By way of reference: more Americans speak Spanish than there are people in the entire United Kingdom.
America is a country of extremes. Winters in the north can be brutal with freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall. Summers throughout much of the country are hot and humid- you will understand the Yankee love for air conditioning and drinks filled with ice if you ever have to spend a summer in the American south. But unlike in Britain, men taking off their shirts when things approach room temperature outside is heavily frowned upon. Except for that one muscle-bound dude with long hair and a snake wrapped around his shoulders. You know the guy- there’s one of him that shows up in every American inner-city park. That guy gets to take his shirt off for some reason. Maybe the snake gives him permission. You- white British guy- you don’t have the snake’s permission to take off your shirt.
Oh yeah, and we don’t use the metric system. 100 degrees is really really hot and 0 degrees is really really cold. Okay?
Pronouncing place names:
British people can be very sensitive and even derisive when American tourists mispronounce place names like Leicester or Tottenham. I’ve always found this unnecessarily cruel, since there’s no way to predict many UK pronunciations from their spellings. Streatham is “Strettum” and “Magdalene” College in Oxford is pronounced “Maudlin.” Things are easier in America, but there are still a few things to look out for, so you don’t get a case of poetic place-name justice.
- Las Vegas: British people insist on pronouncing the “Las” in Las Vegas as it’s spelled, like the word ‘last’, but leaving off the ‘t’, but the correct American pronunciation is actually closer to “Los Vegas.” If you’re going to go there and drink until you throw up, at least learn to pronounce it correctly.
- New Orleans is often pronounced “New Orleens” but is referred to as “New Orlins,” or “N’awlins” by locals. Also a place you might be throwing up.
- Houston the city is pronounced “Hue-sten” and there’s no reason to go there, but there is a street in New York City that is pronounced “How-sten” and you might find some reason to throw up there.
- Arkansas: There’s no “sass” in Arkansas. Instead it’s “Ark-en-saw” as in ‘”I saw some British tourists throwing up outside a bar in Arkansaw.”
- Birmingham: BirmingHAM (If you’re in America, you emphasise the “ham”- we like ham).
Words with different meanings:
Everyone in Britain thinks its hilarious that “fanny” has such a different meaning in America. But we have our secret little words as well, that you’d be wise to learn:
- Asian: In America, Asian people are what British people would call East Asian- Chinese, Japanese, etc… You will never hear someone from India or Pakistan referred to as Asian in America. We call them, um, Indian and Pakistani.
- Bum: someone lazy, or a derogatory term for a homeless person, not a mild slang term for a person’s bottom.
- Fag or faggot: Americans do not use the word “fag” for cigarettes or “faggot” for a type of meatball. Not ever. Going around talking about “fags” or “faggots” in America will get you punched in the mouth for homophobia, unless you’re in BirmingHAM, where you might actually make some friends doing this. The kind of friends who invite you to rallies where people wear sheets over their heads.
- Geezer: doesn’t mean “Good chap” but rather: decrepit old man. It won’t make you any friends calling someone a geezer.
- Hard: When a man is “hard” in America, it means he has an erection, not that he is a tough fellow.
- Homely: means “ugly” in America, not comfortable. I’ll put it in a sentence for you: Birmingham in Britain is a homely city.
- Hooker: Not a rugby term – it means a prostitute. Like the kind you might find in Los Vegas.
- Knock someone up: Doesn’t mean to visit someone, but to impregnate them. Be careful which one you choose to do, particularly in Los Vegas.
- Pants: If you’re in America, you can’t snicker every time someone says this word, which means both “underpants” and “crazy” in Britain, but just means “trousers” in the USA. Here, let’s practice: Pants pants pants pants pants pants pants. If you’re not laughing, we can move on.
- Pasty/Pastie: In America a pastie is not a cornish meat pie, but rather a nipple covering, the kind you might find on the bosom of an exotic dancer in…oh never mind, you get the idea.
- Rubber: This means condom in America.Yes – we will laugh at you if you ask for a rubber when what you really need is an eraser.
- Spaz: While in Britain, calling someone a spaz, or a spastic, is considered incredibly offensive, in the states, there is no milder insult. It means “klutz” and can be used freely in a way that British people would find unimaginable. Go ahead and try calling someone this while you’re in America. You’ll find it weirdly exhilarating you cheeky monkey.
- Table a topic: in the U.S. essentially means to put something aside for another day. In Britain of course it means the opposite. There’s nothing really funny about this, but I suppose it could come up in a business meeting in Hue-sten, which really isn’t a fun city to visit. Let’s table visiting Hue-sten.
- Old Queen: Does not refer to your beloved monarch, but instead, a different type of ‘queen’ that you may encounter in cabaret performances. Feel free to curtsy to her though- that part works the same.
So if you follow these simple tips and guidelines, you like totally won’t make a spaz out of yourself, and you’ll have an awesome time. You’ll be smiling while you drink your iced tea and eat your tacos. You’ll give a generous tip, talk to the waitress for a little bit- she’ll ask you all about your cool English accent- and then you’ll go off and drive two hours away to buy some pants at Walmart, with your car’s small US flag flapping in the breeze. You’ve done it- you’re an honourary, sorry, honorary Yankee. God bless you, and God Bless America!