Monday, December 5, 2011

Living in the USA: My Culture Shock Top 10

I read with great interest and was amused by the directness of an essay by Sophia Angelique about the culture shock of moving to and living in the USA, after being in the UK, and I recognized much of what she said - although I must admit that I was a little troubled that she was still undergoing culture shock a full eight years after arriving there.

Some of the videos she posted up on there are excellent too.  The one of Stephen Fry (Brit) talking to Clive James (Ausie who lives in the UK) stood out as particularly outstanding and again, much of what they say is very recognizable to me.  (I’ve included the vid at the end of the top 10).

I thought it would fun to summarize some of the top 10 things that can be surprising and difficult for a typical Brit living in the USA, based on a variety of sources including my own experiences and those observations mentioned above.

I’m writing from a purely British perspective, of course, so I don’t know how much you will relate to it, if at all, if you’re non-British, or if you have never experienced living in the USA.  It also occurs to me that younger Brits might find it easier than older gits like me to cope with the culture shock, as I am probably stuck in my ways to some degree.  But anyway, in no particular order, here goes with my top 10.

  1. As Stephen Fry points out, coming from a monarchy, you kind of expect the US to have more republican values of “all men are equal”, but in fact American values are quite different from that.  Individual freedom is seen as more valuable than equality and justice in the US which gives it a different value system to the UK (and indeed the majority of republics).  Fry argues in the video that it’s rooted in the way that the American constitution prioritizes things.

  1. As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s difficult to underestimate and understate the importance of religion in American life, whether it’s in everyday life, or in general society and politics.  Outside of respectable religion, I would also say that superstition and hokey beliefs are also much more common too.

  1. It’s much more commercial and materialistic here compared to Blighty.  Practices that would be considered mercenary back in the UK are much more commonplace.  Money seems to trump all in the USA, maybe even religion.  It certainly runs the political system.

  1. As a Brit, you get told that we’re a class ridden society - and we certainly are compared to places like Germany, The Netherlands, Scandanavia, but in many ways the British class system is nothing compared to the US where there is a stronger sense of hierarchy, and social and economic status really is the be all and end all for most people.

  1. American politics.  Things are shifted so far to the right here compared to the UK, I still have trouble working out who’s who.  Often a ranting politician that I think is a rightwinger, turns out to be Democrat.  The loony, foaming at the mouth, religious nut, I discover later is a respected Republican Senator.

  1. The lack of infrastructure can be frustrating here, if you’re not used to it.  Outside of the big cities, there is very little public transport.  Whereas you will get shops and pubs in the suburbs of towns and in rural areas in the UK, there is very little of that in the USA.  Not only is it a convenience thing, but local shops, post offices, pubs are where a British community would meet and builds ties.  (It was interesting to read that this was one thing that Brits found difficult about moving to Australia in a BBC article that I read).

  1. As Fry points out, America is an enormous place with lots of semi-autonomous states that often have a strong sense of self-identity.  People often have more in common with and identify more with their state than the country as a whole.  (In the UK, of course, we have Scotland, Wales, England and Ulster, but it is different.)

  1. Americans really believe in things.  British people tend to be skeptical about pretty much everything.  We make good scientists but poor dreamers.

  1. The right to bear arms and the gun thing is difficult to understand as an outsider.  I am not particularly comfortable with all the violence that you get in America movie and drama either, although sometimes I think it just acts as a lazy plot device, it can seem to come uncomfortably close to romanticizing violence.  I am no pacifist, by the way, I just don’t think real violence is in any way romantic.

  1. As Fry says, the American ideas of “liberty” and “freedom” are very difficult for a Brit to understand.  For us, “liberty” and “freedom” are essentially concepts, which makes them essentially wooly.  That doesn’t mean that we see them as bad ideas, we just don’t understand them as being solid things.

Ironically, after a year of living in the USA, I quite often feel that I understand it less now than I did when I arrived.


The difference between the English and Americans


  1. I read the affiliate post on Hubpages and I wish I hadn't in some ways. That woman is extremely bitter and locked in to one particular way of thinking. There's not a little irony in the way she expresses that she is uncomfortable with the idea of America as 'the best country in the world' when she is clearly indicating in her entire people about the superiority of life in Britain. Weird...anyway...

    Yes, there are problems in America. But again, I see another reference to America not being a place of refined tastes. We have produced great musicians, artists, writers and actors, so obviously it's not some hellish backwater. Not to mention, we are gracious and generally embrace foreigners who openly and admittedly come to this country to do what they cannont do in their own: Make a ton of money.

    What I don't get about the individual freedom thing in America is that is really just a concept, and not a concrete thing. People will pay lip service to personal freedom and then dress the same, buy the same, drive the same as everybody else and if you don't tow the line you're 'weird' or 'subversive'. So much for personal freedom.

    And I bemoan the idea of justice being down on the list, but I have to admit after much soul-searching that you may be correct about that. It just pains me, because I come from a family that prizes justice (social and legal) and intellectualism/critical thinking. So, it's hard to accept that perhaps we aren't living up to what I once believed was an ideal or value that I did view once as American.

    I like the Stephen Fry video, much better than the post. Although both give me context for you being somewhat more reasonable and in the middle ground than I previously viewed you as being. As an American, I appreciate a different perspective, as painful as it can be to be viewed through another culture's eyes as money-grubbing, uncouth, thoughtless, unprincipled, theocratic, dogmatic, unreasonable, illogical and mercenary, not to mention mendacious.


  2. My article is really a subjective article about British culture shock rather than what is objectively good or bad about the USA. I am certainly no expert on the US, just fascinated by the Brit in the USA experience.

    I would tend to agree that Sophia Angelique appears to be more critical about the US, but obviously I can't speak on her behalf.

    I agree that the USA has produced great music and literature, it is also the world's pioneer in things such as computers and technology and American beer is far better than its international reputation, but that sort of stuff doesn't generally cause culture shock to a Brit, so it isn't included.

    Some of the arguments and discussions in the US, don't exist in the UK because Americans are coming at issues from a different place (both physically and psychologically!).

  3. Paul,

    Not a surprising list. These things surprised (and shocked) me while living in the US, and I'm an American. In regard to justice, the US still maintains a certain lawless sensibility. People who might be squashed get squashed if it's convenient for the system, not necessarily because they've done anything to warrant punishment. I'm not saying it always happens this way in the "justice" system, but sometimes it does. I've seen it.

    America is very much about who you know, too. This determines everything--where you come from, who your family is, etc.

    All the negatives you've listed are things I've always struggled with as an American. If you don't agree with those values, it's very alienating, and you will be an outsider. Oscar Wilde had it right when he said that "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

    That said, I liked the note about the dreamers. We are good at that--don't know where it's getting us these days though. (I just finished watching all 6 parts of that Frontline God in America thing and it addresses this quality a number of times.)

  4. Thanks for your comment taramoyle. By scientists and dreamers, I tend to think of the Dyson vacuum cleaner and the Steve Jobs ipod. The UK has great practical inventions, but the US is great at coming out with visionary leaps.

  5. Indeed. Us Brits like our angels to have clipped wings.

    I'm surprised by #4. I don't think I've really ever experienced a class divide in America. I still have this romantic notion that anyone from any background can achieve anything in America. Maybe that's not the reality anymore.

    As for that original article being negative, it was written by a Brit. We are the best complainers. We'd much rather point out the negatives than extol the positives. The American notion of positivity is perhaps my #1 'shock'.

  6. The class thing is complex, but I would agree with Fry overall. I think I will denote an entire post to social class at some point, as it's a fascinating area and certainly different to the UK.

    I do feel that the poorer and more excluded sections of society can seem much more passive here in the US, and I get the impression that they don't see themselves as being as good as other Americans who are wealthier, whereas as the Brits at the bottom of the pack have a more: 'how dare you treat me like this, I'm as good as the next man' mentality. (The French are the archetypal republicans though, of course).

    Yes, British people see complaining as virtually an art form, whereas it is considered almost taboo in the US. My wife still finds it difficult that I moan about things without expecting any resolution.

    1. Having recently (today) discovered your blog, I believe you offer an important and underrepresented perspective on 21st century American culture from a British perspective. There's a bit of a spark of interest in Britain these days, thanks as I mentioned in a prior comment probably to "Downton Abbey's" tremendous success. There are many themes covered by that series, but even disregarding that fictional period drama completely, the non-fictional subject of "class" (i.e., socioeconomic status) endlessly intrigues so many of us -- across the centuries, and across "the pond." Please, please do write about it... It is especially interesting to read about the contemporary American class system as experienced through you (i.e., a British expat) because those of us who are totally engulfed in the American system truly cannot see what exactly we're engulfed in :) It would be very interesting to read your observations, and see if they mesh with our gut feelings. Don't worry about "offending" your American readers, we want to see our "world" from fresh outside eyes ... not simply because of self-absorbed narcissism, but also because we suspect our system does have certain built-in flaws which we could possibly correct, or at least try, if only we were a little more certain we knew what they are! :)

      Thank you for your blog.

    2. Thanks for your comment. I am working myself up to dealing with this topic area. I am a big fan of Downton Abbey, which I think is great drama. Writing 4oo or 500 words on a topic can sometimes feel a little unsatisfying as I know that I am just scratching the surface.

  7. (Come to think of it, the US does have "complaining as virtually an art form", but it was developed by the minority, socially excluded black population, not the majority whites, and they call it "The Blues")

  8. Surely "The Blues" white counterpart is country music? You know the old joke, if you play it backwards you get your wife, house, job and dog back.

  9. You have a point. Especially with some of the early country, such as Hank Williams.

  10. I am still surprised by things, after 5 years of living in the US. Does that count as culture shock? Probably not.

    Good discussion. I enjoyed this post, because it made me stop and think about the whole cultural divide, and these days, I do much less of that.

  11. @Iota. The politics here is difficult. It's not just that the US is far to the right of the UK (which it is) but that they have some very different ideas about what is and isn't important - it brings home how different US society is. I know that my parents friend who moved here 25 years ago spent about 15 years struggling with the politics.

    1. If you want to know the roots of American culture,you have to study the history of the puritan's.