Watching the English

Big Ben

The iconic clock tower housing Big Ben in London.

Study abroad guides and similar publications suggest that culture shock can often be worse in countries like the UK, Australia, or other English-speaking countries. Americans expect them to be similar to home because they share a common language.

I’m not ready to agree that the culture shock is worse, but it can often be more jarring, sneaking up out of nowhere to thump you on the head, simply because you aren’t expecting it to.

The following observations certainly aren’t groundbreaking and for an extended view into the collective mind of the English, I recommend “Rules, Britannia” and “Watching the English,” both hilarious, insightful, and sometimes biting explorations of the quirks of English culture and society.

The English character

Wolfson College is located quite a ways from the city center — perhaps a 25-minute walk — so the college offers a free minibus service that departs roughly every 20 minutes during the week. In addition to the dozens of mostly Rhodes-affiliated people we had just met in our first few days here, Amanda and I made an effort to learn the name of our regular bus driver. A couple days later, I had promptly forgotten her name, but Amanda thought that it was Lucy. I played it safe with a generic “thank you,” while Amanda called her Lucy for at least a week — making a point out of using her name to show that she remembered and even joking with Lucy about it once.

Wolfson bus

The Wolfson minibus.

Our regular bus driver’s name is Julie. But Julie did not correct Amanda once that entire week. She allowed Amanda to use the wrong name every day, instead feeling deeply wounded each time she was called “Lucy.” This reaction, I’ve come to believe is very, very English. They won’t correct you, but every time you mess up, you will wound them deeply and personally.

Using the wrong name might have also stuck a different English nerve. From what I gather, referring to someone as “he” or “she” if they are present in the conversation is hugely rude here — always use the person’s name and get ready for some verbal gymnastics if you can’t remember it. While I’m not sure this is as common of a problem with Americans as some Brits seem to think it is, they are right in that I wouldn’t really bat an eye if someone referred to me as “he” in a group conversation (“He was just telling me that…”).

If you refer to someone who is present with an (im)personal pronoun, a Brit might respond with, “Who’s she, the cat’s mother?” For the life of me, I can’t puzzle out the origin of this expression, but the meaning is clear: Use a person’s name if you are talking with them.

And make sure it’s the right one.

Please keep off the grass

Due to nigh unceasing rains and a remarkable zeal for gardening, this entire country is one large swath of green lawn, but you can’t walk on any of it. I really don’t understand the point of such beautiful lawns serving exclusively as scenery, but, as they say here, Bob’s your uncle.

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Please keep off the grass. It’s for geese, not people.

As part of a small and relatively cramped country, the English take a justifiable pride in their gardens — I’ve had multiple conversations about the importance of tending one’s garden and having that personal space with different people. But as a spoiled Montanan who grew up assuming everyone could reach rivers, mountains, and empty lands within a 20-minute drive, I long for Montana’s open spaces.

Dressing like a European

Having spent significant time in Latin America, I’m used to sticking out as a very tall, white gringo. Living in Europe is novel because, if I tried hard enough, I could easily pass as any one of many different nationalities.

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Fairly typical dress for Oxford men. Note the red pants. Photo courtesy oxfordstudent.com

If I had a budget for new clothes (I don’t) and if I cared a great deal about how I look (I don’t), here is what I would do to try to look like a generic “educated, middle-class European man” who could possibly belong in Oxford.

First off, I wouldn’t wear jeans. They’re still very common here, but I would say that slacks are preferred in most cases. European men also wear tighter pants than American men (oops, I mean “trousers“). For reasons I don’t understand, brightly colored pants are very popular in Oxford — red, blue, green. The more garish, the better.

The following description is skewed to an Englishman, I think, but on top, I would opt for a nice button-up shirt, maybe a tie, and then a sweater or vest over all of it. Where I see excessive laundry and the risk of getting far more clothing dirty than necessary, a European probably sees a sharp-dressed man.

I wouldn’t be caught dead in the comfortable pair of what I’ll describe as “hiking shoes” that I currently wear. From Italy to England, leather shoes are much more common.

Finally, no self-respecting European would brave cold or wind without a trendy scarf. If I had to lob a general jacket choice out, I’d go for a pea coat, but the Italians were oddly fond of puffy jackets with fur-lined hoods.

Buying things

I’m not an economist, so forgive me if this is wrong, but I think the purchasing power of a pound is similar to that of a dollar. That is, £1 in the UK buys about what $1 in the US does. But the exchange rate is brutal: £1 is worth $1.60 to $1.70. So the “reasonable” £15 dinner you had? That’s going to show up on your credit card statement as $25. That starts to hurt real quick.

During my infrequent attempts to purchase things here, I am often confused by analogies to foreign concepts like this one, shown on refrigerator doors in Tesco, a large grocery chain.

During my infrequent attempts to purchase things here, I am often confused by analogies to foreign concepts like brewing tea, shown on refrigerator doors in Tesco, a large grocery chain.

And some things are simply far more expensive. Let’s turn to my favorite example: beer. Good heavens, it’s expensive here. One 16-ounce bottle (a pint) of good beer costs around £2.80 at the grocery store — that’s $4.67 or so. For one beer. You could buy a nice six-pack of microbrews for what you’d pay for two beers here (and six-packs don’t exist — only singles or large packs of crappy industrial brew).

I’m also probably revealing my Rocky Mountain bias, where paying $7 for a beer in a pub or $20 for dinner is expensive — that’s probably not the case for some big city, East Coast folks.

Because of all this — and the unenvious prospect of shipping possessions home — Amanda and I rarely buy anything here, other than food. We spent months with only two plates, two forks, two cups, etc., recently breaking down because we have friends to host. Our bed is slightly more comfortable than a tub full of scissors, but we simply adjusted to sleeping on it because we were too cheap to buy an expensive mattress pad.

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One response to “Watching the English”

  1. Zeke Zimmeman says :

    Sounds like you two are having the time of your lives, Mr. Zundel! I’m glad culture shock hasn’t changed your sense of humor. I hope all is well and I enjoy hearing your latest on the differences between the US and Them:)
    Stay healthy!

    Zeke Zimmerman

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