Surviving your first year as an American in the UK

Updated August 10, 2017

Whether you're moving to the UK for work, to study or simply because you've fallen in love with the country, your first year in the country can be difficult. There will be times when you'll wonder whether you made the right decision. Quite apart from the usual practical problems of moving between continents, there are a few specific aspects of life in the UK that can be difficult to get a handle on.


Everyone knows that British and American English have thousands of minor differences -- what Americans call pants, Britons call trousers, while pants to a Brit are underpants to an American; sidewalks are pavements, private schools are public schools, and so on. While there may be some terms you'll find confusing, the real challenge is psychological, in that the language difference constantly reinforces that you're an outsider. Still, you won't have it as bad as someone whose first language wasn't English at all.


One difference between the two cultures that's far more than psychological is the cost of living. You'll find that, while the value of the pound usually floats anywhere between about $1.50 and $1.75, it tends to buy more like $1.25 worth of goods and services. As a result, British people tend to be a little less impulsive in their spending and accumulate a little less stuff than their American counterparts.


Food is actually one area where the stereotypes will have prepared you better than you need -- Americans tend to think of British food as horrible, but the reality is quite different. While bland, overcooked fare may once have been the norm, traditional British cuisine has become respectable in recent decades, and is actually not bad. Even areas where Britain was once lacking are being remedied -- good Mexican food used to be impossible to find; now it's merely difficult. Despite improvements in British cooking, Indian food remains the national cuisine.


If you work in a mainly-British office or spend a lot of time with a spouse's British relatives, you may occasionally see a tiny wince pass over the faces of your coworkers or relatives. This isn't because they don't like you; it may just be that you're being too loud. Brian Blessed aside, the average Brit speaks more quietly than the average American. It's a trait closely linked with another famous British quality, emotional reserve.


Britain has about 20% percent as many people as the US and is much, much smaller physically; nonetheless, it has a bewildering variety of accents. Manchester and Liverpool, for instance, are less than 45 miles apart -- closer than San Francisco and San Jose -- but have completely different accents. Some of these, to Americans, can be very challenging, and even fellow Brits will tell you they're never quite sure what someone from Newcastle or Glasgow is saying. If you're expecting everyone you meet to sound like Mr Darcy, you're in for a rude shock.


British reserve manifests itself in many ways, but Americans are likely to encounter it as what might seem like an unfriendly unwillingness to chat. It isn't that your British acquaintances don't like you, but they usually like to maintain a respectful distance longer than Americans. If you try to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the Tube, there is a good chance they will look at you as if you were a murderer.

Britain and England

One key vocabulary point many Americans get wrong is the difference between Britain and England. England is a part of Britain, but so are other places such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish people are British, but tend to respond poorly to being called English.


For some Americans, the British weather can be harsh. If you grew up in Southern California, the long winter nights can seem oppressive. On the other hand, if you're from the Midwest, you may find British people complaining about their mild winters and pleasantly balmy summers perplexing. British weather can be highly changeable, though, so it's worth being prepared.


Unless you come from a big city, you're probably used to the fact that everything in the US is very spread out. A drive of a few hours might be nothing to you; irritating, maybe, but unavoidable. You'll find that your British friends regard a trip of this scale as a major undertaking. As the saying goes, Americans think a hundred years is a long time; Brits think a hundred miles is a long way.

Irony and sincerity

One of the most difficult aspects of the British character to master for Americans is the way in which Britons mingle irony and sincerity. For instance, when it comes to their country, most British people affect a certain air of cynical detachment. But criticise the monarchy -- which you might be forgiven for thinking of as a somewhat ridiculous institution -- and a good proportion will look at you as if you had just insulted their mothers.


A certain level of grumbling and doomsaying is traditional among the British; an inexperienced American might be fooled into taking this literally. In fact, this is just a cultural difference. For example, British people who have to deal with HMRC (the UK's tax service) may act like they have an appointment with a firing squad. If you ever have to deal with them, you may find that the gloomy buildup is not entirely justified; while dealing with the taxman is never fun, it's vastly different from dealing with the IRS.

Just ask

One of the easiest ways to deal with the challenges of a new culture is just to ask for help when you find something confusing. Fortunately, sympathy for the perplexed is a major part of British culture. If there's something you don't understand, just ask -- you may not get the perfect answer the first time, but your odds are pretty good. If you can find a group of American expats to help you, even better.

Accept confusion

That said, there are going to be some things you don't understand. You may never see what people find appealing about "The Archers" -- you're not alone. You may never be able to estimate weight in stone. There will always be some parts of your experience in the UK that are baffling, frustrating or even unpleasant. But if you wanted only the familiar and predictable, you'd have stayed at home.

Don't try to be British

Everyone knows one of those Americans; after six weeks in Britain, it's "cheers" this and "blimey" that, knowing all the words to "God Save the Queen" (something most British people don't) and putting Marmite on everything. It's hard to say whether Brits or Americans despise this person more. She probably means well -- she's just trying to show her hosts she values their culture. She isn't aware she's completely infuriating. Fitting in doesn't mean not being yourself. Don't pretend to be British, but don't expect the British to be Americans. It'll work out fine.

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About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.