IN THE BEGINNING…
The cultural chasm was pretty obvious from the very start. Towards the end of 1998, my husband and I met in DC while I was a producer at ABC News/Nightline and he was an economist at the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The accent for me – the American – was a definite turn on (since that time, my husband has admitted to ‘turning it up’ a notch as he found saying literally anything with a British accent at a party would immediately leave him surrounded by admiring and flirty women within earshot. Think scene from the movie Love Actually).
Back then, I had the best job in the world with the best team as a producer for Ted Koppel and Nightline, interviewing world leaders, celebrities and the average Joe Citizen, bringing issues that made a difference to the public eye. We were usually on a plane to go cover a story or in the editing room cutting pieces to make air, so I had very little social life. And given Nightline went on the air after the local news, many nights I didn’t leave the office until midnight. When I did have the opportunity, most D.C. men I encountered were too self-involved and politically ambitious to see beyond their puffed up ego. The rest either wanted trophy wives while others had no backbone whatsoever.
Lesson: You can fancy pizza or a movie, but do not fancy anyone other than your boyfriend!
Yes, it was rare to walk into a Christmas party and find this handsome, tall, British rower & economist who was refreshingly honest when I peppered him with my standard questions that would suss out what kind of guy he is. “Most embarrassing moment?” was one, to which he proceeded to tell me a story so horrible, so embarrassing, that I had no doubt it was true. It was surprisingly transparent and genuine.
By the time we got into the cab to go to another party, I had moved on to “What is the first 45 you bought?” [Younger readers: a 45 is a small record with a main single on one side – the A side – and lesser known song on the B side]. We both discovered we had a ridiculously insane obsession with music for two somewhat nerdy people. We definitely “clicked”. He was smart and funny, grounded and adventurous. A quiet confidence, but sure enough in his own skin to reach into a conversation with people he didn’t know and make one small, witty comment that surpassed the mindless chatter around us. And that lovely accent. The spark was there and so it began.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TEA
There were hiccups here and there, but the first hint that there were some deeper, more ingrained, more innate cultural differences to me (and most Americans) was after we started dating. He was staying over at mine and knowing that tea was essential to his morning routine, I got up early and skipped out to the 7-11 at the end of my street in Adam’s Morgan where I bought some Lipton tea bags. Upon returning home, I thoughtfully poured some water in my era appropriate coffee-maker, placed the bag in a mug, and waited for hot water to come out the coffee maker.
As I handed it to him, I saw the look of what I can only described as disgust mixed with horror mixed with the look of someone who just smelled a very bad fart. “Wha..? What is wrong? You don’t like Lipton’s?” I couldn’t fathom what had caused this reaction. This rare show of emotion…over tea.
It wasn’t the Lipton’s – that he could have settled for – it was the fact that the water was not boiling! Not scalding, McDonald’s-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen hot! And huge, huge mistake: I poured the milk in immediately afterwards…yes, I know you Brits are cringing at what I’m going to say next…WHILE the tea bag was still in the mug! Or as y’all would say WHILST the tea bag was still in the mug!
TWO NATIONS DIVIDED BY A COMMON LANGUAGE
After that initial mistake, through the dating and subsequent visits to his native land, we realized the George Bernard Shaw quote rang all too true. We really are two nations divided by a common language.
However, we couldn’t even quote that without getting into an argument regarding the pronunciation of his name! Americans say George Ber-NARD Shaw, while (whilst) Brits say George BER-nerd Shaw. Yet being in that “honeymoon” period of dating, we found ourselves laughing smugly in that “Oh, we are so different and yet so in love and completely smitten” way that was probably extremely irritating for all around us. We marvelled at how often and unexpectedly a new confusion or question arose:
Me (to he and his friends on our first visit to the UK): C’Mon! Let’s go out exploring and get some lunch! So much to do and see (we had rented a big group house in the country for the weekend and they had plopped their asses in front of the telly for a cricket match). How long before this match is over?
They, in unison: Tuesday. (It was Saturday)
Me: Hah-hah, very funny!
They: Silence (Continuing the concentrated stares at the TV)
Me: Hang on, seriously, when will it be finished?
I truly thought they were pulling the wool over my eyes. Apparently not.
Or another BIG misunderstanding: Once his friends were visiting us in the States and I had picked up on the fact that everyone British said things like “I’d fancy a pizza right now” or “Fancy going to a movie?” so I thought I was being so hip and with it when I said “You know your friend Peter? I really fancy him.” He was grumpy and snippy with me for an hour. I thought I was trying to let him know I approved of his friends – he’d chosen well which shows what a good judge of character he is. Lesson: you can fancy pizza or a movie, but do NOT fancy any person other than your current boyfriend!
Likewise, he and his friends would bowl over with laughter when I told them I had gone horseback riding. “So, why didn’t you go horsehead riding?” they’d giggle. “Or perhaps tomorrow you’ll go horsetail riding!” Apparently, here, they just say “horseriding” and find anything else redundant (which it is) and hilarious. The list of faux pas and misunderstandings during our first few years were endless.
AMERICAN & BRITISH UNITY (and a lot of bickering)
In the end, however, we found we had more in common than we realised; all the things that were important to us like a decent moral compass, outlook on life, sense of humour, ambitions and dreams. Between the similarities, the differences became a fun distraction, a sidebar, to what we soon embarked on as a lifetime together: marriage, child, travel, dual careers, expats in my land, his land and both.
I discovered what “chuffed” meant. He found out what having your “druthers” means. I learned about cricket and rugby and Fifa. He became such a fan of baseball that – after we married – he enthusiastically suggested we spend every anniversary visiting a different baseball park in the US until we had seen them all (we stopped at 1). I bought “aubergine”, “courgette” and “rocket” in the UK, he bought eggplant, zucchini and arugula in the US.
He told me years later that first date was like the Spanish Inquisition and he just marked it up to me being a journalist, but perhaps it was the beginning of what is culturally, fundamentally different. Americans are more direct and upfront. And they tend to exude confidence in a way that is unsettling to Brits. They say what they mean and mean what they say, generally. On the other hand, the comedic mockumentaries W1A and Twenty-Twelve have made the British “indirectness” into a hilarious sketch theme. Trying to read the Brits can be (should be? is?) a university level class. In my humble opinion, Passport Control should hand out this handy chart (via the website Today I learned Something New), it would have saved me about 3 years of confusion and frustration.
On the other hand, Americans complete and total overuse of and infatuation with hyperbole is irritatingly grating on literally the entire world (see what I did there?). We love hyperbole: “It was AMAZING!” “That is so TOTALLY AWESOME!” “That wine is the BEST I’VE EVER HAD!”. By doing this ALL the time, the meaning is lost and the exact opposite occurs. If everything is the best, how can something be better? Or, worse? Newsreaders in the US are frequently calling any given story or event “the WORST EVER”. Until the next one…5 minutes later. Brits are more measured, more reserved. They will save that “best I’ve ever had” comment for very rare occasions.
Americans love hyperbole. If everything is THE BEST, what happens when something better comes along?
Case in point, we had a group of friends over for a wine tasting where we each brought a bottle of cheap wine and one rather expensive. We blinded the wines and had people rate them. The Brits were so frustrating. They never gave the highest rating (5 out of 5). We had 5 Americans and 5 Brits and at the end of the night I asked all the Brits how many 5’s they gave. Not one single Brit gave a top mark (and there were some exceptional wines!). Asking the Americans, we all had given at least one 5. My husband and his friends explained their rational as such: if you hand out a 5 at the beginning or middle, what happens when you come across a wine that surpasses you last 5? They showed restraint because handing out too many superlatives means they are no longer superlatives but, in fact, just like everything else. As an aside, like most wine tastings, the wines got progressively better as the night went on, and the wine that won was the cheapest – a £5 Anjou from Sainsbury’s.
Anyway, it made us realise our starting points were remarkably different. We spent a total of 8 years in the US together and now more than 7 years here in London (with 3 years in neutral territory, as we call it, or South Africa). We’ve come to realize that both countries with their customs and stereotypes and general culture have influenced us. I am no longer completely American, he is no longer completely British. But we love both places equally. Neither is perfect – far from it. But both are home. And because I can observe and be enchanted with English culture as a foreigner, he sees it through a new perspective. Likewise, he points out things about America that I had forgotten were good or, more important, that I took for granted. We embrace the cultural rivalries with a mutual understanding and growth and bickering. Lots of bickering.
So this blog, and subsequent ones, will celebrate all that is different between the US and the UK. From our observations, perspectives and constant nattering for the past 20 years!