Article: 25 Things Any Brit Visiting the US Should Know: HowStuffWorks
25 Things Any Brit Visiting the US Should Know
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About This Article
If Richard Curtis has shown us anything, it is that the UK and the US are not the same. While our cultures share similarities, there are important differences that go back centuries, marking the cultural split between the two nations. First, there are differences between the US and the UK that, for travelers with a little knowledge, can mean having a great time. Second, there are the differences that are traps waiting for a visitor's footfall. Stepping amiss can have consequences, visible or not, consequences that can close doors you never knew were there, or make your life less than ideal in other ways.
The United States' cultural differences go back to the 1700s, when they began naming places and institutions "Columbia" to differentiate their cultural identity from British to American, taking the name of the Italian explorer over older names — turning King's College in New York City into Columbia University, for example. Having a written constitution does not just mean there are functional differences in terms of the law, but the way people think of their rights is different, venerating the document in some of the same ways one venerates a much-loved head of state. These differences are just the tip of the iceberg and hint at the differences for which British visitors should prepare.
In most of the US, drivers may turn right on red
With the exception of New York City and any place where it is otherwise signposted, it is legal for drivers to make right turns on red lights in the United States, meaning that crossing the street can be perilous for the unwary pedestrian. Likewise, when behind the wheel at a light, you may find drivers honking their horns at you, as you are not utilising this American traffic rule.
The thing used to erase pencil is called an "eraser"
Another case of words having very different meanings in American shorthand, the rubber nub in the blunt end of a pencil is referred to as "an eraser", not "a rubber." Yes, it is rubber, and yes, one does rub it against the paper, but in America, the term "a rubber" is slang for a prophylactic.
American employers can fire at will
Workplace firings are common in the US and easily accomplished. In the US, it is possible to fire employees without the requirements or protections found in the UK, so being made redundant would, in fact, be redundant. In fact, there are some US states where laws effectively render union organizing toothless, in addition to an offense for which one could be fired.
"I don't care" doesn't mean the same thing
Despite the slow infiltration of Australian English, as evidenced by the sudden use of "no worries" by Americans, American English has a few quirks that remain unique artifacts of the development of the dialect. One such distinction is Americans' use of "I don't care" as a Briton might use "I don't mind." Remember this when you think an American has blown off your suggestion for lunch.
Blue laws: the legacy of Puritanism
Perhaps harking back to America's past as a Puritanical nation, many states preserve what are referred to as "blue laws;" laws with origins in religious practices and prohibitions. Most surviving blue laws restrict businesses from doing work on Sunday, which can shut down whole towns' shopping districts, while others restrict the sale of vices on Sundays.
Bring your appetite
If one plans on eating in America, one needs to be ready for portions that any Briton would deem several helpings. Food and portion size can be a touchy topic in America, where health or the lack of health is seen in part as a lifestyle, and thus something one can take blame or credit for. Either way, assume that when you dine out, you will receive very large food helpings.
The US gallon is not the UK gallon
In the 1700s, most weights and measures were shared in the colonies and in Great Britain, but deviations began to appear, especially as it came to bushels and gallons. The nascent US considered the metric system, but, feeling the people would reject it, brought standardized weights and measures into compliance with Britain's ... mostly. The most notable difference is the US gallon, which is 0.83267 of a UK gallon, something one would do well to remember when purchasing petrol — or rather, "gas."
Road signs are harder to read in America
You may already know that in America, people drive on the right side of the road, but there are other details you should know. First, motorway exit signs are posted physically behind the exit, so if you aren't paying attention, you will be notified that you have reached your exit after passing it. Additionally, stop signs mean you must come to a full stop, and all road signs are capitalized because someone in the American government is under the impression that all-caps words are easier to read.
Iowa out-fries the Scots
America is the land of bigger and better in many ways, but did you know it is also the land of bigger and batter? One may think of Scotland when one thinks of foods battered and deep fat fried, but in America, this has been elevated to high art. The deep-fried Snickers or Twinkies is not an uncommon sight, and at the Iowa State Fair, a required campaign stop for Presidential hopefuls, one can find the deep-fried stick of butter. Yes, you read that correctly. And yes, a stick is the agreed unit of butter.
America is further south than you think
America is further south than you think, with New York more or less the same latitude as Rome, Italy. As a result, summer days in America are shorter than in the UK, but winter days are longer. Furthermore, the US is much larger than you probably think, with only 133,258 fewer square miles than all of Europe, but with 416,930,000 fewer people. For example, France, which is about the size of Texas, has a population of 67,000,000, whereas Texas has a population of 28,300,000. That means a lot of wide-open spaces, with no people.
Marks, periods and other punctuation conventions
American English has a few important conventions which are very different. For starters, Americans do not refer to "." as "a full stop," but rather as "a period." "Exclamation marks" are, to Americans, "exclamation points." Perhaps the single most vexing thing you will encounter is that American computer keyboards are just different enough to be problematic, with certain symbols mapped to different keys.
Breakfast is the most American meal
American diners derived their menu from the railroads which gave birth to the American diner. As such, this menu had to appeal to people from all over the country and is an atlas of American culinary traditions. No meal expresses these quite like breakfast, which may consist of grits, huge complex omelets, stacks of fat pancakes four-inches high, waffles, sausages, steaks and even burritos. Many of these traditions come from a time when most Americans worked in agriculture and needed a huge breakfast in order to make it through a day of hard farm labour.
Dating is done differently
In America, there is a long and highly evolved system for finding a partner they call "dating." This process may not be the same as what one has become accustomed to in the UK. In America, singles bluntly ask about each others' relationship status, requesting dates which some Britons would consider akin to going for a job interview. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but it results in an environment where good communication is the baseline.
The American healthcare industry is as ruthless as a loan shark
The first rule of visiting America is not to fall ill there. While America has many fine doctors, it also has a healthcare system responsible for over a quarter of US household bankruptcies. When traveling to the US, it is imperative that one purchases a travel insurance policy that covers healthcare costs. If you currently pay for private health insurance in the UK, you may already have this taken care of, but you must check before you go.
Americans' time off works very differently
To many Americans, a 40-hour workweek is considered practically part-time. Depending on the profession, or combination thereof in the case of those who need more than one job to make ends meet, Americans can easily find themselves working up to 80 hours a week. Additionally, the concept of getting five weeks' paid holiday leave per year is completely unheard of.
Americans will not appreciate your comparisons to home
While many Americans have great affection for the UK, they do not appreciate it when anyone from outside the US compares it unfavorably to other places in the world. Italian Americans (a group which may include people whose family members have not set foot in Italy in four generations) for example, may compare Italy favorably to the US, but you mustn't because you're not any sort of American.
That hat you're wearing isn't for Jay-Z
Many Britons think of the interlocking "NY" symbol on a hat as the trademark of rapper Jay Z, and it is, sort of. It isn't owned by Jay-Z though, as it is the symbol of the New York Yankees, the richest, most successful baseball team in the world. The Yankees are a polarizing team, with fans all over the US, but few Americans are neutral on the Yankees, either loving them or hating them. Know that if you wear a Yankees cap, you may encounter some negativity in some parts of the country, particularly New England.
Some places really are open 24/7
Not every city is open all night, but enough of America has businesses open all night that it is often possible to find decent food in the wee hours of the morning, though it does not work the same way everywhere. Late night services available in Chicago will differ greatly from what is on tap in Las Vegas, which will be different from those in Miami.
America doesn't just have regional Accents
Some American regional accents are well known, from Sylvester Stallone's Philly-speak to the clipped Texas twang of George W. Bush, however, accents are the tip of the iceberg. Many American regions have their own vernacular, using words that can create confusion even among Americans. Carbonated drinks, for example, may be called "soda," "pop" or even "coke," which is the generic name used in parts of the south near the home of the Coca-Cola corporation.
Never joke about guns or terrorism
Since 2001, Americans have completely lost their sense of humor about safety threats, and for good reason. As a result, joking about terrorism or guns is akin to joking about a fire in a crowded building, and may be met with what will seem like a disproportionate response. Given the reasons for Americans' wariness about these issues, who can blame them? Confine your humourous jabs to politics and food.
Americans cannot section anyone without strong cause
In America, one cannot simply be sectioned for being mentally ill. Following a string of court cases in the '60s and '70s, it has become settled law that in order for a mentally ill person to be "institutionalized" it must be proven in court that they are a threat to themselves or others. Said proof is generally agreed to be the commission of a crime. As a result, a very mad person may not be sectioned until he or she acts on their madness, which may mean help comes too late.
Tipping is the norm
Many professions in America do not pay a living wage because it is assumed that workers will be tipped. These professions include taxi drivers, wait staff and cloakroom attendants. Officially, tipping isn't mandatory, but not tipping is seriously frowned upon unless service is utterly horrific. The normal tip amount is 15% to 20% of the bill, after taxes have been added.
Americans celebrate everything with a day
The American government has a calendar festooned with national "days" celebrating things aside from the expected "Martin Luther King Jr. Day" or "New Year's Day." For example, April 22nd is "National Jelly Bean Day." July 27th is "Take Your Pants For A Walk Day." January 31st is, very strangely, both "National Popcorn Day" and "Child Labor Day." Perhaps the strangest of all is November 5th, which Americans call the oddly phrased "Gunpowder Day," and it isn't clear if they understand why.
The bag you're wearing isn't called "a bum bag"
The word "bum" has many associations in the US, not all of them polite or to do with anatomy. For some reason, a word Americans often use as a — and this is not a joke, nor is it particularly comfortable to even bring this up — polite word for one's backside is "fanny." Thus, they may, without irony, refer to "sitting on one's fanny" or wearing an item we would call "a bum bag" and they would refer to as "a fanny pack." Try not to laugh when you hear this.
Las Vegas isn't the only gambling destination
Las Vegas may be the most famous gambling attraction in the US, but it's hardly the only one. Elsewhere in Nevada is Reno, which is like a little version of Las Vegas, and dotted across the country are casinos on Indian Reservations, including Foxwoods, the fourth-largest casino on Earth. A much older gambling oasis is Atlantic City, a place known as the basis for the game "Monopoly," and the home of America's most famous bankrupted casino, the Trump Taj Mahal.
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