What are some cultural differences between Americans and British that are not political or religious in nature?

Many of these touch on politics or religion (eg because Americans are more religious then church has a bigger role in social life)

“Two countries divided by a common language”: the use of English & shared history makes people think the two are close, but there are a lot of very real cultural differences.

A few:

  • Drinking and getting drunk is more common and more acceptable in UK. Maybe wrongly, but city centres people getting very pissed in a way you don’t see as much of as in US
  • But drunk driving is far less acceptable.
  • Lunch time drinking happens more in UK.
    It is no longer as common as it used to be, but is not unusual. A glass of wine with business lunch would be typical, or colleagues going for a pint at Friday lunchtime.
  • American children’s sports are far more serious & “professional” than in Britain. I met friends last week in CA who were worrying their 9-year old was “behind” in sports and being passed over for try-outs for baseball. That kind of competition wouldn’t be usual in UK. (I’m not sure there are even try-outs unless you are going for some specialised soccer academy)

    College football is huge in USA but irelevant in UK. Other than the boat race I doubt any university sporting match is on TV or much cared about by anyone but participants.

  • Fairly obvious: in UK self-deprecation is more normal; in American self-aggrandisation is more acceptable.
    (Try reading people’s resumes for an insight into this).
  • Briton’s tend to complain more (hence “whingeing poms”), Americans be more positive. Glass half full etc
  • But Brits will have more “Keep Calm & Carry On” phlegmatic.
    When there was the search for the Boston bombers & the city was locked down Britons were astonished at the over-reaction.
  • America is more legalistic & litigious. Lawyers are more feature of everyday life, people worry about lawsuits more.
  • Perhaps paradoxically, in many respects America is more regulated. “You can’t do that”. Jay-walkiing, needing permits for some kinds of businesses, being able to walk off the trail in national parks.
  • This also generalises into more respect for authority: people are respectful of the role of President in a way they aren’t about the Queen, journalists are more deferential to poltiticians.
  • Newspapers are more common in UK: the tabloids are more widely read & don’t really have US counterpart.
  • Americans are much prouder of their country. Flagpoles are common in USA; they’d be deeply odd in UK.
  • Race and racism plays out differently. US has more more successful blacks, but in many respects is more separated. There are TV programs blacks watch and whites don’t, and vice versa. I have friends in NY who are mixed race: they commented that certain suburbs one or other would be uncomfortable. Neither of those would be true in UK. Here race is closely linked to class, but there is a lot more mixing eg inter-racial marriage.
  • Related to above, the races are different. There are virtually no hispanics in England and it would be rare to see Spanish in signs, but there are a lot of Poles & Polish shops. There is also more Pakistani and Muslim things are more visible than in US (eg shops saying food is halal).
  • And as a result ethnic food is different. UK has very few Mexican restaurants -and most are dire- and virtually no Vietnamese. (Actually, both of those are changing in the last year or so, at least in London if not other places).
    On the other hand Indian restaurants are more common (actually, most are Bangaladeshi but never mind) as is Thai (I’m not quite sure why? In an odd twist a lot of English pubs serve Thai food). Kebabs are universal (Turkish and slightly different to Gyros, which don’t exist). Of course fish&chip shops still survive, and most pubs now do food.
  • Chain restaurants differ too. McDonalds and Subway are ubiquitous, but Denny’s, Wendy’s and IHOP are unknown in UK. Mid-market chains are different in UK – so no Red Lobster, Outback or Olive Garden, but Cote or Wagamamas.
  • Pubs vs bars
  • We don’t celebrate 4th July (d’oh) but there is no real “celebrate national day” equivalent. St George’s Day & St David’s day are essentially invisible, and to the extent St Patrick’s day is celebrated it is as a US import / excuse to drink beer.
  • There is no Thanksgiving nor equivalent. Christmas would be the only big day for seeing family.
  • Americans are bigger. Taller & heavier.
    And a lot more very obese people.
    (24% of English, 36% of Americans)[1] But beyond the %age you can see a lot more very, very fat Americans.
  • Guns perhaps touches on political, but in England they are very rare. Obviously, very few people own them & other than farmers or soldiers few will have shot one.
  • Hunting is very different. In England it is very much an upper class thing but more egalitarian (or even blue collar) in US
  • Another obvious one: Tipping.
    In USA you would tip almost every service person: 18-20% to waitstaff in a restaurant, taxi driver, $1-2 for a barman, something to hairdresser, bellboy, person who parks your car
    In UK waitstaff might get 10%-12% (but often that would be included as service charge in the bill), taxi-driver or perhaps barman “keep the change” – but in general few people get tips.
    Perhaps not surprising, there are fewer service staff: bellboys or car parking attendants would be rare.
    Visiting SoCal made me feel like Tom in Downtown Abbey – all those servants bowing & scraping for things I expect to do myself.
  • Universities. Americans are far more loyal to their university. Alumni networks, donating money to your school, wearing a class ring or signet ring – those are far more common in USA then in UK.
    Oxbridge is a slight exception.
  • Pedestrians are more usual in UK.
    Cities are more pedestrian friendly and people will walk more. When I was based in CA for a year and walked to the office or to bars it was tricky/scary & people were surprised: I can’t think of that reaction in UK.
  • As surprising one. Britain is more egalitarian in culture.
    Avoiding politics (social mobility etc) but as a cultural thing, as measured by Power-Distance [2] Britain scores 26, USA scores 31.
    While not a huge discrepancy, this is subtle but present, and is probably manifest in things like tipping.
    HT Eivind for blogging on power distance & making me think of this
  • To quote Mark Harrison’s answer to How should I respond when a stranger asks me “What do you do”? If asked “what do you do?”
  • When talking to an American: List your employer, then job title.

    When talking to a European: Explain your hobbies.

I’ll probably think of a few more.

Would be interested in other people’s thoughts too.

[1] After being nagged 😉 International Comparisons

[2] United Kingdom – Geert Hofstede This actually has quite a few interesting observations, but in most of them UK is close to USA. I’m not sure what to make of the disparity in “Pragmatism” score though…?

Note: there seem to be several versions of this score.

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