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Top 10 Biggest Differences Between America And Britain

by Ward Hazell
fact checked by Jamie Frater

In many ways Britain and America are so close that they seem very familiar.

However, although they may share a common language (almost) there are some key differences between the 2 nations that travelers may not be aware of.

Movies and TV have done much to make us think that we know what life is like in other countries, but TV can only show you so much.

Here are some cultural differences you may not be aware of.

See Also: 20 Differences That Confuse Us All

10Good Morning America (And Britain)

Americans typically begin their day with a cup of coffee, either a plain ‘cup of joe’ or something fancier with frothy milk and syrups, and they consume 400 million cups a day. Britons, on the other hand, begin their day with tea. Unlike the few American tea-drinkers, 98% of British tea drinkers add milk to their tea.[1]

While Americans may debate the relative merits of lattes and cappuccinos, Britons argue about whether to put the milk in first or last, and whether the tea should be made in a pot or a mug. Some Britons get upset if the milk is added in the wrong order. While Britain may not have elaborate tea-drinking ceremonies, such as they have in Japan, they do have Afternoon Tea, which is tea (served in a pot, with the milk in a jug, so you can please yourself). It is also accompanied by tiny cucumber sandwiches, and a Cream Tea, which is not tea at all, but a scone filled with jam and cream.[2]

And then there is the question of whether you put the jam at the bottom, or the cream.

Which is also very important.


9Leave Leave Leave

Although workplaces are often very similar on both sides of the Atlantic, working practices can be very different. Americans tend to work longer hours and have fewer breaks than their counterparts in Britain. The British working day typically begins at 9.00 and finishes at 5.00, and in that time, workers will have a minimum of 30 mins for lunch, and very often an hour, as well as 2 short breaks, (tea breaks). Americans often eat their lunch while they work, whilst Britons either go out for lunch or eat away from their desks.

American workers have no automatic right to paid holidays, although around 10 days paid holidays is often offered. British workers get at least 20 days, and usually have bank holidays too, giving them 28 days a year minimum. Many employers also have incentive schemes boosting paid holidays up to 35 days or more a year.

British workers also have paid leave for sickness. Maternity leave is 39 weeks at 90% of their normal wage (and which can be divided between mother and father if they wish), with paid other leave often offered for compassionate or child-care reasons.

American employers are much better at providing benefits to their employees, especially bonuses, life insurance and retirement benefits. British employers do pay into pension funds but at a much lower rate. A few also offer private medical insurance, although that is not considered a necessity in Britain because they have access to free medical care.[3]

8Food Glorious Food (And Drink)

At the end of a long day at work, what can be better than a night out? While it should be a pleasurable social activity, transatlantic visitors may soon find themselves confused about dining etiquette. Americans tend to tip generously, Britons tend to tip only in high-class restaurants, and then only sparingly. They never tip waitresses in diners (cafes) or bars (pubs).

If they can’t finish their meal, Americans often take home a doggy bag to eat the following day. This is accepted, and even encouraged (why waste good food, right?). Britons do not ask for doggy bags. If you find yourself in a British restaurant and you ask for one, the staff will spend 10 minutes trying to find something to put it in, and will assume that you are too poor to buy another meal.[4]

American bars tend to have table service, whilst British pubs expect you to go to the bar. You will have to pay for each drink as you buy it, and not at the end of the night, and pubs rarely have waitresses, unless they also serve food. To attract the attention of the bar staff you are expected to stand at the bar, holding up your money and looking hopeful. If you shout your order, wave or snap your fingers, they will ignore you. Finally, if you are in a pub and someone buys you a drink, it is not a gift, it is a round, and you are expected to buy the next round.

Sliding out of buying your round is a huge social faux pas.[5]

7Money (Ssshhhh!)

Americans may think that they are reluctant to talk about money, but compared to the British, they are just great big blabbermouths. British people never discuss how much they earn, even with close friends and family. Surveys have shown that not only would they be embarrassed to borrow money from a friend, they would also feel embarrassed about lending it, and about asking for it back if it wasn’t returned.[6]

People who have lots of money generally behave as if they have none, and those with none, as if they have lots, though no one is willing to specify the dollar amount that they have in the bank.

Surveys have shown that over 80% of Americans think it’s perfectly fine for people to make as much money as they can. British people, however, rarely admit to being ‘rich’, usually only describing themselves as ‘comfortable’ or ‘not starving’. It’s OK to make money, as long as you never talk about it, and never spend it. If you do spend it, it must not be in an ostentatious manner. People
who do, are called ‘nouveau riche’.[7]

Which is not a good thing.

6On the Road

Everyone knows that drivers in Britain (or America) drive on ‘wrong’ side of the road, but that is not the only difference. British cars tend to be much smaller, perhaps because gas (petrol) is so much more expensive. Over 75% of British cars are stick-shift (manual) cars, compared with 2% in America.[8]

When you go to buy your expensive gas, you will fill your tank first and then pay for your gas, because they are very trusting. British roads are rarely straight, and towns and cities are not laid out in a grid. Rather they meander round bends, where you can’t see what’s coming.

In America, intersections are usually managed with traffic lights, whilst in Britain they have roundabouts, where the driver on each road gives-way to the driver on their right. Sometimes everyone waits until someone moves, and then the other drivers sound their horn in annoyance.[9]

5Making Polite Conversation

Whilst it is fair to say that neither America nor Britain has a monopoly on politeness, they do have slightly different ways of showing it. Researchers have discovered that Americans favor making people feel welcome, and making them feel good, while the British go for something rather more formal.

So, they say please and thank you, a lot, but are not likely to tell you to have a good day. They may ask how you are, but only on the understanding that you don’t tell them. It is a pleasantry only, and not a serious inquiry.

Americans also seem to be more comfortable with saying what they actually mean than the British, who are famously evasive. For example, research shows that if a Briton says something is ‘quite good,’ they hate it, and, ‘it’s probably my fault’ actually means ‘it’s your fault’.[10]

Navigating this can be tricky, particularly as, if challenged, the Briton is likely to double-down on the pretense and insist it really is his fault.

Finally, if someone says, ‘you must come round for dinner’, it does not mean, ‘come round for dinner on Friday’ or even ‘come round for dinner soon’. It just means ‘goodbye.’[11]

4Home Sweet Home

An Englishman’s home is his castle, they say. Which is remarkably similar to the 4th Amendment articles which uphold the sanctity of a private home. What kind of home that is, however, is rather different. The overwhelming majority of British households live in brick-built houses, whereas American houses tend to be built from timber-frames. This may be because of the high degree of wet weather.

While brick-built homes are more expensive, Britons expect their homes to stand for a minimum of 100 years, and modest private houses over 200 years old are common.[12]

Whilst rural Americans may live in houses, many city-dwellers live in apartments. Britain has a surprisingly small number of apartments, (usually called flats), even in inner cities. Britons prefer not to share amenities with their neighbors and dislike communal living spaces. Where they are forced to share a garden, for instance, it is common to find them dividing it into tiny private gardens and building a big fence.[13]

3The Doctor Will See You Now

The differences in access to medical care is one of the major differences between life in the US and Britain. While Britons have free access to doctors and hospitals, and receive free or heavily subsidized prescriptions, they do sometimes have to wait for treatment, whereas America has a system based on insurance payments which gives fast access to health care, as long as you have paid into the system.[14]

British people also have the option of paying into a private system in order to beat the queues, but few bother, preferring to join the waiting list for the NHS.

Even relatively wealthy people choose to wait for free healthcare rather than ‘go private’, and paying for private healthcare is often seen as ‘jumping the queue’, and therefore bad manners.[15]

2School’s Out

America has an education system, where pupils are tested regularly and know what targets they need to hit in order to be able to progress. The British system is rather more, well, complicated. Their schools are divided into public, private, grammar and state schools. Private schools are fee paying schools, which are usually boarding schools, but may also take day students. Contrary to what you may think, public schools are also private schools, but they form are the most elite schools, and are almost always for boarder only. Grammar schools and state schools (also called comprehensives) are free schools run by the government, but grammar schools select their pupils on the basis of ability, whilst the state schools don’t.

School tends to start earlier in Britain, with children beginning part time school at the age of 3 or 4 and full time at 5, with shorter summer holidays – 6 weeks as opposed to around 10 – 12 weeks in America. Almost all British schools insist that students wear a uniform, with a tie, whilst American students usually wear whatever they like.

Pupils take exams at 16 and 18 (if they stay that long), but do not have to take standardized tests at any other time. The overall educational attainment of students is roughly equivalent, however, students in American schools have a much larger number of extra-curricular activities. British schools tend to have a soccer team, a netball team (girls’ basketball) and maybe a chess club, while American schools offer a huge range of outside activities for kids to try.[16]

1Three Houses and a Senate

One of the biggest differences is the system of government. Whilst both countries have 2 legislative bodies (The House of Representatives and the Senate vs The House of Commons and The House of Lords), the leaders of the country are elected differently. America has a separate presidential election, while Britain’s Prime Minister is simply the leader of the party with the greatest number of seats.

While America elects representatives to both houses, Britain’s House of Lords is not an elected chamber. It is made up of hereditary peers, bishops from the Church of England, and people who have been appointed as a life peer by the Queen.[17]

Each session of parliament begins with The Queens Speech. Before she delivers her speech, one MP from the Commons is kidnapped and held prisoner at Buckingham Palace, in case they try to attack her. She delivers the speech from the House of Lords because she is not allowed in the Commons, and she sends someone in fancy dress, called Black Rod, to summon the MPs to her.

The door is always slammed in his face.[18]

Which, OK, seems a bit odd, but then the American senate does have a broken gavel that they carry into each session but never use, so it evens out in the end.

About The Author: Ward Hazell is a freelance writer and travel writer, and is currently also studying for a PhD in English Literature

fact checked by Jamie Frater