Thursday, October 13, 2011

Culture Share: USA - The US through UK Eyes: What's in a Name? And Other Language Differences

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Laura Pepper Wu discusses her culture shock upon arriving in the USA.

The US through UK Eyes: What’s In a Name? And Other Language Differences.

by Laura Pepper Wu

I think the reason that I experienced so much culture shock on my arrival to the US was that I was totally, 100%, unprepared for it. I had lived in Asia for almost 4 years prior, so moving to the US seemed like it was going to be a breeze. I was expecting no language problems, a similar culture, and I felt that since I had seen so many US movies and TV shows that nothing could surprise me. How wrong I was!

The big, obvious differences were the easiest to grasp and get used to. Within a couple of weeks I no longer gasped at the size of the food portions or the oversized cars that rule the road in California. It took me a little longer to grasp the opening hours of the shops, to feel comfortable driving on the right hand side of the road, to remember that I could turn right on a red light, but perhaps only a month or two. It was the small, subtle differences that really got me. The ones that I couldn't even put my finger on until a visiting friend pointed them out, or until they would suddenly dawn on me months into my stay here. This is what I would like to talk about today.

When British people meet for the first time in any situation, be it at the park, at the pub or even at a party, we rarely, if ever, exchange names until it is absolutely necessary. You can talk to someone at the pub for hours until you ask for their name, usually when he or she is about to leave or you have to excuse yourself. Neighbors might say hello to each other every morning for years without ever knowing what to call each other. If you bump into someone on the street and talk for the first time it might be considered rather intrusive to ever ask for their name without having a good reason to know (for example exchanging phone numbers or to find out if you know people in common). And yet here in the US I am asked for my name on a daily basis. It's usually the first thing people ask when we meet; they extend their hand and say "Hi, I'm John" even before we have had a conversation.

The first time I was asked my name in Starbucks I was shocked that they were going to call out my name and everyone in the store would know who I was and what I had ordered. It just seemed so personal!

I also realized early on that it is important for Americans to be called by their full name and that shortening the name might be considered rude or disrespectful. For Brits it's the norm; David is always Dave, Benjamin is always Ben, Thomas is usually Tom. And the abbreviations don't stop there. We will often replace a name with honey, love, babe, chuck, duck, sweetie, mate - anything to avoid using the name which might be construed as aggressive or too direct. In my dealings with American friends I have found it to be quite the opposite. Emails and texts will often begin with Dear Laura, Hi Laura and so on, which I have slowly learned is not aggressive but is instead considered to be respectful. This took me a while to get used to - I have a string of nicknames that I am known by and nobody calls me Laura in England except for my mother (and only when she is angry!)

Moving on from names, but remaining on the topic of the use of language, another subtle culture difference that I notice is the usage of the words sorry and thank you. Observe a transaction with a Brit over the counter and the Brit might say thank you several times; once when handing over the item to the cashier, once when receiving change, once when receiving the item back, and perhaps once again just for good measure. Here in the US I noticed that one thank you is sufficient, if it is said at all. Sorry is again used sparingly compared to the Brits; we are more likely to apologize to others for every small inconvenience that we cause which I have been told appears as passive or weak to an American.

When we talk about the difference between American English and British English, the emphasis is often on vocabulary. We say porridge, you say oatmeal; we say cotton bud, you say q-tip and so on. But the differences extend much further than that, to grammar as well. Brits ask questions differently using a lot more of the present perfect tense: “Have you had a nice day?” versus “Did you have a nice day?”. “Have you been dieting?” versus “Are you on a diet?”. I’ve certainly sub-consciously used the present perfect less since moving to the US; many of my friends and family in California speak English as a second language and would certainly have difficulty understanding what I was saying if I spoke English how I did 5 years ago.

To anyone making the transatlantic move, or to those in business who might deal with clients or colleagues from “across the pond”, I think it’s important for us to realise that just because we speak a similar language, we are two different cultures with two very different ways of thinking and interacting. This is something that has surprised me and continues to surprise me everyday and is worth keeping in mind.

How about you: have you ever had culture shock in a land that you thought you should be familiar with?

Born and raised in England, Laura Pepper Wu set off to Japan for a post-college adventure 5 years ago and hasn't quite made it back yet! She and her husband now live in sunny California where she writes to her heart's content and runs the site a community for writers of all levels to find the perfect critique partner.


  1. Interesting observations, Laura. I also came to the States with expectations of fitting in, but as a US Foreign Service brat with no memory of my "native" culture. In hearing your explanation, I've realized more of my odd language structures are a result of British teachers and the ex-pat community than I thought, especially with names.

  2. Very interesting, Margaret! I did note some similarities between some of your stories and this one. International experience and culture shock are definitely eye-opening! I had a similar experience myself in an English-English culture clash with my husband, who is from Australia. Thanks again to Laura (I don't dare call you honey!)...

  3. Ah, very true. And I call everyone hon which is short for honey. They look at me less strangely.

  4. Do you (call people hon)? I've never noticed it - but then, usually when we're together we're talking. Or talking to people whose names you know (and sometimes I do). I must say, when I 'hear' someone call someone else 'hon' I see a Southern waitress...

    I agree, those British teachers (and friends) made a big impression on us. I still have a lot of British vocabulary, and sometimes can't remember the American version. Though when I lived in London I still found unfamiliar words being used.

  5. Great call. I noticed all of these too.

    I call my children Babe and Duck most of the time this would not go down so well in the US? ;)

    Driving on the motorways in California this summer I honestly thought I was going to die: if the changeable road system wasn't trying to kill me the huge WHITE cars and the monster rigs throwing themselves into tiny spaces at alarming speeds from all sides were out to do the job.
    (no punctuation necessary - it matches my pain)

    However, everyone I talked to was soooo polite and respectful of each other and us. Attentive service was the norm in every shop - amazing -back in the UK, we were served by an American student in a pizza place so different from the eye-contactless regular service.

  6. jjmcgaffey, thanks for your comment! I imagine that expatriates really end up between a lot of different established cultures. And you've given me an idea for a post, so thanks!

    Elaine, great to hear from you. Babe is a common enough nickname for American children, but Duck sounds very British. I'm sorry about the whole motorway (highway! :) ) situation here, but I find your observations about politeness and service very interesting. My Australian husband has remarked many times about American service culture and how it differs from the Australian (which I suppose is more like in the UK, though he says it has improved in the last few years!). Thanks so much for your comment.

  7. Oops, in my post, I was looking at the last comment on my screen, not the author of the post. Should have been Laura, not Juliette.

    Sorry about that.

  8. Jared, somehow I received your post in notifications, but it didn't make it into the stream. Would you like me to post it with the name change?

  9. Thanks for inviting me to write this Juliette! I sat down and realised I could probably talk about culture differences all day. This was a fun place to start though :)

  10. Laura, you're welcome to continue if you feel inspired! Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

  11. Fantastic post to read. I haven't been to the UK, but I did move from a good-sized US western city to a small, southern town. I wasn't expecting culture shock -- I'd been to foreign countries and had roommates from over the globe -- but there were a thousand small rules I didn't understand.

  12. MK, I'm sure that's true! If you feel inspired to write a culture share post about that, I'd love to see it, so let me know.

  13. Here's a comment from Jared (above) which didn't come through somehow:

    Hi Laura,

    I just wanted to comment on one of your examples and toss in one of my own.

    Your paragraph on cashiers saying thank you seems heavily weighted by California (Los Angeles?). California is not the United States. I grew up in the Midwest (Wisconsin) and lived in LA for six years; they are very different. Perhaps as different as you put the US and the UK to be. The US is quite large and can be quite different place to place. (Grammar Girl has been doing some language maps recently that illustrate this point with regard to phrases and word usage.)

    [As a note, when I was there, I felt no difference between the cashier-customer personal exchanges between England (I was south of London) and the US Midwest.]

    An example of the Midwest to Los Angeles: I biked while I lived in LA. In the Midwest, my experience was that bikers would go around you and pedestrians would move aside to give the bike room (I'm back in the Midwest and that's still true). In LA, the pedestrian keeps moving and the biker would cut close to them to say something like "I want to get by." When I would be on my bike and try to squeeze by someone standing somewhere, I would say "excuse me". In Wisconsin, totally fine, people might even say "Sorry" (even though they did nothing wrong, exactly as you said that people in the US don't do) and move aside. In LA? I got glared at.

    I would define the difference between LA and Midwest traffic mentalities as LA says "Your job is to get out of my way." while the Midwest says "I should not inconvenience you for my own benefit." (The Midwest one isn't true for Chicago...but that's Chicago.)

    Something on the UK vs. US: When I was in London, the person I was visiting was coming to pick me up at my hotel and he asked me where it was, so I gave him the hotel name and directions. When he got to the hotel, he made the comment "Your directions were very American." Why? Because I gave an intersection. He commented that in England, the non-grid nature of the roads cause people to use more relative direction "Half-way down Cromwell" or something like that.

    That actually led us into a larger discussion about the differences between the UK and the US with regard to how signs are labeled ('Way out' vs 'Exit', for instance) and behavior on public transportation (where do you sit, where do you look). Lots of stuff to discuss here.

    If you don't know of it already, I might suggest that you visit this website []. Posts are not too frequent, but it focuses on language differences between the UK and the US.

  14. Jared, thanks for giving us your example. I'm sure Laura is very aware of where she does and does not live! You make a good point about regional differences within the US, though. In fact, part of the goal of the Culture Share is to reflect this (I now have five USA posts and am always seeking more - another one comes out this week). In researching on the internet, I think broad generalities are easier to learn about, which is why I urge my contributors to stay detailed and personal about their own experiences in an area. Do let me know if you might be interested to write something! And thanks very much for your comment.

  15. I moved to the UK from the US, and I had similar adjustment issues with the language (well, the culture in general). Oddly enough, I'd already been through one dialect & culture adjustment within the US (moving from the South to the West Coast), so I didn't think much of moving to the UK. Boy, was I naive.

    Now, my accent/vocabulary/phrasing/spelling is such a mash-up of Southern US/California/British, I find it difficult to write in one dialect.

    Words such as "proper" and "mobile" have popped into my vocabulary, and I can no longer spell.

    Another thing I've struggled with: walking on the pavement (that's sidewalks to my fellow Americans). There seems to be some sort of unwritten rule about where to walk, how to pass people, etc. I'm always running into people! I swear this never happened in the US. I felt a little crazy until I overheard another American talking about the same thing. Every American I find and "poll" has the same problem.

    It is amazing all the differences I've discovered - fun and at times, bewildering!

  16. Jennifer, thanks for your comment! Your experience sounds fascinating...I wonder if one could study the dynamics of UK versus US pavement/sidewalk navigation! Feel free to contact me if you would like to contribute something about your experience.

  17. Juliette, I swear I've thought about designing a study of pavement/sidewalk traffic patterns and navigation rules in the UK!

  18. It's me again :) I was just looking over this post and saw Jared's comment. Apologies for not replying before.
    I can certainly see your point. Many people have told me that "California is not really America" and since writing this article I have had the pleasure of traveling to Arizona and Texas, as well as relocating to Seattle! It's certainly a different world in each state, and that's hardly surprising when you consider the US's geography. Seattle is not so different from England in many ways, no doubt the small streets, weather and pub culture influence that. And it's a far cry from LA - I drive about once every 10 days here versus 2-3 hours a day in LA. Bliss!

  19. Laura, thanks so much for stopping by to follow up! I'm glad you're enjoying Seattle. Of course, California is as much America as any of its other states. I was glad you kept your commentary localized to your experience, because that's what the culture share is about. I'm sure it must be nice not driving so much! And thanks again for writing such a terrific article.