As a Briton who has lived in the US, what were your biggest culture shocks?
I'm British and have lived in California for 12 years. I don't think anything is actually really shocking - we're very familiar with American culture as Americans see it through American media. The surprising things are the things that no-one really thinks about so you don't get much insight into them from TV or newspapers.
- People really do drive enormous distances for relatively trivial reasons. In the UK anything more than a 50 mile drive is something you do and then stay overnight. People here drive to Tahoe and back in a day to get a day of skiing - that's 200 miles.
- People with no obvious need of them own pickup trucks as their primary vehicles. It makes no sense. The uncovered back fills with dirt and water, and you can't comfortably transport more than one passenger.
- Containers of food are enormous. Its very hard if you live alone - what the hell do you do with 8 chicken thighs or a gallon of milk, which might be the smallest cost effective sizes?
- There is a huge diversity of American cultures. British people miss this because of the relatively homogenous accent, but people from Arkansas and California and Vermont have far fewer cultural reference points in common than people from Glasgow, London and Newcastle. Comparing Northern Ireland to the British mainland maybe comes close.
- Race is unfortunately a marker for culture in the US, even in relatively diverse places. Its almost unavoidable than when you see someone Black, Korean, South Asian or whatever you make certain assumptions about them because those assumptions are reasonably accurate most of the time. Doesn't happen in the UK nearly so much - people assimilate to the mainstream culture faster and to a greater extent.
- People are much more courteous and yet not nearly as accommodating. People will call you "Sir" but not notice that they're standing in your fucking way.
- Meat and some fruit are very bland. You can't get pork with the skin on, or proper apples. Also, supermarkets do this shrink wrapping thing with meat that is very unappetizing, presumably for shelf life. On the other hand, tomatoes are not the watery gel-sacks you get in the UK.
- American politics is mostly local and extremely complex. The Washington based circus you think of as American politics is a side show for most Americans that tragically happens to have a large impact on the rest of the world. The real business that affects people's lives is carried our on a very small scale of cities, school districts, utility districts and local commissions. The highest level that really affects people is usually the state. American cities own dams and airports, run their own police forces, have their own taxes and regulations. The largest states are as powerful as mid-sized countries and pretty much behave like them.
- Social attitudes are rather different. People are very tolerant of behavior, although maybe not quite as keen to embrace eccentricity as the British, but very quick to express their judgements, especially of other people's opinions.
- I suppose the common factor in the above - the US is very, very large. The sheer size of something like Yosemite National Park (over 1000 sq miles) is just staggering
Lord above, where to start?
It's not that easy as we were there long enough to start seeing some things as usual
- The general absence of small butchers and greengrocers - almost everything comes from a supermarket. This doesn't mean these places don't exist, but that they take some serious hunting down.
- Supermarket foods - red meat is usually grain fed, pink and tasteless rather than grass fed and red and flavourful. Egg yolks are usually pale yellow rather than golden and fruit is apparently chosen for it's ability to keep well rather than taste. Farmers markets are a good alternative if you are lucky enough to live with driving distance (see below for an estimate of driving distances).
- Cheap diner meals near a freeway exit are somehow still much better than the equivalent at a British motorway services - the service is better and the food hasn't been left sitting in bain-marie for hours
- Sunday breakfast/brunch is an institution - enough carbohydrates in every meal to power you to the moon and back.
- Service is generally much better; it would be extremely snarky to suggest the culture of tipping has something to do with this, but some people really seem to enjoy their jobs and making customers happy. (I'm talking to you, Waffle House lady from Savannah)
- Manners really matter, especially in the South - the 15 year old girl in the drive though BBQ joint rates being called "Ma'am". Outside of a building site or the military, you won't hear profanity used much if at all. (New York and New Jersey may be exceptions)
- Chemists/pharmacies; no local independent or even a Boots or Lloyds - a Long's, or CVS, or Walgreens is a slightly specialised supermarket. You could get your liver pills and emphysema prescription filled at the pharmacy counter and buy a fifth of tequila and carton of cigarettes on the way out.
- Opening hours; need a 1/8″ drill bit at 9.30 in the evening? Lowe's or Home Depot will usually be open
- Crowds of day-labourers for hire in the carparks of the big hardware stores - usually Latin-American migrants, some of whom may have been in the country legitimately, but many more who might have snuck over the fence
- The idea of driving a 150 miles or more round trip for sometimes quite unimportant things won't seem strange after you have been there a while
- The sheer staggering size of the place - there is no single American culture so each state and city has its own character, though working people in small towns don't apparently differ much anywhere between California and Vermont
- The worst drivers are people in pickup trucks in rural areas which have a Christian Fish sign on the tailgate