What are the main cultural differences between the UK and the USA?

Don't use English and British as though they are the same thing. The question was about UK not England.Cross posted from
What are some cultural differences between Americans and British that are not political or religious in nature?

Nice question. There are lots...

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 drink 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 Wagamamas and Giraffe are everywhere.
  • 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.
    (but -H/T Rob Fletcher- you probably also see more very fit ones - so it is more of the extremes.
  • 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 Kjørstad 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.

Updated from comment by Chris Parker

  • Circumcision. Common in USA, very rare in UK except for religious reasons
  • Food.
    USA has sugar in everything. (Bread? Yogurt?)
    GMO food (illegal in Europe), chlorinared chicken, far greater use of antibiotics.
    Need to keep eggs in the fridge.
    No unpasteurised milk cheeses.

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.


Well, I'm American, and I would say that the role of tea is very different in both cultures. For the British, tea seems to be something that's appropriate for all classes of society and is popular with meals. You could see everyone from a construction worker to a duke drinking tea, and no one would bat an eye. It's very popular and normal for people to have tea at certain times of the day, or even to drink it as a regular beverage whenever they want.

In the US, tea is often seen as a way of showing off or marking a special occasion. Little girls like to have tea parties and pretend to be princesses. Adult women often regard going out for tea at a social event to be some kind of big production, something that doesn't happen everyday. A husband might arrange for his wife to have tea at a fancy restaurant as some kind of special gift for an anniversary or something. It's also associated with wealth, and you would actually see someone who can afford to have a live-in maid put on airs by having tea every day, just because they can. So, if people see an ordinary, working-class man drinking tea, they might think that he's a snob or hipster of some kind. And if they see a woman drinking tea, they might wonder why she's alone, because it doesn't really let her show off her femininity or elegance to anyone.  The more money you make, the more socially acceptable it is to drink tea. There are a couple of exceptions to this, though. In the South at least, iced tea is as popular as lemonade in the summer, and people drink it all the time. Also, it's pretty common for people who feel sick or have trouble sleeping to drink chamomile tea.

The fact that Americans see tea as upper-class, and British people see it as socially neutral, leads to all sorts of hilarious stereotypes and misunderstandings between the two cultures. Americans tend to think British people are putting on airs because they drink tea on a regular basis, and British people often think Americans avoid tea because we're still holding a grudge over the Stamp Act.

Another major difference would be sports. Americans like football, baseball, and basketball, but we're just not that interested in soccer. British people like soccer, cricket, and rugby. Now, I think Americans don't really regard football as the most iconic American sport (despite it being the most popular), and soccer is mostly popular in Britain because it's popular all over the world. I would have to say that baseball is the most archetypically American sport, and cricket is the most archetypically British sport. If you watch both sports, you see that they can look very similar on the surface, but that they're very different on a deeper level as you learn more about both games. They seem to be based on similar principles, and use a lot of the same terminology, but the specific rules and details regarding each game are very different. I think it's also revealing that the top-level cricket matches are played internationally between different countries, while top-level baseball matches are played within the US with other countries rarely being involved. It reflects the fact that the British have a more global and outward-looking attitude (possibly because they were once an empire that spanned several continents and time zones), while Americans are mostly focused on the US itself, perhaps as a holdover from the days of the Monroe Doctrine and the legacy of westward expansion within the same continent.

I've heard people say more general things, like that British people are more reserved, or Americans are more outgoing, have a different sense of humor, etc. The problem with ideas like that is that they're not really testable, and can vary quite a bit from person to person. What would American introverts and British extraverts have to say about that? They'd have to be awfully uncomfortable in their respective cultures if that were true. And if we didn't get each other's humor, why would so many of us be able to enjoy movies and books from the other culture? I've never really seen good evidence for these assertions, although I hear them repeated a lot.


  • I think the dating culture is different. I've commented elsewhere on this but my impression of the dating scene in the US is that it is acceptable to date multiple people at the same time, whereas the norm in the UK/Ireland would be to date one person exclusively until the relationship moved up a notch or fizzled out.

  • The attitude to alcohol is more puritanical in the US compared to the attitude towards prescription drugs there, and the inverse is the case in the UK/Ireland. As I've already said, it seems like three beers in a row is grounds for intervention in the US, in the UK/Ireland we just call it "a good start". On the other hand, my perception is that prescription drugs are routinely used in the US in a way that would not be common in Europe. Ritalin, Adderall, Oxycontin, Valium and so on. There is a stigma on this side of the water for prescription drugs, that seems to me to be the equal of the stigma in the US relating to alcohol use.

  • Guns. The elephant in the room. I think the US gun culture is nuts. Most (not all!) UK or Irish people I know think so as well. European mainland people (e.g. French, Germans) slightly less so, because they do not have the tradition of constabulary that we do, but many expect heavily armed police to be deployed only under specific circumstances: during terror alerts, at airports/sensitive locations, when dignitaries are visiting and so on. The 'sheriff' model, where police are armed all the time, is very alien to the UK and Ireland and somewhat* alien to parts of Europe (with some exceptions where gun ownership is traditionally high, for example Finland, Serbia).

  • "Class" - as in caste (call it what it is) still demarcates UK and Irish society, more so than I perceive it to do in the US. The term of abuse 'Chav' means 'council-housed and violent' in the UK for example and basically relegates everyone living in social housing to the rubbish bin. In Ireland we have the ethnically and socially offensive word 'knacker' for the same purposes of discrimination and keeping the 'lowers' in their place.
    My belief is America is more equal in terms of income at least (race, ethnicity etc. is a different story). In America a poor person is just a rich person that hasn't made it yet. In the UK and Ireland, poverty is a prediction; an inheritable stain.

  • Gender. I dunno. On these islands we have a strong tradition of strong women. Boudica, Grace O'Malley, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Robinson....we're quite used to them. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that we expect women to be fully equal to men: forthright, leaders, funny, whatever. That isn't to say we have no misogynists, no abusers of women, of course we do. Ireland, in particular has proven - to my huge sorrow and shame - to be no country for old women (or indeed women in general). I think it is a bit different in the US. I think women there are seen as another species, something that can be studied, or hacked, or that there can be a manual. I don't think many people have those expectations on this side of the water. One "pick up artist" who is, I believe, a millionaire in the US from his snake-oil nonsense, was denied entry to the UK recently.
    Speaking personally, all bar - I think - three bosses of mine have been women. I don't think of it as a 'thing'...they've all been superlative bosses and I learnt from each and every one.
    So I think in the UK and Ireland we treat women like whoever, and I am sure I'm going to get beaucoup comments on this but I sense that sometimes women in the US are put on as pedestal or the reverse, just because they are women.

  • Work. This used to be very different, not least because of the points I've already mentioned. Watch a UK sitcom from the '70s. Go on - do. I'll wait. It is hilarious. Drinking Scotch at 11am, smoking cigars before the Scotch. Slapping secretaries on the bum or making horrendous innuendo towards them. All the above. Just search Youtube for "Reginald Perrin" (a popular UK sitcom from the '70s) + "CJ" (his cigar-smoking, Scotch-morning-drinking, secretary-abusing boss) if you want an insight. But now we all have the same "I'll sleep when I'm dead!!", "Seven A.M.!!? The day is half-over in Tokyo!!" Anglo-American work ethic.

  • Fear of failure. This, this is the key difference. This is the one that prompted me to respond. The thing we should absorb from US culture. Business or personal failure in the UK and Ireland is seen as the Black Spot, the mark of death. Instead of being seen for what it is, a learning opportunity and a chance to improve planning and execution to succeed the next time. I have bored the pants off some friends already with my admiration for the American attitude to risk. A failed businessman in Ireland or the UK is practically a leper - in the US their experience is valued and adds to their worth, it doesn't detract from it (well, unless it is repeated again and again - law of diminishing returns applies).


* many mainland European police forces carry sidearms, but practice varies per jurisdiction and within jurisdictions.

Having lived in the US, I was struck by the following main differences (I should say, btw, that while the question refers to the UK, I can only observe all this from my ENGLISH point of view...the UK is not monocultural):

  • Americans are religious - bigtime. The UK (possibly excepting N Ireland) is now well into its second post-religious generation. It's telling that a US President must demonstrate his or her Christianity to get elected whereas open religiosity would actively damage a candidate UK PM's chances. Faced with a religious candidate the UK electorate would be very suspicious of that sort of thing and worry they had a fanatic on their hands; faced with a non-religious one the US electorate would fear they had a drifting tumbleweed with no character foundation or moral compass.
  • I was really struck by how loud everyone was when I first arrived. Loud in work; loud in restaurants; loud on the subway. It slowly became normal, of course, until i didn't hear it at all. Then I had to get used to the silence and stop shouting myself when I moved back to the UK
  • Americans are definitely more open and friendly. I came across this all the time. It was even disturbing at times for my more misanthropic English character ("I'm sorry fellow passenger, I got on this bus to travel from A to B, not to join a social club. I have no wish to know what's going on in your life and quite a bit less than none for you to know what's going on in mine...damn it why do I never have a newspaper to hide in when I need one?") . English people need space and privacy; they get distressed when stripped of it. Being too friendly to them can be quite an unfriendly thing to do.....
  • .....but along with that engagement of Americans comes something else hard to describe without sounding insulting, which I don't mean to be. It's not the exact word but the closest I can get: a certain "neediness". They need affirmation, their work needs affirmation, their city needs affirmation, above all and beyond everything their country needs affirmation. I learned early on that every conversation about American food/weather/culture/whatever needed to be liberally garlanded with "fantastic", "awesome", "I love it, "so much better than home". I vividly remember when a lady in New York asked me how I was finding America and I was still naive enough to reply honestly "Well, it's all been OK, no problems so far". There was a silence that felt as if I'd just p*ssed on Abraham Lincoln's tomb........OK is DEFINITELY not good enough for America. I think in contrast the best summary of the needs of the English for foreign approval was something I read once in a book "The English are convinced (with some degree of justification) that nobody really understands them. This is not a problem, however, as they have no particular wish to be understood. After all, to be understood would be an invasion of their privacy"
  • The overt patriotism of the US is striking for an English observer. It is very different to the quieter English patriotism and I think both sides will misunderstand if they make the mistake of trying to judge the other by their own standards. Through narrow English eyes American patriotism can seem vulgar, contrived, almost desperate - ‘what are they trying to hide with all those flags and oaths of allegiance and car stickers and jacket pins?" is a question that may spring to an English mind. But it's a mistaken question: there's nothing hide, these things are outbursts of an admirable love of country that runs so deep and so strong it simply has to manifest itself. Equally, if you look at low-vis English patriotism through American eyes you could easily interpret the lack of show as meaning that it is faded or ineffectual. A weak, foppish nation lacking the passion to defend itself. But if you did you'd be making the same assumption made by King Philip of Spain, Napoleon, Kaiser Bill, Hitler, and General Galtieri. It's an assumption that has a record of not ending well.
  • Finally there are the Americans' gun and private medicine things that baffle me as much as any other English person but these have been flogged to death on Quora so I'm not going to waste time on them here.

In Britain we love Cheese, there are over 700 different varieties of home grown cheeses add to that all the European cheeses that Brits get through. We do love our cheeses.

The way we pronounce words varies a great deal through out the UK and can be quite a surprise plus add to that many local dialect words and you will be festooned by the richness of the UK language.

There are many people from a diverse cultural and ethnic background who get on fine. There are of course the occasional idiot who tries it on but that is rare.

The Police are very friendly and do not carry guns.

The National Health Service is a terrific institution that has a 95% appreciation rating. It is run by dedicated people who are so friendly and helpful and I cannot praise it highly enough.

Main stream political parties are far more liberal and accepting of cultural diversity. We have a Parliamentary system and if you start a petition that gets over 100000 signatures Parliament can discuss the matter.

The BBC although paid for by a tax on owning a television is independent of Parliament. By law the news reporting must be impartial. It is the largest and oldest broadcaster in the World.

The Queen is the head of state but her powers are ceremonial, the true power lies in Parliament.

We drive on the left side of the road.

The age of consent is 16

The voting age is 18

You can drink alcohol at 18.

Britain is becoming a secular country where humanist principles are taking over from religious but the majority of people are tolerant of people with a religion.

People like to protest and march about things they care about.

The British people love to tease and mock everything and have a laugh it can be quite ribald.

Newspapers are biased politically and the journalism can be a mixture of heavy weight investigation and biased opinion. Sometimes more opinion than fact.

Thank you for the question.

Have a look at YouTube as there are many UK v US vlogs


Q: What are the difference between American and British culture?

Oooh, I love this game. Some stereotypes and anecdotal texts to follow:

American: Football = NFL, NCAA, and High School Football

Brit: Football = Premiership and Champions League


American: My country tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty...

Brit: God save the Queen

(They're both listening to the same tune)


American: Benedict Arnold (the iconic traitor)

Brit: Benedict Arnold (never heard of'em.)


American: Oh your accent is so intelligent.

Brit: Oh you're American.


American: It's colder than a witches tit out there!

Brit: It's a bit nippy.


American: She's hot.

Brit: She's nice.


American: The boot of the car, what's that?

Brit: The trunk? Mate, it's a car, not an elephant. English, learn it.


American: One tea please. Here's your iced tea.

Brit: One tea please. Earl Grey? Milk and sugar or just lemon?


American: 3 nights in the bar this week = alcoholic

Brit: 3 nights in the bar this week = a social guy who watches footy


(on imitating accents)

American: Your American accent is good. A bit New York and a little California

Brit: What's that? It's part London and part Yorkshire. Horrible attempt!


(concerning routers)

American: It's r-OUT-er, we invented it, we get to name it.

Brit: It's ROOTER. It's our language. We'll say it as we wish.


(mispronunciations)

American: Can I have directions to LI-sester square. (Leicester Square)

Brit: ...and then we visited Los AngeLEEZ. Lots of traffic. (Los Angeles)


(the Olympics)

American: Dude, are you going to watch the track & field, gymnastics, shooting, cycling, swimming, volleyball, beach volleyball, BMX racing, ......

Brit: Are you watching the cycling or the equestrian competition?


(types of arrogance)

American: We are the best country in the world...

Brit: The British Empire was built on....


(distances)

American: Yeah, they live far away. It's like 13 hours drive each way.

Brit: Yeah, they live far away. It's a 2 hour drive each way.


(dating LTR)

American: So...it's that time in life. You want to MEET MY PARENTS?!

Brit: Emma, you want pop round for Sunday lunch?


(victory in films)

American: Lt. Pete Mitchel (Top Gun) High fives everyone, saves world.

Brit: (after 8 films) Harry Potter. Saves world, goes and hugs two best friends.


(assimilated ethnic food)

American: Dude, let's get a burrito.

Brit: Curry? Make mine a Vindaloo. For me, a Madras.


(Super-heroes)

American: Superman

Brit: James Bond


(news)

American: Fox News

Brit: BBC


(sandwiches)

American: I'll have a ham & cheese with salami, tomatoes, pickles and onions, mayo and mustard. (a hero/sub/hoagie)

Brit: Yeah, I'll have a cheese & ham sandwich please (on sliced pan w/butter).


There are a few other differences as well.


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