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Top 4 US – UK misunderstandings


I recently read this article after one of my American facebook friends shared it. It’s about an American returning home after 18 years in London, the differences between the two countries and how they have or haven’t changed. While the article doesn’t start off well, moving seamlessly from ‘the English’ to ‘the British character’ (you can see why that might be a tad annoying for the non-English Brits), it does have some things that made me smile in recognition. That functional alcoholics thing? So true! Americans that say ‘I’m not a big drinker’ mean they’re teetotal, Brits that say that mean they stop after six pints. And the constant apologising! And why the Nazis, always the Nazis?

Anyway, this got me thinking about other UK-US things, and since I actually have very little offline experience of America, they are mainly language based. There’s the things we all know about: elevator/lift, diapers/nappies, vacation/holiday, mom/mum, tomeyto/tomahto. The random order of dates, the gratuitous use of utilize.

But there are a few things that have genuinely baffled me, and can lead to some serious misunderstandings. So I thought I’d list my top 4, mainly because that’s the number I could think of.

1. Middle class

This one took me years to figure out! I’ve had several really weird online conversations about social class where I really felt the other person was not making any sense and now I know why! It’s because in the US middle class means middle income, i.e. people in the two middle quartiles in the income distribution. Which makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, I’m in the UK, and it’s a lot more complicated here. The way I understand it middle class is more of a social descriptor than an economic one. A middle class person is highly educated, values said education, speaks properly, listens to radio 4 and is into organic food and foreign language films and general ‘high culture’ stuff. They are probably well off, but need not necessarily earn that much. A PhD student, or an entry level academic, would definitely be middle class, even if they might be earning well below median income.

Then there’s also the traditional (Marxist?) understanding whereby the dividing line between the middle and the upper class is that the latter live off the income they get from the land or capital they own, whereas the middle class work for a living. By this token the CEO of a company can be described as middle class even if he is in the 1% of income.

Then of course there’s the other thing that in the UK no one actually wants to be middle class. Something like 10% of the population are actually working class according to the NS-SEC classification, but 60% say they are. By which they usually seem to mean that their parents or their grandparents were working class. But maybe and actual British person can explain that one, I certainly don’t get it.

2. Quite

In the US quite means ‘completely’ whereas in the UK it means ‘to some extent’. So in the US quite good is better than good, whereas here it means ‘It’s alright, but not amazing’ and is definitely a step below good. Quite a lot is less than a lot, quite big is kind of medium sized.

To be fair, that definition of quite as completely does exist in the UK, if pronounced in a posh old person’s voice, and attached to words such as ghastly or wonderful that already indicate an extreme in and of themselves. It’s really an intonation thing, but I’d say this meaning is much less common, and you certainly wouldn’t attach it to good.

3. I’m ok

I’m not sure how widely this misunderstanding exists, but when we went to New York a few years back, our friend told us not to say ‘No thanks, I’m ok’ when waiters come and ask if you need anything else, because they would see it as a complaint, like why only ok, why not good? It’s quite sweet really.

4. Wealthy

Actually this one’s even worse in that I’m not sure it’s a UK – US thing or a Franca – the rest of the world thing. Dave had some video that visualised income inequality in the US, and it put wealthy as the highest category, above rich. The person that by themselves earns twenty times everyone below them combined, that sort of thing. Now I always thought wealthy basically meant well off, above average but definitely way below rich. I am sure I have referred to my parents as wealthy many times, due to the generosity of EU salaries. I’m really hoping people didn’t think I was saying they were super rich! (Though it would take a lot of persuading for anyone to accept me as a super rich person, so probably not).

So tell me, any other UK- US misunderstandings?

photo is clickable for source

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jacqueline 13 September 2013, 8:44 am

    and we could get into alllll the spelling differences too. nice post franca! as an australian i just kinda hop from side to side on all of these ‘lift/elevator bandaid/plaster’ debates.
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  • Biba 13 September 2013, 12:12 pm

    The difference between ‘ill’ and ‘sick’ can be amusing … 🙂
    As far as social classes go, a ‘quite good’ explanation can be found in Kate Fox’ Watching the English’. I loved the book!
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  • Christy 13 September 2013, 1:28 pm

    Great post Franca. I came out of lurkdome to tell you how much I enjoyed this post. I didn’t realize there were such differences with regard to social class, in addition to some of our idiomatic expressions. I really enjoyed this post and hope you plan more in the future.
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  • Cloud of Secrets 13 September 2013, 2:39 pm

    This is fascinating! Now I’m a little worried about all the times I’ve used “quite” (in the US amplifying way) with UK acquaintances!

    Yes, in the US “wealthy” usually means financially rich or very rich. Figuratively, it can mean a great abundance. “A wealth of opportunities” means a great abundance of opportunities. I’m curious to see what UKers think about this word.

    The middle class comments are interesting (quite interesting?) as well. It is more an income level term here, but it can denote some cultural expectations, too. A middle class person or family will be comfortable, have solid employment, have enough money for their bills and decent food plus some to save for extras like the occasional trip to Disney or their own fishing boat; they’ll have a medium-sized house and middle of the road vehicles — like minivans or sedans or glossy big SUVs if they’ve saved their pennies. It is an honorable and glad thing to be middle class.

    In fact, when I think of it, it feels like snobbery to speak of anyone in the USA as “lower class” or “upper class” — and especially to refer to oneself as “upper class.” I’ll have to think about this more. What do we say when we’re speaking of people who are obviously not of the “middle class?”

    Lord knows, wealth doesn’t buy greater class here, and the financially poor can be entirely “classy” — as in tasteful, polite, educated, thoughtful, restrained, dignified… The meanings of the term “class” get shifty and uncomfortable. I would never say my financially poor neighbors are lower class. And to refer to a wealthy CEO as upper class strangles me. But what would I say?

    We do speak in terms of collar colors sometimes. Blue collar workers — manual labor at varying levels. White collar — office work. Pink collar — service industry. There are sometimes sociocultural implications in these references, but realistically, they don’t mean much financially. My plumbers and auto mechanics made more than I ever could hope for as an office worker or university instructor, and they might have been just as educated as I was, in their own fields and others.
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    • Cloud of Secrets 13 September 2013, 2:52 pm

      As I think about it, I would probably say “low income” if referring to the financially poor. Our schools have assistance for “low income families.” I did some work in rental real estate, and we had “low income housing.” That’s just stating a fact about income, not suggesting anything about class.
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  • Bettina @ Books, Bikes, and Food 13 September 2013, 7:35 pm

    Haha, I definitely fell into the “OK” trap the other day: the flickr iPhone app wanted to survey my satisfaction and the options were “it’s ok” and then something completely over the top which I forgot. So I’m fine with the app but not ragingly wild about it, so I went for “it’s ok”. The app then got somewhat offended and wanted to know what was wrong etc., at which point I got exasperated and stopped the review process. How European of me 😉
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  • Kristenmakes 14 September 2013, 5:46 am

    I always love a good comparison! I have also found this guide (more aimed at PhD students) to be a laugh. After 4 years in the UK, I had not made that distinction between UK & US meanings of middle class but it definitely makes a lot of sense. I was taking the BBC Class Survey at work awhile back and it led to an office discussion in which my colleagues were telling me I was middle class despite our low combined household income (student husband). This seems to also talk about the meaning of the term too.

    Now its looking like our move back to the states might be in the not-too-distant future, and I’m thinking about trying to spell colour instead of colour and say disorient instead of disorientate again. I’ve fully embrace the way of speaking/spelling here, so as to fit in as a professional while working and studying, so this will be interesting to see how I bounce back. Although 4 years is nothing compared to 18!
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  • Veshoevius 14 September 2013, 8:27 am

    Great post!
    I love the pants/trousers thing because its an Aussie UK misunderstanding too. Pants in the UK = underpants but it’s what trousers are called in the US and Oz. Makes for some interesting intercontinental mix ups
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  • Jane 14 September 2013, 1:41 pm

    Interesting post.
    It makes me smile when I read about vests which we call waistcoats.

  • Lorena 19 September 2013, 6:02 pm

    I certainly learned something new. The middle class difference is quite interesting and i never knew that it could mean something else. Where I live middle class is educated, has a god job, is a home owner, has a summer home, several cars.
    For the record i just love the British accent.