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.
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.
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?
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