By Kim Davis, CNN
(CNN) — It’s been nearly 20 years since I moved from New York to London. Yet, after all this time, I’m still learning what it means to be British.
You would think that the transition from one English-speaking country to another would be pretty straightforward. In many ways it was, thanks to the overwhelming kindness of the Brits who welcomed me with open arms.
But there are a LOT of differences between the United States and the United Kingdom that I wish I had known before I crossed the pond.
Whether you’re thinking of moving to the UK, or just heading over for a visit, here are some top tips to help you fit in with the locals and get the full English experience.
US vs. UK English
Just because both countries speak English, does not mean that we speak the same language. Innocent differences, like not knowing that a “boot” is the trunk of a car, or mispronouncing Leicester (Less-ter) Square, are harmless foibles. It’s the naughty words that can get you into trouble!
I learned this lesson the hard way when I went to the pub for the first time and someone accidently spilled wine all over my white outfit. I leaped up and gasped: “Ohhh! My pants are all wet!”
Everyone within earshot burst out into hysterical laughter. I was so upset. Why was everyone being so mean when they could see my clothes were ruined?
Then someone explained. In the UK, those things you wear over your legs are called trousers and “pants” are underwear. So, when I breathlessly announced my pants were wet, well, I was proclaiming to the entire pub that something very inappropriate was going on!
When I realized my mistake, I wanted to crawl under the table with embarrassment.
Of course, now I get the joke and can look back and laugh. But it turns out, there are plenty of words that mean one thing in the US, but something completely different in the UK.
I won’t go into them here, to spare you from clutching your pearls with shock. I’ll simply point out that the English language is a minefield between our cultures.
So, do yourself a favor and search the internet for “the differences between British and American English” before you head over, so that you don’t have to suffer the same humiliating fate that I did.
Get down to the pub
When I think of pubs in New York, I think of dark dingy bars where a fight is always brewing. I don’t drink alcohol, so, when I first moved to the UK, I avoided the pubs for about a year. After numerous invites, I eventually gave in.
To my great surprise, I discovered that British pubs were nothing like I had imagined!
Instead, they are lively social hubs where you can meet friends; play board games; read newspapers; work remotely; eat a fantastic meal; listen to live music; or participate in fun events, like the pub quizzes.
Pick the right pub, and in summer months you can sit outside in the garden. In winter, you can cozy up by the fire on a leather Chesterfield couch and pretend it’s your own living room.
The pub nearest to home is called your local, and once the staff gets to know you, it can be like having a little pub family.
Most pubs have basic food that they call pub grub. However, other pubs, called gastropubs, have extremely high-quality food.
But no dish compares to The Sunday Roast, which is one of my favorite UK traditions.
Served only on Sundays, you can choose between roasted chicken, beef, or pork, with roasted potatoes, veggies and a Yorkshire pudding (which is a light fluffy bread-like treat in the shape of a bowl). Then everything is doused in gravy. Delicious!
If you’re coming to London, make sure you make your way to a nice gastropub. It’s an authentic British experience that is nothing like what we have back home, so don’t miss out.
Master the art of great conversation
I’m often asked, “What’s the biggest difference between the US and the UK?,” and I always reply, “The conversation.”
When in New York, my conversations with friends used to focus on weight loss, gym routines, relationships and work.
When I moved to the UK, it took me over a year to notice that nobody seemed to care or want to talk about these subjects. In fact, when I brought them up, my UK friends politely changed the subject! Why?
Well, when I stopped talking and started listening, I discovered that people in Britain talk about everything from the weather to deeply personal stories. They even talk about things that we normally think are off-limits, such as world events, news, politics and religion.
But what I love most is their ability to connect with each other in a completely different way. They share their opinions and have challenging conversations without raising their voices or fighting; unless, of course, they are talking about soccer (known in the UK as “football”) in which case, all bets are off.
So, next time you’re in London, try to go outside your conversational comfort zone!
Look out for British humor
My friends back home tell me that I’ve become much funnier since I moved to the UK. I’m not sure if that means I am actually funny now, or if I’ve just graduated from telling bad dad jokes.
Either way, I’ll take it.
So, what changed? Well, thanks to many years of my British friends constantly “taking the mickey” out of me (i.e. making fun of me in a loving way), I’ve learned all about irony and sarcasm.
In the states, our go-to humor tends to be slapstick. We like our comedy to be big, bold and direct. But Brits have a very subtle, self-deprecating and dry sense of humor.
If you don’t pay close attention, you completely miss it. I know I did! It took me years before I could figure it out (and I’m still learning). I felt like Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory,” always needing to check, “Was that sarcasm?” Yes, it was.
So don’t let those charming accents fool you. These British have a wicked sense of humor and they will use it to poke fun at you, themselves and everyone else.
If you want to join in, feel free to poke fun and laugh at yourself. Not only does it show a bit of humility, it’s ironically a great way to build your self-confidence.
Let the chocolate change your life
If you’re American, you likely grew up thinking that Hershey and Mars are the kings of chocolate goodness. Then you move or visit the UK and Europe, and try a bit of Cadbury’s or Charbonnel et Walker, and you quickly learn that your entire life has been a giant lie.
There are no words to explain to you how silky, smooth and delicious chocolate is here on this side of the pond.
Even your favorite snacks like KitKats and M&Ms taste infinitely better in Britain. Apparently, it’s because the UK requires that companies use less oil and preservatives and more natural milk and cocoa in their products.
Whatever the reason, my advice is … come with a half empty suitcase and forget the diet, because once you have tasted British and European chocolate, it will change your life.
I always loved the movie musical “My Fair Lady,” where Eliza Doolittle is a disadvantaged girl from London who is transformed into a cultured woman of high society.
Little did I know that I’d have many of my own Eliza Doolittle moments, especially when it came to dining out at fancy restaurants with business colleagues.
I was in my 20s and eager to impress my boss. However, every time we went out to eat, I could see everyone giving me weird looks at the table. It wasn’t just the people at work, it was nearly every where I ate.
At first, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. But then I realized that I was eating my food differently.
Everyone else, including kids, all kept their fork turned upside down in their left hand and their knife in their right hand. Meanwhile, I was cutting up all of my food into bite-sized pieces; putting down the knife; and then using my fork in my right hand to shovel food into my mouth like an excavator!
It turns out that my dining style is actually very common and normal in the States, but around the rest of the world, it’s not only improper dining etiquette, it’s just completely confusing. I might as well have been Ariel when she picked up the fork and used it as a hairbrush in “The Little Mermaid.”
Don’t get me wrong, no one is going to be mean to you or make you feel bad about how you eat. They will just be utterly baffled by how you use utensils.
It’s completely up to you how you want to use your fork and knife, but if you’re like me, you might want to sneak in a quick YouTube tutorial just so you know what all of your options are.
Let the Brit win
There’s going to be lots of debates about whether to add that extra “u” in words like favourite or whether tin foil is pronounced “ah loo min um” or “ah loo min ee um.”
I made the mistake of trying to make a case for the American versions of all these things.
At the end of the day, you will lose all of these debates. The British brought the English language to America. Their spelling and pronunciation is “right.” Resistance is futile.
Don’t wear all black
New York fashion is all black. We love it! It’s elegant, it’s timeless, it’s slimming, it’s easy to coordinate, it’s perfection!
When I brought my black wardrobe to London, I thought I was going to wow everyone with my sophisticated style. Instead, I was asked “Are you going to a funeral?” at least three times a day, (sigh).
I quickly learned I needed to lighten up my wardrobe. So, I went into fashion rehab and built my wardrobe up with some colorful looks. Now, I save my little black dresses for the states, and I show off my edgy London looks in Europe.
Every language has filler words that people use to ensure the listener is still paying attention. In the states, people tend to say, “You know what I mean?” or “You know?”. In the UK, they say, “Yeah?”
When I first started working in our UK office, I did not know about “Yeah?”
There was a senior manager who would literally say “yeah?” at the end of every sentence. When he spoke to me, I thought he was asking me if I understood, so I kept replying, “Yeah!” in an enthusiastic way.
I thought he thought I was an idiot, so my replies would become more and more confident. “Yeah!” “Yes!” “I got it!” But he would keep saying it.
It became like the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first” skit or a crazy verbal ping-pong match. “Yeah?” “Yeah!!!!!!” “Yeah?” “YES!!!!”
Eventually, I figured it all out, but I sure wish someone had let me in on this little idiosyncrasy. You know what I mean?
Make time for tea
While New Yorkers are partial to coffee, Londoners definitely prefer tea. It’s the cornerstone to all life in the UK.
According to the UK Tea and Infusions Association, Brits drink over 100 million cups daily and 36 billion cups per year! Which is insane for a country of only 67 million people!
Tea is literally the answer to all of your problems here. Tummy not feeling well? Have a cup of tea. Break up with your boyfriend? Tea. It’s 3 p.m. and you need a break? Put the kettle on, it’s time for a cup of tea.
Of course, they don’t say “cup of tea” over here, they shorten the phrase to “cuppa”. The first time I was asked, “Fancy a cuppa?” I imagine I looked like a deer in headlights.
I’ve since learned there is more than one type of tea. So, here’s a quick guide on the essentials. English Breakfast is a black tea. Darjeeling, Assam and Ceylon teas are different strengths of black tea. “Builder’s Tea” is basically a strong English Breakfast tea.
If you want the fancy stuff, or want to give tea as a gift, I recommend Harrods or Fortnum and Mason (The King’s grocer), which all have vast selections and experts to help you find the perfect blend for your tastebuds. Oddly, ice tea isn’t a thing over here.
And whatever you do, for the love of goodness, DO NOT MENTION LIPTON TEA! You’ll be banished and sent back to America immediately!
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