Something is funny about being an American in the UK. Of course, as a friend recently pointed out to me, St. Andrews is about as close to “Americanized” as Scotland gets, but it is still not the United States – for good and bad.
We know the stereotypes, right? Americans are friendly to the point of being disingenuous. Brits are cold. Americans are fat. Brits eat bad food. Americans work too much. Brits… drink too much?
When Americans arrive in Scotland, or really anywhere in the UK, I think we bring with us a different set of expectations than other internationals do. For some reason, we expect less cultural divides than if we were traveling to a non-English-speaking country. We realize not only that we share a Western heritage and a language, but also that much of our history is intertwined with something over here, which we have trouble defining exactly because most of us don’t know what the differences are between England, the United Kingdom, and Great Britain.
For some practical reasons, our thinking we will face no dramatic culture shock is a problem.
So is our ignorance, but I’m not sure I can really elucidate all the ways in which we Americans are ignorant in just this one column.
In any case, focusing on this sense of shared culture and expectation of similarities leads to complications because it extends to many areas, including the legal system. To give an example: think it might be fun to run naked through the streets after you win a football match? Streaking here could get you placed on the national sex offender registry and would make it dramatically more difficult to reenter the country.
Then there are the horrifying and hilarious language problems. If you don’t know what I mean, consider spunky, fanny pack, and double fisting. If you’re British, you’re probably deeply disgusted with me now. If you’re American, you’re probably thinking I’ve just begun to list random words.
So, because I can’t really be associated with the meanings of these words online, I recommend that you Google them. And now that everyone is thoroughly disgusted, I will state the obvious. Americans are sometimes embarrassing.
Being disgusting isn’t always our worst problem, though. Over and over since arriving in the UK, I have found myself committing faux pas I didn’t even know existed. I’ll be chatting away and all of a sudden I look around and people are staring at me as if I just announced that I shot someone yesterday. Given that I have yet to shoot anyone, and I sincerely hope not to shoot anyone ever, this makes me uncomfortable. It’s something like slamming into a brick wall you didn’t know was there. Recovering the situation is a challenge.
This experience is more interesting than talking about words with explicitly embarrassing definitions because it is amorphous and imperceptible from afar. And without a particularly extraverted Brit willing to explain it, you may not even be able to place your finger on your social transgression.
I think, in writing this, I am trying to encourage Brits to stop us when we’re floundering. And I am definitely encouraging Americans to pay closer attention to social cues and to listen. Because really, when you declare you like spunky people and everyone spits out their drinks, it might be time to backtrack.