Since 1776: Britain and/vs. the United States

With Independence Day soon approaching on July 4, I thought it would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between British and American culture. As a devoted Anglophile who has studied abroad in England, visited the London area many times, and has family and friends there, I am always fascinated by America’s “homeland” and the culture there. There are a few things that absolutely make me scratch my head in wonder (the English fry up–baked beans at breakfast??), and other things I admire or can relate to. In no particular order, here are some of the similarities and differences I have noticed:

-England’s English is more ornate, flowery, and wordy than American English. Our use of language here is very direct, efficient, and about not wasting anybody’s time. One can see this in the language of our obsessive, dumbed-down text culture. While this efficiency is often very admirable and shows a certain confidence in expressing one’s ideas with an economy of words, at the same time, we can lack the eloquence, visible erudition, and even clever wordplay (there is nothing like British sarcasm, nothing!) that we find in the same language used across the pond. The language has had a longer time to develop in its homeland, and there are much deeper roots and history entwined with British English. American English’s strength is its innovation, which has surprisingly led the Oxford English Dictionary to include slangy words that might not have been considered decades earlier.

-Britons and Americans are both rather good-humored people. But there is more public bawdiness allowed on TV, in the media, etc. A streak of Puritanism still can run through American culture despite the fact that one can very easily find extremely racy, dirty, and vulgar American humor in the media. But the bawdy humor runs back centuries–think of Shakespeare, and the actors performing the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet’s nurse teasing about the pleasures of the nuptial bed in Romeo and Juliet.

-Both the United States and Great Britain are large, Anglo-Saxon-based multicultural societies. While there is the dominance of culture, there is also a huge inclusion and tolerance of diversity, minorities, and various ethnic groups. Part of this is due to the countries’ history of colonization and/or slavery. While someone who is Jamaican British for 2 generations would be considered British, someone who is Moroccan in France for two generations would still be considered Moroccan. Britain is very unique in Europe, and cannot be rightly considered Continental in her values, despite EU membership. Britain has proudly retained the pound sterling as her currency, and with the current economic crises in the EU, that was a wise decision.

-I once read a quote (I believe it was by JB Priestley) that England is “reasonable, not rational.” This has its pros and cons. As above, England is less puritanical overall, can accept more behaviors with a reasonable point of view. The long traditions of the English imagination, dandyism, architecture, royal culture, even its religion (Catholicism which then morphed into the Church of England) all illustrate a certain sense of grace and luxuriousness beyond the practicality of American day-to-day life. However, day-to-day life is run with much more smoothness and efficiency in the United States. Ours is not a bureaucratic country, and many institutional processes happen much more quickly here. Each visit to London makes me realize how disorganized the country can be—train stations are a mess, nobody knows which bus goes where, and one must either freeze or burn one’s hands when deciding between the cold or hot taps on the sink.

-Both the US and UK rely heavily on processed, prepackaged foods. Perhaps it is a leftover habit from the war, but supermarkets offer any variety of edible or prepare a bowl in a box, tin/can, or bag. Both the US and UK have gone through a foodie revolution, so to speak, in the past couple of decades, and the number of excellent restaurants has exponentially increased in both countries (primarily in urban areas). Britain does have the advantage of being a smaller country in that the distance from which locally grown foods are shipped is much smaller, although a number of items are imported from southern Europe and northern Africa. But this general reliance on processed foods is still very prevalent in both countries, and perhaps it is no surprise that both the US and UK have high rates of obesity (with the former having the highest rates in the world).

-Naturally, the reason for the colonies’ split from England was the dislike of monarchy and the love of freedom. But what does it mean to have a monarchy and how does this filter out into society? The primary factor that comes to mind is class. The UK is still very class-oriented, and though the upper class is a very small percentage, their landholding and wealth can be quite staggering. With any nobility-holding society comes a great tradition of the arts, high arts. In the United States, we are still developing an arts culture, and it tends to be based more on wealth and individualism rather than something historical. A sense of monarchy also lends itself to a more complacent society, in my opinion. People are more willing to be deferential in the UK in a way that we do not see here in the United States. Social harmony and well being are a higher priority than the extreme individualism and freedom we see in the US. Everything seems more calm, accepting, and unquestioned in the United Kingdom. In the United States, people are much less willing to accept what is put in the baby’s bottle, so to speak, without thinking it through and seeing if it meets the individual’s needs.

-Class differences and social structure are very different between the US and UK. Americans might falsely present an image of our country being a classless society, while the UK still retains the reputation of being run by the upper class and royals, while the rest of the country lives in detached houses. The US does indeed have different social classes, but the markers are often less obvious. Speech, for one, is relatively homogenized compared to Britain. How one speaks does not clearly indicate one’s social position. Also, people cross class barriers much more frequently here. For example, the child of multimillionaires may be working as a waitress in the summer during high school, or a plumber may be on a luxury cruise with passengers who are wealthy professionals. However, it is rare that we discuss class in the United States or very distinctly portray working-class people in our media. One of the rare exceptions was the groundbreaking TV sitcom “Roseanne” which was unabashedly working class. The idea in America is that everyone works, and everyone is self-made, whether or not this is entirely true. We would never have, financially or culturally, a social designation such as
“long term unemployed” as does the UK (as per the Office of National Statistics)!

The comparisons are endless, but the discussion must end here for now. Happy July 4 to all my American readers, and hopefully the Britons aren’t still bitter over 1776…