When I decided to move to the UK 3 years ago, I thought to myself, ‘how hard can it be living in London? They speak English and their culture is so similar to the American culture.’ Little did I know that the UK and America are two very different countries. Here are the three things that I’ve learned (and now very much appreciate) living in London.
American English and British English are very different
I’m not talking about ‘you say tomato, I say tomaTOE’. Over the last 3 years, I’ve joyfully welcomed British words like lift, flat, and rubbish to my vocabulary. After all, I wanted to integrate and sound like a Londoner.
Yet, even after these 3 years, I still learn new sayings every week and am constantly baffled by my coworkers when their accents thicken for every beer they drink at happy hour. While I used to say ‘peel me a grape’ and ‘y’all’ on the regular, now I instead use phrases like ‘how long is a piece of string?’ and ‘let’s put it in the diary’.
I frequently have to ask coworkers for translations, or clarify what was said in a meeting. The most frustrating thing (and one that I’ve yet to master), is when the Brit tells you “sorry”. While for most Americans, a “sorry” genuinely means “I’m sorry”, for a Brit, this can mean 10 very different things, including “Bless your heart” and “Move” (if they’re trying to pass you in the tube or on the street).
For anyone travelling or moving to the UK, here are my favourite American/British translations:
- Flat – Apartment
- Lift – Elevator
- Boot -Trunk of a Car
- Chips – fries
- Crisps – Potato Chips
- Lorry – Truck
- Trousers – Pants
- Pants – Underwear
- Trainers – Sneakers
Pro Tip – Don’t use ‘Z’ in anything. The Brits only spell with ‘S’ not ‘Z’, e.g. realise and internationalise. They also switch the ‘er’ to ‘re’, e.g. centre and theatre, and use ‘ou’ in a lot of words that Americans would only use ‘o’ in, e.g. colour and neighbour.
Brits Work to Live, not Live to Work
My experience in the US was that vacation was not a guarantee, nor was it something you would negotiate for often when you started a new job. Once in the job, you would also never dare to take a 2 or 3 week vacation – 1 week was plenty. If you took more, your employer would see you as lazy or think that you didn’t care about your work.
It took me 2 years of working until I took my first vacation. I was afraid to take it. What if my manager didn’t think I was a hard worker? What if something happened while I was away that I needed to be apart of or respond to?
In the UK, your team would think it was odd if you didn’t take your vacation. They would also think it was odd if you’d willing use the vacation to check emails or dial into a meeting. Vacation (or as the Brit’s would say ‘holiday’) is something that you should take to rest, recharge, and come back refreshed. Most employers believe that if you don’t take time to disconnect, you won’t be able to do your job well because you’ll burn out. They’d rather let you take time off to recharge than have employees who can’t do their full 100%.
The minimum amount of holiday days by law in the UK is 28. You’re encouraged to use it. Once the “out of office” email is up, no one expects you to answer.
The same goes for taking time off when you have a baby, both for men and women. You’re encouraged to use it! I’ve had several male coworkers in the UK take a month off when their babies were born. The maternity care policy will vary by employer, but a woman must take off is 2 weeks after having a baby. Ordinary maternity leave is 26 weeks and additional maternity leave is 26 weeks as set by the UK government.
Healthcare is a given, not a privilege
When I first moved to the UK, the first thing my American self did was investigate my health insurance options. I figured I needed one and was living a risky life, if I didn’t have one.
In the UK, the healthcare system (the National Health Service, or NHS) is government-sponsored and publicly funded. The NHS was established after WWII when the UK was still rebuilding after the war and families were struggling to rebuild their financial security.
In the UK when you are unwell, you won’t be turned away by a doctor. They have tightened the rules recently and may ask you if you’re registered with a GP (a neighbourhood doctor) if you walk into the hospital. That said, if you break a leg or are in a car crash, you will be taken care of.
One of my American coworkers broke her leg a year ago and was brought into the emergency room via ambulance. Her first instinct was ‘how am I ever going to pay for this?’ Yet, when she received the final bill, her total amount owed was only for her pain medications, which totalled about 16 pounds. She didn’t have health insurance at the time.
Having experienced first hand what universal healthcare can provide, I am thankful that Brits see healthcare as a given and not a privilege for the wealthy. The Brits (and anyone else living and working in the UK) do pay a lot in taxes, but they also get a lot out of the government benefits.
Note – If you don’t have insurance through an employer, insurance in the UK for expats can be affordable (unless you have a plan that includes coverage in the US). That said, most if you only travel one week here and there to the UK, investing in a traveller’s insurance instead of going to the full expat global insurance plan will usually be more cost effective.
Do you live in the UK or are you British? How do my experiences in the UK compare to mine?