I would never presume to re-educate ‘my fellow Americans’, not that I am entitled to use that term, given that I am a Limey who hasn’t taken his Citizenship test yet, but I do feel it is within my rights to put pay to a few misconceptions and in the process hopefully right a few wrongs.
First of all, let us look at American misconceptions of the English.
Part 1. Teeth
We don’t all have bad teeth! I really don’t know where this falsehood first began but it simply isn’t true. I spent 31 years of my life in England and I did not see a larger percentage of the populace with crooked, yellow or generally bad teeth as I have seen here in the U.S. I think films like Austin Powers just help to exacerbate the pre-conceived myth that all British people have bad teeth. Not true.
I will say this however, there is definitely a morbid fascination with “whitening” and “straightening” one’s teeth here in the U.S. The number of commercials on TV dedicated to products and services to make your smile whiter than pure snow is quite remarkable. The marketing machine making all Americans think they have to have perfect, white teeth is so mind-alteringly insidious, its almost as bad as the same marketing that makes all women think they have to be stick thin.
Will you meet a Brit with bad teeth? Yes quite possibly, but would you like to stand them up against a hillbilly as a shining example of the average American? I think not.
Part 2. Royalty
There are two rife misconceptions that need to be put to bed here right away! The first is that every Brit you meet must know the queen. False!
The second is that most Americans think they can trace their lineage back to royalty. Also False! There are over 60 million people in the United Kingdom, that’s almost one fifth of the entire U.S. population on an island 40x smaller and hardly any of them can trace their ancestry back to royalty, so what makes you think you can? And if by the remotest chance I am mistaken, then we have a situation where the majority of settlers that departed England’s shores to start a new life here in the Colonies are related to royalty, which means that the War of Independence would make no sense at all. A war to gain independence from governorship and taxation by an English government backed by a monarchy, when we’re saying that most of that royalty was already over here? Wouldn’t that be somewhat akin to fighting yourselves?
Part 3. Fruitcake
Yes its true a large number of English folk love a good, heavy fruitcake at Christmas. I will say this though in its defense, it is not the same cake passed around year after year because no-one wants it. Now that might be true here in the U.S. where the definition of ‘cake’ appears to be a pound/sponge cake covered in fake cream icing. A really good Christmas fruit cake is home-made, extremely dense, heavy and moist and contains a lot of alcohol (usually Brandy or Rum). Unfortunately these ‘quality’ fruitcakes that English families enjoy bear little resemblance to the dry, unsavory fruitcakes that are sold commercially in stores and it is these, regrettably, that fall into the hands of our American friends.
Part 4. Tea
We all love tea! This is for the mostpart true. Tea is an excellent brew and a wonderful drink befitting any time of day. I have found that a really good, quality tea is very hard to purchase here in the U.S. Even in specialty stores, the shelves here in the U.S. are stocked with ‘fragrant’ and ‘piquant’ specialty flavored teas like Darjeeling, Earl Gray, Green and Orange Pico and some other very bizarre offerings involving plants that should never be spoken in the same sentence as the word tea. Given that these options are all that is available to most Americans I am not surprised in the least that America has fallen in love with coffee instead.
Part 5. Stuffy
I often get my American friends and family trying to impress upon me their impressions that English are stuffy, stand-off’ish and arrogant. Let me break this down:
i) Stuffy – Only the very rich have a tendency to exhibit this behaviour. As the very rich only constitute 1% to 2% of the British population, its not really true.
ii) Stand-Off’ish – This is a mis-perception. English are typically very reserved and quiet when you first meet them. They like to study you before they get to know you but once they do you will find they can become some of the best friends you will ever have. Sadly if you only visit the U.K. as a tourist or on a business trip, you won’t be around long enough for the average Brit to warm up to you so I can see where this impression comes from.
iii) Arrogant – I think there is some truth to this but it is true on both sides of the pond. American arrogance is more brash and down-to-earth (and in-your-face) whereas British arrogance is more aloof and intellectually inclined. Neither nation likes this manifestation in the other so its touché I’m afraid.
Part 6. London
It never ceases to amaze me how many Americans make the assumption that I am from London. Only about 8% of the entire population can be considered to be ‘from’ the London and Greater London area which covers over 600 square miles. I’ve been asked “What part of London are you from?” on several occasions. This, to me, is akin to asking Americans “What part of New York are you from?”. Sadly the same fascination with London drives the tourist driven American to visit little more than London when they travel to the United Kingdom and then make the assumption that they have “seen England”. How much more inprecise and an injustice this could be is hard to fathom and would be like an Englishman visiting New York and saying “That’s it. I’ve seen America. Now I can leave content!”.
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There’s a lot more I can cover but that will do for now. I now want to cover a different area which can cause considerable embarrassment for Brits visiting America and Americans visiting the U.K.
Fanny pack – In the U.K. a fanny is not your ass (we say ‘arse’ by the way). On the contrary, a fanny is slang for a woman’s vagina. So please, when you visit the United Kingdom, no shouting out phrases like “Anyone seen my fanny pack?” or “I slapped him on the fanny”.
Puffs – Here in the U.S. “Puffs” are delightfully soft tissues for blowing your nose on. However, my American wife and her family were very bemused when I first emigrated over here and they presented me with a box of “Puffs”. I was suffering a mild cold at the time and upon being presented with said “puffs” I proceeded to laugh uncontrollably. You see, in the U.K. “puffs” are homosexuals. So again, please save yourself and everyone around you the embarrassment of asking for some puffs or what you would like to do with them.
Beer – This information I am giving you now is probably the most valuable snippet of information you can take with you on a trip to England. What you Americans call beer, the British call “lager”. Lager is a light, slightly carbonated and chilled beer, in other words, Bud, Miller etc. It is not what British people consider to be real beer. So, if you like your Budweisers and your Millers and your Heinekens then ask for a can or bottle of lager when you’re in a bar or pub. If you ask for ‘beer’ you are going to get a draught pulled pint of bitter or mild which is pumped to the bar from barrels in the cellar at slightly colder than room temperature. This is what British consider to be “real” beer and is a lot yeastier, uncarbonated and will often come with a creamy, frothy head (if its a good pint).
Fag – Please, my fellow countrymen, when you come to America, do not visit a store and request to purchase a packet of “fags” when desirous of obtaining cigarettes. “Fags” are homosexuals here in the U.S. and not cigarettes. You will not be received warmly if you ask if you can “bum a fag” (Ed. English slang for ‘borrow a cigarette’)
Arse – Use the word “ass” when traveling the Colonies please.
Lorry – Americans have no clue what a lorry is. Just say “Semi”, “18-wheeler” or “truck”. Be careful though, a “truck” is also used in local lingo to denote a “pick-up truck” which is typically a 4WD vehicle with 2 or 4 doors (quad cab) and a 4foot or 6foot flat-bed loading area at the rear with drop tail-gate.
Loo – If you need to use the bathroom here in the U.S. don’t say “loo”. Americans love to refer to the bathroom as the “rest room” and have no idea what a loo is. Also try and refrain from using the word “toilet” as for some strange reason they find it vulgar. “Lavatory” is passable but I would stick with “rest room”, “gents” or “ladies” if I were you.
and on the subject of housing…
Bungalow – They call it a ranch (don’t ask)
Semi-detached – They call it a condo or duplex
Housing estate – They call it a sub-division (again, don’t ask). When my wife and I first started dating, apparently I lead her to believe that I was a lot wealthier than I am by telling her I lived on an ‘estate’. She spent several months believing I lived in some kind of manor with expansive grounds instead of my humble 3 bed detached.
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Please post a comment if you have anything else you would like to add!