Let’s travel back in time to before I flew off to London. I remember sitting in my living room in Michigan watching a BU Study Abroad video about the differences between the U.K. and the U.S. At the time, the video cracked me up. Differences? REALLY? We speak the same language! Well, BU, you were right and I was wrong. I started my internship last week (for the Advertising/Marketing Internship Program) and I have experienced a bit of culture shock. I was suddenly in an office without fellow American BU students. I quickly noticed differences and became anxious because of them. I wish I had listened to BU and mentally prepared for this transition. After all, recognizing cultural differences (and adapting when possible) is key to excelling abroad.
So, here is a list of a few cultural differences between the U.K. and the U.S. that I wish I had prepared for:
- There are different famous people!
While this may seem obvious, it still took me by surprise. One of my first tasks at my internship was to find an affordable voiceover actor for a non-profit commercial. The next day, my supervisor informed me that one of the people I wrote down on my list of options was a famous actor in the U.K.! I had never even heard the name before! I have learned that it is important to get caught up on British pop culture before arriving. It can be helpful just to watch British shows on Netflix.
2. There are different jokes!
British humor is famous for being sarcastic, so sometimes, things can come off as brusque. My office often has “office banter” during which employees tease each other. It is important to remember that, for Brits, teasing is a compliment. My first day at work, I couldn’t figure out how to leave the building and my manager joked, “Wow! Already failed the first day!” At first, I was panicked! I failed! But then I realized that this was some good old British humor. Plus, British people tend to be more cynical. Pessimism is not rude, but very normal.
3. There is a different way to work hard!
The work culture here is about working smarter, rather than harder. I am very used to a fast-paced university and work culture. However, I have noticed here that it is not the speed, but the value of your work that is respected. I find myself having to take a break in the office to let myself work more thoughtfully. You can see this slower-paced culture in restaurants as well. Often, you have to ask a waiter for the bill because they assume that you want to hang out and relax after you finish your meal.
4. There is a different way to drink tea (and alcohol!)
Tea and alcohol are served in rounds. Therefore, if you are getting yourself a tea in the office it is rude not to ask everyone else if they would like a tea. I also have noticed that service culture is still very admired. While interning, it is polite (and not creepy) to ask your supervisor if they would like a tea refill every 1-2ish hours. The same goes for pub culture. If you go to a pub, you each take turns buying everyone drinks. Don’t even worry about offering to pay, you can just get the next round!
5. There are different bags!
Everywhere you go, you have to pay about 5p for a bag. Therefore, it’s important to always have a reusable bag on you. I started bringing one to my internship in case I ever have to run errands. Overall, the U.K. is more green than the U.S. My workplace has specific composting and recycling standards. If you don’t own a reusable bag, it is very confusing to your peers.
6. There are different ways to say hi!
For a while, I was convinced something was wrong with me. Often, while ordering at a coffee shop, the server would look me dead in the eye and say “You alright?” I would wonder if I looked tired or weird or had something in my teeth. I would get offended and answer “Hahaha, yes, I’m alright, why?” Well, it turns out that only means, “How are you?” and you can answer, “I’m good! You?” Oops!
7. There is different small talk!
In the U.K., there is less small talk. When I arrive at the office, time isn’t spent talking about your weekend or a TV show. You don’t have to feel pressured to fill the gaps of silence. Also, you talk to strangers less. You don’t get to know your barista or waiter. Plus, you don’t talk on the train (even if you are with a friend). The Tube is a place designed to be quiet and chill, so it can seem rude to others if you are loudly gossiping.
8. There is a different use for milk!
My second day of work, I made the mistake of getting my supervisor a coffee without milk! Here, lots of milk is served with tea and coffee. If someone asks for a hot drink, it’s always smart to ask, “with milk?” Plus, I suggest trying milk with tea! It’s delicious!
9. There is a different way to write the date!
This one is simple but it still trips me up! Here, the day is written before the month. Therefore, October 21 is written as 21/10/2019. I have a sticky note on my desk reminding me to write the date in that way on all documents.
10. There is a different way to enjoy your lunch break!
This summer, I worked at an ad agency in Boston. I found myself eating lunch at my desk while busting out emails. In the U.K., it can be taboo NOT to take a break. Many people in my office take an hour to stroll in Hyde Park or enjoy a tea and read. The other day, my supervisor had to remind me to take a break! So, I have come to learn to enjoy my lunch hour.
Wherever you are planning to go abroad, it is important to take note of the subtle cultural differences. Something that might seem rude or confusing could just be the local custom. By recognizing these differences, I have found it easier to adapt here. I have come to understand that there are many different ways to go about life. It is fun to try things the British way! At the end of the day, it is important to accept the beautiful fact that people and cultures are so amazingly diverse.
Hannah Schweitzer, Study Abroad Correspondent
Hannah Schweitzer is a junior studying Advertising with a minor in Film/Television at Boston University. She is currently studying abroad in London and interning at Catsnake, a viral video and storytelling agency. In her free time she enjoys performing improv comedy with BU’s Liquid Fun, hosting her sex positive radio show, Love Is On The Air, and eating York Peppermint Patties. Hannah is a COM Ambassador and is happy to answer any questions about life in COM at firstname.lastname@example.org!