How to Live In Britain without Getting Your American Head Kicked In
Photo by Leonora Enking
Being the bright-eyed and devastatingly uncool Britophile/Shakespeare nerd that I am, leaving North America for London was pretty much my dream from age six onwards. But, as with so many childhood obsessions, the reality I'm living is vastly different from the one I'd imagined. Now, my life is more about queues, being constantly 100 percent lost and almost getting hit by buses travelling 400mph on the wrong side of the road than it is having my naked body wrapped in a Union Jack flag by some snotty hybrid of young Malcolm McDowell and Spike from Buffy.
All the food is beige, the underground system is ludicrously hot all year-round and culture shock turned out to be a very real, very disorienting thing. I wish some wizened ex-pat had taken me by the hand pre-flight and explained to me how OK it was to be falling-down drunk at work functions, why Friends is constantly on television, the concept of “dogging”, what Cheryl Cole’s whole deal is and about four million other uniquely British phenomena that have been slowly revealed to me over my time in the country. Below I have outlined a few things aspiring expats should know before making the leap across the pond.
Photo by Rosa Maria Koolhoven
NEVER SAY THE PHRASE "ACROSS THE POND"
It sucks so hard. Your worst uncle will use this expression to ask you how things are going at Christmas. Tell him “jolly good” and then do not speak to him for the rest of the night/his life.
NB: Loud conversations in the pub about the fact that you call the outerwear on your legs "pants" and they call them "trousers" – yeah, don't have these.
TONE IT DOWN
Whatever you’re doing at the moment, no matter how much you may or may not already consider it a toned down version of your regular self, you are about 12-times “too much” for England. Too loud, too crass, too overtly sexual, too prude, too politically incorrect, too sensitive about the weird, overly-familiar nicknames old guys give to any woman – regardless of any pre-existing relationship – too ignorant, too show off-y about your intelligence – just toooo much, generally. Chill out and shut up a bit until you get a feel for how people are.
That said, you'll probably never really figure it out because, believe it or not, a gigantic country’s culture is not reducible to a short series of general truths. (Except for in this article, which is 100 percent accurate in every conceivable way.)
SOME WORDS ARE SPELT/PRONOUNCED WEIRDLY (WRONG), BUT EVERYONE'S IN ON IT SO JUST ACT COOL
For example: Yoghurt, porpoise, urinal, tyres, gaol, schedule and paedophile. See also: the never-ending list of words for vagina that sound like Dr Seuss characters, including, but not limited to, “minge”, “flange”, “clunge” and “foof”. Plus “fanny” is straight up both a regular name that women actually have and a commonly used slang for vagina, as if that’s not a big deal whatsoever.
SARCASM / SINCERITY
It's almost impossible to tell, as an outsider, which things the British will embrace with an all-out sincerity and which things will be brutally derided. This has led to a number of high-stress “I can’t tell if you’re kidding” workplace scenarios and, to be honest, I still don’t have the hang of it.
Like, everyone, even VICE, loved the opening ceremony of the Olympics. All the newspapers were like “If you didn’t love the Opening Ceremony, you're basically an idiot with no heart who doesn't deserve to live in this country.” But did you see the bit where the “inventor of the world wide web” was dramatically revealed to be inside the holographic, multicultural rave home, just sitting in there typing away on his large 90s desktop while a stock photo-styled house party raged on outside him? “Yes, and we LOVED IT! Great job, Tim Berners-Lee. Great job, Danny Boyle. Great job, all of us!” – Britain.
What, seriously? Oh wait, no, you're... oh. Oh, no. Ha? Fuck knows.
Photo by bhav.bhav
SNOG / MARRY / AVOID
The polite British version of the classic “fuck, marry, kill” is not just a game in the UK; it’s a way of life. If you "snog" someone, they will either try to wife you up immediately or avoid you in social situations like you’re the only one who knows they’re secretly a hardcore racist. They’re not very good at feelings over here, which is a problem because…
YOU'RE GOING TO WANT TO MAKE OUT WITH EVERYONE
There is absolutely no statute of limitations on still finding the accents hot, despite the fact you'll hear them literally 24/7. It will never stop being the best. And there's so much more sexy accent variety than blockbuster period dramas/Game of Thrones would have you believe. Some of them are crazy dopey (sorry, West Country, you sound like the result of inbreeding between farmers and pirates), but it won’t stop you from finding them way charming.
Plus, the gentlemen here have a handle on their attire that makes North American men look like ageing roid-heads with an Ed Hardy dependency. Fun statement socks! Cool woven skinny ties! Great knitwear, everyone! You look like you read! Let’s touch mouths!
NB: if you have a lust for British people that's impossible to satisfy from your foreign clime, just type the slang words for vagina listed earlier into whatever porn site is in your cache and thank me later (British people place a lot of value in etiquette).
EVERYONE IS FAMOUS
Citizens of the United Kingdom possess a seemingly unending capacity for considering someone “a celebrity”. As such, do not ask who that random person is on the TV; there is a 99 percent chance that they are famous and you will look dumb for not knowing. "Oh, her? She's a famous mum. She wrote an article about being a mum once, so now they get her on telly sometimes to talk about what that's like." Duh.
Or: "That guy is a famous bank teller. He was in some adverts and now we all love him. His name is Howard and I believe that he likes biscuits.”
Or: “This man is sort of a celebrity because he is the husband of a woman who once gave an interview to a newspaper about how she cheats on her husband, so he’s like a famous cuckold. He was the face of a new line of tea cosies at ASDA recently.” Etc. etc. etc.
CUSTOMER SERVICE IS NOT A "THING"
The customer is not “always right” – the customer is “so boring” and “being done a massive favour”. At age 11 in the UK, all children receive a special letter in the post, telling them they have been born with a gift: near-mythic proportions of surliness and a general lack of interest in other people and the world around them. They might be confused or sceptical about this at first, but there are agencies at work in British society that soon hammer this sense of isolation into them: the education boards charged with setting them endless exams, the bouncers that hate them and – most importantly of all – the newsagents instructed to refuse entry to more than one of them at any given time.
Since the countryside evacuations carried out during World War II, the British government has put faith in the benefits of whisking kids away to a magical school in the countryside where they are taught how to roll their eyes, tell you there’s “nothing they can do” and “to open a bank account, would you please send three different physical letters to the Isle of Wight like it's the medieval times and that's the best technology we have for conveying information?”
You can’t change it, and telling them how bad it is only makes it worse – they know, and they don’t care, mate.
THEY'RE ALL PART OF A FUN SLANG CLUB AND YOU AREN'T ALLOWED IN
Oh god, all of it is so great – “knickers”; using “well” to mean “very”; “mate”, “cheers” and “cheers, mate”; and the bizarre and frequent application of the descriptor “cheeky” – and you can’t touch any of it. You're on a Weight Watchers detox diet at an all-you-can-eat linguistic buffet.
Hard-edged North American accents simply cannot pull off delicate, sophisticated words like “chundered” or “wanker”. I learned this the hard way by giving it a go with “knickers", which straight up sounds like the N-word when I say it. And don’t think you can saunter back home with a transatlantic accent and a mental dictionary full of fun new phrases, because have some self-respect – there's honestly nothing more inexcusably lame than someone in 2012 "developing" a transatlantic accent.
I hope some of this helps. Regardless, you will love it here, but everyone around you will be complaining and making plans to move to America and/or Canada. I have absolutely no idea why.
Follow Monica on Twitter: @monicaheisey
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