Things that Americans find incomprehensible about the UK

Lots of interesting thoughts on the previous post — thanks to all who commented. I’ll comment in that thread on the various clarifications of American culture. Here, I want to discuss some of the proposed oddities that have been suggested for Britain. (I won’t be addressing trivia like the lengths of TV series or the size of mains plugs, interesting though they are, because I want to focus on fundamentals.)


First, jwerpy is right to point out the ubiquity of surveillance, not only in London but in most British cities. It’s shameful not just that this has happened, but that it’s happened so quietly and unobtrusively that almost no-one has even objected.

I’d agree that incursions into freedom of expression in Britain are a very fundamental problem — not least because it’s the kind of meta-issue that makes it much harder for the country to protect itself against other issues. Lizard rightly points out the example of our terrible libel laws: we saw that culture most immediately in the vote two days ago against libel reform *headdesk*. But our culture of restricting expression applies in many other ways, and, yes, often results in people being arrested for tweets.

The progressive erosion of freedom that the last two points represent arises from a yet more fundamental issue which I’m surprised no-one picked up on: we have no (written) constitution. So if I want to assert my right to freedom of expression, I can’t just point to the First Amendment and say “look, it’s right here in the most fundamental laws of the land”.

It’s a surprise to me that so many people see the BBC as such an oddity. I know it’s an unusual way to finance broadcasting, but I’d never have seen it as one of the stand-out differences about Britain. For what it’s, I think it’s pretty good value for an as-close-to-independent broadcaster as you can get, free from the need to court advertisers. It’s always astonishing to me that a 45-minute episode of, say, Buffy takes a full hour to air in America. (I wonder how £12 a month compares with what typical Americans pay for TV?)


Wyrd points to the tendency for people to get into fights at football matches. (This is much less common than you’d think from the news, but it does happen.) That is very strange to me; but it’s far from being a characteristically British problem, and is more pan-European. I don’t know what lies behind it, unless it’s a tendency for Europeans to be more partisan regarding their sports. Perhaps it’s just a matter of cultural momentum? Violent people going to a football match in Europe know that violence happens at football matches, so they act accordingly and the cycle is perpetuated. I’ve been to one American sporting event in my life (Boston Red Sox) and despite not understanding more than 10% of what was happening, thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the American approach to enjoying sport is much better than ours. (Shame the actual sports are so lame.)

Wyrd also suggests that anti-intellectualism may be less ubiquitous and pervasive in Britain than in America. That may be true, but if it is then I’m not sure the difference is one of kind, only of degree.

Then there’s the monarchy, as mentioned by Sean Conner and others. I’m sure no-one would advocate it as a system of government. In practice, it’s purely ceremonial. We could argue about whether the economic benefit of a monarchy outweighs its cost, but in terms of what it means to live in Britain it has almost no impact at all beyond providing a set of celebrities for tabloid newspapers to obsess over.

Did we miss anything? What else about Britain makes Americans (and other non-Brits) go “what is this i dont even”?


24 responses to “Things that Americans find incomprehensible about the UK

  1. Pingback: Things that Brits find incomprehensible about the USA | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  2. Well, as an Australian (halfway between British and American?), I found the television to be incomprehensibly bad, after growing up on the best of British TV. The class system not based on wealth or education is pretty weird, and the price of fast food is incomprehensibly high. I should not be able to eat two hours wages worth at McDonalds, people!

  3. I don’t think the BBC model is completely unique – don’t Denmark have something similar? (Hence all those exported crime dramas).
    The funny thing is that I can just about live with commercial TV – ITV historically did good shows and US commercial TV does produce good stuff. But commercial radio is universally dreadful. I will pay my licence for BBC Radio alone.

    The consequence, of course, is that Britain never developed a significant college radio setup/scene – John Peel single handedly took on that role.

  4. Actually, on quality of TV, I think quantity is saving us. It may be true that 99% of American TV is rubbish compared with only 90% of British. But when America produces 100 times as much TV in total, that means it produces ten times as much good stuff as Britain. And since no-one has enough time to watch all of the good 10% of British TV, let alone all the 1% of good American TV, the issue is moot. Wherever you live, you can now pick only good stuff and have plenty enough that way to feed your habit.

  5. Actually, the monarchy, just as the Dutch monarchy, serves a very important purpose which many miss. The monarchy allows ties and relations with other nations to exist over the span of multiple governments and facilitates negotiations between them. It becomes significantly more difficult for nations to develop these relationships without such a system in place as you’ll continuously have other people in power with their own agenda’s trying to change things or negotiate other terms.

    It also gives a sense of unity to many; we do this for our country and for the Crown which is probably one of the reasons both the British and the Dutch amassed such a big colonial empire back in the days.

  6. Excellent point, Jeremy. This of course is part of what I had in mind when I mentioned “the economic benefit of a monarchy”.

  7. Having lived in Britain, I’d say anti-intellectualism is very popular there. In america, the anti-intellectuals tend to be liberals who think that everyone in the south is “anti-intellectual” because they don’t agree with liberal anti-science positions like their faith in global warming, etc. (Seriously, if you look at the scientific literature, global warming is a non-starter…. but if you talk to a liberal, they will insist, without having read any of the science, that it is fact, and that “all scientists agree”. No number of scientists signing petitions will get them to question this faith…. and that’s the dangerous anti-intellectualism in america- so anti-intellectual yet unwilling to think because they’re convinced they are intellectual.)

    Britian has a form of it where they think all things british are superior, and for instance, I once remember two girls on a bus talking about an american movie and how there’s no way americans could appreciate this movie like they could…..yet it was beyond them that the movie was *made* in america. While Britain mostly makes wacky comedies (though I do appreciate them.)

    Also the british seem to have a lower quality of life that was surprising. The shoes in a shoe store are cheaper chinese crap than you get in america at 4-5 times the price! I chalk this up to the burdens of socialism.

    But Britian is lovely in many ways. Don’t get me wrong, and america surely ha many faults I have not addressed.

    The intrusiveness of the TV tax, though, was annoyiing. When living there it felts like the council thought it had the right to know everything about us, and charge us regularly, and that the TV authority wanted proof we weren’t watching TV on our computers (we had no TV.)

  8. Yeah, my daughter and I just got back from three days in the UK (visiting the campus at the U of Edinburgh). This constituted essentially a short road trip (ha) from Luton to Edinburgh and back, with diversion to Stonehenge, you know, because we could.

    So of the things we experienced: driving, radio, and eating out, there were two standout items. The BBC really has the flavor of a little local broadcaster, yet it’s nationwide. There seems to be an actual music scene as opposed to corporate extruded music product. It was irritating that *all* the BBC programs appear to be talk/music mix – sometimes you just want to hear the music, not what somebody just had for lunch, you know?

    Every program also had the same three headline items, all the time. So it was a little odd to me that the BBC ensures everybody is always talking about the same things. Last week, it was Toyota recalls, the Thatcher funeral, Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, baby (beebie) cremation (I think the news in Scotland is Scotland-specific), and somebody misdiagnosed while in a coma. It updated every couple of hours. (Of course, in the States, now that EVERY ESTABLISHMENT EVERYWHERE HAS A TELEVISION ON HEADLINE NEWS, it’s not too different – but in the UK it appears to be legally mandated?)

    And yeah, restaurant (including fast food) prices are staggering. That was most certainly a what is this I don’t even. I took 100 quid from the ATM at the outset, thinking it would be more than enough, and had only 16 left over after three days, *and* a customer of mine bought our lunch one day. Wow.

    On the other hand, apparently broadband for a month costs less than an order of fries at McDonalds.

    I don’t think the monarchy thing matters much. But in the three days, I got a serious vibe that the government doesn’t feel that it has to answer to the people at all. Sure, in the States this is the same, but it is incredibly gauche to say so, and while people don’t feel much control over the country or their lives, they don’t talk about it; I can only assume they feel it’s a personal failing.

    But in the UK, it’s right out there in the open. The government does whatever the hell it wants to do, and the people don’t really like it, and say so. Very weird. The Ding Dong the Witch is Dead thing is kind of an example. Has the BBC ever refused to play a popular song in full? No, not until it became a political statement – and then they refused, flat out, and when people complained, they just said, no, it would be inappropriate and it puts us in a bad position, so we’re just going to do whatever we feel like doing, stick it in your ear.

    Weird country. But fun.

  9. Hi, Engineer. Scientist with a Ph.D speaking here; I have colleagues who are palaeoclimatologists. PLease do NOT try to use my blog as a platform for your global-warming denialism. I won’t redact or delete the comment you just left, but I will if you try it again.

  10. On the TV thing…. I was going to mention it, and then, I realized the fundamental irrationality of doing so, as it’s very much about cultural expectations and “just the way things are”. Specifically, Americans are, in general, happy (or willing) to spend ~50.00 to 100.00 a month on their cable/digital TV service, but we ain’t a-gonna pay a dime to the guvmint to watch TV, by Gawd! And I 100% share in that sentiment, despite the seeming irrationality. I would deeply resent any kind of “tv tax” or “tv license”, as it would go against virtually all the cultural standards I believe in. I can see many reasons that I, as an American, would be deeply suspicious of it. For one thing, it would strike most Americans, myself included, as the equivalent of having the government demand we get a license to subscribe to a newspaper, rent videos, or join a religious organization. I’m rather surprised, thinking of it, that We, The People, ever let the government get away with driver’s licenses — as a culture, we don’t like asking permission to do things, period, rationally or not. It’s part of who we are, and despite my British ancestry, I grew up inculcated in American culture and mores. Any excuse like “It will fund quality programming!” will be met with a contemptuous sneer, as the government here is not exactly known for quality anything. (PBS, in America, receives some government funding, but the majority is user donations and charitable grants, and the only stuff really worth watching on it comes from the BBC — go figure. OTOH, almost by definition, only the “good stuff” gets exported, so we Americans get a biased view of British TV, as we don’t see anything not deemed of high enough quality to be worth the cost of licensing over here.)

  11. Regarding Engineers comment. He’d have been better served by replacing anti-vax sentiment as an anti-intellectuiallism of the left.

    He is right about one thing. Anti-intellectulaism has become another big ism to paint your political opponents with. I feel that the true problem, the root problem, is our (American) political parties growing insistence of loyalty to party in all things. For example Republicans dare not be worried about climate change, and Democrats dare not be pro-life or they will be ostracized. The loyalty test are the big problem, anti-intellectualism is just one of the side effects arising from the contortions needed to apply all-or-none thinking to very complex issues.

    As for the TV comments. You’re right about a lot of it being crap. What I find funny in America is that often new reality or game shows come on and people moan and complain about the “death of good TV”, but almost invariably those new reality and game shows ruining American TV are knockoffs of British shows.

    Great point about “no written constitution” as well. You have the Magna Carta, but that’s not really the same thing. Your democracy is more evolutionary and not revolutionary.

  12. “Shame the actual sports are so lame”

    Difficult to get worked up into fighting mood over eleventy billion hours of watching grass in the shape of a diamond grow, I suspect.

  13. I remember learning about the Magna Carta in high school history class and I remember the 5th Doctor adventure with the Master where he was trying to change history to make the Magna Carta un-exist.

    Re TV tax to quality of programming: I guess there’s a point there–that I’m not seeing a good sampling of just what quality or lack of quality there is in British TV programming overall since only the most popular will get considered for export.

    Re anti-intellectualism: Looks like I should probably drop that as a complaint. If it’s all about degrees, then “anti-intellectual” ceases to be a Real Thing and is, instead, just some jeer that one party throws at the other in a degenerating debate. It will always be easy to attack whomever is opposed to your debate position by saying that they’re just not being intellectual enough.

    Re British surveillance fetish and the broken libel laws: I was wondering about that. I read/learned about the surveillance issue a few years ago and I wondered how that was working out. It seems to have not become quite the George Orwell 1984. But the other side is to ask: has all that surveillance resulted in the general sense of warm-cozy safety that was probably used as the excuse to allow all the cameras in the first place? Or instead do security guards just use it to stare at hot chicks w/o their knowledge or consent?

    On the broken libel laws: I became aware of this when Bad Stuff happened when Simon Singh got sued by an organization representing Chiropractors for daring to call their operation a fraudulent scam. (or something like that)

    Yeah in America, our free speech is pretty free…

    Unless except of course if you’re trying to speak out against a major corporation (or Internet scammers). In that case, they might be able to truly silence you with some libel lawsuit anyway. But if they can’t achieve that (our defamation laws do thankfully make it difficult), they can still get your websites taken down and your youtube account and twitter accounts suspended with false (or legit) DMCA takedown requests. To put in the request all they have to do is ask the entity hosting your content to take it down. To fight their request and get your content put back up is usually a tough legal battle. And even if you win, by the time you win, it’s too late because the legal battle might have taken months or years and your content got stale about a day and half after it was yanked.

    I’ve seen this happen with two different individuals that go after online scams. The pragmatic solution seems to be to get hosted at The uptime is crappy, but their whole point is they don’t knee-jerk respond to DMCA takedown requests.

    Well, that’s enough stream-of-consciousness-ing for one morning. :-)

    Mike, give my regards to the palaeoclimatologists. I was briefly a global warming/climate change skeptic (but not a denialist) in the early 2000’s. But then I tried out my doubting “how do we really *know* /X/” arguments on a few Internet forums where real scientists hang out and I realized my error(s). My main error simply being that it had been far too long since I’d bothered to remember that scientists are people too; that their disciplines are vast, varied, and only sometimes somewhat overlapping. And that the evidence for global climate change comes not from some amorphous blob of some simplistic single thing called “the scientific community” but rather it comes from the research of many, *many* scientists in many, *many* different fields working at many, many different institutions all over the world.

    Seeing all that I remembered that like me, scientists prefer to collect real data/information, then build hypotheses on that, then test them that they might learn even more rather than just make sh– up and justify it after the fact with specious arguments. Seeing all that I could not continue to doubt the reality of global climate change.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  14. I lived and worked for a year in Bristol when I was 30. I noticed many differences, but the one that stood out most was the culture of defeatism. My co-workers there just accepted bad things as they were. They felt like they were powerless to change anything. They felt like the courts were never on their side, that punishing a badly-behaved company (by not buying from them) was pointless, etc. Whatever happened, they kept on doing the same thing.

    The U.S. has a fundamental culture of “it can be fixed” and “we can do something about that.” It’s both invigorating and exhausting.

  15. Re TV licences: I can imagine that the notion of the BBC, and hence licencing, might be difficult to”get” from the outside, in that it is clearly not privately owned, yet it is independent of government. The current gov. certainly think that it is an anti-govt. force. I think it is one of the great things about Britain.

  16. Right. The BBC is government-funded, but absolutely not government-run.

  17. Odd, I thought *I* funded the BBC, not the government.
    I’m not going to get into the written constitution argument though (we do have one, but it’s not written in one place with the right to carry machine guns and kill random people at will)

  18. The licence fee is an oddity. It’s not technically a tax, because of its mode of collection, but the money DOES go to the government, who then allocate the money paid in to the BBC.

    As for the, “culture of defeatism”, I think this is mostly the inevitable triumph of experience over hope. I see even Americans beginning to notice that the idea of “it can be fixed” might not have legs. Yesterday’s defeat of even a watered down gun-control bill seems to powerfully illustrate that democratic control has passed from the people to the lobby groups like the NRA. I think that’s perhaps why the British have the humour we do: it’s been formed as a carapace of innate scepticism because we have several hundred years of collective memory of being dumped upon.

  19. In America, it is understand that you should generally walk on the right side of the pathway, corridor, sidewalk, stairway, or what have you, in order not to bump into people walking in the other direction.

    It would make sense if British people walked on the left. But they don’t. Instead, there is no rule, only chaos and people walking into one another.

  20. Not read the comments above yet but thoguht I shuold note — “hooliganism” at British football is not a relevent data ppoint; anyone ehose seen a hockey game knows that we have our share of hooligans in sporting events in North America.

    (It is often quoted .. one of the big games a decade back, where a young Russian team was out to play against Team Canada I think (I’m not a hockey guy I’m afraid) — so these wer elal good players, both teams; but the Russian team outclassed the Canadian team squarely.. but the Canadaian team one; through a lot of dirty play and brawling and punishing the other sides players.. a very unsportsmanlike match, that brought much shame. Canadians tend to view themselves as a fairly balanced bunch, think first… )

    There defiantely _was_ an anti-intellectual rut in culture for a long time; I think it isd much less so now through the Rise of Geekdom, but still there a little; somehow the average joe (worldwide?) doesn’t equate geek-culture the same as any other nerd-culture — a football nerd is no different than a video game nerd or car-nerd, but somehow car-nerding is an acceptible pasttime for an adult, while gamign is not. Anyway, growing up .. there was always that subtext of ‘geek is bad’ in publich and highscool, in movies and TV; the geeks were always the skinny losers who couldn’t get a date and got beaten up, while the jocks always got away with everything etc. But this stereotype is really a leftover from the 60s, and its steadily on the decline I think. Saying you were a coder 20 years ago would get you looks — but now we’ve had The Matrix and good paycheques, and people are pretty hit to it; the Internet was brought by the intellectuals, and people know it.

  21. (“won”; gads – in a rush, didn’t type very well at all there :/)

  22. I don’t think you can comment on American sports that Brits don’t understand without a mention of British ones Americans don’t understand. Cricket? Anyone?

  23. I tried reading the rules to cricket on Wikipedia. I gave up — and I play Aurora 4X, OK? I see where Rowling got the inspiration for Quidditch. (Also, to be fair to the UK, US sports fans are just as bad. In my area, Southern Indiana, they turn out a lot of extra police after most basketball games due to fears of rioting whether the home teams wins or loses. In the UK, the term “soccer hooligans” defines a specific subset of soccer fans. In the US, we don’t have such a term — we just have “sports fans”, because there isn’t a violent *subset* of them, if you get my drift.)

  24. Even Brits don’t understand cricket.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.