Things that Brits find incomprehensible about the USA

There are things that we Brits find incomprehensible about the USA. And no, I am not talking about trivia like the popularity of bad beer, the funny accents in the South, or the the comical use of the word “pants” to mean trousers. I mean deep-seated cultural differences that make USA sometimes feel utterly alien to me. Here are three:

1. Heath Care

Americans live in a civilised and technologically advanced country, one of the richest in the world. Yet people die because of not having health insurance. To British eyes, that is utterly inexplicable. Barbaric. Inexcusable.

2. Cheerleading

Overt sexualisation of teenaged and pre-teen girls. Sheesh.

3. Guns

A country where convicted felons can buy assault rifles automatic weapons without background checks, and the government actively affirms their right to do so. Evidence that this is a bad idea is not only ignored, but research is legally prohibited from being federally funded. And every year, thirty thousand citizens are shot dead. Holy heck.

I wonder if Americans have any idea how bizarre and backward their country looks from the outside?

… and then I wonder whether there are aspects of British culture that look equally bizarre and backward from outside the UK? Americans, help me out. What is truly weird about Britain?


26 responses to “Things that Brits find incomprehensible about the USA

  1. These are things that I, as an American, find incomprehensible.

  2. codemonkeysteve

    “What is truly weird about Britain?”

    * TV shows with only 6-8 episodes per year.
    * Power plugs the size of your hand.
    * A legislature with a two drink minimum (I assume, judging by the debates)

  3. Strange things about Brits:

    1. The ubiquitous surveillance in London. I know our big cities are catching up on this, but you guys were and are way out in front on this.

    2. The TV tax. Paying a tax based on owning TVs. Just. Strange. Though, I really like a lot of the BBC’s stuff.

    3. You say aluminum wrong. And why is the back of your cars named after a piece of footwear?

    4. Roundabouts. I hates them….. They are very rare here and I’d like it to stay that way.

    5. Cops without guns.

    6. Royalty. Although I’m even more perplexed on Canada’s approach to British Royalty.

    7. Laws that can put people (reporters even!). for inconsiderate or unthoughtful tweets.

    8. As an American I am awed at places that are many hundreds or thousands of years old. My state and town are not even 150 years old.

    That’s all for now…

  4. Arrgh.

    That should be: Laws that can put people away for tweeting ….

    Also to build off the other post. Prime ministers questions in front of Parliament is awesome. We could benefit from something like that.

  5. 1. Health Care

    Middle class people almost always have insurance and don’t see how much it costs because their employers have to keep it off-budget.

    Then the rest follows from the system that guarantees that licensed professionals and business executives in the medicine sector earn about twice as much in the USA as any other country by restricting supply to charge monopoly rents. It’s like the East India Company, except with your health instead of tea.

    2. Cheerleading

    You know, it’s funny.

    You can ask a foreign girl to dress up in a cheerleader costume. You can even get her to cheer and kick and stunt. But you can never get a foreign girl to be a convincing cheerleader. They just don’t get the mix of overt sexuality and absolute innocence.

    A twelve year old girl can kick up her legs and show her “pants” off to her father, her minister, and her schoolmates again and again and everyone thinks it’s good, clean, family-oriented fun. There are big smiles all around.

    And foreigners just don’t get it.

    3. Guns

    Guns are awesome and we like ’em.

    Also, convicted felons can’t buy guns legally. Almost no guns are sold legally without background checks. Assault rifle is a term made up by the victim disarmament (‘gun control’) advocates that has no technical meaning. A revolver will kill you just as dead as a nuclear bomb so complaining about caliber is silly.

    Twenty thousand people kill themselves with guns, mostly severely or terminally ill people; only ten thousand are killed by others. Most of the ten thousand are drug dealers and other criminals in commercial disputes and we thank them for removing themselves from the streets. That leaves just a few thousand domestic disputes and accidents and the like.

    We cheerfully accept forty thousand motorcar deaths each year in the USA, though most of them are due to lack of decent public transport and city planning. There’s no reason for such a proliferation of wide high speed streets with so many level crossings and the utter lack of mass transit and jitneys all day but especially at bar closing hours. We just like driving so much that we’ve built a nation where you do it all the time, even to the point of deliberate human sacrifice. And we continue to insist on it. A few thousand people shot is small potatoes in view of that.

  6. Re points 1, 2, 3 and appearing backward. Yes. Yes I am painfully aware that it makes us look ridiculously backward. And I have no particular defense.

    For things that make Britain look “weird”: I dunno. I watch a tiny sliver of your country’s TV shows: Doctor Who, Red Dwarf. That’s mostly it. I’ve seen a little bit of Fawlty Towers, I saw the Hitchhikers’ Guide miniseries. Oh yeah, I listen to the BBC radio shows sometimes.

    Watching those shows and listening to British news (even if it is world news) gives me a little bit of a sliver of a window into your culture. It looks to be a lot more cultured.

    But then again there’s the (apparent) tendency for people to get into for-real fights at football (soccer) matches. That seems pretty crazy. I remember hearing an American comedian talk about a time when he was in a pub (bar) in the UK. When he had to go to the bathroom, there was a sign above the urinal reminding the reader that it was *bad* to make a phony call to the paramedics to beat them up. When he left he asked someone if the sign was a joke.

    The comedian further explained cynically, humorously that the reason why they might do that in the UK but that it’s unheard of here in the states is that in the UK they don’t give their masses false hope like we do here.

    Stuff that’s weird? In the UK you have to pay a TV license fee. I wish we had gone with that over here instead of with commercials. I feel that extremely high volume of commercials that we’re exposed to over here on a daily basis helps feed into the next point of differences between the U.S. and the UK:

    “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our [United States] political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
    ― Isaac Asimov

    There ya go. IMHO, that’s “what’s wrong with America” summed up in one pithy quote from a cool, dead, sci-fi guy.

    I realize I haven’t strung together my sentences and paragraphs in a very coherent manner. I’m hoping you’ll bear with me as I don’t have time to edit, but “differences between the U.S. and the UK” is something I think about a lot.

    On the intellectualism / anti-intellectualism: although I’ve never lived in the UK or even been there on vacation, I get the sense that, while it’s certainly not the case that every single inhabitant of the UK is an intellectual, there sin’t nearly so much of a tendancy to automatically discount or downright deride anyone that dares to use words above a 9th grade reading level.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  7. Since the current murder rate, from *all* causes (guns are a subset of those), is around 14K year, America currently has a historically LOW per-capita murder rate (for America), and this has been an ongoing trend. (

    I’m curious where your “30K citizens shot dead” comes from. The highest body count in the past 20 years was 24,526.

    Please bear in mind that due to insane anti-drug laws in America, a “convicted felon” can be a guy who smoked a few joints, just like an 18 year old who had consensual sex with a 17 year old can be labeled a sex offender for life and placed under the same restrictions as actual pedophiles and rapists. Also, since American law tends to be applied in often racist ways, in terms of what you’ll be charged with, and what you’ll be allowed to plea-bargain to, laws that affect “convicted felons” disproportionately effect members of minorities. I don’t know what British law is like, but in America, a “felony” is not necessarily a violent crime. Saying “convicted felon” tends to make people think of violent murderer, and, of course, some convicted felons ARE, but using the term tends to be done to create an emotional reaction and short-circuit rational debate, because people tend not to ask, “So, what kinds of crimes are felonies? Are all felons violent/dangerous?”

    I have to agree with others — I find British libel laws to be ridiculous (actually, British freedom of speech is pretty weak (, libelous or not), not to mention such extreme paranoia about private weapon ownership, of any sort, that the cops are confiscating Klingon Bat’leth’s. (Google it. It really happened.)

    On the plus side, my parents are from Liverpool, so, I owe you Brits my existence — you let the Jews in a few centuries ago when no one else would have us, and didn’t kick us out again a few years later. Thanks for that! And thanks for Dr. Who, Red Dwarf, Hyperspace, Black Adder, Are You Being Served, Benny Hill, Monty Python, Sherlock, Douglas Adams… the list of ways in which British media and pop culture have enhanced my life could go on for a long, long, time.

  8. It’s weird to drive on the left lane.

    Monarchy seems very weird to me.

    Ah, and those bearskin caps are very weird too.

    But what do I know? I’m Brazilian. :-)

  9. As for the United States, 1) I’ll agree that it’s a real mess (I suspect it might have to do with our cultural heritage and distrust of government, after all, we started out with a revolution), 2) perhaps it might be again explained with our cultural heritage, this time Puritanical thoughts and fetishizing what we can’t have (we got the religious nuts, Australia got the criminals, and I suspect Australia got the better deal), and 3) where do you get your information from? If a person is convicted, that means they’re in jail (or are on their way to being in jail). Now, if they can obtain guns after they serve their time is another question, and I think it varies state by state.

    Now, on to the weird things about Britain …

    1. The difference between England, Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and the Commonwealth.

    2. The actual role of the monarchy (does the Queen, in fact, own England?)

    3. The libel laws.

    4. The fact that 100 miles is a long distance, but 100 years is a short time (it’s the opposite here in the States)

    5. The whole TV tax thing.

    6. The Peerage system (rankings mostly, is a Baron above a Lord and what not).

    7. Your (collective your, as in, the British people) fear of dentists.

  10. Pingback: Things that Americans find incomprehensible about the UK | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  11. As an American, I’ll echo the comments above about how sketchy NHS is — and how long its queues can be — and add that charity and reduced-cost health care is fairly widely available in the US, as well as various government-paid healthcare programs for the poor and the elderly. I suspect that the combined death rates from lack of health care and from nosocomic infections in the US and Britain are similar.

    I have to agree with #2 (and the similar phenomenon of beauty pageants).

    Owen’s critique about your gun claims is fairly accurate, but there are a few points wanting correction or elaboration: Federal law makes it illegal by default for any felon to possess a firearm or ammunition (most states have procedures for judges to reinstate that civil right, but it rarely happens). Anyone who makes a living selling guns has to conduct a background check for the buyer every time they sell a gun. Other sellers don’t have to do that, but it’s still illegal for private sellers to sell or give a gun to someone they know is a felon or otherwise not allowed to buy a gun. Assault rifles are select-fire weapons — they have both semi-automatic and fully automatic firing modes — which means the only ones that private citizens can buy are ones that were on the market before 1986; relatively few of those exist, and they cost many thousands of dollars when they go for sale. Maybe you are thinking of the made-up term “assault weapon”, which is defined differently by almost every law that uses it, but is usually defined based on cosmetic factors rather than the firearm functionality (for example, whether a long gun has a bayonet mount, an adjustable stock, a pistol grip, or the like).

    Britain’s libel laws — and lack of institutionalized freedoms in general — are probably the most perplexing thing about the country to me.

  12. Hello !

    I think this is a wonderful idea !
    We could do this with more and more countries, so as to gather people.
    I don’t think that commerce will set us at peace.
    I think brotherhood will.

    … France ?


  13. Let me clearer about my phrase “convicted felons can buy assault rifles without background checks, and the government actively affirms their right to do so”, since a couple of people have picked up on it. I am not saying that US Government positively says “convicted felons have the right to own automatic weapons”; but that it affirms that background checks are NOT necessary when selling automatic weapons in many circumstances, so it is trivially easy for a convicted felon to obtain one if he has the money.

    “It’s illegal for private sellers to sell or give a gun to someone they know is a felon” may be true, but when the seller has no obligation to try to find out whether the buyer is a felon, it has no teeth whatsoever.

    (Note that I have taken your point regarding “assault rifles” and substituted “automatic weapons”, which is what I intended by the term. Thanks for the nudge to use the more precise and descriptive term.)

  14. As a New Zealander that has spent 18 months living in the USA.

    The lack of affordable pay-as-you-go mobile phone service. Buying a subsidised phone with an expensive contract is the norm. Americans are often shocked when I tell them that I paid $700 for a phone yet they are getting ripped of for far more than that

    There’s almost an expectation that parents should pay for there children to go to college.

    Tipping – In New Zealand the listed for everything is exactly what you’ll pay at the till. I’ve heard many arguments pro tipping but none of them a very convincing.

    Cheques – The uptake of online banking has been very slow, people still pay their rent via cheque. WTF

  15. “The lack of affordable pay-as-you-go mobile phone service. Buying a subsidised phone with an expensive contract is the norm. Americans are often shocked when I tell them that I paid $700 for a phone yet they are getting ripped of for far more than that ”
    I have a pay-as-you-go StraightTalk phone from Wal-Mart. Of course, in order to have this option, for now at least, you have to be willing to accept a lesser quality of phone. But I prefer my crappy $150 pay-as-you-go phone to any sort of subsidized phone with a contract. I got dead sick of cell phone contracts about two months into my first one.

    Re Tipping: Tipping is lame and stupid. But I tip. The only compelling argument I can make in favor of tipping is this: When you don’t tip, the only person injured by it is the waiter or waitress. The person running the store is quite content to continue paying that waiter or waitress at the special lower minimum wage for workers who are expected to receive tips. Just do what I do: consider the tip to be a part of the bill and silently curse the fat-cat, capitalist pig-dogs every time you pay it.

    Re Cheques. We usually spell it “check” here. And I think the frequency of people paying by check must be somewhat regional. Where I’m at in KC, MO I don’t see people using checks so much now. But definitely, it’s not going away any time soon.

  16. Sorry, even changing it to “automatic weapons” doesn’t help. Here’s a good breakdown of the process needed to buy an automatic weapon: .

    Now, of course, a seller can just ignore all these laws and say, “Sure, here’s your gun, gimme your money!”, but no legitimate seller, given that they need to qualify for the ATF license to even legally own the gun before they can legally sell it, would risk that. An illegitimate seller is already a criminal for owning the gun in the first place. If you wish to argue laws are poorly enforced, that’s a different tactic, but saying it’s legal to just “sell anyone an automatic weapon” because you feel the government isn’t doing enough to enforce the laws against it, is like saying it’s legal to buy crack or meth, because anyone can find a seller in any urban downtown in a few minutes. (I’ve never tried buying either crack or an automatic weapon, but I’m pretty darn certain the former is much easier than the latter. The presence of a legal,regulated, market tends to drive out an illegal market, for countless reasons.)

    You want to say you think Americans are nuts for their gun fetish, and that American gun laws ought to be a lot stricter? OK, I disagree, but that’s an issue of culture, morals, and weighting of different values, without an objectively correct answer, and I think reasonable people can disagree. Your statements about the death rate from guns (unless you have some evidence the FBI is understating things by nearly 100%), and the ease of purchasing automatic weapons, however, are factually false, and should be corrected. (Or, if you think my sources are wrong, I would welcome an explanation of why/how, and links to more accurate sources. I’d rather be corrected than persist in ignorance.)

  17. Lizard, I got the 30,000 figure from here and here and here and here.

  18. Mike: Those numbers make no sense, even among themselves: They report, on the page, 32,163 deaths from firearms in 2011… and, just a few lines down, 15,953 murders from all causes in 2011.

    Apparently, they’re counting suicides, which account for twice as many deaths as murder. I don’t think that’s valid, and it’s a good way to lie with statistics. Registration, background checks, etc, may theoretically stop criminals, but they won’t stop suicides — someone who bought a gun years ago, and is now depressed or suicidal, isn’t going to be compelled to buy a NEW gun to kill himself with. (Also, on the page, they list raw numbers over time — but not per capita, which is much more important as a real measure of prevalence.) Lastly, while this may be a bit of semantics, your use of the phrase “shot dead” tends to imply someone other than the victim is doing the shooting, which also excludes suicides from the mix.

    (Also, as a general rule, any time an article discusses raw numbers and fails to include per-capita rates, that’s a big red warning flag to me. Raw numbers are emotionally dramatic, but statistically meaningless, especially when comparing different nations with different populations, or periods of time during which populations increase or decrease.)

    But if we do want to count suicides… the UK, with very strict gun control laws, has a rate of 11.8, and the US has a 12.0 ( — effectively identical, which can be taken to mean that including suicides when looking at the effects of guns is irrelevant — guns may be convenient to use for killing yourself in the US, but that lack of convenience in the UK doesn’t stop virtually the same %age of the population from finding some other means to do it. I would conclude from this that strict gun control in the US might reduce the number of suicides committed with a gun, but not the number of suicides, total, by any significant number. (I don’t know about Greenland, but South Korea never struck me as a nation known for high levels of personal armament. I could be wrong; I never thought about it before, to be honest.)

  19. They report 32,163 deaths from firearms in 2011… and, just a few lines down, 15,953 murders from all causes in 2011.

    You seem to be confusing deaths with murders. The latter are a subset of the former. I am old-fashioned enough to think that all gun death are bad.

  20. Mike, all three of these seem to be misconceptions due to seeing the US from 30,000 feet.

    On the healthcare argument, even before Obamacare, some 85% of people were covered by health insurance (many of them under government-provided insurance like Medicare, Medicaid and VA). And you’d be hard pressed to find someone normal (i.e., not on drugs, homeless, mentally ill or all of the above) dying due to lack of health insurance. Hospitals are required to treat emergency situations regardless of insured status, and if it’s something like cancer that’s not an emergency, there are many, many ways of getting money for medical bills: charities, loans, simply not paying them. And again, if you are truly destitute, there’s always Medicaid. Most of the people that don’t have insurance do so consciously, because they’re 30 and would rather spend that 200$/mo on dining out. I’ve certainly never heard of anyone dying or not getting care because they had no insurance.

    On cheerleading: it starts at middle school (6th grade), so maybe 12 years old, but the “pre-teen” label is stretching things a bit. Also, there’s nothing sexual about cheerleading, especially at that age. It’s basically gymnastics: if you can call one sexualized, then so is the other. Now, when you get into professional sports, there is a sexual element, and maybe that’s what you’re gauging it with. But aside from that, even in college athletics, cheerleading is tame by any standard.

    On guns: convicted felons are in jail, so they can’t buy any. Ex-cons may or may not, depending on a number of laws. But given that they’re ex-cons, they’d be able to get a gun legally or not, in the US or the UK, or anywhere. At any rate, our gun laws are not the problem: Canada has almost the same gun laws, but a lot less gun violence. It’s a cliche, but guns don’t kill people: people kill people. Guns make it easier, but not that much — just look at the Chinese man who killed several people in a school knife attack. America is a complex super-state with a lot of inner strife. If it were a less diverse place, or a more fascist place, it would be a lot easier to manage the violence. But that’s not what Americans want, nor is it what we signed up for. As our founding father Benjamin Franklin said: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We like the freedom to own guns, and if that comes at the cost that drug dealers and thugs can also own guns, that’s perfectly fine with us — they would get those guns anyway.

    As for Britain, the thing that I’ve always found unbelievable is that Parliament has absolute power. Sure, there are documents insuring certain rights, but theoretically, Parliament could invalidate any and all of them.

  21. I’m not sure how suicide (or, for that matter, murder) by non-gun is better than the same by gun, but, OK. Since we were discussing gun control laws, I focused on things such laws might impact most directly. Keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminals, for example, could at least arguably reduce murders and other forms of assault (assuming such laws were effective, a different debate). Global suicide rates do not seem to be linked to gun ownership though, so I thought it made sense to exclude those deaths from the equation. You disagree. I think we’re approaching the issue from such different premises as to which statistics are relevant and which are not that we’re unlikely to reach a conclusion, as while we do not dispute the reported facts, we dispute their significance and meaning. (The cause of most disagreements is not a lack of facts on one side vs. the other; it’s differences in how those facts are interpreted and weighted. I’m satisfied that you did the research and I now understand where your numbers come from, and your opinion is one based on evaluating legitimate information and drawing reasonable conclusions from it, according to your value system. (IOW, it’s an opinion I disagree with — but it is NOT a stupid, ignorant, or uninformed opinion.) My opinion is based on the same facts, but filtered through a different value system. This is unlikely to be reconciled, as both of us probably formed our value systems slowly and carefully over many years, and find they’ve served us well, and see no pressing cause to change them.)

  22. The legitimate seller of an NFA (“automatic”) weapon has plenty of obligation and incentive to play by the rules. More so than many licensed dealers. You’re just way off base here.
    The illegitimate seller is already doing something illegal, so that’s a moot point.

  23. @apt46 wrote:
    “On the healthcare argument, even before Obamacare, some 85% of people were covered by health insurance”
    * Let’s take that stat as true. 85% is most definitely not 100%.
    * “covered” could be a misnomer here. If I have health insurance with a $2000 yearly deductible, then I count as “covered” on paper. But I sure don’t *feel* very covered if or when I get sick. At least not until after the first $2000 of out of pocket expenses. And then, even after that, there’s the 10% co-pay and that’s only *if* I remembered to be sure to go to an in-network doctor.

    “Hospitals are required to treat emergency situations regardless of insured status, and if it’s something like cancer that’s not an emergency, there are many, many ways of getting money for medical bills: charities, loans, simply not paying them.”
    You can’t honestly be suggesting that this situation is preferable to Universal coverage? Oh no on second thought, you probably are.

    I respectfully disagree.

    “I’ve certainly never heard of anyone dying or not getting care because they had no insurance.”

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  24. While I think having a documented list of government powers and limits is a great thing, the reality of the government of the UK, or any democratic, Western, nation just going all Third Reich is that it would be very difficult outside of a nearly unprecedented emergency. Laws have to be enforced, and if the people on the ground — the police, the military — believe that the government has acted wrongly, you have a coup. If the vast majority of the population loses faith in the government and doesn’t respect its *moral* authority, regardless of the letter of the law, you have a revolution. (I think the Brits learned from America, and from France, just how far you can push your own people before they push back.) The American government can, and has, passed unconstitutional laws, some of which were not challenged for decades. In theory, at least, the government can pass a single Amendment to nullify the entire Bill of Rights — it would take a lot of doing, but it’s as likely, really, as the divisive and fractious British Parliament all getting together and deciding to upend the legal systems and rights that have been part of British tradition and common law for longer than America has been in existence. I don’t mean to dismiss how important the B of R is, and has been, in America, and how it has prevented a lot of abuses that had huge majority support (The CDA, for example), but a cultural tradition of freedom, and a recognition of things “the government just shouldn’t do!”, is more important than laws on paper.

    As Kipling said:
    “The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
    But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
    When he stands like an ox in the furrow – with his sullen set eyes on your own,
    And grumbles, ‘This isn’t fair dealing,’ my son, leave the Saxon alone.”

  25. Steven Pennebaker

    only those 3? health, guns and a lot of other things are due to the country being mysteriously captive to an enthusiastically vocal, unreflective and determinedly retrograde minority. seriously, the senate just yesterday scuttled modest gun reforms that poll at 90%. so add, “the country that is the strongest champion of democracy is ironically remarkably bad at it.” and, as an american who has had small experience with the british health system, i’d take that over our “system” any day of the week.

    the cheerleaders are such background noise, i never really thought about it. now that you mention it, you’re right, kinda creepy. thanks for spoiling that.

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