Cultural Differences Between the UK + USA

For those of you who don’t know, I spent a large part of my twenties living with my ex husband in the USA and this meant dealing with cultural differenced moving from the UK to the USA. There were many differences I had never considered before and others I expected. Although I no longer live there, there are many things I miss about the USA and things that amused me constantly. For the most part, the cultures are very similar and I had absolutely no issue fitting in anywhere I went but there were plenty of things that took a bit of adjustment!

Obviously America is a huge country and I can only speak from my own experience. I lived in several states (North Carolina, Georgia, New York and New Jersey) and have travelled to many, many more so I like to think I have a pretty well rounded and educated view!

landscape photography of rock formation near highway
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1. Driving everywhere

Ok, this one is obvious but when I first landed in America, I could not believe the size of the motorways (ahem highways) and the cars on them. Little did I know, I would be doing more driving in a few months than I’d done in 7 years since getting my license in Scotland. Driving from Glasgow to Edinburgh is a big day out for most Scots (46 miles). But in the USA, that was my commute to work! Driving is an essential part of American life (unless you’re a New Yorker.) And public infrastructure is not as great as in the UK. Americans think nothing of 2-3 hour road trips. However, petrol (ahem gas) is so much cheaper over there. Filling my tank cost about half the price! Getting a drivers license is also extremely easy and much less costly.

2. Bigger Goals

The USA is the land of opportunity and Americans dream big. While in the UK, most people are content with paying the bills and a holiday abroad each year, in the USA there is an obsession with generational wealth and making it big. They don’t limit themselves and don’t aim for mediocrity. And if there is anywhere to make it big, it is the USA. In some ways, it is to be envied, their drive to do better. In other ways, it is exhausting and you want them to slow down a little!

3. Food Quality

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The food quality in Scotland and the UK in general is of a much better quality. For a start, American bread is impossibly sweet, eggs are a pale yellow and there is high-fructose corn syrup in almost everything. Standard bread in the UK does not contain sugar, yet you will have to pay extra for a healthy loaf in the USA. If you take a look at the ingredients list on ketchup in the USA vs UK, the list will be much longer with names of things that sound more like chemicals, rather than ingredients.

4. Friendliness

I know this one is very stereotypical, but in my experience Americans are on the whole more positive people. They smile and approach strangers and have no problem striking up conversations anywhere they go. Actually, their friendliness can be a bit startling at first, although something I very much appreciated! That is not to say that Scottish people are not friendly. I pride myself on being approachable and always smiling at passers-by. It’s just that in the UK people tend to keep themselves to themselves a bit more. (Note** the friendliness scale definitely lessened in NYC versus North Carolina and Georgia)

5. Work Life Balance

In the UK we have many more paid holidays, maternity leave and it is not uncommon for people to take two weeks off to travel to mainland Europe each summer. People are chasing the American dream and time off is viewed as a weakness and they take pride in their work ethic. Many Americans won’t take their sick leave for fear that their job will be lost to someone harder working. The work culture there is crazy, although the salaries are much higher in general!

6. Sarcasm/Differences in Humour

We speak the same language sure, but the humour is definitely different. Scottish people pride ourselves on our dryness, quick wit and sarcasm. The UK in general enjoys making themselves the butt of the joke. Risky jokes go down a storm (e.g Ricky Gervais). Sometimes this humour doesn’t translate although many Americans get it. Don’t get me wrong, I love some American comics and sitcoms. The humour is just totally different, a bit more obvious and sometimes juvenile.

7. Trolleys (carts) abandoned in car parks

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When I first went to the supermarket in the USA, I noticed abandoned trolleys in empty spaces in the car park. Some people unload their shopping and just leave the cart/trolley there. This struck me as really bizarre, then I realised there is no charge for the trolleys unless you shop at Aldi in the US! In the UK, we put a £1 in the trolley to use it and we get it back when we return it, so it makes sense that we don’t just leave them. We want our money back!

8. Drinking Culture

The Uk and Scotland in particular is known for its pub culture. Maybe it is due to the bad weather year round, but drinking is a national sport. On a sunny day, people head to the park with a few drinks and snacks. In America, drinking is not so common. Having a beer while watching the game, or a glass of wine with dinner is more the American way. Much more civilised!

9. Hanging out washing (laundry)

clean fabric drying on clothesline on sunny day
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What do American’s have against hanging out their clothes to dry? Even in Georgia, with the sun shining most days, I never once saw a washing line… Everyone uses dryers and as someone from rainy Scotland it still baffles me. There. is nothing nicer than the a good drying day and the smell of fresh washing off the line!

10. Religion

On the whole, the UK has more non-believers, particularly amongst the younger generations. In the USA, religious faith is fairly common and widespread. The South is particularly religious, with protestantism being the predominant religion and people were normally surprised to know I wasn’t religious myself.

Obviously these are just a few of the cultural differences I picked up on and for the most part, I had no issue integrating into American way of life. I haven’t mentioned the American obsession with “drive-thru” everything from banks, starbucks, dry cleaners or the sales tax added at the till. Or the fact that everything is soooo much bigger!

Let me know in the comments below what differences you’ve noticed on your travels. Have you ever experienced culture shock?

Written by Jade