What I Learned About Americans by Moving From the UK to NYC
Before I moved to New York, the only Americans I knew were the ones on TV, usually chest-bumping or fist-pumping, and chanting “USA, USA” in a voice two octaves lower than normal. Naturally, I thought you were all idiots.
What I’ve found out since is that Americans aren’t so bad after all. In fact, you’ve even got some good points. But don’t go getting cocky just yet...
Americans love AmericaThese days, most British people break out in a cold sweat if they’re asked to fly the Union Jack in public. The trouble is, it lumps you in with the crazy cat lady who collects thousands of pieces of Royal Family memorabilia, as well as the kind of people who are outraged if you call them racist but who also admit they “don’t like foreigners that much.” And as for the English flag -- that’s pretty much reserved for football (soccer) thugs and white-power lunatics on their way to a rally.
In America, the flag is everywhere -- by roadsides, outside restaurants, on buses, subway cars, porches, socks, caps, on and on. When I first got here, I actually challenged my wife to see who could spot the most. We soon lost count and realized it was a really boring game anyway. Here, the flag has an almost sacred quality that unifies the nation -- and it’s always treated with pride and respect (except that time Shaun White trod on it). The reason, of course, is that Americans love America. And rightly so -- you know, what with freedom 'n' all.
If there's one thing Americans love, it's "big," or preferably "bigger," or -- the dream -- "biggest."
Americans love to talk“Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to” -- it’s a rule hammered into UK kids so hard it stays with most of us for life. Staying schtum is the social norm, and speaking to strangers is simply not the Done Thing. So imagine my surprise at all you chatterboxes in America. I’m talking about you, Trader Joe’s Cashier, who takes one look at my groceries and asks “Whachya cookin’?” (before advising me on how to improve the recipe). And you, Carroll Gardens Residents, who stopped me every 10 paces to compliment the Christmas tree I was lugging down Court Street (I needed a break anyway). And especially you, Guy Sitting on Your Stoop, who called out to my wife (5-foot-1) and me (6-foot-2), “Short and long!!”
And it's impossible to have the last wordIt doesn’t matter if you’re in a Michelin-starred restaurant or a roadside IHOP, “Thanks” is always followed by “You’re welcome.” The rule applies even if you’re thanking them for their welcome. If you’re not careful, you enter into an endless loop of thankses and you’re welcomes, until finally someone breaks and says “Have a nice day.” At this point, I’ve learned not to say “thanks,” because that sends you right back to square one.
Going big is the normWhy have enough when you can have too much? If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s “big,” or preferably “bigger,” or -- the dream -- “biggest.” Need a car? Get an SUV, or hell, a pickup truck. Sure, you’ll only use it to go to the 68-aisle Walmart twice a week, but you’ll need the extra space next time the chips variety packs are on a “buy 50, get 50 free” promotion.
The real shock for me was dining out -- specifically when we first went for brunch and sat opposite a guy who chomped his way through 12 (twelve!) rashers of bacon. I’m still amazed by the mountains of food habitually heaped on foot-wide plates, “regular” burgers turning out to be doubles, and never-ending refills of lemonade at your table. All this excess is so easy and so seductive that it’s almost impossible to resist. Why, it’s a wonder there aren’t more Americans who are ever so slightly overw...wait.
Nobody actually cares how it's goingYou guys, you love a platitude. When I first came here, I took “Hey, how’s it going?” seriously. “Well, I’ve been better,” I’d say, “I slept through my alarm, you see, which meant I skipped breakfast and then...” -- by this point the Starbucks barista has given up on me and moved onto the next customer, who understands that not all questions need answers.
Americans are super-welcoming, even (or especially) in New YorkWhen I moved abroad, one of my biggest worries was missing family and friends, particularly on big occasions like holidays. Sure, nothing has quite replaced the way my niece waits until I’m holding her before filling her diaper, or my mum’s knack for serving food that is both burnt and raw at the same time -- but we have felt amazingly welcomed by American families. We’ve been squeezed onto Thanksgiving dinner tables already well over-capacity, and included in Christmas party games even though we’re intolerably competitive. We were even lucky enough to get invited to a stranger’s rooftop party for a front-row view of the 4th of July fireworks. I say “lucky,” but maybe that’s missing the point -- I get the feeling that if not these people, then some others might have invited us into their home, just because that’s how Americans are.
But making deeper friendships is toughIt’s impossible not to make friends in America, what with all the smiles and cheery inclusiveness. But building deeper relationships -- the kind that go beyond chatting about what shows you’re watching on Netflix -- is harder. With me at least, it seems as though most people are happy with just a surface-level friendship that’s practical and straightforward. Maybe, I wonder, it’s because they’re not comfortable with vulnerability... or maybe it’s because there’s a weird British guy staring at them too intensely.
American sports fans are bored and boringTempting though it is, I'm not here to mock “goalbox,” “cross-ball,” and all the other ludicrous soccer (football) terms “EPL” fans yell at the TV whenever the “offense” gets near the “shot-zone.” Oops, OK I’ll leave the rest to @usasoccerguy.
Anyway, it’s actually worse than that. My question is: Why don’t you care? Go to a live game in the UK, and it’s instantly apparent how much it means: the singing and shouting, the joy of victory and the despair of defeat. It’s nothing short of a religion. Here, the most excited a pro sports crowd gets is when the T-shirt guns come out. I went to a Rangers game recently, and it was so quiet you could hear a puck drop. At a Brooklyn Nets game, the Barclays Center only filled up halfway through, presumably because people see the first two quarters as preamble.
Then there’s the baseball -- from what I could see, the Mets fans next to me spent more time thinking about their nachos than anything happening on the field. Football, I admit, is a fantastic sport. But all those commercial breaks diffuse the tension and drama, both on the TV and live at the stadium. And when people start looking forward to halftime more than the actual game, you’ve got to ask yourself questions (and not just “will Justin rip someone’s bra off this time?”). The priorities are all wrong. It’s as though mainstream sport is more of an entertainment and less of a passion -- a spectacle to be witnessed rather than a story to be part of.
The more Hugh Grant I go, the more effective my accent becomes.
Americans are total show-offsAll right, I get it -- you guys are good at life. You’re smart, athletic, hard-working, ambitious, and successful, but do you have to go on about it all the time? In the UK, modesty is drilled into us from childhood -- we talk down achievements, highlight flaws, and follow any hint of cockiness with a self-deprecating gag. Here, it’s all about flaunting your skills and flexing your muscles. Over coffees and beers and picnics in the park, I hear people proudly relating success stories, or subtly slipping in self-promotion. It’s as though all the world’s a job interview.
Americans are LOUDWhat am I doing listening in on private conversations, you might ask. Well, here’s the thing: I don’t need to eavesdrop. In fact, I could probably hear most of what you guys say from back home in London. Standing next to a fire engine. With my noise-canceling headphones switched on. While chewing ice.
And Americans aren't all that funnyOK, I’m not saying that there aren’t any funny Americans, or that I’ve never laughed an American joke before. But I would say -- forgive me -- that the average American just isn’t very funny. All too often, humor over here is based more on loud anecdotes and fake outrage than good old-fashioned wit. The only thing more predictable than Americans prefacing a story with “funny story” is that what follows won’t be funny. Oh boy, I’m really feeling the pressure to finish this off with a good joke now.
Americans really are suckers for an English accentAll right, I admit it: about 75% of the reason I wanted to move to America was because of that scene in Love Actually, where a goofy British guy goes looking for romance in Wisconsin and immediately stumbles upon three adoring Midwestern beauties. And I’m married (which explains the missing 25%). Of course, I’ve now realized it’s not really like that -- or maybe the problem is that I’m even goofier than the fictional goofy guy whose character was created with the sole purpose of being goofy. But cliche though it is, the British manner definitely has a way of charming an American audience.
Obviously I haven’t been dating, but I’ve been amazed how my accent works wonders in all kinds of situations, like asking for a better table in a restaurant or apologizing to the person I just trod on on the subway. Even stranger, the more Hugh Grant I go, the more effective it becomes. Back home, being so unbearably bumbly would probably earn me a black eye. Here, I get a free drink. Jolly good.
Americans aren't afraid to be themselvesThis one probably applies more in New York than more straight-laced cities, but man, there are a lot of oddballs here. So many, in fact, that after a while I stopped noticing. If British me saw a woman dressed entirely in lime-green, with lime-green hair, lime-green mascara, and a lime-green rucksack, I’d stop dead in my tracks and quietly reach for my camera. In New York, I carry straight on, half-expecting her all-in-pink sister to be around the corner. Americans, I think, are pretty much hardwired to accept and celebrate diversity. Wear what you like, be who you are, say what you think -- if anyone judges you for it, that’s their problem.
Americans tell it like it isI’d been in America all of four hours when I worked this one out. We sublet a semi-derelict apartment on the fourth floor of a Hell’s Kitchen walk-up, while we searched for somewhere with more sunlight and less Hell’s Kitchen about it. There was a knock at the door -- “Neighbors!” we thought, imagining 1995 Courteney Cox bearing a batch of fresh-baked welcome cookies. Well, we got a Friends character, but not Monica -- instead, it was our very own Mr. Heckles, complete with furrowed brow and cotton nightgown. “Your shit is dripping down my wall,” he said, matter-of-factly -- and we quickly worked out that one reason for our unusually cheap rent was the lack of a working toilet.
As an Englishman, I specialize in mincing words and avoiding confrontation. Had the roles been reversed, I probably would have silently put up with Mr. Heckles’ business dripping down my wall. Eventually, I might gently raise the issue in a convoluted and non-committal way, deflecting the blame (“who knows how the plumbing works!”) and tempering everything with niceties -- (“what delightful embroidery you have on that gown”). Straight-talking is the American way -- I even see it in email etiquette, when my carefully crafted essays are met with one-line replies, without even a greeting or sign-off.
It’s the kind of bluntness that earns you guys a reputation for lacking subtlety and sophistication (oh, you didn’t know?), but I find the straightforward honesty refreshing. I’ll give the last word to Sam’s, a family pizza joint in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where the menu reads “You’ve got two options: take it, or leave it.”
Americans are relentlessly positiveMan, I miss depression. What I’d do for just one of those simple, wonderfully miserable days back home -- walking the grayscale streets listening to my third-favorite Radiohead album, or meeting up with friends so we could undermine each other’s confidence and watch rain drip slowly down the pub window. Here, I can’t even get in and out of CVS (for Kraft dinner, the most depressing of all meals) without someone hollering “Have a nice day!” at me.
The default national mentality is to be positive and genuinely wish well on others. It’s a phenomenon best observed at the NYC Marathon, when thousands of spectators give up their Sunday to whoop, cheer, and hurl words of encouragement at people they’ve never met. In the workplace, the mantra is “there’s no such thing as a bad idea,” but that’s garbage -- there are lots of laughably awful, entirely worthless ideas out there (I’ve had plenty). Even casual acquaintances heap praise on one another willy-nilly, commending achievements and paying compliments. My completely average British mate Alex was once called an “extraordinary man” by our mutual American friend -- all he’d done was buy her a smoothie.
Most saccharine of all are American wedding speeches. You can almost forgive the bride and groom for all that overstated emotion, but there’s no excuse for a Best Man who drawls on about how much he’s enjoyed “seeing you grow together,” along with 15 other ways of saying “I love you, bro.” In England, we’d be waiting for the punchline.