The old adage that England and America are ‘two countries divided by a common language’ is alarmingly accurate. Since moving to Arizona a year ago from the south-west of England, I continue to be surprised, perplexed, entertained and intrigued by how different these two nations are. So here is my advice on the how-and-how-not tos, the dos and don’ts of avoiding the perils and pitfalls of life in the USA, whilst experiencing a gulf of cultural differences along the way.
Americans are exceptionally positive people. None of your British non-committalism here; everywhere you go you will be met with a cheery “Hi!”, “Enjoy the rest of your day!” “Thank you so much for coming!” which is rather refreshing when you’re used to the passive-aggressive grunting which more often than not closes a conversation back in Blighty. Americans, even when they’re saying no, do so with unbridled enthusiasm. “I’m not going to fit in with your schedule, but, hey! Let’s make another date!” or “I have no intention of doing what you asked me, but I’ll give you my full support!”; “No, you can’t speak to the doctor, even if you’re having a coronary, but hey! Have a nice day!”. The zeal for niceties is quite exhausting.
“You want fries with that?”
The all-American can-do attitude also extends toward the culinary. Everything can be improved upon. Milk? No problem! We’ll add vitamin D! Bread? Absolutely! Added B vitamins or iron! Salt? Iodised! Butter? Add canola oil!
Fortification of foodstuffs is governed by the FDA in a move which surely borders on that of a nanny state, presumably because the Government knows what’s best for us. Although ‘fortification’ is not mandatory, in reality it is quite difficult to find a supermarket foodstuff that has not been ‘improved’ in some way. And yet, bizarrely, Americans are far more intent on pill-popping over-the-counter meds than almost any other country. The knowledge base of the average American when it comes to pharmacopoeia is astounding. According to the U.S. Department of Education only 13% of adults have a ‘proficient’ reading level* but the average Joe can rattle off an impressive list of six-syllable medications with no problem whatsoever.
I’m a big fan of the United States Postal Service. It’s quaint and friendly, with some endearing habits. Every home in town has a mailbox at the end of the drive–no letterboxes in doors here. And all mailboxes have to be of an approved design, in case you go getting any gosh-darned notions about individuality. The post office staff in my town are entertainingly quirky with a wicked sense of humor. This extends right up the hierarchy to the very top, as my significant other discovered when he ordered an ‘adult toy’ from Amazon, causing some controversy when it was impounded by US Customs; a situation which was resolved only after a ‘live chat’ session with a customer service representative. I can’t work out who was more embarrassed. My beloved had the option of keeping a record of the conversation which, rather fortunately, he declined. It’s probably Scotch-taped to someone’s wall right now.
The great outdoors
Speaking as one who has been through the desert on a horse with no name (actually his name was Willy, but I’m not admitting that to anybody) I can confidently say I know a thing or two about wildlife. In the U.K. our main ambition is to protect and preserve, whereas in America it’s all about huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. In England if we inadvertently hit an animal on the road, we will take it to the nearest wildlife hospital. Here in the U.S. you sling it in the back of your truck and take it home for dinner. Mind you, a wandering mule deer will make an infinitely more nourishing meal than a squashed hedgehog.
Apart from obvious differences such as driving on the right, or as we Brits would have it the wrong side of the road, there are several key points to mastering the joys of vehicular travel in America. This was made patently obvious to me when I had to take the state driving test, which was pretty much a matter of driving once around the block without hitting anything. I admit to being slightly alarmed when the examiner told me to drive forward on the pavement. In England the ‘pavement’ is what we call the sidewalk. You can understand my confusion. Anyway, having neatly jumped that hurdle I encountered a steep learning curve in the form of signal lights. In the U.K. a red light means stop in the same way that ‘no’ means ‘no’. In America a red light means stop, except when it doesn’t. Turning right, for example. And just to add a bit of excitement pedestrian crossing lights allow people to cross the road against oncoming traffic. Outstanding!
Automatic transmissions are rare in the U.K. and our vehicles are right-hand drive, so at first I found myself regularly reaching for a non-existent shift-stick while simultaneously slamming my left hand against the driver’s door. A year later and I still get in the passenger side to drive if I’m not totally concentrating.
Basically, when driving in America take any rule in the U.K. Highway Code and do the opposite. You won’t go far wrong. Add to this the feel-good factor when you finally get your driver license, complete with the little photograph that’s guaranteed to make you look like a criminal. That, at least, is the same the world over.
American: hood. Brit: bonnet. American: trunk. Brit: boot. American: shift. Brit: gear. You may notice an apparel-related theme here. British car parts are named after items of clothing. That is because, like the well-turned-out hipsters we imagine ourselves to be, we like to think of our automobiles as nothing less than beautifully attired extensions of our own fashionable selves.
Air-conditioning is not a thing in England. Temperatures rarely rise above 65°F, so we don’t need it. What we do need is heat, and lots of it, so our cars and homes come equipped with heaters of varying degrees of efficiency. AC is so much a novelty to us Brits that when my husband moved to New Mexico and purchased an old car he would deliberately drive around with the windows closed just to give the impression that his motor was as well-equipped as everyone else’s. That’s the vehicular equivalent of pulling the crotch of your jeans down around your knees to look like a gangsta.
Falling apart at the seams
In the U.K., all vehicles undergo an annual MOT test to ensure road-worthiness. The MOT (Ministry of Transport) test checks things like bodywork, brakes, fuel system, emissions, tires, safety belts, steering and suspension. It even has rules for the color and character spacing of registration plates. It’s illegal to drive a car without an MOT certificate, so if yours fails you have to get it fixed before you can drive it again. This in stark contrast to the USA, where I have seen vehicles held together with nothing more than duct tape and wishful thinking. There’s even one car in my town that has no doors. Thinking about it, that would have solved the problem with my husband’s lack of air-conditioning.
Baby you can drive my car
Before moving to the USA I assumed that Americans all drove fast and recklessly on 9-lane highways. In actual fact driving in my town is a joy. The roads are wider than in England but the speed limit is generally lower, and there are some quaint rules which seem to be based more on chivalry than on the need for world domination which comes over many English drivers once they get behind the wheel. At a crossroads, or an all-way stop as it is known here, the driver who arrives at the junction first has priority. So we all stop, then politely wave each other on–none of the queue-jumping and bullish behavior you would see in England. Drivers here acknowledge one another with a polite wave more often than with the middle finger and pedestrians, so long as they aren’t jay-walking, are treated with courtesy. By way of contrast if your car is hit by a Brit, chances are they will leap apologetically from the driver’s seat and with a tip of their Bowler hat and a cheery wave of their tightly-rolled umbrella exclaim “I say, I’m most terribly sorry, old chap!” Here you’ll see Americans speeding off into the sunset in a cloud of dust shouting “Dumbass…”
Sunny side up
When it comes to the weather our tried and tested methods of prediction are quite different. In England, we have the Meteorological Office. In America, they have a large rodent. Punxsutawney Phil is a groundhog in Pennsylvania who, for reasons best known only to himself ‘predicts’ the weather every February 2nd. As a side note, when I typed in his name, predictive text asked if I’d like to replace it with ‘Unsatanic Phil’. I’d really like to; he sounds far more agreeable. My favorite American weather website updates minute by minute and is always reliably unreliable. I imagine it’s run by a chap who taps stuff into his computer while looking out of the window to see what’s happening. Subsequently I always know what the weather is doing right now, but the future remains disarmingly uncertain. It’s supposed to snow at the weekend, but I’ll pop out and ask a passing chipmunk, just to be on the safe side.
* National Institute of Literacy, August 2016.
This article was originally commissioned by Overland International. An edited version subsequently appeared in the Overland Journal fall edition, 2017.