What You Learn About London on Your First Visit

An Indiana University student tells her story of learning the cultural lessons of London that aren't found in books, just on the streets.

Traveling to a foreign country is no simple matter. Even when fluent in the native language, local customs and dialect can make someone feel like a daft outsider.

I arrived in London from Indiana two weeks ago for a two-month internship and study-abroad program through Indiana University. On arriving to the apartment I will be living in during my stay, there were many tasks to do before I could explore London. I needed to unpack my belongings, exchange my dollars for pounds, assure my family that I had not been lost forever over the Atlantic, and fill out a damages report for the flat. The last task sounds easy—at least that’s what I thought. Soon, however, this trivial chore on my to-do list turned into a horrible mystery plot.

I couldn’t find the hob. No, it wasn’t that I couldn’t find the hob. I didn’t even know what a hob was. This three-letter word listed under the kitchen section of my damages report was nowhere to be discovered. Wandering my kitchen calling out “Hob? Are you my hob?” yielded no results, so I decided to go to a source I knew would give me answers: Google. Google told me that a hob was either a stovetop or a sprite or hobgoblin. Assuming that the hob on my damages sheet was the former definition and not the latter, I was finally able to check the last “satisfactory” box and move on to my next task.

I have found, though, that “hob” is not the only difference between American and English life. To help my fellow world travelers, I have compiled a list of differences between American and British culture. Hopefully, this guide will help all you new Londoners acclimate to the new culture you have or will find yourself in.

Learning the King's English

  • “Cheers” isn’t just something British people say in movies. It is an actual word used by actual people in London when clinking glasses or saying thanks.
  • “Sorry” is more common to say than “excuse me.”
  • “Fab” and “brilliant” are slang for American expressions like “cool” and “awesome.”
  • “Cellphones” are called “mobiles.”
  • “Bathrooms” and “restrooms” are called “toilets,” “loo” or “WC.”

 

Food in London
I don’t think ranch dressing exists in London. I’ve never seen it in the grocery or at restaurants during my stay. After thinking about it, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if this rich, creamy, fatty substance was wanted by Americans only.

There aren’t huge bags of chips, or crisps as Londoners say, sold in stores like in America. You can buy big bags with lots of individual bags, but the good old “Family Sized” bags are a purely American invention.

Continuing from my previous point, there really aren’t large quantities of anything sold in London grocery stores. The food here doesn’t have nearly as many preservatives as the food in the U.S., so food goes bad much quicker. Basically, you have to grocery shop more often because you buy less food so it won’t go bad before you eat it. 

I realize this next point is going to make me look stupid, but I suppose I will share anyway. I haven’t found American cheese anywhere, which surprised me given that this is the standard cheese in the States. Key words: “in the States.” Hence, American cheese. I guess it really isn’t that surprising British shelves aren’t stocked with American dairy products.

British Customs
You now know all about the differences between British and American food, but there are also differences in how it’s consumed. In the States there is “on-the-go” everything. This isn’t a common concept in London, though. Eating is more private and not done while you’re walking somewhere or traveling on public transport.

While Americans are thought to be polite and talkative (especially us Midwesterners), I’ve noticed Americans are much less personable in work settings. When people in the U.S. make business calls, it tends to be like: “Hi, Bill? Yes, this is Anne from So And So Corporation calling about the Blah Blah Blah forms.” In London, people are more conversational. They talk about the weather first, then how their days are going, then get down to business.

The British may be conversational in business, but they are reserved in public. Being loud on the public transport is a huge no-no. People may talk quietly, but loud laughter or conversations are definitely (and literally) frowned upon. This proves quite a struggle for us loud, obnoxious Americans.

Public bathrooms aren’t free. For any American reading this, that sounds bizarre. Sadly, though, it’s true. If you’re needing a toilet in the train station or other public place, be prepared to shell out some cash.

Despite these differences, London is not as big and scary as I was expecting. I have found the similarities far outweigh the differences, though it may not always seem so. Even though I greatly miss some of my American ways, I have decided to embrace every part of London life because I will be back in the States eating my American cheese, ranch dressing and giant bags of Doritos (hopefully not all together) too soon.