Britain is one of the best places to live in the world. It's especially fun as an American. If you are lucky enough to be moving to the Britain, or even visiting, you’ll need to know how to do three things - talk to people, get around, and use the bathroom. These might sound simple, but without this advice you'll surely find yourself walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk, shunned by your flatmates, or blabbering on to a Welsh friend about how they were born in England. After a year living in Norwich, England I've gained the knowledge necessary to safely guide you through your first couple months in the British world.
The best thing you can do while living in Britain is talking with British people. They will know you are American before you've finished your first sentence. You'll hear that Americans are too loud, don't really understand humor, can't properly speak English or spell, have way too many guns and way too many states, are too fat, and probably have never walked anywhere in their life. Damn Yanks. But this is the space where most brilliant moments of learning happen, and if you stick it out and follow these simple steps you'll be conversing happily in no time.
1. Master the Complicated Geography
It makes sense that without a basic grasp of British and UK geography you'll sound like quite a fool. Here is my simple lesson -
Britain in part of the United Kingdom. The UK is comprised of four nations: Wales, Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland. The first three are British (a geographic term) because they inhabit the island of Great Britain. Though they are all technically British, not everyone appreciates this term. See – Scottish National Party and the recent National Referndum on independence. Here is a quick set of rules:
- The English are British and English
- The Scottish and Welsh are kind of British, but mostly Scottish and Welsh.
- Don't dare call anyone English who wasn't born in England.
British person: So is this your first time in the UK?
Me: Yes, actually I've never even been to Europe before.
British person: Great, well Europe is right on our doorstep, so you can visit it while you're here.
Me: Oh swell! Wait...
It’s common to hear that Britain isn’t in Europe. If I had to guess I’d say this is less of an egomaniacal complex and mostly just an easy term to explain you are talking about mainland Europe excluding the Britain.
2. Memorize some British lingo
While you probably don't want to adopt a British accent for fear of sounding ridiculous and losing your American twang, you won't fit in without mixing a bit of British lingo into your speech. It will mean giving up on classic phrases like "Hey man, what's up?" - but you won't seem like some daft American people try to ignore. Here are a few common phrases you should know:
British Phrase: Are you alright?
Translation: How’s it going?
British Phrase: I just can't be bothered
Translation: I just don't want to.
British Phrase: I'm knackered.
Translation: I'm really tired .
British Phrase: Let's meet at half five?
Translation: Let's meet at 5:30?
British Phrase: That's a good shout.
Translation: Good effort man.
British Phrase: I need to pop to the toilet.
Translation: I need to use the restroom.
British Phrase: I've lost about two stone!
Translation: I've lost about 28 pounds!
British Person: “Hiya, are you alright?”
You: “I'm so knackered that I can't be bothered to pop to the toilet, but I'll give it a good shout and be out by half seven. Good news though, I lost half a stone.”
And don’t forget these simple rules:
- Don't say pants. Pants are underwear. You mean trousers.
- Don’t say fanny pack. Fanny is in fact a slang term for a vagina. So is growler. You mean a bum bag.
Click here for a full list of British slang – http://www.effingpot.com/slang.shtml
3. Realize you won’t be able to understand everyone.
I have heard a lot of American friends try to imitate English/Scottish accents. Some I even thought sounded convincing, almost dead-on. They never tried to imitate a Glaswegian accent, or someone from the Norfolk countryside.
The variety of accents in Britain fascinates me to no end, especially coming from the West Coast of the US where we have one accent for 1,500 miles in every direction. When talking to someone new, try your best to figure out their accent. Is it the Sheffield accent or the Leeds accent (these cities are only 45 minutes apart). Is it a posh London accent, or a Cockney London accent? Is it a Scottish accent from Glasgow, or from Edinburgh? Are they trying to speak the Queen's English? Pssh, no one actually talks like that. And some of them are notoriously hard to understand – see the Cornish, Glaswegians, and Yorkshiremen.
An example of the Glaswegian accent - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FSWlfcg6oA
Getting around Britain is normally fun and easy. Usually you'll live within walking distance of your two necessities, a grocery store and local pub. Should you need to go farther rail and public transportation systems are top notch. But before you get on a sidewalk or a train, you'll need these insights.
4. Accept that you’ll always be confused keeping to right or left.
Above two different tube stations in London. In most countries people walk the way they drive. If on the roads cars moving forward are on the right side, then while walking down the street people walking forward will tend to stay to the right. In Britain things aren't so simple. Be prepared to feel like the only one who doesn’t know what is going on. As shown above the rule is left sometimes, right sometimes. Yet somehow every British person knows which way to walk. Awkward sidewalk interactions are only the cause of people who don't know the system. Said a British friend, "No, there is no rule, you just kind of figure it out."
5. Learn that Train Tickets and the people who check them will be the bane of your existence
Trains are the best way to travel around Britain. Tickets are pretty affordable if you buy in advance, its a comfortable and pleasant ride, and often the scenery is beautiful. But beware - there is a dark side to train travel; train tickets and the conductors who check them.
The first problem is the sheer volume of tickets. I traveled once every two weeks for a year. And ended up with the above mountain of tickets.
For an advance fare round trip a normal ticket machine spits out at least 4 tickets. One is a receipt of purchase that looks a bit like a ticket, one is a "route" ticket that has the date, start and end location but also isn't a ticket, and one is the actual ticket for each specific leg of your journey with the specific time of each train. Going from Norwich to Leeds and transferring in Peterborough? You'll have seven tickets - the receipt ticket, the route ticket, the return route ticket, the real ticket for Norwich to Peterborough, the real ticket for Peterborough to Leeds, and 2 more of the reverse for the return journey. My message to British Rail:
That bring us to our second problem - the conductors who check the tickets. I actually met a few of the Greater Anglia Conductors by working in a local pub. They are pretty nice guys outside of work. But they almost never let people off the hook when checking tickets. My first train ride ever in Britain I had misplaced my Student Fare Card. Actually I had misplaced one of the two parts of the card. Of course it wasn't as simple as one card. I explained that I had just flown into the country and didn't know the system - but no excuse, I had to pay the full fare. You'll also have to pay full price if you miss a train or get on the wrong train. This adds a lot of pressure to riding trains in Britain - It's a complicated system overflowing with tickets, and if you mess up even one detail you'll have to pay. So double check your ticket and route, and do your best to not mess up.
Sometimes the most basic bits of life are the most important. Toilets in Britain don't have to be unpleasant - if you know how to manage yourself in the loo.
6. Brush up on your toilet-brushing skills
And your aiming skills. In the US our toilets are lakes. I was astounded to return to the US and see how much water sits in the average American toilet. It's practically enough to start spilling over the top. In the Britain toilet water level is very low, often just enough to make a 2 inch wide pool above the base of the toilet. Every toilet has an accompanying toilet brush, because it's hard to direct all releases into an opening the size of a pint glass. It's a cultural expectation to use the brush to clean up any messes that you might make, and not doing so caused more than one roommate conflict in my flat. Get used to doing the work yourself, not having the toilet do it for you.
7. Get ready for the worst sinks ever
That's our sink in the photo above. Ever been punished for wanting to wash your hands? It's a common occurrence in some British sinks.
The British Sink Instruction Manual
- Twist the blue handle for cold water.
- Twist the red handle to experience 2nd degree burns.
Thanks for reading! My fellow American, you are now officially prepared for a successful life in the Britain. Live it up by golly!
*Disclaimer - This guide doesn't include surviving British food, because British food isn't all that bad. Outside of fish and chips stick to nicer restaurants and international cuisine (especially Indian curries) while eating out, and at home British grocery stores will have everything you need to cook great meals.
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