In the autumn of 2014, the last year for which there are data, over 38,000 American students studied in Britain, making it the leading destination for Americans learning abroad. This is a distinction Britain has enjoyed each year since 1998, when the Institute of International Education, an American charity, started keeping records. It is a country familiar enough to be comforting – people speak the same language, share a history and a cultural heritage – yet sufficiently distinct, with its royal family and beans on toast, to warrant the journey. For Americans, a trip to the UK is like going to Toronto or Panama: it’s foreign travel for beginners.
That’s what I thought, at least, when in October 2009, I left Washington DC, my hometown, for Oxford University, where – unlike study-abroad students who go for, at most, a semester – I had enrolled in a full, three-year degree. But once I stepped off the plane, all those warm, fuzzy thoughts I had about D-Day, the British Invasion and the Blair-Bush bromance were punctured by a multitude of pressing questions. Who is Jordan? Why does she look identical to Katie Price? Why does everyone sign off texts with “x”s? What does “biscuit” even really mean? Does Cheryl Cole actually speak English? Why does everyone laugh when I say “fanny pack”? Why are club-bound revellers incapable of wearing coats, even in winter? Why, in god’s name, is the Scouse brow a thing?
Travelling to a foreign country places visitors at the bottom of a learning curve. But because Americans read Dickens and Austen, and watch James Bond films and “Downton Abbey”, we assume that the slope of this curve will be gentle, if not flat. The longer you spend ascending it, the more you’ll learn that Britain is far more foreign than Hollywood will allow. Here are some tips to help you fit in.
1. Just because we speak the same language doesn’t mean translation is never required. Sometimes even Brits need a bit of help, as the producers of “Geordie Shore”, a reality TV show about lads on the lash in Newcastle, acknowledged when they mercifully translated the dialogue into subtitles. Even though America is much larger than Britain, the latter has many more regional accents and dialects. Depending on where you are, a local might greet you with “All right?”, “Wotcha”, “Ey up mi duck”, “Hello my lover,” “Why aye man,” or “Wagwan bredren”. Resign yourself to the fact that you will not understand very much for a while, especially if you roam further afield to Wales, Scotland or the edges of England, and befriend a native English English speaker who can offer you their services as a translator. When they’ve stopped larfing at you, they will explain that a “fanny” is not someone's tushie, but rather a lady’s lady parts.
2. Once you’ve mastered the basics of the language, think about what you might say to your new friends, or mates. Conversation with Brits is an exercise in ritual self-humiliation, so try to think of a self-deprecating joke about yourself, or your country. If you can’t, buy a copy of “Private Eye”, a funny current-affairs magazine, and steal some of their jokes. Most topics of conversation are fair game, but avoid Brexit if you are trying to make friends.
Another thing: never discuss your accomplishments. Mentioning my alma mater, as I did earlier, is the journalistic equivalent of wearing a bulky sweater with “Oxford University” emblazoned on it. To Americans, showing off about where you studied dulls the sting of eye-watering college fees. To Britons, it’s just smug. If someone compliments you, permit a small blush to rise to your cheeks, and say, “Oh, it was nothing”. That way your admirer will know it was really something.
3. At certain universities, you will hear the question “Which school did you go to?” so often, you would be forgiven for thinking there was a national passion for pedagogy. In fact, this is English English for, “Which social class do you belong to?” The era of Downton is long gone, but the class system is still very much in place. Though just 6.5% children go to private schools (or as they are confusingly called in Britain, “public schools”), with the rest attending schools funded by the state, people who went to private school make up around 40% of the student population at the best universities, and go on to dominate law, politics, medicine and journalism.
As an exotic American, you have more chance of buying admission to the world of gentlemen’s clubs, Savile Row tailors, crumbling country estates, shooting parties and port than an English person who went to the wrong kind of school. You will also be able to get away with the kind of language that would normally raise eyebrows. Upper-class English people flinch when someone from the lower orders eats “dessert” rather than “pudding”, wipe their mouth with a “serviette” rather than a “napkin”, or asks for directions to the “toilet”, not the “loo”.
Carole Middleton reportedly made that mistake at Buckingham Palace, around the time Kate and William split up, inspiring the headline: “Was it ‘Toiletgate’ that done for Kate?” (Speaking of water closets, on no account must you ask for the restroom, unless you want to have a rest, or a bathroom, unless you want to take a bath.)
To be fair, most Britons I know couldn’t care less whether they are “U” (upper class) or “non-U”, as Nancy Mitford famously put it in 1955. But maybe I don’t mix with the right people. A colleague of mine was once asked by an aristocrat where she was educated. When she said she’d gone to a local state school, milady replied, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
4. As you may have heard, the British like to talk about the weather. This is a subject about which you will know the fundamentals – we too have weather in America – but the frequency with which you will be invited to comment on the climate may strike you as odd. How much can there be to say?
If the weather in your state is anything like Washington DC’s, it knows its own mind: when it rains, it pours; when it shines, the sun soaks you with its rays. The weather in the UK is, by contrast, indecisive – capricious, even. You might wake up to a bright day, leave for the library wearing a flimsy sun dress, only for the clouds to roll in and rain to hurl down. You may arrive drenched and shivering, but think of the bright side. The changeability of the elements supplies Britons with thousands of hours of small talk, in elevators (which over here are called “lifts”), queues and awkward encounters by the water cooler. Oscar Wilde maligned such chit-chat as “the last refuge of the unimaginative” – but did he ever have to work a nine to five? Plus, since the Brexit vote, the weather has acquired even greater civic importance as one of the few safe topics of conversation. If a taxi driver complains that “the EU wants us to pay for everything, and the kitchen sink”, change the subject by saying something like: “Dreadful weather we’re having at the moment, isn’t it?”
4. It is unlikely you will have a car in the UK, so experiment with walking. As you roam the streets of your university town, you will observe the British engaging in what George Mikes, a Hungarian-born journalist, described in 1946 as the “national past-time”: queuing. Britons love to line up whenever they get the chance, at shops, bus stops, banks and toilets, sorry, loos. Sure, people stand in line in other countries too – but Britons take their queues much more seriously.
During my first term, I was queuing up silently (don’t try to talk or even smile in a queue unless you are at a music festival) outside Hassan’s kebab van in Oxford city centre when I started to feel a warm glow enveloping me. Here were half a dozen people brought together for the same reason – their hunger for £2 cheesy chips – but whose consideration for their fellow countrymen, and their innate sense of decency and fair play, inspired them to order themselves into a neat line, waiting patiently as Hassan doled out box after warm polystyrene box. It was the essence of civilised behaviour; it was the British way. That was, until Hassan told us he only had one portion of cheesy chips left. Then it was every man for himself.