Moving abroad as we know is not an easy-peasy thing to do. We tend to underestimate especially the moves between the countries that on the surface seem similar (eg. Mediterranean countries batched together, or English-speaking countries like US, UK, Canada, Australia…, or Asian countries –can you even put all Asian countries into one category at all?…). These moves tend to start a lot of frustrations, challenges and misunderstandings.
I am not an exception here. Despite of being very aware of the idea of intercultural communication differences, aware of what the culture shock is and how it works, I did fall into the trap of being too confident about the move. And then hit the first shock quite quickly.
Feeling like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz
A while ago I wrote about what Joseph Shaules calls the Oz moments . The name relates to the story of the Wizard of Oz where the main character, Dorothy, suddenly finds herself in a completely new world with weird things happening around her. In this world though these things are completely normal – she is the odd one out.
This is very often what happens to people who move abroad for a longer period of time or even just for a couple of months for a given assignment. They experience a range of emotions from excitement by the novelty, through anger of everything being so different or sadness of being 5 time zones away from friends and family, to happiness of experiencing new things and growing as a person. All of these are normal, but some of them tougher to stand than others.
Depending on where you grew up, on what are your cultural frames of reference and how much you have worked with the British in the past, naturally you might find different things surprising. Let me know in the comments about your experiences: where have you lived, where have you worked and are there any other things that you found surprising about the British way of living and working!
Here are the things that surprised me in the UK after moving here (I’m writing this 2 years after moving here). Some of these result from insufficient research, some from overconfidence regarding my own language skills (they should really teach you more things about the culture in the English classes at school!) and some others were (are?) just simply different from my ‘normal’ and take longer to adapt to.
Ready? Let’s go!
The most common content and topic for chit-chat are weather, what you plan to do over the weekend, what you’ve done last weekend. What surprised me with the chit chat was that people just generally often don’t seem to stay quiet for long. Going up in the lift, passing by on the corridor, making tea in the office kitchen – you pretty much every time get a ‘How are you’ or ‘How is your day going’ question. With the first one being just a more elaborate ‘hello’ equivalent most of the times and the other actually inviting a fuller response.
There are places where it’s ‘socially forbidden’ to chat up a stranger, such as the tube, but other than that, from my experience if people are bored or see that you are reading something interesting they will chat you up.
Very often also when you wait a long time in the queue or your train breaks or is delayed, that opens up the room for complaining and is a good way for people to start the chit-chat.
Thank the bus driver when you are getting off
It doesn’t happen that much on busy London streets (maybe more in the off-peak hours and in zones that are further away from the centre), but it does a lot, especially in smaller towns. People do say thank you to the bus driver when they are getting off at their stop. And quite often chit-chat while buying the ticket too! 😉
I actually think this is quite nice! Especially if you take the same route on the bus every day with the same driver. It gives you the sense of community I think. I feel neither positive nor negative about it. It’s just very different from what I was used to back home (back home is Poland for me).
Heavy breakfasts, heavy dinners…
Eggs, bacon and beans for breakfast is one thing. Eating burgers, pasta or steaks for dinner in the evening is another. Tough! So obviously most of the people do not eat heavy breakfast everyday and heavy dinner each night. They would probably not eat both such meals in one day (unless maybe the weekend or some bank holidays). But the fact itself of eating such heavy meals in the evening (by evening here I mean between 7-9 pm) was hard for me to understand. Regardless of how many times a week such dinner would take place.
I guess the surprise wasn’t that much in the fact that some people in the world eat their main meal in the evenings – there are many of those places in the world. I simply did not associate England (or maybe it’s just London?) with the culture of going out to restaurants and eating big evening meals as much as I did associate it with, say, most Mediterranean countries.
The surprise here was in the fact that at least the Londoners do go out for dinners I’d say 2-3 times a week and they do cook high-calories dinners at homes the other nights.
To explain where the surprise bit came from, In Poland it’s very typical to eat some sandwiches (or cereal or porridge) for breakfast, and also sandwiches for dinner. The main meal tends to be the lunch, where we would eat a bigger warm meal, with meat or vegetables, and that could happen anywhere between 13.00-17.00, depending on the schedule in a given family.
How are you is usually not a genuine concern about your well-being
Nor is a statement “oh, interesting!” always an expression of actual interest in the topic of the conversation (see next point).
Oh how frustrating it was for me at the beginning when people were asking Hi, How are you? , I started providing them with a rundown of how I am and they were far gone in the corridors or writing a message on their phones. I was like “Jeez, how rude is that?!” (#judgment).
Just bear in mind that a lot of times, unless you already have a relationship established with a given person, the ‘How are you’ question will be a substitute for ‘Hello’.
‘How have you been?’ or ‘What have you been up to?’ however are more explicit invitations to a conversation and catching up.
This one is also kind of important
Understanding differences in communication styles is also kind of important. I mean, not massively, but you know, it’s worth knowing the difference. But don’t worry it takes time to learn, so if you don’t get it at first that’s ok!
This was to say: “Knowing about cultural differences in communication styles is helpful”. Hard stop.
This is an exaggerated example, but very often this is how communication around uncomfortable topics looks like in England. Whether it is just a tough conversation, money topic, negotiations or giving feedback. I once wrote on Pink Pangea website, a little bit as a joke, that when people in England say:
- It’s ok= you should go fix it or do something about it right now–otherwise you might have problems.
- It’s good/It’s alright= it meets basic criteria, but surely you can do better. Have a think about how you can improve it as soon as you can.
- Very good/Amazing/Well done= you did a good job and you might be happy with yourself.
- Excellent work= you have actually done a great job and you may be proud of yourself. Remember to use it as an argument for a raise during your annual review!
I would probably now also add:
- Ah, interesting! = I don’t really care what you’re saying but I’m being nice OR I actually do find this interesting, tell me more (you rarely ever know which one it is, really…)
- I know it’s probably not your fault, but please could you take another look at (…)? = It is your fault and you better fix that asap!
- Hey, how are you? = Hello.
Would you like to read more on similar phrases and how they differ between the US and and UK? I’ve got you covered!
What were the things that you found surprising in either living in the UK or working with the British? Was there some pattern you’ve noticed?
Your experiences might have been completely different from mine given which cultures you have had experience with previously in life, so definitely do share your story in the comments below! 🙂