What’s Better in Britain
Yes, the roads are confusing, the food portions unambitious, the peanut butter not so good, but for this American, life in the U.K. has its compensations.
This September marks my fifth year of living in Britain, a milestone that comes with its own special reward: a test. Specifically, the “Life in the U.K. Test,” an examination that anyone seeking to obtain permanent residency rights in the country and ultimately British citizenship must take. The test covers all sorts of questions on Britain’s history—including such seeming trivia as the specific ways Henry VIII got rid of each of his six wives—its laws, its values, and its traditions.
“Comedy and satire, the ability to laugh at ourselves, are an important part of the U.K. character,” reads one passage from the official study handbook. In another, pubs are described as “an important part of U.K. social culture.”
Self-deprecating humor and pub culture are just some of the survival skills you naturally pick up if you live here long enough. But as I prepare for this exam, I can’t help but think about all the practical things about British life that the test-prep materials leave out. Contrary to what Sir Elton John would have you believe, sorry really doesn’t seem to be the hardest word for Brits (even if they aren’t always using it sincerely). Talking about the weather really is a perfectly acceptable conversation starter. “You all right?” really is a simple greeting rather than an expression of genuine concern.
To live as a foreigner here is to be in a constant state of learning British idiosyncrasies—an education that, as an American with, in theory, a language and a good deal else in common, I didn’t fully expect to have to undertake. I’d assumed that my move from Washington, D.C., to London would be seamless, devoid of the culture shock and language barriers that I had experienced when I went to live in continental Europe and the Middle East. After all, the United States and Britain share many historical ties, including the much-vaunted “special relationship” of transatlantic alliance.
That commonality had its more vexed aspects too. By the time I was preparing to make my own way across the Atlantic, both countries were deeply riven by populist political forces: 2016 saw the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the vote to leave the European Union in the United Kingdom. For all of the superficial differences—the accents, the political systems, and the direction of travel on roads—the two nations seemed to have so much more that they shared.
What I have found since living here, though, is how very different the two places are—even whether we speak the same language is far from clear. Once you overcome the barrier to comprehending the U.K.’s variety of regional accents, of which there are as many as 40, you must then go about relearning much of your vocabulary. Brits stand in queues, not lines. They walk on the pavement, not the sidewalk. Fries are chips and chips are crisps. Sweaters are jumpers, sneakers are trainers, and on cars, trunks are boots and hoods are bonnets. If a Brit tells you that they are pissed, they mean not that they’re angry, but that they’re drunk. But if they accuse you of taking the piss, they’re probably pissed at you.
Sometimes you learn these language lessons the hard way. In my case, that happened on a very cold day when, wearing a skirt, I loudly expressed regret that I hadn’t worn pants. To any Brit within earshot, of which there were many, that meant that I’d gone out wearing no underwear.
These countries don’t only speak differently. They are different—even opposites, in some respects. As the American journalist and former New York Times London correspondent Sarah Lyall wrote in The Anglo Files, her definitive field guide to the British:
We look to the future; they look to the past. We run for election; they stand for it. We noisily and proudly proclaim our Americanness; they shuffle their feet and apologize for their Britishness. We trumpet our successes; they brag about their failures. When they say they are pleased to meet you, they often mean nothing of the kind. Unlike Americans, they do not want to tell you their life story minutes after making your acquaintance; it takes some time to get that far, but if you do, it means you’re friends for life.
Some of the differences that Americans and Britons alike enjoy noting rely on a degree of caricature. Brits understandably bristle when Americans make sweeping generalizations about their food, their politics, and the safety of their cities. When the British journalist Siobhan Kennedy remarked at a recent press conference with U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene that Britain experienced fewer mass shootings than America, the congresswoman retorted sharply, “You have mass stabbings, lady! You have all kinds of murder,” before suggesting that Kennedy “go back to your own country and worry about your no guns.” With the sort of deadpan politeness that Brits often use instead of outright rudeness, Kennedy replied, “That’s very kind of you.”
For many of the more than 100,000 Americans living in Britain, such differences are part of the country’s charm. Yes, the roads are confusing to navigate. Sure, the portion sizes are unambitious. And maybe the peanut butter isn’t as good. But Britain makes up for these deficits with superior chocolate, Yorkshire pudding (not a dessert), and—perhaps most appreciated of all—free public health care.
“As an American, you don’t realize how much [health] insurance controls your life until it doesn’t control your life anymore,” Lisa Dollan, who is from Columbus, Georgia, and now lives in Leeds, in the north of England, told me. I first became aware of Dollan earlier this year when I discovered her TikTok page, where she often talks to her million followers about the trade-offs between life in the U.K. and the U.S. After eight years of living in Britain, Dollan speaks as though she lives between two worlds: Her southern accent now has touches of Yorkshire, a hybrid that she says often gets her mistaken for being Irish or Australian. The first time she went into a British pharmacy (or, as a Brit would say, a chemist’s), she said that she couldn’t believe she didn’t have to pay for the medicine (pregnant with her son at the time, she was entitled to free prescriptions). “I was just like, ‘Is this a joke? Is the camera rolling? Is Ashton Kutcher somewhere?’” she told me.
Many of Dollan’s TikToks spotlight the more bizarre differences between the two countries. One video points out the paradox of American pharmacies selling cigarettes; another introduces her U.K. audience to southern-style grits. I asked what she most missed about America: ranch dressing and cold sweet tea.
Scrolling through Dollan’s TikToks, I couldn’t help thinking that they were a better guide than the “Life in the U.K. Test” study handbook. Like many immigrants here, Dollan has taken the test, and calls it merely “a memorization exercise.” And one that involves memorizing less-than-useful facts that most native Britons can’t recall: Britain’s House of Lords this week called on the government to reform the test, describing it as “trivial,” “outdated,” and “undermining British values.”
Any change to the exam is unlikely to come soon enough for me. But after five years in this country, I’m reasonably confident that my knowledge of British life will pass muster. I may never be able to convincingly call anyone “mate” or pronounce tomato tom-ah-to, but I do know which side of an escalator to stand on and how to make a decent cuppa (tea). Oh, and I have picked up the handy mnemonic for what happened to Henry VIII’s wives: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. With luck, they won’t pack me off to the Tower.