On the face of it, study abroad in the U.K. for U.S. students doesn’t seem like a significant culture shock, but there are a few noteworthy cultural (and atmospheric) conditions that might take a little while to get used to. Here are a few tips that may come in handy when you’re negotiating British customs.
1. If you hate being wet, carry an umbrella (or “brolly”)
No, it doesn’t always rain in England (or Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales), but it happens suddenly, ferociously and frequently enough to make being caught unprepared something of a misery. However, the English don’t typically carry umbrellas during seasons when rains are infrequent, so if a sudden shower hits and you huddle in a doorway struggling to open yours, be prepared for some gentle teasing by the locals.
2. Learn the lingo
Unless you’re a British television connoisseur, you might be unfamiliar with certain British-isms. Although Americans have our fair share of slang, the British have elevated it to an art form. While you might understand the meaning of individual words within a phrase, (“Chance would be a fine thing” or “Gone pear-shaped”) the meaning of the phrase itself may not be immediately obvious. Sometimes the words themselves are a mystery. (“Argy-bargy,” “knackered,” “chuffed,” “clanger,” and “naff,” to name a few.) Don’t be afraid to ask for an American translation. You’re not alone!
3. Find American specialty shops
If you’re desperately missing certain comforting, processed, convenience foods that are nowhere to be found in the local shops, don’t despair. There are a few stores that specialize in carrying American food products, so your Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Stove Top Stuffing, and Red Hots are only a train ride away. But be forewarned: you’ll pay significantly more than what you’re used to.
4. The humor might be different - roll with it
Benjamin Franklin once said, “The English love an insult. It’s their only test of a man’s sincerity.” You probably won’t be personally insulted without provocation, but someone’s tone could be off-putting if you are not used to this type of humor. The British call it irony, and they wield it like both a sword and a shield. They don’t necessarily think you’re too slow to pick up the subtlety of their dry delivery – they might just be checking to see if you are.
5. Don’t be offended by English social reserve
You may find that strangers are loath to engage in conversations or even smile. This is highly unusual for many Americans since smiling and saying “good morning” to a stranger isn’t particularly uncommon. However, in urban cities like London, familiarity is only exhibited to the familiar, and that is generally in the form of a terse, “You alright?” (That means “hello.” Don’t actually tell the asker how you’re doing). In smaller towns and villages, though, the people aren’t as stand-offish and might greet you warmly.
6. Be aware: England has a north/south cultural divide too
There is a bit of friendly-ish rivalry between the English northerners and southerners. Stereotypically, northerners are working-class, while southerners are more moneyed. If you get caught between people from the north and south engaging in energetic banter, don’t be alarmed; it’s been going on for generations.
7. “Freshers Week” can be exhausting – pace yourself
”Fresher’s Week” is the week (or two) of freshman student orientation. You’ll be doing all of the basic administrative things, like registering for your courses, getting your syllabi and purchasing books. You’ll also be getting to know your peers, and participating in organized meet-and-greets. There may be a “Freshers Fair,” which is an introduction to all of the different student societies and clubs. Lastly, there are parties, pub crawls and general drunken foolishness, where you’ll be tempted to spend money you might not have, and drink more than what is good for you (U.K. legal drinking age is 18). It can be very easy to be swept up in the excitement and the mania of the event. Be careful, or you’ll wind up exhausted, nauseous and broke before classes even start.
8. Don’t spend all of your time in London
London is a grand metropolis, but it isn’t all of England. Go on a daffodil walk in Yorkshire, hang out at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and go see some of the best live music in Europe in Manchester. The U.K. also has great cities outside of England, like Belfast in Northern Ireland and Edinburgh in Scotland.
Study abroad in the U.K. for U.S. students is marvelous for broadening cultural horizons. The U.K. is a thriving, diverse and historically rich destination, and you’ll emerge from your study abroad experience with memories you’ll cherish forever.
To learn more about study abroad opportunities in the U.K., please visit our program page.
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