When you first make the leap to a new life in another country, you expect a lot of things to be different — language (or at least dialect), driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, different architecture and street landscapes. But there were three aspects to life in America that I didn’t expect and that totally flummoxed me when I first came here; and frankly, still do. I’m talking about dates, floors, and toilet doors.
In the UK, dates very sensibly go Day, Month, Year. So, today being 13th February, 2017 would be listed in numeric form as 13/2/17. It’s a logical progression, from smallest measure to largest. Simple. Imagine the surprise, then, when you’re told that the classes for the new year at graduate school start on 9/3. What? The 9th of March? How can that be?? No, someone explains, that means September 9 — and they give you the “what planet are you from?” look.
Well, the only country on the planet that does Month, Day, Year is the USA (at least, that’s what it says in Wikipedia so it must be true). A number of countries in Asia go Year, Month, Day. And, the ever-diplomatic Canadians apparently use all three formats: Day, Month, Year; Month, Day, Year; AND Year, Day, Month. Which is very noble of them but must get highly confusing.
When filling out forms of any kind, I’m now so used to the Month/Day/Year format that I have to think twice about what I’m doing with anything international. Not everyone does.
The British press corp was refused entry to the White House for the Trump-May press conference on January 27 because of confusion over dates — the security services apparently couldn’t fathom the birth dates of the listed reporters, which were all written UK style (remember, this is the style used by most countries on the planet, i.e., is the international format).
As any Brit can tell you, the floor of a building that’s at ground level is called the ground floor. When you go up one level, you’re on the first floor, because it’s the first Floor added, right? So, a building with a ground floor and then four more floors on top is numbered G, 1, 2, 3, 4. And, as far as I remember, that’s pretty much the convention across Europe: the first level you walk in on is called some variation of “ground,” then you start numbering 1, 2, 3 as you go up. Very sensible and straightforward.
Not in America. Here, the first floor is the one at ground level. The second floor is the next one up. This caused me no end of confusion when I first got to the university’s library. The buttons in the elevator (lift) went B, 1, 2, 3. I had no clue where I was at any given level. I spent weeks repeatedly finding myself in the basement instead of on the ground floor.
I’m not sure why such a small change should be so bloody difficult to take on — maybe because it’s such an automatic part of life, something that you just assume is straightforward? Just to add to the confusion, sometimes in elevators here you’ll see numbering that goes G, 2, 3…. where the building owners have decided to be a bit fancy and call the first floor ground; but the next floor up is still 2.
It also caused confusion when we bought our house here in the suburbs, and I told my mum it had two bedrooms on the third floor (to me, this now means up two flights of stairs from the ground). She was staggered that I’d moved into a four-story house. I had to gently explain that no, I meant attic rooms that were up two flights of stairs, so second floor UK, third floor US. She seemed a bit disappointed that I hadn’t actually moved into a mansion.
Now, this one is just bizarre. Given how ‘coy’ Americans can be (Americans Can Be So Coy!), why the devil are the doors on public loos so tiny?
In the UK, the doors and partitions on public cubicles go all the way down to the ground and all the way up to the ceiling. And the doors themselves close nice and snug, with no gaps.
But in the US, the cubicles in a “women’s restroom” typically have about two feet of space at the top and bottom of the doors and partitions. And there’s usually a good inch of air space between the door and the frame. To a Brit, this feels like trying to go to the loo in the middle of an open field.
I have zero explanation for this. Someone once told me, “Oh, it’s for security reasons, so you can see if someone’s in trouble, and easily get them out. And, you can see if someone’s actually hiding in there.” You certainly can. After 32 years in this country, I still long for a proper public loo, where no-one can see my ankles and the door seals all the way around.
I guess it does make it easier to help out a friend in the case of a toilet paper emergency.