American friends often ask me to explain some baffling aspect of British life, usually along the lines of “why don’t you complain about the awful service in that restaurant?” And my British friends and family are often more than a little horrified by what they see as the American tendency to “shoot first and ask questions later.” Both of these are stereotypes, of course: Brits are perfectly capable of demanding better service, and most Americans I know are thoughtful and insightful people.
But these stereotypes do reflect a fundamental difference in the British and American approach to life.
Death is Optional
Many years ago a British friend gave my American husband a book: “Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide.” The introduction sums up this fundamental difference perfectly: deep down inside, Americans think death is optional. It’s a profoundly optimistic outlook on life — if you work hard enough, take the right vitamins, and do the right exercises, you won’t die.
It’s also a very individualistic outlook — it’s up to you, personally, to do all the right things, so if you DO die, it’s mostly your own fault.
The average Brit, however, takes a more bemused and ironic view of life, knowing full well that on the way home from the gym you’re likely to be run over by a bus. So best to just grumble a bit about how random it all is, and have another cup of tea. It’s a view of the world perfectly summed up by “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” (by Douglas Adams). You may THINK you know what’s going on, but any minute now the Vogons are going to destroy the planet to make way for a hyperspatial express route.
While the Brits have more sense of “we’re really all in this mess together,” there’s a dark side here, too: “we’ve always done it this way, so why bother to try changing things.”
“You Can’t Do That!” “Why Not?”
I actually got a first glimpse of this fundamental difference in outlook before I even came to the States. This was back in London in the early 1980s, during a Masters degree at the LSE. There were about 20 of us in the seminar-taught program; half a dozen Brits and the rest from places as far flung as Mexico and the West Bank. The autumn term of the course hadn’t gone all that well — there wasn’t a lot of give and take in the classroom and discussions were a bit stilted. The foreign students took their cue from us locals: after class, head to the pub (The Three Tuns) and grumble about how it was all not quite good enough.
Then in the spring term a new American student joined the group, including our whinging sessions at the pub. About two weeks into the term, we got to the classroom one morning to find him rearranging the chairs.
“Of course there’s no good discussion,” he said, “the chairs are all in rows like a lecture hall. We need to sit in a circle. C’mon, help me move the chairs.”
The Brits were horrified by this pushy American. “You can’t do that!”
“Why not?” he asked.
So, feeling very brave and a bit foolish, a few of us helped to drag the chairs into a circle. The Mexicans thought this act of rebellion was great fun and joined in with gusto. Then we all sat down in our circle and waited to see what would happen. When the professor came in a few minutes later, he rocked back on his heels for a moment, nervously muttered something about “is this a ’60s style revolution?” and took a place in the circle. (Being a dyed-in-the-wool Englishman, he wasn’t about to be more forthright than that.)
From that point on, the class was transformed. Discussion became lively, the give-and-take was exhilarating, and at the end of the year we all felt we’d gained far more than just a Master’s degree. The Mexicans threw some great parties and taught us all the right way to drink tequila; life-long friendships were formed. [footnote: about six years after moving the chairs, I married the pushy American.]
It’s not that Brits aren’t capable of moving chairs or changing the world; it’s that we don’t instinctively think it’s up to us as individuals to take the first step. There are some subjects that are guaranteed to get the average Brit Seriously Riled Up — do something mean to a horse or a dog and you’ll find that out very quickly. But often the first response to a perceived injustice is a mournful “bloody typical” or “what do you expect?”
It’s something to do with the weight of history, or rather the lack of it. America really is a “new” country in the grand scheme of things. It’s been through some tumultuous and occasionally very dark times, but is still in its adolescent phase where anything is possible and everything can be changed. The UK, however, is more jaded and middle-aged, less inclined to rock the boat and with a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility.
This fundamental difference in outlook can make individual Americans seem brash to British eyes, and sometimes thoughtless. But it can also lead to bursts of brilliance that are inspiring and transformative (jazz music, the moon landings, moving the chairs).
After three decades in this county I’ve learned to embrace the American sense of the possible; the desire for a challenge; the fundamental belief that things will get better.
But I’m also still half-expecting the Vogons to show up.