The view from the 23rd floor

Sorry for the long delay between posts to all three of you who are clamouring for my blogging return.  The receptionist job lasted through the month of April, and though I was extraordinarily underemployed I never quite got up the nerve to blog from work – I have never had a more visible computer screen. We’ve been busy with two parental visits as well.  But I can now bring you a despatch on what the inhabitants of one American workplace think about Britain.

1) It always rains there.  I don’t want to dispute the general truth of this one, but it has grated rather since there have been approximately three sunny days in Chicago in the last month, the temperature has rarely risen above 15C, and meanwhile the whole of Britain is getting sunburned at the beach.

2) The class system is very important in Britain, as are elocution lessons. Consequently the country is many years behind America, where anyone can do anything and progress is the informing value of the nation.  (Social and economic inequality?  Who said that?) To hear many Americans talk, you would think that the British ‘class system’ was something akin to my vague perceptions of the caste system in India: that it’s a complex, rigidly codified structure that is referred to on a daily basis, prevents any social mobility whatsoever, and dictates the minutiae of every Briton’s life.  Whereas I struggle to see that things are so very different in America: here too people are judged on the basis of where they come from, how wealthy their family is, where they were educated and how much cultural capital they have.  Americans have the concepts of ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’.  They definitely have the concept of ‘underclass’.  They have ‘elite’.  So all that is actually missing is an aristocracy, which brings me onto…

3) All Britons are ardent monarchists and love, love, love the royal wedding. Explaining to my American coworkers that the word ‘republican’ has a different meaning in Britain, and that up to 18% of the population (including me) wants to get rid of the monarchy, was greeted with frank disbelief.

4) Brits are very formal.  In fact, I think the reverse is true.  In British universities, undergraduates typically call their lecturers, however distinguished, by their first names, whereas many American PhD students still address their advisers as Professor X. When I worked in the civil service, I called the Minister I worked for by her first name too; in this office, the executives often referred to one another as ‘Mr. Y.’ Saying ‘damn’ was considered inappropriate language; and it took me a while to realise that ‘hi’ was thought of as slangy, and people expected ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’.

5) British people live in homes – and frequent restaurants and hotels – that look like a Victorian gentleman’s club and are stuffed with antiques, gilt and plush carpets. The executive floor where I was working was improbably kitted out in French walnut furniture, chandeliers, and the thickest carpet I’ve ever trodden on – which had the unfortunate effect of muffling footsteps so effectively that everyone on the floor constantly made each other jump.  Upstairs, there was an executives-only club where a dedicated chef made lunch daily for a maximum of eight executives (all white men) and their guests: it had a kind of hunting lodge/golf club vibe.  Maybe.  I haven’t really been to many hunting lodges or golf clubs.  After a lot of comments about how ‘this probably feels very familiar to you’, I explained impatiently that many British people buy their furniture at IKEA, and that most American furniture looks dark, heavy and old-fashioned to our eyes.

6) No one in Britain drinks coffee.

7) But our accents are truly wonderful.  I swear there were people there who deployed underhand tactics to make me talk longer than I really needed to, just to hear the sound of my voice.  I feel a little used.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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3 Responses to The view from the 23rd floor

  1. AHLondon says:

    From an American in London:
    1) Well, no you can’t really quibble much with that one, can you? The sun comes out over here, just not nearly as often as most other places that aren’t Arctic. Sorry you are in Chicago. Not our best offering, weather wise.
    2) It isn’t so much that we think the class system is important in Britain, but that it is so much more important than in America. But we have our own system and the differences are subtle, though I think the American system is more fluid. For instance someone a woman shopping in a fancy shop in Britain is judged on her accent, something difficult to change, whereas at home she is judged on what she is wearing, something easy to change. I can’t remember if I ever did my Pretty Woman post. I used the “Big mistake.” scene to illustrate this point. I’ll check later.
    3) I was making drinks (well they were making, I was testing) with British republicans at my friends royal wedding party. That post still in draft. Yep, there are loads of republicans here. It was a bit of a rough weekend for them, too.
    4) It is just all mixed up from what we do. Brits don’t give first names on meeting someone. I can’t get any of my kids’ teachers to call me anything but Mrs. Smith. First names, especially wives’ first names, don’t appear on mail or credit cards. But I’m supposed to call my doctor Clive? Completely backward from an American perspective, as I sure America looks from yours.
    5) Heh. Lucite and velvet. Crate and Barrel would make a killing here, if they down sized their pieces, that is. Their oversized modern offerings wouldn’t fit in doors, or stairwells, or windows…
    6) Nescafe even! I came to Europe to learn how to drink instant coffee. (If you get a good one, it is not bad, actually. Better than Starbucks.)
    7) You are being used. We do love to hear y’all talk.

    • 2) I don’t know – my impression is that Americans *do* judge one another on the way they speak. Maybe there aren’t quite as many distinctions, but people can definitely identify a local Chicago accent, a Texas accent, a California accent etc, and they make judgments accordingly which aren’t based so much on regional origin as on social status, since the assumption is that at a certain social class you’ll have a non-regionally marked accent. And don’t even get me started on black AmE dialects and accents.

      5) I love Crate and Barrel. Though I’m not sure it’s got much over Habitat.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. AHLondon says:

    “since the assumption is that at a certain social class you’ll have a non-regionally marked accent.” Oh. Interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. I’d qualify as at a certain educational class, but that’s intriguing.

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