Operating as Americans in the UK

I was asked by a couple recently for advice on operating as Americans in the UK. I thought I’d share some thoughts.

Some British people love America; some hate it. Generally speaking the love for America comes more from working-class people while the antipathy to America is common among middle-class people.

It is important, though, to distinguish between America and Americans. Many British people have an antipathy towards America, but like Americans. So you will detect negative attitudes towards America while at the same time people are warm towards you. Indeed Brits tend to like the warmth, openness, confidence and directness of Americans. We find some of you a bit loud. But more often we like those traits in you that we wish we had but are a bit too up-tight actually to adopt!

Why is there this antipathy among many Brits to America?

Part of the reason lies in our post-colonial angst. A hundred years ago we were the top nation in the world, ruling a quarter of the globe. Now America is the imperial power. I think this affects our relationship to America in mixed and perhaps even contradictory ways. There is an element of jealousy, perhaps even dislocation. But we also project our post-colonial guilt on to you. We feel guilty about our imperialistic past and appease that guilt by decrying America for its continuing imperialism. There is also an element of powerlessness. Successive British leaders have tried to bolster Britain’s diminishing role in the world by aligning us closely to American agendas. It is not very dignified to have your leader portrayed as the lapdog of another power as was the case with Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

With these underlying, rather angst-ridden and often perhaps sub-conscious, reasons are some more legitimate critiques of American foreign policy and culture. The US has invaded more countries since the second world war than any other (and has invaded more democracies) yet thinks of itself as the bastion of freedom. The US consumes far more of the earth’s resources per person and contributes far more to global pollution than any other nation by some way yet seems to celebrate this fact. These are both political realities and cultural realities.

It is important for both sides to realise that UK Christians judge American Presidents and prospective Presidents on foreign policy because that is how we encounter America. Meanwhile American Christians judge Presidents on their domestic policy, especially in relation to abortion. For American Christians foreign policy is secondary. I once met a Christian who was chair of the Bush election campaign in his college. When I told him we judge Presidents on foreign policy, he said, ‘I don’t know anything about his foreign policy.’ This, I think, goes much of the way to explaining why UK Christians cannot understand the support of US Christians for President Bush and US Christians cannot understand our lack of comprehension.

When Brits lambaste America take it on the chin. Being American is not your primary identity – you are first and foremost a child of God. Sometimes Brits will be inappropriate and rude. I’m sorry about that. It’s wrong. But as a Christian and missionary you need to respond with grace and love. Your agenda is not to defend America, but to proclaim Christ with gentleness and respect. I think it is helpful also to realise that sometimes Brits have a pent up frustration with American foreign policy that they occasionally vent, rather randomly, on the next American who happens to be passing. So don’t take it personally

I think the world over there is a kind of unwritten rule that you are allowed to criticize your own country, but people bristle when you as guest criticize their homeland. Imagine I invite you round for a meal. I may complain about my home, but it would be rude for you to do so – even if you were echoing my criticism. Instead your social role is to say, ‘No, I think your home is lovely.’ The same kind of social etiquette applies to living or visiting another country. The locals may criticize their nation, but that does not mean you can!

Do not pretend to be British. You almost certainly won’t do a very good job at pretending to be British. You’re not British and why would you want to be!

Plus there are advantages to being an American in British culture. You are able to span our class distinctions. As soon as a Brit opens their mouth – and often before – we place them according to social class. And, while I would not want to overstate it, this does create something of a barrier if they are from a different social class. But we do not attribute social class to Americans – no matter how wealthy or otherwise they are. This means American can often work with different social classes more easily than most Brits can.

Remember, too, that our area is already a melting pot with people from over 100 different ethnic backgrounds. Britishness in our area is a variegated reality. Being American in this context is being one ethnicity among many others. You’re a minority, but then so is everyone else!

So my advice is this.

1. Sympathise with the antipathy towards America. In my experience the Americans who do well in Europe are those who are able to see America from an outsider’s perspective and to understand the reasons for the antipathy (even if they do not always agree with them). Some Americans have taken to this instinctively because they were already used to engaging critically with their culture. For others it has been a choice they have had to make.

2. Understand British culture as best you can. The more you can understand the way we think and our social signals the better. But you don’t have to ‘crack’ British culture before you can operate effectively because the learning process can itself be a bonding process. Brits (in common, I suspect, with  most cultures) will enjoy guiding you through the subtleties of our culture. And they will appreciate your humility in asking for help.

Sympathy and understanding will provide a platform to making being American an advantage. If the sympathy and understanding are not in place then celebrations of American culture may well be perceived as another expression of an arrogant American imperialistic mentality that assumes the rest of the world wishes it were American! But if sympathy and understanding are in place then you will be able to invite Brits to celebrate aspects of American culture with you. We have found, for example, Brits love being invited to a thanksgiving meal and these have provided a great way of building gospel relationships.

One more thing. Work out the difference between the UK, Britain, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or Eire. Never use ‘England’ when referring to ‘Britain’. Never says a Welshman or a Scot is ‘English’. And never say Ireland is part of Britain – unless you’re referring to Northern Ireland and even then you have to be careful who you’re talking to! These are all a bit like saying a Canadian is ‘American’ (or vice versa) or describing someone from Texas as a ‘Yankee’ – only worse.

My top recommendation for further reading is Kate Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

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12 thoughts on “Operating as Americans in the UK

  1. Some good insights Thank you! However I think this bit “Generally speaking the love for America comes more from working-class people while the antipathy to America is common among middle-class people.” is so sweeping a generalisation it is useless. A more accurate generalisation is metropolitan liberal elites have antipathy towards America -still a generalisation but a slightly more useful one !

  2. Pingback: Advice for Americans in the UK « Reflaction

  3. Great advice – I know wonderful American missionaries here who embody that.
    Hailing from Norn Iron, I particularly appreciate the advice to work out the difference between UK, Britain, etc. If the American does so, they’ll be better educated than many native English. I read an English newspaper columnist the other week who was complaining about GB being replaced by UK. The fact that they are not identical seemed to have escaped him; and your readers should know that even NI isn’t in Britain, of course: though it’s British.

    Oh, and in my church, Watching the English did the rounds – as much appreciated by me as a Norn Irish-er, as by the Americans, the German, the Sri Lankan, the Indians, Iranians, etc., etc.!

  4. “The US consumes far more of the earth’s resources per person and contributes far more to global pollution than any other nation by some way yet seems to celebrate this fact.”

    This isn’t true.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_energy_consumption_per_capita

    Total energy consumption per capita per annum (2003) [kgoe/a]

    United States 7,794.8

    United Arab Emirates 10,538.7
    Bahrain 10,250.5
    Canada 8,300.7
    Trinidad and Tobago 8,555.1
    Qatar 21,395.8
    Iceland 11,718.1

    The United States has a far bigger population than the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, but a smaller per capita energy consumption.

    “I think the world over there is a kind of unwritten rule that you are allowed to criticize your own country, but people bristle when you as guest criticize their homeland. “

    I don’t mind Americans criticising the UK – I tend to agree with their criticisms.

    “Generally speaking the love for America comes more from working-class people while the antipathy to America is common among middle-class people.”

    I think politics is probabaly more important than class. Right wing people are more likely to like America, while left wing people are more likely to dislike America. Right wing papers often have pro-American pieces – here is just one recent example.

  5. An interesting secular view is found in the book, “Why do People Hate America?” by Sardar and Davies.

    Chls Marsh’s “Wayward Christian Soldiers” is a critique of American Christianity from within – but which resonates closely with typical European views.

    both very stimulating reads…

  6. An absolutelly fascinating article, so full of truth, mind you as one previous commentor said, if your American friends manage to work out the difference between English & British or Britain, UK & England, they will be doing far better than a huge percentage of English people, and yes I do mean English, like myself!

    I got a great insight into the American mind when you said about them judging the president on Domestic Policy, which of course we rarely see as it doesnt impact us quite so imminently, here in the UK we tend to take account of both domestic and foreign policy but I would guess thats a factor of our high ethnic mix and the fact that we are a small island people and we have to acknowledger our interdependance on other nations, even those who ahte the idea that we are interdependant cant deny the truth of that, this makes us more sensitive to foreign policy.

  7. To be fair, Ben, you’ve picked just one indicator – energy – and then compared the United States either to very small oil-rich states or very cold states that need a lot of heating!

  8. As an Anglo-American dual national, born and raised in the UK, I would agree with much of what you have written.

    Perhaps one additional issue for Americans wishing to engage in meaningful mission in the UK:

    The use of money. I remember seeing one American missionary pulling out a large roll of £50 notes once to buy food/drinks for a group of people. His motivation was, I’m sure, one of generosity. The message he conveyed to the Brits around him, however, was vulgarity mixed with cultural superiority as he held in his hand more cash than most of his hosts would earn in a few months.

  9. Many thanks for the insights. As an American preparing to live in England (again), I found this article very helpful in clarifying many things I’d somewhat gathered in my own experiences. Praying for you and your church family.

    Much Love.

    [mccracken]

  10. Really helpful post, Tim. Before doing much travel/mission abroad I read a book called ‘Survival Kit for Overseas Living’ by L. Robert Kohls. I read it whilst preparing to go to Kazakhstan but as an American now living in England (yes, England!) I still have my copy and look at it occasionally. I highly recommend it!

    People seem to be a bit twitchy about this: “Generally speaking the love for America comes more from working-class people while the antipathy to America is common among middle-class people.”

    But I’ve experienced that to be overwhelmingly true! While I have much more in common with middle class folk in terms of interests, I am much more warmly welcomed, on the whole, by my working class neighbours from the council estate where we now live. Interesting! (Hmm, you mentioned the loud factor…) :)

    I think your very best point is the one about remembering our true citizenship. Surely the gospel should make Christians (of every nationality) the most adaptable, most flexible, most humble…not because of us but because our citizenship is in heaven and we have been won by grace alone.

    I went through a phase of hating America when I first lived in England — climaxing in a visit from my very dear and VERY American mother. I remember being continually embarrassed by her ‘have a nice day’ friendliness and eagerness to talk politics (this during the start of the Iraq war!). But that response reveals that I was still finding my identity in being an American over and above a follower of Jesus. I was too concerned about how people perceived my country, and therefore, me. (This isn’t to contradict your point about Americans being sympathetic to British criticisms…but we should be sympathetic and open-minded because we want to love and engage with the culture we’re in, not because we fear looking stupid.)

    This has been fun to think about; thanks!

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