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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Cheers, mate!’: Where nobody knows your name

Published: January 29, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

When I returned from my semester abroad in London, some of my friends were disappointed that I didn’t turn into a British person, or, at the very least, have a swanky accent. But—though it may seem counter-intuitive—if anything my stay in London made me more of an American.

Faced with cultural differences, especially in the form of social interactions, I found myself comparing what I witnessed abroad to what I practiced at home. In doing so, I learned more about the society in which I grew up.

Before going abroad, I was never very conscious of my identity as an American. While I identified myself as a United States citizen, I never had to put into words what that meant.

In London, all that changed.

Living in a flat (yes, I do say flat) with six British students, I quickly became the “American girl.” They were intensely curious about everything that they considered American and peppered me with questions that varied from what I thought of Obama, to why obesity is such a problem, to even why students at our college parties always drink beer in red plastic cups, all of which shed light on how the United States is perceived by our allies. It was a strange image of Americans being perpetrated overseas.

The first culture clash was the most obvious one. We spoke with different accents, and used different slang terms. I learned from my flat-mates to say “cheers,” a phrase that suits seemingly every occasion, and they pointed out whenever I said “awesome”—an apparently uniquely American term.

Yet, the most significant difference I came across didn’t have to do with slang terms or accents, but rather with how we conduct ourselves in social interactions. In Britain, you don’t just approach a stranger and introduce yourself; they’ll think you’re a loon. In Britain, there has to be a genuine reason for conversing.

This inability to reach out to others goes to extremes. One local I talked to described how her Irish fiancé was fed-up with Britons for what he perceived to be their coldness. So, one day, while riding the subway, he saw an old couple running to the door, trying to make the train before it left the station. No one attempted to assist them.

When it became increasingly clear that they were not going to make it, the fiancé sprung up out of his seat, ran to stick a hand out the door to stop it from closing, and, unfortunately, ended up smacking the woman’s face and knocking her back from the door. No one on the train said anything.

Can you imagine what would have happened if something similar occurred on the Boston subway?

My friend went further to explain she believes Britons have trouble reaching out to others, even when it comes to offering simple assistance because their darkest nightmare is being embarrassed. And so they will do anything to avoid it.

But thankfully for me, when you do get past that barrier, you’ll never find friends more loyal or true.

In the States, we don’t require a reason to make friends or act friendly, but that has a downside as well and can result in empty friendships founded on very little.

Americans and Britons have different, clashing ways of communicating and forming friendships, but who’s to say which approach is better? Maybe by recognizing different approaches, we can know ourselves and our society better, and identify the areas where we need to grow and change.