On the mutual ignorance of Britain and America


Since relocating from the UK to the US almost eight years ago, it has frequently struck me how poorly the people of the two countries understand one another ­­– and indeed how little I really knew about America or Americans before I lived here.

When I meet someone for the first time in the US, it’s a fair bet that within a few minutes I’ll be fielding questions on the Royal family, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey or quirky food (Yorkshire puddings, mince pies, cookies called biscuits and biscuits called scones… ) – I don’t mind, they’re only being friendly and trying to make a connection. They often compliment my accent, which apparently makes me sound intelligent. Once, a doctor followed this up with “…of course, it doesn’t mean you are. I sensed his feelings about the British were quite complex.

When I go back to England, I get something similar in reverse: half-joking and ridiculous generalizations about obesity, stupidity, brashness or that old favorite “not getting irony”. (How many Brits could readily define irony, I wonder? I confess I’ve had to look it up more than once in my adult life). The Bush years seemed to provide a license to let loose with lazy stereotypes that the collective European crush on Obama has not entirely served to revoke.

In part, I think the ignorance is willful, certainly on the American side. To many Americans, Britain is essentially a historical theme park, with real old buildings, comedy place names and a staff in desperate need of a customer service refresher course. The Royals is a long-running daytime soap, battered in the ratings lately by the titan Downton, and we prefer our British movies heavy on lace, lawns and painfully suppressed emotion, lighter on dark skin.

This attitude of Americans towards Britain became particularly clear to me following the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, directed by Danny Boyle. Every Brit I know thought it was (with the possible exception of Paul McCartney’s uh-oh Grandad’s up again finale) unequivocally wonderful: ambitious, authentic, appropriately solemn at times but also full of humor; a great big exuberant, inclusive party that paid heartfelt tribute to Britain’s past while also celebrating the modern, vibrant, multi-ethnic nation it is today. But most of the Americans I spoke to were bemused. This was not the Great BritainTM they had ordered. What were all those dancing nurses? Isn’t the healthcare terrible? I heard they take teeth out with no anesthetic and household pliers (=real claim I once heard someone make on US TV).

Americans are fond of Britain – many will tell you they’re Anglophiles – but not one time since I’ve lived here have I heard any American mention the “special relationship” between the two countries to which the British frequently refer. The truth, I think, is that when it comes to public policy, most residents of the USA spend very little time indeed thinking beyond their borders. Foreign countries are there to be visited, and studied in school, and enjoyed as entertainment, but their systems and customs have no bearing on ours. America is different, The Leader of the Free World, The Best Country on Earth. We don’t need to look outside to decide what to do. To suggest such a thing would be verging on unpatriotic.

Healthcare is an obvious example of this mindset. When the Affordable Care Act was moving through Congress, there were adverts on TV, sponsored by right-wing groups, warning of the horrors that would rapidly ensue if the US were to adopt a UK-style system of ‘socialized medicine’ (cue foreboding violins). Now, every Brit knows that the National Health Service is very, very far from perfect, but there is a reason why, 67 years after its founding, the core principle of free healthcare for all at the point of use remains a political non-negotiable. Your country takes care of you cradle to grave – most Brits get misty-eyed at the pure beauty of this idea. And it may not be the quickest or slickest service in the world, but the quality is high and, when it really matters, it gets the results – unlike in America, where far higher expenditure fails to translate into better outcomes, millions lack insurance, and some are quite literally left to die because they don’t have the money to buy it. Just stop for a second and think about that last bit. In The Best Country in the World?

The prospect of some form of public healthcare might begin to appear less scary to the average American if it were made clear that, as in the UK, they’d be able to upgrade their service by voluntarily purchasing private insurance on the open market. But they don’t get into that kind of detail, and so they remain easy targets for those who are all too ready to pull the wool over their eyes.

Of course, it’s not just the Americans who stand to learn something from paying closer attention to the folks across the puddle. For Brits, I think it’s less a lack of interest and more about the fact that the USA is simply too big and diverse a country on which to get an easy grip. Living in Georgia, I feel like I’ve seen a side to America that British commentators based in Washington DC, New York or LA generally know very little about, but still there are huge swathes of the country that remain entirely alien to me: the little Scandinavia of Minnesota, the vast empty plains of Wyoming and Nebraska, Walter White’s desert down in the south-west. In many ways, it’s more like 35 or 40 countries than one. Perhaps this also explains some of the American attitude to the rest of the world: there’s so much to understand here and only 24 hours in a day.

Living in the South, I’ve been frustrated by the British dismissal of this part of the US as full of simple, Bible-bashing rednecks – not that there’s no truth in that characterization, but it’s not exactly nuanced. In Britain, the Tea Party movement that grew up post-2008 has been treated like little more than a freak show, but from where I’m sitting it’s all very real and pretty alarming, and its origins are complicated: part genuine grassroots uprising, part Koch brothers con. I’m sure I’ll write more about that.

The British could learn much, I think, from the Americans. The same emphasis on individual self-sufficiency that can lead to uncompassionate social policies can also be empowering for people, and feed innovation and enterprise. Americans are less inclined than Brits to blame the government for their misfortunes, and more disposed to take real pride in seemingly simple achievements, such as holding down a job or providing for a family. They’re generally more grateful and optimistic. They are also far more philanthropic, arguably as a direct result of the limited welfare state. Similarly, the fervent love of country that the British so like to mock, and that admittedly gets misused here for all kinds of nonsense political point-scoring, also bonds and motivates people, supports the creation of community and pulls against the ghettoization of immigrant groups that presents such problems for Europe.

At the very least, each nation surely provides a valuable counterpoint for the other: a country that’s similar in many ways and yet so different in others, like a controlled experiment or an alternative possible world. Living in the US has made me question so many of my deep-rooted assumptions about what constituted ‘normal’: public healthcare, four plus weeks of paid leave per year, very small car parking spaces, the appropriateness of apologizing when the other person hurts you. No matter what country you come from, that kind of constructive challenge can only clarify your thinking and ultimately make you smarter. I’d like to see these two lands I love get to know each other better.



1 Comment

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One response to “On the mutual ignorance of Britain and America

  1. Gina

    Alice, this is beautifully, insightfully and lovingly written. Thank you for introducing out two countries to each other so well.


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