American in London: Cultures Divided by a Common Language

This blog entry was submitted by Sophia Velasquez, who studied abroad in London.

“After spending a semester away from St. Edward’s at the University of Roehampton in London, I learned that many American students had the same beginning expectations for Great Britain that I did. We all anticipated a culture and atmosphere similar to home. Of course, there would be slight differences, but my friends and I admitted that we had assumed the British culture to be similar to our own. For many, that’s why London was the perfect place to study abroad. After all, both countries speak the same language, right?

Not really. Yes, both Americans and the British speak English, but the commonality of language does not mean that their cultures are the same. In the first few weeks of living in London, I had the most enlightening culture shock and opportunities to expand my understanding of the British culture.

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Culture shock often carries a negative connotation, but it doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience. It’s not always a sudden surprise, either. For me, I experienced culture shock gradually over my first week in the United Kingdom, and I found myself questioning why I was experiencing it at all.

We’ve all seen London and common British culture in movies and media—the Royals, fish, and chips, driving on the opposite side of the road. My familiarity with the most typical elements of Great Britain, along with the certainty of speaking the same language and having visited England before, left me confident that I would have no problem adjusting to London life. But simple cultural differences like food, music, architecture, and transportation are only the tip of a complex and beautifully unique iceberg.

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I began to recognize contrasts in communication. Common signs of respect and friendliness in the United States, like handshakes and direct eye contact, felt too formal and serious to my new British friends. Social cues, signs of affection, and rules for politeness are all different. Language has the power to bring individuals from various countries together, but it does not create a single, universal culture.

In the social scene, different expectations are met; the drinking, dating, and youth cultures are all unique to the United Kingdom. The same goes for the classroom—attendance isn’t expected, all assignments are due at the end of the year, and calling your lecturer “Professor” is way too formal.

It was fascinating and important to recognize the distinctive qualities of the British culture as I was completely immersed in order to adjust and respect them. To future study abroad students, I encourage you to breathe in the new environment with curiosity and understanding in order to make the most of your time away from St. Edward’s. Every culture is its own, with pride in its traditions and beliefs. There are incredible opportunities to grow in acceptance and comprehension of other people and ways of life while living, studying, or traveling abroad.”

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