Notes from a Small Island: Variations Between Us and British Cultures
Many Americans assume that because most of us have ancestors that hailed from England, Britain has the culture most similar to our own. Those people have jumped to that conclusion too quickly, using that prior knowledge as a confirmation bias. In reality, there are multiple differences between our culture and British culture that many Americans don’t take the time to notice. There are more differences that are unique to the culture than the stereotypical tea and crumpets, fries versus fish and driving on the other side of the road. Bill Bryson, a British Citizen and American born writer, conveys these differences using a comedic tone in his book Notes From a Small Island. In his book, he points out many things such as climate, city organization, transportation and even dependency as some of the biggest things that differ between the two societies.
Britain is a relatively small island that is completely surrounded by water so it would be fair to assume that there is a lot of rain. While this is accurate, the weather is more unpredictable than we are used to here in the US. Living in Michigan, when we see a forecast like 70 degrees with a 45 percent change of rain, we usually know that it’s going to get warm, humid and then rain. However, in Britain Bryson describes a typically weather forecast as “Dry and warm, but cooler with some rain” (Bryson 268). This weather is so consistent, British citizens are completely used to it. Having this “summer-esque” weather year round is something that most Americans dream of, but it is a norm in Britain and one big difference between US and British societies.
The next and, in my opinion, biggest difference between the two societies is the city organization. Britain has been around significantly longer time than the US and they also care about their older buildings significantly more. Bryson demonstrates this by stating that there are “445,000 ancient or historic buildings” (Bryson 89) and “even local authorities are are desperately trying to promote their meager stock of old buildings as tourist attractions” (Bryson 186). To me, this is the biggest difference because it is my biggest problem with the US. Letting historical buildings degrade, become vandalized, and slowly crumble to the ground is extremely disheartening. By doing this we are letting a part of our history crumble with it.
Bryson also hints at the difference in transportation. Einstein stated that time is relative. It’s the same concept in Britain, except with transportation. The island is fairly small so for them, having to drive from one place to another seems like a hassle long. Bryson even states that Britain is “lucky to have a relatively good public transportation system” (Bryson 49) but people who use it are referred to as “brave” (Bryson 49). They complain about driving but do not use the public transportation? This is strange to me because I have made multiple drives across multiple states with a much longer distance that didn’t seem that bad. This supports the fact that everything is relative, and adds to the differences between the US and Britain.
Lastly, Bryson creates and image of independence when describing the British when compared to Americans. In my personal favorite quote of the book, Bryson jokes, “3.7 million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me” (Bryson 5). He also makes a point about the simplicity of Britain’s citizens and how easy to please they are. He does this by using and example we can all relate to, saying “they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it’s unwarranted or excessive” (Bryson 84) when being offered a stick of gum. In contrast to the US, if you pull out literally anything to eat or drink in class you can count on statements such as ‘let me get some of that,’ ‘can I have a bite,’ or ‘did you bring enough for the whole class.’ British people would take a small portion and thank you for your generosity.
In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson addresses several variations between US and British cultures. Although these differences may not seem big to us, they are obvious enough for a Brit to notice an American in their society. Bryson ultimately starts to looks at Americans as intellectually inferior to the British like those around him but decided that he wants to move back to the US. He does this so his kids can experience both society and that, by experiencing both, they will grow to appreciate British culture more.
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