English for Americans

The author of "Brit-think, Ameri-think" explains how our closest ally cherishes our good relations, even though we talk about ourselves too much.


Suzy Hansen
February 6, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

For the first time in a while, our Anglo brothers across the Atlantic seem like our best friends -- and often, among the few we have left. Whether you're for or against a war with Iraq, there's something to be said for British Prime Minister Tony Blair's (if not always his people's) unwavering support and compassion for America since Sept. 11. And there are surely many Americans who have come to appreciate Blair's firm but elegant argument for a hard line against Saddam Hussein, and wonder why it sounds so much better when he says it.

Maybe it is just the accent. But as Jane Walmsley, author of "Brit-think, Ameri-think," says, if we're going to stand shoulder to shoulder on so many world issues, the Americans and Brits might as well understand each other a little better. Walmsley, a Pittsburgh-born American who moved to England 25 years ago, is adamant that despite their close ties, Americans and Brits are really quite different, and in important ways.

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Take the difference between American football and Brit-footie. According to Walmsley, American football is "an excuse for patriotic displays at halftime, postgame parties, and mega-salaries for anyone who looks like John Elway," while its British equivalent serves as "a way of letting off steam in public, allowing Brit-fans to pummel one another to a pulp in the stands while players hug and kiss on the field." Unlimited choice is another of Walmsley's examples. "The right to substitute a tossed salad or french fries is enshrined in the Constitution," she writes of America. But in Britain, that kind of freedom could "end in tears, or anarchy."

"Brit-think, Ameri-think" originally came out in 1986 but Walmsley felt that this year especially, the book was in desperate need of an update. The result is a hilarious guide to the two nations' current divisions -- on everything from sex and relationships to self-improvement and death, to war, food and the importance of being "cute."

Salon spoke to Walmsley from her office in London.

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What was one of the biggest changes you felt you had to make when you moved?

I'm still adjusting. I felt like a war bride that moved in the wrong direction. The biggest difference between the Brits and Americans is that Americans think that death is optional. Americans are optimists. Americans believe in the ultimate perfectibility of life. They believe that everything gets better. They believe that if you try hard enough there's a steady crescendo of improvement and your fate is in your own hands. You can make things perfect for yourself. And it's certainly your job to try.

Take somebody like Oprah Winfrey -- she's the symbol of self-improvement.

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Yes, you give her a whole chapter.

Because she is so fundamental to Ameri-think. She's all about self-esteem and perfectibility and viewing yourself as a work in progress. The whole psychology of that is that you must believe that A) improvement is possible and B) that it is actually possible to get it right. You are your own best project. And because we're Americans we somehow think that everyone else in the world thinks that way too, and of course, nothing can be further from the truth. They don't.

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How do Brits view death then?

Brits have a much more philosophical attitude in general. They think that they have a much more developed sense of irony than the Americans do. They mean that Americans are terribly earnest and terribly straightforward and gung-ho. It's like having a very big dog in the house that keeps panting, "Like me! Like me! Like me!"

The British take a much drier and wryer view of the world. They think death is inevitable and there's only so much that one can do to help oneself. You're born with a certain set of cards and you play those cards the best way you can but please don't get too excited about it because this is just how things are.

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Over here, of course, Britain frequently -- especially since the formation of the European Union -- gets lumped together with the rest of Europe.

First of all, a lot of Europe is a dead loss. There are only six grown-up countries in the world. Two of them are Britain and the United States. You can probably throw in Canada and Australia. And that leaves you with France. Well, you know, France reserves the right to sit on the fence and either come in or not come in and usually not come in. They say, "Oh, we would be there but unfortunately we are having lunch and we have the omelets on already and we cannot go to war." So you don't want to wait around for the French to come and help you. Or the Italians. Lovely as their country might be. You need your grown-up friends. And you can't really rely on Switzerland. It's well-meaning, but really dull.

And Germany?

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Germany. Forget it. They'll give you two planes if you're lucky.

We all pretend that the other allies are on our side and pretty much they're just a waste of time. Who else is going to do the dirty work? And the wonderful thing about Britain is -- boy, is it there. The Brits are quite hardworking and on top of that they're stubborn. I really think the reason they managed to keep Hitler out of here during WWII was sheer unbridled, unadulterated stubbornness. They just said to themselves, We don't care if we're outnumbered. He is not coming in here. And he didn't.

You have a chapter about war in your book. What is the fundamental difference between how the two view war?

All over the world a lot of people think of Americans being a warlike people because they've got the ultimate nuclear deterrent, and because they're the strongest country in the world. In fact, most Americans really hate the idea of war. America still has a very strong isolation streak, and it really wants to pull the covers over its head and go back to bed.

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Whereas Britain has seldom said no to a good war. If you look back over history, there isn't one that we've missed. It's not so much that they dislike the bomb, they just want them to be British bombs. But you know what's going to happen. We might not take the United Nations with us, but, you know, the tanks are booked for the 15th of February, and we're all going.

But Brits do resent being on the coattails of a superpower. They wonder why British boys have to be killed for this. I'd say a third of us are unconvinced that we should go to war in Iraq. [ Polls show that if the U.N. does not come in, only 22 percent of Britons support a war on Iraq.]

Americans think that Europeans hate us. Do the British think of us as slovenly and uneducated and boorish and all that?

Far from it. I don't think that's true at all. The Americans thought that was how we were perceived when things like "The Ugly American" were written in the '50s and '60s, when American tourists in Britain had so much more money than Europeans. Right now Europe has a lot of money and they travel too -- we see them at Disney World all the time.

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But you do say that Americans are much more concerned with gadgets and certain conveniences. We couldn't, for example, live without a trash compactor.

Britain just got these things. They can remember when they got them. They got them, like, last February.

There were dishwashers and air conditioning in our house in America when I was growing up. My generation growing up in Britain -- a baby boomer, postwar generation -- they wouldn't have had those things. Not at all. And in the north of England, they wouldn't have had inside bathrooms.

Or closets, apparently.

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I used to say to my husband, "How could they build an entire country with no closet space?" But they did. They forgot that we needed it. For most of the States that's not true. They have space. They have items.

Americans are the most equipped people in the world. They believe they need a lot of equipment. They believe that they need a Waterpik or otherwise something very bad will happen.

And Brits think that's weird?

Yes. They only have little bits of equipment. The types of equipment that you keep about your person. You know how health-conscious Americans are and that certainly distinguishes them from the rest of the world. The rest of the world thinks it's taking care of its health if it takes a multivitamin. Americans think that there's no end to the amount of personal fiddling you can do with yourself.

You say that the greatest difference between us is our sense of hot and cold? This has to do with air conditioning or how well we layer or what?

Even more fundamentally -- heating. I have been cold here for 25 years. I'm sitting in my office now with my business partner and I know that I cannot turn on the heat -- even though it's very cold here today -- because Brits get hot very quickly. Americans are cold in Britain from the minute their planes land. And they never warm up.

When you move to a different country, the last thing that you adjust to is the internal temperature in that country. That belongs to wherever you grow up and never changes. People who were born in Scotland where it's very cold, come south to London and are always hot. They throw the windows open in any room they walk into. They never adjust.

Brits will open the windows in every room because they need air. Americans call those drafts. Americans say, "But it's 25 below outside." They say, "Yes, but it's stuffy in here." And you think, "I was just getting comfortable."

One of my favorite passages was actually about how Americans need things to be "cute." It's so true.

Brits, on the other hand, are into coziness. It's not so much that they call things "cozy" in the way that Americans use the term "cute" to apply to almost everything. You know, Star Wars technology is really cute. Or, "Oh, look at that. I managed to do that little e-mail thing and I edited it and isn't that cute?" For Brits, that same idea is about coziness. Brits want life to be safe and cozy and comfortable and that really means that they want to conform with a certain perception that they have of how Britain should be. For Americans, in order to be really wonderful it has to be cute. For Brits, in order to be wonderful, something has to support their perception that things are absolutely right and all things British are wonderful. It's an attitude that's really postulated with every minute of airtime on the BBC.

We have that, too, of course. But ours is all tied up in the concept of being new rather than old and reassuring.

That's another thing. Americans believe that if it's new ergo it must be good. America really marches to the beat of a different drummer when you compare it to Europe. Nobody else believes that new is good. In fact, most of Europe believes that old and tried and tested is good because that's cozy.

Americans in some senses are fairly brave. They are not afraid to throw out something that clearly is not working and try something else. One of the reasons America has made such enormous progress in the last century by comparison with the rest of Europe is because they're not afraid to take a chance.

I wanted to talk about relationships. A British guy I knew went out on a date with an American girl and she told him every terrible thing that ever happened to her and all of her issues and hang-ups. And he said to her, "Can't we just flirt? And talk about the weather? Why do I need to know all this?"

Americans feel they need to communicate by talking. We think that you have to exchange a confidence for a confidence and an intimacy for an intimacy and that is how we bond. We think the other person really needs to know our whole back history and everything about us and where we're coming from and then they can understand us.

And if I reveal my faults you'll feel more comfortable revealing yours.

And not only that, but if I reveal my weaknesses, you can reveal one of yours, and then we will love each other. And also forgive each other for any of our deficiencies.

The first thing you need to know about the Brits is that they have the most heightened sense of personal embarrassment of any national group in the world. We are embarrassed to do anything because we're British.

Americans might stereotype them as uptight for this reason.

But they're not really uptight because sexually they're probably a lot less inhibited than Americans. They don't see sex with the same significance as Americans do. They can take it with a more relaxed attitude.

Does the embarrassment have to do with a different sense of privacy?

Yes. They would be happy to do almost anything of that nature that's intimate but they just somehow think that revealing anything about yourself or taking the risk of doing something gauche is just the most miserable thing that they can think of. Americans are much more relaxed about what others might think of them. The Brits are constantly thinking about how others might perceive what they do.

That's sort of surprising coming from a one-time empire.

But they've always protected themselves with tradition and rules. Britain has a code of rules, partly because it has a class system that really governs every move that they make. One of the things they think is so odd about Americans is that Americans are constantly violating these tiny rules they don't even know about. It was as if you were in India and didn't understand the caste system. Britain has an equally complex set of behaviors. Americans just go crashing through life and don't really think about that stuff.

Like how Americans show off their children with such pride. Brits want to shove them in the closet.

What's the worst thing that can happen to a Brit? Being embarrassed. So you say about your child, "We had terrible problems even getting him through third grade level but nevertheless he's a charming child." That child is probably terrific. But they need others to make that discovery. To foist that information on anyone else is showing off and therefore embarrassing. The idea is that if you talk yourself down all the time, you can't be called out.

And Americans?

Americans are all about self-promotion. Just in case somebody doesn't know how wonderful you are, you want to tell them because they might miss it.


Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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