Things I Don’t Understand About America Part 2

Last year I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek post about the things that I didn’t understand about America as a British expat and the post turned out to be pretty popular. It turns out that there are still plenty of things that confuse me about life in the US and so now I present you with part 2. The fact that living in another country confuses me is not a surprise; just being alive confuses me enough.  If you missed part one you can find it here.

1. Why do Americans pronounce the herb basil as bay-sil but the name Basil as bazzil? I get that two words that are spelled the same way can be pronounced differently (homonyms) but why is there a need in this case? If you ever confuse the two then you must either be a cannibal or a pretty bad cook. “I’m just going to add some Basil to the pasta sauce”. While we are on the topic of herbs why drop the letter ‘h’ in herb but pronounce the h in the name Herb. Is there some mysterious rule in American English to prevent herbs from being confused with people? Also the whole dropping of the ‘h’ thing is meant to be a London accent thing. “Taxi back to the ‘ouse mate?”

2. Why does bread and milk last so much longer than it does in Europe? I forgot about some hot dog rolls in the pantry once and about a month later they still looked and felt exactly the same. I didn’t follow this to its logical conclusion by eating them just in case you are concerned. Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that you don’t need to go to the store every few days to get milk and bread but what is in it that makes it last so long?

3. What are you meant to put in the garbage disposal unit that is commonly found in the sink in American homes? Now I think they are a great idea for getting rid of food waste but what is meant to go in there and what isn’t? I accidentally dropped a spoon in there once (don’t tell my wife) and the noise that made suggests that cutlery might be a step too far but what can go in there and what can’t remains a mystery to me. I am still fearful that one day I will lose some of my fingers in it.

4. Dates. Now I’m not talking about dating here, I obviously understand how dating works in America or an American wouldn’t have married me. Or maybe I was so inept at dating in the bumbling way only a British person can manage that it was endearing? Anyway I digress, the whole month and day thing gets me every time. America is the only country that I know of that puts the month before the day when writing dates and I haven’t got used to saying the month first when asked. When I go to see the doctor and I have to pause and think when the receptionist asks me my date of birth it doesn’t make me look particularly clever.

5. Helpful shop assistants. I still haven’t got used to how friendly and helpful people in retail stores are compared to the UK. People will pack your shopping for you in the supermarket which after years of packing my own stuff in the UK makes me feel awkward and lazy because I hate to stand there doing nothing while they are packing my stuff. Once I needed to make an urgent phone call in a small town in the White Mountains where my smartphone had no reception so I asked in a shop where I could find a payphone. The guy in the store took his phone out of his pocket and handed it to me so i could make the call. People are so nice, especially in small towns.

6. Another thing that I don’t understand is the lack of love for roundabouts. You can find roundabouts but they are pretty rare and in Massachusetts they are called rotaries and bewilder motorists wherever they appear. There is a junction near my house where five roads meet and waiting for your turn at the lights takes forever, a roundabout would solve the issue. You could even plant trees and flowers in the middle to make the area a little bit prettier (and believe me my neighbourhood needs that). Of course you could build a roundabout and use traffic lights to control it like every fucking road planner seems to think is a good idea in the UK and have the best (worst) of both worlds.

Can you help me understand any of these things or am I a lost cause?!

27 thoughts on “Things I Don’t Understand About America Part 2

  1. 1. I have no clue about “herb” and “Herb” and “basil” and “Basil”
    2. Pasteurization + Chemicals = longevity, and most store brands have a longer shelf life.
    3. I don’t know; I’ve never had one. Food products should be composted.
    4. As an American, I agree with you on the dates. It’s only logical to start small and work large from day to month to year.
    5. If American retailers are friendly, I’d hate to see them in other parts of the world.
    6. Roundabouts are the best! We have one (sadly, only one) in our small town, and the only time there’s an accident is when (a) someone dries the wrong way or (b) someone’s had too much to drink and continues driving in a relatively straight direction.

    I suppose I didn’t actually answer any questions, but it felt good to reply just the same.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Honestly American retailers are (usually) really friendly compared to elsewhere.

      I’m glad you share my love for roundabouts, sometimes I see the ones that are here used incredibly wrongly but I am always happy to see them.

  2. These were fun to read! Always interesting to see what things are confusing for someone not from here.

    You already basically understand the purpose of the garbage disposal – it really is JUST for food. If you don’t finish the chicken on your plate, or the cereal in your bowl, you can put the excess food down the disposal, instead of in the trash. (No bones, though!)

    You’re not the only one confused about this, because I moved into an apartment where the previous tenant had put pebbles from an aquarium down the disposal. Absolutely destroyed the machine 😦

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you liked the post!

      I can’t imagine how someone thought that putting aquarium pebbles into the garbage disposal was a good idea but I’m glad that there is someone out there who is worse than me when it comes to understanding how it works! 🙂

  3. I work in the UK for a US company & sometimes deal with US clients (with databases & drop-down date selection, which is obviously different depending on whether I’m working on a UK or US client system; it still makes my brain ache). But the thing that surprised me most is just how much Americans still use cheques/checks. And fax machines. Seriously, these are still commonly used items in American homes. It’s like they can’t quite let go of the 80s.

      1. OK, I confess I’m not actually in the homes, but I do listen to a lot of phone conversations… erm, that sounds way more weird than reality (which is that my job involves speech analytics for call centres/centers). Use of checks seems to feature a LOT more than an automatic bank transfer (we use direct debit in the UK for nearly every kind of regular payment). Could well be an age / social class thing.
        As far as faxes go, I honestly have no idea why this regularly crops up in conversation if people don’t have access to one. They’re never referred to in the UK call centre conversations that I’ve listened to. I wouldn’t have a clue how to do it these days – I’d just scan something & email it – maybe that’s what they actually mean?
        Whatever the reasons & scale, they are noticeable differences between the UK & US.

    1. I feel your pain with the date confusion at work, going from one to the other is really not as natural as it should be! I still think in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit as well which doesn’t help.

      1. Ah, having had to chat about weather with US clients, I have spotted a great way to work through the basic temperature conversions:
        0 = 32 (we all know that)
        10 = 50 (2 nice round numbers)
        19 = 66 (World Cup win!)
        28 = 82 (palindromic!)
        Anything hotter than 28 or colder than zero is beyond our comprehension as Brits anyway!

      2. That is amazing and probably a really easy way to remember. Thanks for sharing. Totally agree with you about anything hotter than 28 as being too hot to understand!

      3. Brenna In France

        I love this! I have such trouble with quickly figuring out the temperature conversions. This is so helpful!

      4. Thanks! Although, as neither you or Matthieu are English, the 1966 World Cup reference won’t be quite so relevant! Your blog looks really interesting – I may well follow you and see how you get on in la belle France!

  4. I forgot about the bread and milk thing. I especially noticed the bread when I first moved over. I was digging around way in the back of the bread shelves trying to find a loaf that wasn’t due to go bad in like 2 days and couldn’t find any. They do actually last quite a while past their due date though to be fair.

    And someone at a genealogy meeting recently asked me about how we do dates in North America and I said we put the month and day interchangeably (sometimes day then month, sometimes the month then day) which is quite confusing. She said here it’s always the same way which makes more sense 🙂

    I did a satire on some differences between Canada and the UK but getting a bit of flack for it. Perhaps satire isn’t my strong point :p.

    1. Yeah I still haven’t got used to looking at bread and dairy products on the shelves and seeing really long dates on them! They usually last longer than the date in the UK but not more than a week.

      What did you cover in the satire? I would be interested in learning about differences between Canada and the UK. I tend to be really careful about what I cover when I compare differences between the UK and the US and try to make it as light as possible and steer clear of topics that might get a negative reaction! It’s a skill I’m still learning though!

      1. Just really minor things how grocery bags in the uk have holes in them, how I find it weird that you need a key to get out your front door, that I like how tax is included in the uk when you buy things, differences between mcdonalds that sorta thing… nothing I expected people to get offended over :p

        It’s the first mixed reaction I’ve had on a post so clearly I’m still learning that skill as well lol

  5. 1) Well just think about it: we’d like to denote between items and person… so Basil is bay sil leaf and Mr Basil is Bazzel. Besides, what dude wants to be called Bayssssil? 😛 Basil (bazzel) just sounds more masculine.

    2)I’ve no honest idea. Personally one thing about the UK that filled me with terror was the fact your eggs aren’t in the fridge in stores. I can’t attest to how fast the milk goes bad in the UK, but I always thought a general rule of 6 days before it starts smelling funky, and by day 7-8 run for your life.

    3) I’ve never had a trash thingamy. I’m sure thousands of Americans have their limbs destroyed by them per day.

    4) When confirming patients via phone we always used to use “day of the week/month/numerical day/year.” So eg; Sunday, April 24th, 2016. That’s probably kind of weirder. I don’t know why we use a different date format, it probably just seems easier to say or something. Apparently there is no answer, but we’ve been doing it since the colony period.

    5) Location specific. Some US retail employees are just as standoffish and unhelpful as UK counterparts.

    6) We just don’t like them. No one knows how to drive on one. We have one badly designed roundabout in a city called Towson. It is a greatly loathed and dangerous thing, rather notorious for accidents (vehicle and pedestrian), deaths, and severe traffic backlog; because everyone behaves like a maniac when faced with this challenge. It usually fills my husband with a tiny bit of joy when he ever sees one these days though.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
      For some reason the name pronunciation thing intrigues me, although I’ve never met either a Basil or a Herb since I moved to the US.
      I’ve heard people say about the egg situation being different in the UK before and I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps because I am allergic to eggs!
      I’m glad roundabouts give your husband some joy, they make me happy too when I see them. It’s the little things that help. 🙂

  6. Bay-sil is correct and since no one in the US is ACTUALLY NAMED Basil it doesn’t come up much (with the exception of Toni Basil the 1980’s pop singer who had a hit with “Hey Mickey” -but I seriously doubt she’s complicating the issue these days.)
    Why “erb” as opposed to hhherb- personal choice, a lot of Americans say hherb, some of them also say “Warshington” and “nekkid” so you’ll have that variation.

    There are disgusting chemicals in any bread that doesn’t mold in a few days– don’t eat it.

    If you get a really powerful disposal you can put chicken bones in it but I don’t recommend it.

    Helpful and friendly people are regionally located, for instance in the PNW people are OBSCENELY NICE. But none of us are as nice as Canadians.

    RE: roundabouts. OMG, these are the WORST! There are a great number of them in Sunriver Oregon (mountain resort community) that got us hopelessly lost in the forest one night. I’m starting to see them in new construction however, so I guess I’d BRIT UP and figure it out:)

    Always enjoy your posts!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
      You make a fair point about nobody actually being called Basil, my wife pointed that out the first time I mentioned the pronunciation of the name and the herb being different.
      There is definitely a regional difference with how friendly people were, I noticed when in the Midwest everyone was super nice and it’s not the same in New England but outside of the big cities people are still lovely.
      I hope you get more used to roundabouts, I know some people really hate them! 🙂

      1. I’m sure I’ll be forced to.. but then again we were all threatened with the metric system back in the 70’s and in the end all we really have is a 2-liter bottle. Haha!

  7. I snickered throughout this post.

    Yeah, the difference in the formula for numeric dates has nearly derailed many an international deal. It is second only to excluding the Balkans when dealing with Russia. I’ve no idea why we do it differently. But it’s set in stone. Like the English system of weights and measures. Except ironically for “stone” as a weight. No one uses that.

    Rotaries are excellent when you have a homogeneous society. Like Germany or Japan. Everyone knows the rules. Everyone obeys the rules the same way. Americans are not homogeneous. We have people from Italy, India, and Indianapolis using our rotaries. Have you been to Italy and India? Traffic laws are only suggestions. And in Indianapolis, well, the dude with the biggest truck tires does whatever the hell he wants and the hell with the rest of you. Traffic lights carry a little more clout. We respect electricity, apparently.

    Didn’t we get Bazzil-the-name from the British? We kept it only for bourbon and humans. Screw the ‘erbs.

    Disposals are for mushy food waste only. Oatmeal. Pasta. A very small carrot is also acceptable.

    1. Haha your comment about stone made me laugh! I think we are the only country that uses stone.
      I think the person with the biggest truck deciding they can do what they want doesn’t just apply to Indianapolis!
      Thanks for sharing your views on the post. 🙂

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