If I have one takeaway from writing these columns and living on a different continent, it’s that the best chances to learn from other cultures come when you dive in, notice the little things and aren’t afraid to start conversations.
When you spend time abroad for a fairly long time, you notice some of the little things that distinguish a culture. These little things also create a mirror that helps you reflect on your own culture.
An example? Grocery shopping.
Shopping carts are rare in Oxford and 99% of shoppers use baskets to buy what they need that day or for a couple of days. In comparison, it seems like we stock up for the apocalypse with our carts full of enough food to last at least a week.
You become culturally aware when you pay attention to the little things, but you learn the most when you start conversations.
It isn’t anyone’s responsibility to teach you about their culture. However, when cultural questions are mutually exchanged in productive conversations, they can shatter prejudice and contribute to a greater sense of understanding.
I learned to appreciate the power of these conversations during formal dinners at New College.
I always looked forward to formals, partially because they were the only time the college wine cellar was open, but mostly because of the cultural conversations that took place.
At formals I talked to British students about politics, what it took for us to get into our respective universities (there’s a lot more pressure on exams when you’re applying in England), drinking cultures, regional divides in each country and even the food we eat.
The best question I ever answered happened during a formal. A friend looked at me and asked, unphased, “Do you eat Yorkshire Pudding in America?”
It’s fascinating, endearing and at times aggravating to hear how those beyond the borders of the U.S. perceive, well, us (see what I did there?).
We’re mostly understood by our chief exports. There’s a KFC, a McDonald’s and a Burger King in almost every English town. In Oxford there was an “American food” store that exclusively sold candy, Pop-Tarts and chips. I loved when friends would ask about my life in America, because I was able to dismantle their association of America with fast food and a ubiquitous unhealthy lifestyle.
Through conversations, I came to understand that accents are beyond a big deal in British culture. You hear a wide variety of them when you talk to people from different parts of the country, but accents also came up as a subject of their own more than once.
One of the biggest cultural complaints I heard from British friends during these conversations is that “all Americans think we have posh accents.” They think this because when we attempt to mimic a British accent, we often choose a cartoonish version of the Queen’s English. To them, this ignores the linguistic diversity of their country. I’ve been told that people from towns 20 minutes apart can have different accents.
In an interesting turn of events, they didn’t seem to know much about our regional language variances either. When I would ask non-American friends to do an American accent, nine times out of ten they sounded like they were straight out of Texas.
It turns out that in the U.K. there’s still a strong connection between American culture as a whole and the idea of the Wild West. One of my friends even went to Wyoming just to get a taste of rodeo culture at Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Conversations are one of the best ways to realize that some cultural concepts don’t transfer, even if they’re articulated in the same language. When speaking to a friend from Liverpool, I learned that our understanding of red as the color of conservatives and blue as the color of liberals doesn’t translate at all. In England, the colors apply to the opposite ideological tilt.
Did I learn this by putting my foot in my mouth and saying that I could never see Liverpool (a city with one of the strongest socialist legacies in the U.K.) turn red?
To learn from conversations, you have to be willing to be wrong and gracious when you (inevitably) are.
I hope that these columns have sparked conversations and encouraged people to engage with one another in their own dialogues.
Politicians around the world are so eager to isolate cultures from one another, to create a fear of “the other.” If we’re open to conversations and perceptive of the little things, it’s easier to see that we are distinct but not as different as some want us to believe.
Emily Klein is a staff writer.