Sunday, October 11, 2009

10 Things We Cling to From the Mother Country

This week we turn the tables and ponder the habits we still adhere to from the countries of our birth:


1. My flag: I had an American flag flying from every place I lived in the States and I see no reason not to have one here. The only concession is, now that I am a dual citizen, I put up the Union Flag on Remembrance Day and replace it with the American flag on Memorial Day. My neighbors think I’m a nutter.

2. The “H” thing: Sorry, but it’s “urb” not “herb.” Herb is short for Herbert. And besides, it drives my wife potty, like when I say “a LUM in um” instead of “al u MIN i um.”

3. The “Z” thing: Whenever possible, when making an example, I say “Company XY ZEEEEE,” instead of “XY ZED,” just to let them know they say it wrong.

4. Coffee: I brought a thermal pint coffee mug over from America with me. I still use it.

5. Thanksgiving: if you’re an American, it’s in your genes; you must celebrate.

6. Rinsing the dishes: I know this tradition of leaving soapy dishes in the dish drainer is becoming out-dated, but many people—my wife included—still subscribe to this habit. To an American, it is just wrong. Consequently, I do the dishes.

7. Fruit of the Loom underwear and white tube socks: Just before I moved overseas, I went to Sam’s Club and bought a bale of each. I still have them.

8. Ketchup: The universal condiment; it goes on everything, except French toast.

9. Expecting good customer service: If we go into a restaurant and no one comes to take our order in the first ten minutes, I’m ready to walk out.

10. Driving on the right: I still drive on the right side of the road, as God intended. It keeps my passengers alert and the looks on the faces of the people in the oncoming traffic are priceless. (Note to the serious minded: I’m just kidding.)


1. Saying "Please", despite the fact that it sometimes sounds either very needy or just plain ridiculous. Now I know some Americans are going to take exception to this, so please do your own private survey. I have been taking notes on this specific point for over ten years, all over the US. I have found that Americans rarely use the word itself when making a request, although no rudeness is intended. In fact, because of the intonation, they usually sound very polite. As a Brit however, I'd be looking over my shoulder for my mother if I omitted the word.

2. Making my kids say "Please". Parents all over the UK are seen withholding treats until the magic word is heard. Despite years of doing this and role-modelling the use of the word, my kids still seem to think it's optional. Apparently they warn their friends before coming to the house, that a "please" now and then would be a good thing.

3. Spreading butter or margarine on bread when making a sandwich. I have had little 6 year olds recoil in horror when I do this (and yes, I make them another one). My question is, how do you get the ingredients to stay in there without the marg?

4. Booting my kids out of the stroller/pushchair before they start school. Living in an urban area where everyone walks, it's quite common to see young children the size of small adults, being pushed around everywhere. If they don't want to walk, get one of those plastic wagons for cryin' out loud.

5. Walking instead of driving. In the interests of time, I sometimes drive when I could easily walk, but we live about an eighth of a mile from school and I never drive them there. It would take longer to get the car out, and by the time I found a parking spot, I'd be right outside my front door. However, other parents never fail to tell me how "good" I am because I walk.

6. Hankies up the sleeve. Yes, I know it's a disgusting habit and I am getting much better at not stuffing the hankie up my sleeve, but I don't always have pockets. (OK, OK, I know.)

7. Things on toast. Beans, scrambled egg, poached egg, spaghetti hoops. You name it but most Americans don't touch it, including my kids. It's a real shame because anything on toast makes a great, quick meal. (The Little Guy will have beans next to toast, but not on it.)

8. Food pronunciations. I can say "bayzil" without much of a problem but I can't make the transition to the American "tomaydo". There's just too many letters to change in the one word. First the "a" becomes an "ay", then the "t" gets the "d" sound. No. And I pronounce "herb" with an audible "h" because, well, it's there.

9. Almost laughing when someone calls me "ma'am". When I first lived in the States I was in Texas where everyone (including other women) calls you "ma'am". (If you're female that is.) In the mid-west it's still heard and I always have to check to make sure someone's not being funny.

10. Calling myself English. I know my passport says "British" but back when I lived there we pretty much all referred to ourselves as English, Irish etc. Now, if someone asks if I'm British (as opposed to Australian and South African, which I also get) I inadvertently say "English actually".

Got any you'd like to add? Leave a comment; we love hearing from you.

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  1. I found this post fascinating.

    Toni: I always say I'm English wherever I go as apposed to British. I always put on the return label on mail, England UK.
    I admit to always trying to get children to say *Please & thank you* even though many parents don't insist even here.
    I do stuff my hanky (tissue) up my sleeve) Not very nice, especially if it falls out!

    Mike: I wish the British (especially English) would fly flags because I feel quite patriotic at times and don't think the English take a pride in their country.

    Nuts in May

  2. Getting my kids to ask for something by saying "Please may I have..." - that is so deeply ingrained that I just couldn't let it go, but I know it makes them sound very formal to the local ear.

    Coffee and tea with milk. Creamer, especially the stuff in a little sachet, is an abomination.

  3. I didn't know Americans don't put butter/marg on sandwich bread. This might explain the lack of decent butter in the supermarket...but I do have a tip, Toni - I make Littleboy 1's sandwiches with hummus and salami, as he for some reason objects to butter (maybe it's because he's turning American?).

    Totally true about the strollers. One poor mum I know carries her simply HUGE kid around town, because he won't walk - whereas I can't keep up with mine as they storm ahead down the street.

    And yes, I always say 'English' and 'England' too - it seems weird saying you come from Great Britain, and no-one understands 'the UK'....

  4. After having lived here for 13 years I still snigger when I'm introduced to someone (of that name) and he says "Hi, I'm Randy".

    I've found that most of my friends here do teach their children to say please. maybe Californians are more polite?

    And my 3 years old daughter corrects me now when I say Ze-bra instead of Zee-bra! I stick to my guns though!

  5. Ah yes, I forgot about that pesky animal. We live close to a zoo and I know the Little Guy walks me past the zebras just so he can correct me!

  6. > And my 3 years old daughter corrects me now when I say Ze-bra instead of Zee-bra! I stick to my guns though!

    You're quite right to do so, Geekymummy! It is closer to the original pronunciation, and is the way it's pronounced in the whole of the non-North American world. See Wikipedia:

    The name "zebra" comes from the Old Portuguese word zevra which means "wild ass". The pronunciation is /ˈzɛbrə/ ZEB-rə internationally, or /ˈziːbrə/ ZEE-brə in North America.

  7. Not rinsing dishes - what is that all about? It is just wrong. My English friends love coming to ours for Thanksgiving. They cannot believe the amount of food. They even eat the marshmallow covered sweet potatoes. They're dubious until they have that first heavenly bite then they're all instant converts.

  8. Mike, interesting comment about the (non-existent) concept of customer service in the UK. Can't believe restaurant staff (for example) will allow customers to sit at a table for 10 minutes without even a menu. What's that all about?

    One time I was at a small restaurant in London, sat waiting for a server for more than ten minutes in a largely empty place. When I asked the hostess for a menu, she told me to "be patient" and someone would give me one eventually. Hmm, maybe because I didn't say "please"?

    After five or so minutes passed the waitress came over and threw the menu on the table and disappeared again, guess I'd made myself known as a trouble-maker. And didn't say please.

    The poor gent at the table next to mine got the same treatment although he knew better than to complain.

    Butter on sandwiches: some don't it's true, but I grew up (Virginia) with butter on sandwiches and still do it. Makes the buttie much tastier!

    Saying please: have never seen this noted on any other US/UK forum until this one. Since it was noted here, I've been noticing the habits of fellow natives where I live.

    Hear "please" all the time, say "please" all the time and have no idea why this is something Toni never hears in her area.

    Not sure, but does she live in Chicago/Northern Mid West environs? An area known for brisk rudeness, along with the northern east coast.

    Also as she notes, when ordering food, etc. it's not necessary to say please, as the person is standing there for the express purpose of taking your order. It's not like you're asking the server for a favour or something.

    Saying "thank you" when you're served, or if you make a special or extra request, please and thank you are expected and said.

    So I don't understand the "Americans don't say please" thing.

  9. Toni - on #6 - my mom still uses butter/marg on her sandwiches! Not just a UK things (unless I wrongly assume everyone in the Midwest does it because she did :-) ).

    Mike - rinsing the dishes. Oh, rinsing the dishes. At least all the blog posts I've seen on this let me know that my Gent wasn't just really weird, which is what I was afraid of at first!) I do the cooking, so he will be learning to do the dishes. (The right way, that is!)

  10. Toni: I agree with all except the hankie up the sleeve! I am a stickler for "please" but rarely hear it in Ohio. My kids don't get what they ask for if they don't say it (mum would kill me if I take kids home next year and they don't say it).
    I would add "eggy soldiers" to the things with toast list.
    I only put 1 or 2 slices of deli meat on a sandwich, compared to 20 slices on American sandwiches!
    Tea with milk.
    I absolutely cannot & will not wear white trainers.
    I'll never call a fringe "bangs" or layered hair "a shag"
    BBC World News is the best by far!

  11. The plesae thing - It's not meant as a criticism as I hear the politeness in the intonation. Actually, here in Chicago, most people are very polite and well-meaning, they just don't say please a lot. The "thank you's" go on for ages though. It's a much bigger deal.
    I also notice that with people in other parts. If I were to point out that they had just requested something without using the P word, they would probably swear blind that I was wrong because it's that inconscious.
    Obviously there are exceptions to this.
    The British thing I cling to however is also saying please to a waiter in a restaurant. I still show them the same respect and manners even if they are being paid to serve me. In fact, when I'm with people who merely say "I'll have the eggs benedict" or whatever, I want to shrivel up with embarrassment. Fortunately the waiters are probably used to it.

  12. The dishes thing really surprised me when I first moved here. Turns out my job is to do the dishes anyway (her indoors cooks, I clean up, it just seems fair) so it hasn't become an issue.

    And I always go out of my way to call a woman "ma'am" -- I love the reaction.

  13. A recent experience:

    Called a sub shop, employee answered the phone.

    Me: I'd like to place an order please.

    Employee: Can you hold please?

    This happens all the time, but we are in different regions from each other and the South has traditionally had nicer manners than some other parts of the country (northeast) so maybe that's it.

    The Mid West is known to have kind and lovely people, it's the Heartland after all, but the northern tier of the country, from Massachusetts to Illinois, has a brisk no-nonsense tradition going way back.

    Back to those fun-loving folks the Puritans who almost immediately upon landing on these shores started burning their women as witches, probably for not saying please! (^_^)

  14. Mike - as more and more Brits get double sinks in their kitchens, I have noticed more rinsing going on. But remember, the dishes are meant to be dried straight away so all the bubbles etc. are removed anyway.
    Have to add another thing while we're on the subject of dishes - a lot of my American visitors don't seem to notice the difference between the hand towels and the dish towels hanging near the oven.The hand towel is, well a regular towel. Just today, someone wiped the counter tops with my hand towel. I almost screamed but refrained myself. When I was little, the hand towels were not for drying dishes and counter tops with. My mother used to say that they were full of germs because people had been wiping their hands on them, but if they'd been washing properly, there wouldn't be any germs left. Still gets to me though!

  15. Confession time: after a large meal, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, especially if we have guests, I do fill the sink with soapy water, wash the dishes and put them straight in the drainer. But my wife dries them at the same time.

    As for the dish/hand towel thing: that’s way too organized for me. I just put out dish towels; if you want to dry your hands with them, knock yourself out.

  16. The not rinsing dishes thing gets me every time! I would do them myself, but the children wash as part of their chores. I did make the situation a bit better. They use to take turns washing, every other night... but I started them drying as well, so one washes and one dries. It's better, and the dishes get cleaner, because it's the job of the drier to send back not properly cleaned dishes. I do look forward to the day when we have sinks big enough to rinse, though!

  17. Mike and the underthings cracked me up, as I spend a fortune at Victoria's Secret whenever I'm back in the US. Have not yet managed to find a suitable UK equivalent...

    My mom's sandwiches always had margarine. Further, for an after school snack she would put margarine on saltine crackers and then put the cheese on top of that. Midwestern moms definitely like margarine.

  18. Marks and Spencer underwear. No more- no less!

    The midwestern margerine thing must be generational. You'd think I was trying to poison these kids with the stuff! Must get to the bottom of this.

  19. My just-washed dishes have so many bubbles on them, there's no way a humble dish cloth could wipe it all off to be suitable for eating upon.

    Besides which, unless changed regularly whilst washing the dishwater becomes fairly filthy. That last rinse of hot water makes the plate, etc. much more sanitary.

  20. I was appalled the first time I saw my boyfriend's mom do the "washing up". Not only do I not want to eat soap, but the chemicals in them can't be good for you!
    And the ketchup. I still get slightly PO'd when I order "chips" and they don't even bother asking me if I want any ketchup. How can you eat french fries with no sauce?
    You know what else I miss? Really good cocktails. They just don't have bartenders here like they do in the USA.

  21. All I can say about the washing dishes thing is, it hasn't seemed to hurt my wife any. Still, I always rinse them.

  22. I agree with Toni on the 'please' thing. It's not that I find people in my host country rude, far from it, I just don't hear them make their kids say 'please' very often. So many kids come say, 'I want a snack,' without saying, 'please'. It bugs me. So I always say, 'Well what do you say when you want something?' They often look puzzled, before their Mom reminds them to say, 'Please'.

    The other thing I can't get used to, and I dont know if other regions in the US do this? But all the kids round here call me 'Miss' before my first name. (ie Miss Mary) Rather than 'Mrs Smith' like they would in the UK if they didn't know me very well. And if they did know me well, in England, they'd just call me Mary.

    It freaked me out when I first moved here - but now am totally used to it, and my kids follow suit. I kind of like the fact that these little kids use the 'Miss' before my firstname, as it shows respect but isn't as formal as using my surname, or super-relaxed as just using my firstname.

    Also, I have to laugh because I say I'm English too. Have bizarely had a few puzzled reactions if I say 'British' and all three times I've ever said, 'I'm from the UK,' the other person has replied, 'Ukraine?' Seriosuly!

  23. Dishes MUST be rinsed, and that's final! Doesn't washing up liquid have carcinogens in it? I'm sure I read that somewhere. Anyway, you wouldn't just dry your hands without rinsing them, would you?

    On the subject of being British, English or whatever, I always say I'm British, or from Britain. I'm actually Welsh, and most Welsh people (and probably Scots and Irish too) find it really annoying when Americans talk about 'England' when they mean Britain. We're not all English! I live in England and, as I don't have a Welsh accent (lost it as quick as I could when I moved away), I'm happy to pass for English most of the time, but in the States it even annoys me and my hackles rise when someone talks about 'England'! It's actually really offensive to non-English Brits, so do be careful when you're over here, those of you from the US!

    I do find the lack of 'please' noticeable, even though I know it's not meant to be rude. What does sound rude to me, though, is when I hear someone say "Have him/her do X..." which just sounds so like they're ordering somebody about! I know it isn't meant that way, but it doesn't sound right to British ears.

    Am enjoying this blog, btw. My husband would like to move to the US. He likes Washington (DC) and Boston. I've not been to them so I don't know. I just want somewhere warmer than Britain!

  24. First of all can I just say -what a great blog. I have been across before but usually just have time for a swift canter over to 'Expat Mum'. Consider yourself linked now- a sure sign I will visit regularly. Anyway- this had me laughing especially the hankie up the sleeve (always and if no sleeve then down the front of the knickers... or should I say panties).

  25. I always claim to be a Yorkshireman first Then British and finally English if no reaction to the first two


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