Culture shocks are inevitable. I think that much is fairly obvious; although, for whatever reason, I believed that since the languages between my home country and my host country were the same, I would have no problem fitting right in. However, I was from a small town in the middle of Missouri traveling to one of the busiest cities in the UK; now looking back, I understand how ridiculous it sounds to think I was somehow above the concept of culture shocks. Spoiler alert: I am not above them, and they truly are unavoidable no matter the language similarities or geographical proximity to your home. For any traveling students with the better idea of researching what to expect before arriving, here are a few of the more surprising culture shocks I experienced within the first month of living in London and a bit of personal advice in overcoming them.
Language Barriers – Accents and Dialects
Whether this is the first time you’re reading about culture shocks or the twenty first, I’m sure you are no stranger to one of the most obvious differences between the US and the UK: the accents. Sure, both countries speak the same language, but that definitely did not exempt me from the continuous use of the words “what” or “huh” when speaking to locals. It is more than a difference in accents, it’s a difference in dialect of the language itself, and truly proved to be a struggle crucial enough in my experience to make note of. The best advice I could give for this culture shock, as I would for many, is to do some research. English in the UK and American English, although the same language on paper, are not the same and approaching the experience with that in mind would be extremely beneficial when first arriving.
Explaining Education Systems
One of the main reasons for studying abroad is to experience varying education systems in a culture different than your own. So, as you can probably tell, this proved to be one of my larger culture shocks, but not in the way I thought it might be. University at Kingston, although vastly different from Missouri State, was fairly easy to adjust to, the difficult part was having to fully grasp the education system in the UK before the University level and properly compare it to the system in the US. Being asked about prior test scores and levels of completion for various courses in college, A levels, high school, or secondary school was quite common in my first two weeks of classes and left me completely overwhelmed. Since I was naïvely unprepared for this particular challenge, I found myself scrambling to research the US system compared the UK and study the differences between them all in order to adequately communicate my level of education with my professors. So, my tip to navigate this culture shock would be to enter the semester with a firm grasp on the entire education system from primary school to college. This will make the questions or pop quizzes about A levels or GCSE scores much less awkward.
Trouble in Traffic
It is no secret that driving on the left side of the road in the UK is not even close to the only difference in transportation norms from the US. However, I was convinced these changes would not affect me in any way because I was simply not driving in the UK. Another very naïve way of thinking because, although I am not driving, I am crossing traffic or navigating public transportation several times every day. If you are going to live in or around London, forget everything you think you know about the rules of the road. Everything, and I mean every single thing, is backwards and it does take a lot of adjusting. If I listed all the differences in navigating traffic whether it’s buses, trains, and even sidewalks this post would be several pages too long. The best advice I could give, as I’ve mentioned for every culture shock, would be to have some understanding of the driving laws and public transport in the UK before arriving. I’m not claiming you will have all the same cultures shocks as I experienced, but if you take nothing else from this blog post, please learn how to cross the road before entering the UK, I promise you’ll thank me later.