Roughly three months has passed since I first arrived in London for my Erasmus student exchange, and now I feel like it’s as comfortable of a place to live in as Helsinki, the city I study in back in Finland. But as with any new country and culture, moving to the UK and staying here for a long period of time has come with its challenges, and even after months, engaging in the British way of life will sometimes be tricky. This essay will discuss these issues further from my own point of view, as well as from my two friends’ experiences.
Maria from Italy, and Nana from The Netherlands, are also two Erasmus exchange students who are studying business with me here in the University of Greenwich, London. As they have only been in the UK at very young ages, and me never been to this country before (excluding flight layovers), we can all consider ourselves as new to London life and the British culture.
To compare our experiences and perceptions about the UK, we wrote down lists of our own, of surprising things that have have happened, challenges or situations that have caused us to reflect our own values and habits. Afterwards we compared our lists and summarised our discussion as written below.
As I’ve started to study cross-cultural management a bit prior to my exchange, and thanks to the ‘Intercultural Training’ course for which this essay is an assignment for – I had researched the British culture and was aware of a fair amount of cultural values, taboos, behaviour and such. I did expect that the Brits would be quite similar to us Finns, in the way they like to mind their own businesses and not talk much to strangers when commuting etc. Not like the out-spoken and overly-friendly-during-small-talk Americans or southern Europeans. But once they do start talking with you, the Brits often seem to genuinely want to chit-chat, which I really appreciate. Here they also use ‘sorry’ all the time even if they’re not in the fault when e.g. another person bumps into them on the street. This is something I personally tend to do, too. Just a reflex on my part, and I assume it’s to avoid conflict and public quarrels. During night-time on the other hand, like with many drunks, arguments arise quite easily.
But even if I thought that I was aware of most differences, I have still stumbled on rather surprising situations. For instance, I thought that at University, you talk to your lecturers and teachers by title and their surname. Turns out it’s just as casual as in Finland, and everyone uses first names. Using your student cards as actual ID cards and key passes was also a new thing to me. Even if London is a metropolitan city, I see it as a fairly safe city (though every city has it’s shady areas), which is why I was surprised that you need an ID to access University facilities. But I assume that’s also to avoid theft and misuse of spaces and materials, as the campus is located in Cutty Sark/Greenwich where a lot of tourists come to see the museums and sights.
Coming from the Netherlands, Nana mentioned that the Brits are much friendlier in retail and restaurants compared to the Dutch, who often can seem pretty arrogant. But that might also be because they are more direct and say things straight. Time indication was another thing Nana mentioned he had trouble with. This is because when the Brits say ‘half 5 in the afternoon’ they mean ‘half past 5’ or 17:30, while in the Netherlands, the Dutch interpret ‘half 5’ as 16:30. I can agree that this is confusing for me as well, since 17:30 would for me be ‘half past five’, and ‘half five’ would be 16:30. Maria seemed to agree with the Brit’s way of telling time.
As for Maria’s experiences in engaging with the British culture, she hasn’t had much difficulties with conversing with the locals. From my point of view, the reason might be that she’s a really out-spoken person though. But what she’s been struggling with is mostly food-related. She admits that Italians are pampered from having easy access to eat fresh, cook at home and eat calmly. In the fast-moving capital London, finding good-quality food is hard work, and most of the time you have to pay ridiculous prices for the good stuff. With the fast-paced culture, pre-cooked meals and take-aways are the norm. Nana and I agree on the fact that good-quality food is hard to get, especially on a student budget. Even though London is a cultural hub, where you can find cuisine from many parts of the world, we are still on the search for the authentic spots to dine in.
Coffee is also important to all of us, and we all wish we could get our hands of a proper cuppa from our own home countries! Because once again, finding good-quality coffee in London is hard on your wallet. The normal coffee served here is instant-coffee, which is just a powder mixed in hot water, which to us tastes too watered down. And no, adding more powder won’t make it much better. Espresso coffee is thankfully better and easier to find, but it also costs more.
During our discussion we also found some similar challenges that we had experienced. One thing all three of us could agree on was the waiters’ difficulties in providing a group with individual bills at most restaurants. It seems really effortless when you ask for it in Finland for example, but here in London some staff almost start to fret when you ask for the bill to be divided. But a rather easy solution that we have started to use is just paying one-by-one our own share of the total bill. Something that we were aware of when coming to the UK was the driving on the left-hand-side. But we’re still confused as to which way to look before crossing the street! So checking both ways is what we opt for. Alternatively we read the text on the crosswalk that says “ßLook left’. Thank goodness for these signs. Despite the ongoing confusion, me and Nana are keen on trying to drive in the UK, which we hope to do in the near future if we manage to plan our road-trip.
Even though there’s been some challenges, miscommunications and misunderstandings – and we don’t doubt that there’ll be more – our overall experiences have been great. Yes, the cost of living is high, but manageable. And even though the traffic can be horrible, commuting in London is highly organised even during rush-hour, and trains are rarely late (although frequent strikes do disrupt everyone’s daily schedules). Being a relatively safe city despite its size, the cosmopolitan, multicultural and friendly city of London boasts of more pro’s than con’s in our eyes. With endless opportunities both career- and leisure wise and surprisingly good weather (cloudier than rainy!), all three of us have come to fully enjoy this place.
We still have great pride in our our nationalities and cultures, and as we might not stay here for much longer, we think that in regards of our values and prejudices, we’ve just come to appreciate other cultures more and respect the locals’ way of life, and try our best to interact with it in a positive way.