There’s a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics called “The Uncanny Valley”, which in the simplest terms states that as the features of some thing move more “naturally”, there is a dip (“valley”) in the comfort level of human observers. I first heard it applied to robots — so a robot which looks vaguely humanoid but is still clearly a robot is much less freaky than a robot that looks and moves almost exactly — but not quite — like a human.
It’s also often applied to animation, to explain why Disney is cool but certain 3-D animation movies (The Polar Express, or the 2007 Beowulf) really…aren’t.
But I’d like to expand the usage of the term, if I may, and argue that the Uncanny Valley also applies to…
Look. I knew going in that this year was going to be different. England is not America, case finished, end of story. (Just look at the fact that they eat baked beans on their french fries. No wonder we revolted.) But I figured that there would be some underlying similarities. The UK and the US are both anglophone countries sharing a certain amount of cultural history, after all. How different could it be?
Not that different, and it turns out that’s the whole problem.
Things here are different. But aside from the handful of “big” things — they drive on the left, okay, got it, probably not going to be run over by any cars this year — the basic mechanics of life in Cambridge and life in NYC are pretty similar.
So when something is just a tiny bit off…I really notice it.
England’s Uncanny Valley
So let me take you through a tour of England’s Uncanny Valley, and point out just a few of the things that tripped this American up.
Walking on the left
I know they drive on the left. I knew that before I arrived. I was ready for that.
The problem was, I didn’t anticipate how that would carry through to the rest of society. Walking up the stairs on the left side. Standing on the left side of the escalator to let people pass you on the right side. The fact that the escalator in the direction you wish to go is ON THE LEFT, not on the right stop you’re about to try to go up the down escalator! Walking on the left side of the sidewalk.
Let’s just say I’ve been playing a lot of games of sidewalk chicken lately.
I was ready for English accents. I wasn’t ready for the words that are the same, except pronounced and emphasized just sliiiightly differently.
Take, for example, the word “skeletal”. Which happens to come up a fair amount in my lectures. Americans would pronounce that word SKEL-eh-tul, with the emphasis on the first syllable. The Brits say Skel-EE-tul, with the emphasis in the middle. And they say EE-volution instead of EH-volution, and while none of this is really a big deal it’s just one more straw on the camel’s back.
Walking down the chips/snacks aisle at Sainsbury’s involves a whole shelf of products labeled with that familiar red banner over a yellow circle…but it doesn’t say “Lays”. It says “Walkers”.
And there’s no Advil or Tylenol here — Nurofen is the brand-name Ibuprofen they sell here, and they sell generic Tylenol (acetaminophen) under the generic name paracetemol. This one I knew already, but it was still sort of a shock to see the “wrong” colored boxes and bottles on the shelves.
And then there’s TJ Maxx, that wonderland of discounted clothing and random household items that I’ve come to know and love. Here? It’s called TK Maxx, because forget it, I give up, what is wrong with these people?
Hamburgers and Cokes
And now we come to the food. Let’s leave aside semantic differences (I think everyone knows chips=fries and crisps=chips), and also the TRULY weird stuff, like their communal obsession with beans or their inability to understand vegetables. (The Brits never met a vegetable they didn’t want to steam to death).
Let’s talk about the things that really matter, like the fact that you can’t order your hamburger cooked…in any way, really. There is one kind of hamburger, and it arrives medium to medium-well with mayo on it.
I’ve also heard that they tend to take their drinks – including sodas – lukewarm, though so far I haven’t had any problems there. Every time I order a coke at a pub they ask me if I want ice. Then again, that may be because they’re trying to keep the weird American happy.
And while we’re on the subject of Coca-Cola…it tastes different here. And no, that’s not me being nostalgic — it literally tastes different, because it’s made with sugar as the primary sweetener and not high-fructose corn syrup. (If you’ve ever had imported Mexican Coke, that, too, is made with sugar). The taste difference is very subtle, but it’s definitely there.
Despite the utterly wild assortment of spreads the Brits appear to consume, which range from the delicious (jams, Nutella, chocolate spreads), to the not-unknown-but-unusual (marshmallow fluff), to the downright weird (Marmite?? WTF??)…
No one seems to eat peanut butter?
I mean, they carry it in the grocery store, in tiny jars. I even managed to find Skippy (!!) and indulged myself in a little taste of home. But seriously, peanut butter is like the #1 spread in the US and here…it’s not. They seem to think it’s weird that we like it so much.
I swear, when I go home for Christmas I’m going to Costco and bringing back with me a giant-ass jar of peanut butter.
Paper and ‘Stationery’
So first of all, if you say “Office supplies” or “School supplies” people will sort of furrow their brows at you, and say something like “You mean stationery? Try WH Smith,” at which point you will go to WH Smith expecting something like Staples, and instead discover a parallel universe where the paper is a different size and the standard is a two-ring binder/two-hole punch, not a three ring/three hole.
Seriously, alternate universe.
I’m actually starting to like the A4 notebooks (more stuff per page), though printouts on A4 still look wrong to my eyes. And the two-ring thing drives me absolutely BATTY, because it means papers slide around a lot more in the binders. But okay, deep breath, I can adjust to that.
And the one good thing about this alternate universe? THEY SELL LEFT-HANDED SCISSORS.
This is actually the one example that doesn’t really fit, because a radically different keyboard layout would mean I couldn’t touch type at all, and I’d find that very frustrating. But I do occasionally have to write emails or type on a local computer, which means I have to deal with the fact that the hashtag is in the spot where my pinky finger expects the Enter key to be. (The Enter key is in fact just a little bit farther to the right). Makes for a lot of backspacing and editing.
Of course, I have my own laptop, so I’m mostly insulated from this problem. Which is especially good because on an English keyboard? I’d never get any writing done! The double quote key is up on the number 2 (Brits use single quotes instead), and since my strength is dialogue…
But I have my laptop, and I have a fair amount of free time even considering all the reading I should be doing. So I have no excuse not to get some writing done.
Living in the Alternate Universe
I did a lot of complaining just now, but the truth is that most of these are laughable offenses. (Except the beans. Why?? would you put beans on french fries?? I’m still traumatized.) You live, you learn, you adjust. And you enjoy the fact that Cambridge is beautiful and all the people here are incredibly smart and you have so many opportunities you wouldn’t get at home.
(I heard a talk on stone tools the other day. 3.3 MILLION YEAR OLD STONE TOOLS. Oldest ever found. And two of the scientists on the team that discovered them came and talked about their work five feet away, and then when it was over, because it’s England, everyone went to the pub.)
But culture shock isn’t rational, it’s emotional, and while I’m having a blast, I am definitely ordering Chinese first thing when I get home.