I am, by no means, the most experienced ex-pat you will ever speak to. It’s very easy to find people who have much more experience than I at living outside the US.
I have been in the UK for just over a month and am only spending 3 months here. I spent 2 months here in December and January so it occurred to me that I will have spent more of 2014 in the UK than in the US in 2014 when I return in July.
In 2001, I moved to Australia for 2 years with my family. Though I was very young, this was an influential part of my adolescent growth and certainly has come to shape who I am today.
My favorite part about living abroad is the changes I see in myself due to a widened world view. The subtle differences between the ways of life in other English-speaking countries are almost unrecognizable compared to the differences and the culture shock I would certainly have to face going to, say, Nigeria (like one of my good friends from college is about to do).
In my opinion, these tiny differences are what really shapes someone and causes a change from being overseas. Sure, you are bound to feel culturally enriched when you head off to a foreign country whose culture and traditions are strikingly different than the US.
I say all this because I have learned a major lesson from my UK counterparts. It’s a small lesson but I believe it will ultimately come to influence my life and hopefully those around me.
Now, please prepare for a sweeping generalization of US consumerism (and apologies in advance if you are insulted). In the US, when we pay for a good or service, we expect to have that delivered in a satisfactory way. We have come to expect fast fast food and a smiling waitress at our favorite restaurants. We expect the grocery store to stock only ripe fruits and veggies. We expect to be able to go to the mall and receive a multitude of options and advice on new running sneakers.
In short, our goods and services industries are expected to operate to perfection 100% of the time. At points where a flaw or error occurs, it is not uncommon to see a patron of an establishment throwing a fit, berating a store clerk, or demanding their money back.
Now, what is the subtle difference in the UK (again, this is a sweeping generalization and there are, of course, outliers)? UK consumers are, very simply, more forgiving. Perhaps it is because large chains and franchises are not quite as common here. I have had the pleasure of coming across many family run business.
My boyfriend discovered this lovely older couple whom we see once a week at their booth in the town market. They make their living by running an Ostrich farm. We have come to really like ostrich meat (another benefit of living abroad).
Anyhow, when something doesn’t go quite right during a purchase of a good or service, the Brits seem to have an overwhelming ability to remember that the person on the other side of the transaction is a human being just like themselves. A human being that is not and cannot be perfect. Whether it’s a fast food restaurant that is anything but fast (I waited 25 minutes at a Burger Kind once) or a grocery whose bananas are definitely past their prime, consumers are not, for lack of a better word, “pissed off” when their purchasing experiences don’t go off without a hitch.
Why do I feel this subtle difference, which might not be noticed by most visitors, will be an influential part of shaping me? Throughout my life, I have come to expect to act in the same manner as my mother, adults I’ve witnessed, or even my peers. I have never really questioned that it is my intrinsic right to cause a commotion when I pay or am willing to pay good money for something and an imperfection rears it’s ugly head.
But why? Why do we do that? It’s second nature for me to get in a bad mood over a shopkeepers faux pas or when my favorite web-site for online shopping sends me the wrong order. But, as I’ve learned from the Brits, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s just not. So we’ll lose a little time, won’t get to wear that outfit as soon as we want, might have to put up with some inconvenience or another.
By accepting imperfection and acknowledging that not every consumer experience is going to go off without a hitch, the Brits improve the lives of the people on the other side of the counters as well as their own. No more will I ruin my own day (or even my own hour) by allowing the inconveniences of imperfection to get me down. I will see the human side of the goods and services industries and I will seek to employ the British attitudes of patience and understanding. I will be thankful for the experiences that “just dealing” affords me (like meeting an Ostrich-farming couple). And certainly, I will not be the one making a scene in a supermarket.