Since I moved to the UK 2.5 years ago I have observed many cultural differences between my home country and the British land. The funny thing about these differences is that they’re not that apparent to tourists or others outside the UK. It wasn’t until I became part of British society myself that I started noticing the peculiarities – the things that are truly British, but that you will never find explained in a textbook. These differences all seem quite random, but they have actually taught me a lot: not just about British culture, but about my own culture too.
Cultural differences in traffic
I am not going to point out the obvious fact that they drive on the left side of the road in Britain. Anyone can tell you that. However, there are other things I have observed, in particular about the cars people drive, the way traffic is regulated, and how people drive.
Cars in the UK
One of the first things I noticed is that on average, people in the UK drive nicer cars than in The Netherlands. Nearly all the vehicles on the road look shiny, new, and more expensive. At home on the other hand, I see more cars that look like tin cans on wheels.
I was also surprised to learn that some students own really decent cars. Back home, most people my age don’t even have a license, and if they do, their first cars are usually visibly low budget. Granted, public transport in The Netherlands is organised extremely well, therefore often a much more viable way of travel for young people. Yet this doesn’t explain why UK citizens appear to be driving more elegant cars.
I asked my dad about this and he suspected cars are taxed and insured differently in the UK, making it cheaper to drive an “upscale” car. Whether this is true I cannot say for sure, as I have never owned a car myself – but it’s certainly a theory!
Of course The Netherlands is known for its amazing bike paths and the freedom cyclists are given in traffic, but I never realised how blessed pedestrians were, too. One peculiar thing that has come to my attention is that the UK (or at least the places I’ve visited) has very few pedestrian crossings. And by pedestrian crossings, I specifically mean those zebra-striped crosswalks where walkers can cross any time they like, and vehicles on the road have to stop. (Think Abbey Road crossing!)
As I don’t have a bike here, I have done a lot of walking in Sheffield. My routes are often interrupted by a traffic light where I have to wait several minutes, or sometimes by busy roads where there is no safe opportunity for me to cross (Glossop Road, I’m looking at you).
In my experience this is very different from The Netherlands, where there are plenty “zebra paths” (as we call them) you can choose from to safely cross the road. These paths are a guarantee that you can cross whenever you want, whereas in the UK, you almost always end up waiting. This is especially annoying when I have a bus to catch: with good luck, I can reach the nearest bus stop within 3 minutes. If the traffic lights aren’t on my side though, I need to calculate 10.
There are two reasons why I would describe the British motorways as messy: one, with lots of litter on the roadside, they appear visually messy – and two: British drivers are impulsive and chaotic drivers.
I don’t understand why so much littering occurs on the motorways, but it does. Some routes are especially filthy with people’s rubbish. In The Netherlands, I can’t recall ever seeing scraps of waste on the road. And whenever you do see something, people often point it out: hey, why is there a sock on the road? How does a person just lose one sock?
The other thing I would like to address is that – in my personal opinion – British people are messy drivers. I learned that until recently, UK driving exams did not require students to go on motorways. In fact, most people never went on the motorway during their lessons at all. That was extremely shocking to me. It definitely explains why so many times I was absolutely appalled at the antisocial driving behaviour of people. The most common thing I’ve seen is people cutting others off by making a last-minute left exit from the far right lane. That is super dangerous, people!!
PS. I also HATE that most drivers in the UK never use their turn signal, and even if they do, they don’t switch it on until they’re already halfway through the turn. I’ve had a few near-death experiences that way.
Cultural differences in leisure
Okay, I know I went off on a bit of a tangent there – but I promise I didn’t write this just to rant! There are good things too, like the outstretched holidays, and the opportunities for eating out.
Food and drink
In the north of England life is generally cheaper than in other parts, yet still I am impressed by the low costs of food and drink in the UK. Where I live, I could go out for a full dinner for less than £15! That absolutely baffles me. In The Netherlands, you would usually pay at least €16 for just the main course.
On top of that, fast foods are extremely cheap here. I have paid more for 1 McDonald’s burger in The Netherlands than I pay for an entire Maccies meal in the UK. Deals on unhealthy foods and alcoholic drinks are insane, and the portions are bigger too. You really can eat a lot for very little in the UK.
The price of food has always been one of my favourite topics of conversation with other international students because opinions differ so much. Whereas I am convinced food here is cheap, many others often find it expensive. It has made me much more aware of how costly life in The Netherlands actually is. Back home, eating out always seemed like a luxury I couldn’t afford. Here, it is something I can enjoy every now and then.
Logically, the two countries have their holidays divided differently. I find that in The Netherlands, we have more, but shorter holidays spread out over the year – whereas the UK has fewer but longer holidays.
What surprised me for example was that my Christmas break at uni comprised of a full four weeks off. In The Netherlands you get two. For Easter, the UK takes a total of three weeks out, but in The Netherlands we don’t have an “Easter break” – we just get two bank holidays (one for Good Friday, one for Easter Monday).
Most bank holidays in The Netherlands are related to Christian holidays, such as Easter and Ascension. In the UK, there are holidays unrelated to religion too. I never understood “Early May”, “Spring” or “Summer” bank holidays because they seemed so random – what, we just get the day off because there’s a change of seasons? Eeehm, okay!
The biggest difference in bank holidays to me is that in The Netherlands, when people get a Monday off, they make a run for IKEA. For some reason homeware retailers are extremely popular with the Dutch on bank holidays. In the UK, people prefer to spend their day in the pub. (Often I would have no idea a bank holiday was coming up until I observed the entire nation was hammered on a Sunday evening.)
Cultural differences in society
In a previous blog post I wrote that I have enjoyed my life in the UK very much. This has a lot to do with local society and people’s attitudes. I feel there is a greater appreciation for students, for example. I also think British people are more charitable, and they cherish arts and culture better.
I have already dedicated a post to student life in the UK, but I would like to add that I feel students are more appreciated here in the way they are approached by the market. Student discounts are available for nearly everything. Even though this may seem like a minor gesture – who cares about 50p off a drink? – I think it says a lot about how the UK views its students.
In The Netherlands, we hardly do any student discounts at all. I find this strange because technically, students do not have an income. Everything they receive in student finances is a loan. So why are they expected to pay the same price as everyone else?*
Just the fact that a lot of companies in the UK do offer a student discount, makes me feel more appreciated. It feels like a little nod from them, as if they’re saying: we know your life is expensive right now, so we’ll help you out.
*One remark: students in The Netherlands do get to use all public transport for free, which I think is a GREAT deal.
Campaigns and charities
One thing that has stood out to me the most is that the UK puts great effort into charity and campaigning. There are hundreds and thousands of charity shops which offer many ways to support good causes.
Besides that, UK society also seems more concerned with raising awareness. I remember seeing a campaign about the risks of toxic masculinity everywhere when I had just moved here. It was clearly visible, informative, and thought provoking. I was very impressed by it – and I have also been impressed by many other campaigns since.
I don’t think we do much charity work in The Netherlands. Volunteering is sometimes seen as a waste of time and I think there are people who don’t like the idea of providing free labour. In the UK, people are encouraged much more to get involved – and there are more opportunities for doing so, too.
Seeing so many campaigns and charities around me makes me feel good because it gives off the sense that people care and are willing to take responsibility to improve their society. I’ve never really had this feeling in The Netherlands. I think people at home have a tendency to think these are political issues that need to be resolved by the people in power – but the reality is that this often doesn’t happen. So, the UK has certainly taught me a thing or two about standing up for your beliefs.
Arts and culture
Unfortunately, in many places the arts are often the first thing to be slashed from the budget. However, my observation is that the arts are even more undervalued in Dutch education than here in the UK – to the point where I hardly got to explore them at all as a child.
On a university study trip to Ireland five years ago, my coursemates and I visited a primary school in a deprived neighbourhood. We were welcomed warmly by staff and students alike; most notably by a class choir who sang beautifully for us. By the time they were finished, the majority my classmates were weeping. I don’t think any of us had ever heard a school choir sing before, which made this such a moving experience.
I’ve spoken to many British people and learned that they were in some way involved with music during their childhood, for example with the school choir. It makes me glad that these opportunities exist. In The Netherlands, I had very little to no music education in school, and it is certainly something I missed very much.
I am aware that many Brits also feel arts and music deserve more attention in the curriculum, and I agree with them. I also see a lot of people (and charities!) pushing to make this come true, which is great. But in The Netherlands, I’m not sure people are aware how vital these aspects can be to a child’s education and personal development. I so desperately wish we’d had more opportunities for young people to explore themselves through the arts – even it was just through a petite school choir.
What cultural differences have you noticed?
I could go on about cultural differences for hours, so I’ve had to keep my thoughts short. But I would love to discuss more with you! Please tell me what cultural differences stand out the most to you, and which ones you would add. Leave a comment down below!