Saturday, 3 September 2011

Culture shock, people space

Back in Britain, and it's different from the US in many ways. Yes, superficially it's the same. People speak (variations of) English, drive cars, live in houses, shop in supermarkets. But differences are a'plenty.

Despite jetlag, here's the noticeable things after the first few trips out onto "the street". Note: these are all generalisations. Not every Brit is the same; not every American is the same.

1. British people drive more aggressively. Crossing the road is stressful. Even though roads are narrower, more congested, there is more speed here. Related to this, there is much less regard for pedestrians. Twice already I've been nearly hit at a pedestrian crossing. Light for cars is red, light for pedestrians is green - and a car speeds through. In the US, this would be much, much rarer - one reason being that if a car hits a pedestrian, the car driver would get sued to hell and back. Here in Britain, mow down a pedestrian and even if it's your fault, you'd often end up with just a fine.

2. C'mon British people. Smile. Look relaxed. You can do it. Well, maybe not, then. While a lot of Americans wander about, amble, looking relaxed, most people on the pavements here in Birmingham seem purposeful, fixed face, grim, focused, occasionally mean (act, or real?) or angry.

3. Personal space in public situations. I've queued four times since being back, and on three of those occasions the people behind me have gotten uncomfortably close. Yes, there's less room in supermarkets, at bus stops, but for there to be physical contact. Ugh.


4. It's noisy here, generally. Though not as bad as living near Birmingham City Centre, which was permanently noisy through traffic, people, crime (and the associated police response) and all manner of other things I'd rather forget about.

I'm wondering how much of these things is influenced by population density, and how the towns and cities of Britain have developed. People in America generally have more ... space. In many ways. Houses are often bigger, and more seem detached. Supermarkets are larger. Roads are (much) wider. This can be a touchy issue with some Brits.

In Britain, people often live in small, some would say tiny, new houses. They do their washing in small washing machines (I miss American plumbing so much), and drive small cars on narrow roads, to shopping malls crowded with people. Coming back from America, it seems to be a pervasively claustrophobic lifestyle endured by many here.

Using Wikipedia, which usefully offers up population densities (though these of course vary widely within an individual city or town) gives, per square mile the following values for cities and towns I've lived in over the last 20 years:

London (UK) - 12,892
Sheffield (UK) - 10,228
Birmingham (UK) - 9,684
Glasgow (UK) - 8,542
Worcester (UK) - 7,323
Detroit (US, Michigan) - 5,142
Toledo (US, Ohio) - 3,768
Oxford (US, Ohio) - 3,734
Grinnell (US, Iowa) - 1,825

The one outlier is the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides off the north west corner of the UK, with a population density of 22 people per square mile.

Hmmm. An over-generalisation, but there may be something in the space thing. And am now wondering if there's any research or metrics on how much personal space people of different nationalities give each other in queues.

Incidentally, I'm not one of these people who believes that "Britain is full". That's absurd, as anyone who's lived in places such as the Outer Hebrides will confirm. There's also plenty, many, brownfield sites and unlived-in houses, around the country, to mean that there's more capacity for people (though whether the infrastructure can cope is another thing). It's just very unevenly distributed.

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