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What makes the English English

Two weeks ago, a student asked me very earnestly “What do you [Americans] think of the British?” After spending several days in Cambridge, England, I've been thinking more about this question, what really distinguishes Americans from the British, and what we have in common.

Trinity College (and the grass you can't walk on)
It’s clear that there are ‘cultural’ traits that we share. Food tastes seem similar between Britain and the US, although I think Britain has a worse reputation with the French. Some of the foods that we seem to share, for example are oatmeal (porridge), peanut butter, sliced bread, while there are other definitely British foods that are foreign to the US, like puddings, certain meat dishes, etc. Another similarity I found was that Britain also seems to have the mentality of a ‘service’ culture, somewhat like the US. This can be seen in the fact that stores are open on Sundays and there are many public restrooms (for anyone who doesn't know, these two things are not common in France).
King's College Chapel

In spite of these cultural similarities, Cambridge is a great place to bring out some of the major differences between Britain and the US. The biggest difference, which I’d like to elaborate on, is the respect for tradition, which almost seems to be a religion in Cambridge. In my short trip I discovered that Cambridge is full is little quirks of preserved tradition, that range from the very prestigious (a tradition of reserving dorm rooms of famous alumni for only the most worthy students) to the very silly (a rule where college professors or fellows can walk on the grass of some of the common areas, whereas the lowly students must stay on the sidewalks).
 A good example to examine Cambridge’s obsession with tradition is the night we went to a ‘formal’ dinner in one of the dining halls. Keep in mind that these are not ordinary cafeterias, but beautiful old buildings that from the outside look like chapels, with sloped wooden ceilings, long benches, and portraits of past college Masters on the walls. It was really special to take part in such a dinner (not being a student), and we had to reserve several days in advance, wear gowns, and were served by a wait staff while eating by candlelight. This is not the usual treatment you expect from a college dining hall!
the outside of Trinity College's dining hall

‘Formal’ dinner takes place every night of the week in this particular college. That Monday night, there were probably 13-14 of us total eating, but the dinner was still served. It was interesting to see that Cambridge appears to be so attached to tradition and history that something like a formal dinner will be maintained, even if there aren't enough attendants to make it worth it for the college’s resources.

Professors receive even more exceptional treatment. Professors who decide to attend formal dinner eat in a separate room, and, from what I could see on the trays that went past our table, had a different, more elaborate and elegant dinner than the students.
candlelight dinner at Peterhouse College

So there you have it, a good example of tradition, which, at its best is a way of passing down age-old practices and preserving a cultural heritage. At its worst, exaggerated hierarchy and a possible waste of the university’s resources, although I have the impression that Cambridge has resources to spare.

This brings up a topic that is an undercurrent in Europe in general, that is the preservation of history and tradition. As an American, I find it interesting to see how different countries go about integrating their traditions and history into our modern world. France likes to label things, so you know if they belong to a certain category of tradition (building, food, wine) and to assert a certain level of quality. They also host a lot of cultural events in France celebrating its history. From the small example I saw in Cambridge, this particular university was very concerned in maintaining a certain hierarchy, clearly distinguishing those who belong to the college, and those who don’t. Within that hierarchy are obvious other rankings (teacher vs. student, undergraduate vs. graduate student, etc.). I'll consider myself lucky to have been (for a few days) a part of those privileged few.   


  1. We have traditions in the United States such as having the dog wait at the door until the master tells them it is OK to go outside.


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