The differences between Britain and the US are fascinating.
It’s easy to think that England and the US are overwhelmingly similar, given a shared language, “Western” culture, and (usually) similar political ideologies. However, spend any time here and it becomes increasingly obvious that many of these so-called similarities are surprisingly surface-level.
One of the most interesting things to experience over the past few weeks has been the British response to the BP oil spill, which has been surprisingly strong – and surprisingly negative. Over the past month President Obama has become increasingly vocal in denouncing the management of BP and the unthinkable amounts of damage the oil has caused to the economy and ecosystem of the US Gulf Coast. In the growing media storm, most Americans have probably sided with the President – I know many friends, coworkers, and family members who have boycotted BP oil, joined relief teams, and generally expressed outrage at the inability to stem the thousands of gallons of oil continuing to spill into the Atlantic Ocean.
However, come to England and the response will most likely be outrage not at the spill’s environmental damage or BP’s poor business management, but at the “increasingly aggressive language” of the American president and his “anti-British rhetoric” (all quotes from a recent article on the front page of The Daily Telegraph). As BP’s share prices have plummeted in the wake of the disaster, English pensioners have become increasingly hysterical about the reputation of the company – and why? 1 in every £7 of dividends paid to British pension plans is funded by BP. The company has lost at least 50 billion pounds off its value in the last month due to increasing political criticism, and with the recent decision to set up a $20 billion payout plan, it is likely to have far-reaching consequences for British pensioners. While David Cameron has avoided taking part in the calls for demanding a halt to the “beating up… of a great British company on the airwaves,” there is a general raw feeling associated with the name BP and the stereotypical political and economic bullying of the United States.
The British response has been so fascinating in large part because from an American perspective the oil spill seems so obviously horrific – and the fact that never once had I heard the oil spill equated with England. From an American perspective, much of the news before I left for England had focused on the American management, US clean-up efforts, and the need to enact more stringent environmental controls and business oversight. Never once did I hear an antagonistic news report lambasting the British or considering their business protocols or repercussions. This may just be another example of American ego-centrism, but there you have it – I (and I assume most other Americans) had never even considered the fact that the “B” in BP stood for British. (On second thought – has the American press mentioned British involvement lately? I have no idea… please update me if they have!)
While it would be unfair to say that all British people have had as strong of a negative reaction as I’ve painted here (there will always be preachy newscasters with outrageous opinions), the difference in reactions has at least served solidify my curiosity, as well as my caution. I have never wanted to be equated with the loud, backpack-toting, flipflop- and oversized-t-shirt-wearing, overbearing stereotype of an American. Similarly, I hope that I have at least some appreciation and respect for the perspectives of others, in a world that I feel is increasingly shrinking. It has been an incredibly useful experience to watch and hear the response to an American disaster from outside our borders, and I wish that everyone could share that… perhaps we would be much more humble as a result!