US and UK: Divided by a common language!

To tip or not to tip: that is the question? And how many mayors does London have (yes, plural!)? These are some of the many common questions that many visitors from the US frequently ask – so Blue Badge Tourist Guide David Poyser put together some interesting Brit-US differences in this post – enjoy!


Which one to press? British lifts have a floor zero! (photo from Creative Commons)

1. First Floor?

Why is the First Floor the Ground Floor and the Second Floor the First Floor? The Brits don’t see a one storey building as having any ‘floors’. The ‘first’ floor (i.e. the first level that would require an elevator/lift/stairs) is, therefore, the second floor. This little quirk is unique to Brits – in the rest of Europe the ground floor is the first floor … Oh yes, and our elevators are called ‘lifts’.  



No-one likes to mention the john/bathroom/restroom/toilet in any language. One poor American visitor, famously asked for the bathroom, got embarrassed when there was no toilet there so she used the sink in desperation, and then her bum got stuck in the sink so she then unfortunately had to call for help. Yowch! The Brits use the word ‘loo’ (a way of shortening ‘lavatory’ – a formal name for a washroom), the word ‘toilet’ (from a French word where ladies looked after themselves) or perhaps sign the ‘WC’ (water closet). Hotels and restaurants are easy as we have the universal phrase the Gents (Men’s room) and the Ladies. We also used to ‘take a leak’ (less so these days) but, careful, when Brits ‘take the piss’ it means to mock.  


Eton College – Prince William’s school. Fees are £42,500 (say €60,000) a year (photo Creative Commons)

3. Public schools

This is our name for private schools! Originally, a couple of hundred years ago, when private tutors expanded education to anyone from ‘the public’, they became known as ‘public schools’ as you could go (if you had the money) regardless of your Dad’s job, the family religion or locality. British ‘public schools’, many of them boarding schools, are now famous for providing us Brits with our elite. Most Brits (about 93%) go to state schools (government-funded schools) and as only the elite can afford ‘public schools’ the word can often be a term of derision so they prefer to call themselves as ‘independent schools’. The term hasn’t caught on. They are always known as public schools and the people who went to them (as you would normally leave your region to go to one and board there) are said to have ‘public school accents’. One of them, Eton, boasts the Queen’s grandsons and two of the last three British Prime Ministers as former pupils (in fact 20 Brit Prime Ministers in all attended Eton). You can see the school when your Blue Badge Tourist Guide shows you around Windsor Castle.  


Cambridge University, founded in 1209. 400 years later, one of its graduates, the Rev. John Harvard, went off to found another University on the other side of the Atlantic! (photo – Jean-Luc Benezet at Unsplash)

4. University/graduation

The Brits who leave ‘secondary school’ at age 18 often go on to University (‘Uni’) – Oxford and Cambridge are the most famous but many, many others are in the world’s top twenty. At the end of (usually) three years ay Uni, aged about 22, only then do we ‘graduate’. We do not ‘graduate’ from ‘secondary schools’ (private or public).  



London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, leading a parade (photo Creative Commons)

5. Mayors

How many does London have? Answer – quite a lot! The ‘major’ Mayor is Sadiq Khan. He’s elected for four years by all Londoners (re-Election May this year, pandemic permitting). It’s the big job with power over London’s transport, police, fire brigade and so on. His immediate predecessor in this role was Boris Johnson who, within four years of leaving the job, became our Prime Minister. (Almost) all the other Mayors are ceremonial. The fanciest is the Lord Mayor of the City of London. We can trace Mayors of this part of London back to the year 1189 (that’s three hundred years before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492). Even the Queen needs his permission to enter the City of London. The other London regions (its 32 ‘boroughs’) also have their own Mayor. I was Mayor of the London Borough of Islington 2018-2019 – a ceremonial role with a lot of ‘dressing up’.  


6. VAT

There’s only two certainties, death and taxes, and we Brits pay our share. At the end of bills you will often see ‘VAT’ (Value Added Tax) which is the British national sales tax.


I am the short in the middle – the soldiers have better headwear! Photo by David Poyser

7. Tipping

Difficult in any country. Generally, in the rest of Europe people tip about 5%. As North Americans often tip 20% and we Brits feel split between being fully European or a bit American, we tip 10% – halfway between the two. Black cab taxi-drivers would expect a tip, as would waiters/waitresses (though this is now frequently included in the Bill/check). Do you tip your tourist guide?Only if you want to! Your Blue Badge Tourist Guide will never ask for tips, but if you are happy with our service, it’s much appreciated too 😂. (Your author is perhaps not totally independent in this view!).  


About the author:

As well as being a tour guide, David Poyser is a local politician in Islington, the area of London where he lives, and where both George Orwell and Charles Dickens lived. He was Mayor of Islington 2018-2019. Prior to local politics, he worked in international politics working for the European Union in Brussels after a twenty-year career in journalism and broadcasting where he won many awards producing and directing programmes for various television channels including the BBC, NBC and the Discovery Channel. You can enjoy his tours of London and the South East and his walking tours around The City of London and on George Orwell .