Where the British are different

When setting out for the UK, I honestly didn’t expect it would be much different from home. Rainy, dull weather; terrible food; a language I understand; basically, more of the same.

A few weeks ago, my only female colleague (who will leave soon :() had her PhD viva. The lab moved from some ~150 miles further up last autumn, which means that the event took place there. Because for me, and for some of the other foreigners in our lab, a viva is something special, I organised a trip there. Even though we’ve known her for only a few weeks really, I felt some moral obligation to go there. The British lads all argued that she’s good, will be fine, doesn’t need us. I was quite surprised, as some of us would even travel all the way back to our home countries to support a friend at their viva! This was quite the commitment, as we had to leave at 5 o’clock to be there on time. Just image how hard that was for the Spanish guy who usually starts his day around 11…

As predicted, she gave a brilliant talk and the viva itself went fine. Couple of minor corrections. We had some beers afterwards and had to leave ridiculously early, as the last train from there to here left already at half past 7! Anyway, she was really happy we showed up and we had a nice day there. All well, you’d say, apart from her being disappointed that although we found the way there, her best “friend” from the lab hadn’t.

But when she came back to the lab after correcting the thesis and some holidays, nothing more followed. I thought the least she could do, if she really appreciated us being there, is drag us all to the pub and have a drink together – one that would last a little longer than 7 pm. Anticipating this occasion, I had even organised a present, a glass block with her favourite crystal structure engraved in it in 3D. But nothing came. Until one of the British lads mentioned to me that she was really disappointed that we hadn’t organised something. Excuse me?! We traveled 6 hours for her viva and missus is expecting US to organise HER party?

And then he explained to me that that’s how things are done here. Your birthday, others bring cake. Your viva, others invite you for a party. My counter question, how do you know when she has time for a party?, was waved away. This is how we do things. They were absolutely shocked by the idea of bringing your own cake for your birthday. Yeah, thank you so much for communicating this so clearly. Our mutual disappointment could’ve been avoided if our British lads would’ve spoken up about it. Minor issue; still gets me thinking about other things that’ll inevitably come my way that are done differently here than back home… Maybe there are more differences than I thought there could possibly be!

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2 comments

  1. Fascinating! Over here in Sweden (and also back home), it’s also standard practice to bring your own cake for your birthday and organise your own post-defence party. It’s frustrating when people don’t tell you these things – that’s why I always ask a lot of questions about how stuff is usually done when I’m in a foreign place, it’s awkward and I worry that I might be bothersome but I figure it’s better to know.

    1. It’s definitely better to ask and know – I still remember that awkward moment in Germany where I thought I’d congratulate someone by kissing him (as we do back in the Netherlands), and he thought I wanted to give him a hug (as apparently was the normal thing there)! Not sure what the resulting mix looked like to people standing around 😉

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