192. Culture Shock: Life in London (Pt.1)

This episode is all about common complaints made by foreign students living in London. It’s common to experience some level of culture shock when dealing with the realities of living in the capital city as a foreign visitor. In this episode I’ll try and clarify some of the confusions and frustrations relating to every day life in London. Click here to download this episode. Click here for part 2 of this episode.

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I lived in London for many years and while working as an English teacher there I heard a lot of complaints from foreign students. I also heard plenty of nice comments of course. But in this episode I’d like to focus on the complaints in order to try and explain or demystify them. Fair enough – some of the complaints are valid, but often they are the result of those students/visitors experiencing culture shock related to living in an environment that was not normal for them, or for which the cause was not obvious. It’s important to find reasons for cultural phenomena that you don’t understand because it prevents you from coming to false conclusions about that place. I don’t want people just assuming that the English people are just strange. I mean, we are a bit strange of course, just like anyone, but a lot of the things we do are quite normal when you see it from our point of view. So, what are those common complaints? And what are the reasons for these strange and annoying aspects to English life? Perhaps the Londoners have got it wrong and they do things in the wrong way, or perhaps the foreign visitors just don’t see the whole picture. Listen to find out more.

What’s in this Episode?
*There is so much to say on this subject that I expect it will be divided into two episodes!*
1. Some short interviews with my colleagues in London, in which we discuss these common complaints.
I wanted to find out if my colleagues could explain some of the weird or annoying things about life in London. You can hear our responses in this episode. Some expressions and phrases from that recording are written on this webpage (below).
2. My responses to the complaints, and some explanations.
I’ll try and explain the reasons for these particular aspects of London life as well as I can, and I’ll decide if the complaint is fair or not.

It’s not all Negative
The cup is usually half-full! Of course, foreign students in London have plenty of great things to say about the place. Certainly, there are more positive things than negative, but I find that when students have lived in London for a little while, and they start to come face to face with the realities of living here, they start to develop little gripes (complaints) about the place, which can confuse and frustrate them. Let me try and clarify!

The Complaints about Life in London (commonly said by students of English)
Here’s a list of some of the typical complaints made by foreign students studying in London, and some notes relating to my responses that you can hear in this audio episode. You might find some of the complaints bizarre – that’s normal. I found some of them really bizarre when I first heard them, but you have to remember that the people who said these things came from countries in which the situation is quite different. They’re all completely true, and very common comments. After each complaint I will judge of the complaint is “reasonable” or “not reasonable”, and then I will “reject” or “accept” the complaint. If you don’t agree with my decisions, leave a comment explaining why!

1. “Why do you have a separate hot tap and a separate cold tap? I’m always scaulding my hands.”
The old 2-taps issue! It’s due to the development of plumbing, lack of water pressure, and separate water supplies.
Interview with Karen Robertson. Last year Karen contacted me after reading a blog post I wrote on “Two Taps in the Bathroom” on the London School of English Blog. She lives in London, but is originally from South Africa. She was studying a MA in digital journalism at London Goldsmith University, and was doing a video project on foreign students’ reactions to London’s plumbing system, specifically the two taps issue. She wanted to interview me for the project. I recorded the interview and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to let you listen to the conversation. Karen has researched the issue a lot and is able to give some pretty good reasons for the two taps in the bathroom mystery! (Karen gave me full permission to include this interview on the podcast).

2. “Why don’t you have electrical sockets in the bathroom? How am I supposed to dry my hair after I’ve had a shower and look in the mirror at the same time?”
This is because we consider it to be dangerous and there is legislation to protect people from being electrocuted.

3. “The food is so plain and unhealthy”
Why is English food so bad? Most of the famous stuff is based on ‘working class recipes’ – the recipes of poor people who had limited access to ingredients and who had to make food that would keep or was portable. This food is often specific to local regions, and naturally people are proud of their local culture and so they celebrate the food, and it becomes part of our tradition. The rich people had food too, but it’s pretty exclusive stuff and very expensive. A lot of our good food is seasonal. A lot is cooked privately, at home. Also, we have been very international for many years. English food is Indian, Chinese, French etc. We eat YOUR food, thanks very much. I think it was John Cleese who said that English food is bad because we were too busy taking over the world to focus on cooking.

4. “The weather is miserable. It’s always raining”
Why is British weather so bad? It’s not that bad, it’s just changeable. Geography – we’re far north of the hemisphere and that’s just what happens up there! Deal with it. Also, it doesn’t get foggy in London like the stereotype. That’s an old myth. We had the industrial revolution which brought lots of smoke which combined with fog from the river. The result was old victorian smog made famous by Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes stories and others. The weather’s not that bad really, just a bit grey and chilly. The rain means the country is very green. The weather in Paris is pretty much the same.

5. “Why on earth do you drive on the left? It’s like you have to do everything differently here”
Why do the brits drive on the left? We’re not that stupid actually. We’ve been doing it for centuries, ever since it was normal to ride on the left as a way of staying safe (keep your sword in your right hand to defend yourself on horseback, etc). It should make sense, right? Remember, left is right, and right is just wrong! Also, it’s not just us. Plenty of others do it too including India, Japan, Australia and large parts of Africa. Sure, most of the world drives on the right, but it would be pretty hard for us to switch. Actually, our government is considering introducing a new law so that we will all drive on the right, but they’re going to phase it in over a 5 year period. First it’ll just apply to busses, and then cars, and finally motorbikes. Those last two sentences were a joke. Well done if you noticed :P

6. “The trains are always late, and when they arrive they are full and I can’t get on!”
This is the result of a combo of one bad decision by the government, privatisation and a powerful union for the tube.

7. “Why are there so many foreigners here? I haven’t met a ‘real’ English person yet”
Why are there so many foreginers here? Oh the irony. You won’t make many British friends with that attitude, except for UKIP or BNP members but they might not want to be friends with you in return. Generally, we’re a proudly multicultural place. Also, London is much more multicultural than other parts of the UK, so it’s not an accurate representation of the country as a whole. Take a good look around before making a sweeping judgement! Also, this is partly due to Britain’s past, particularly London. At one time, the British empire spanned the globe. We’ve had interests and dealings with many foreign countries for many years. We’re tied to plenty of foreign countries in complex ways. This is reflected in the fact that we have a multicultural population. Many people have come from our former colonies. Some were invited after the war. Also, lots of people just want to come to The UK because there are plenty of opportunities here, and why should they be stopped? It’s quite hypocritical to complain about the number of foreigners in London when you’re a foreigner (even if you’re just visiting for a while). London has an appeal for many people and for many different reasons. It always strikes me as ironic when a foreign visitor turns their nose up at London saying, “there are too many foreigners here”. What did they expect? Diversity is an integral part of London’s history and identity. Do they really expect some kind of Hollywood stereotype of London in which business men with top hats wander around empty streets like it’s the 1950s, saying “Good morning” with received pronunciation accents? Wake up and smell the coffee. Welcome to the real world in the 21st century. Multiculturalism may not be normal where you’re from but London is a proudly diverse place. Regarding immigration, some people in Britain believe it has gone too far, and maybe they have a case and the local culture is somehow being swamped, or maybe they’re just using immigration as a scapegoat for other problems. Whatever the case, personally I find it very disappointing to hear students complaining about London’s diversity. The bit about “I haven’t met a real English person yet?” – well, what is a real English person I ask you? Also, if you walk around with that kind of attitude, you’re unlikely to make good friends with many Londoners, except perhaps UKIP supporters.)

Vocabulary Extracts from the Conversation with my Colleages
Look at the following language from the conversations. These are vocabulary extracts from the conversation with my colleagues in London.
Look at the phrases:
Which topics were they about?
Can you remember what each person said about these things?

Listen again to the conversation and try to notice the phrases as they are used. In the podcast I’ll explain these phrases to you a little bit.

Time and time again
Maybe it’s because it’s a much drier climate
A lot of English people are lazy when it comes to …-ing
We don’t have any call for other languages
Apart from English, learning languages isn’t fun

Let’s see
The server
Stuff like that
I tend to agree
I can understand that
Get run over
We’ve got that weird mentality
We’re stupid aren’t we

Come up with (come up with a list of things)
What do you reckon? I mean, like, why?
In the olden days
Environmentally friendly
Have something on tap
To have running water
To count yourself lucky

I must dash
I’m sorry Luke, really, I have to dash

They’re always griping and moaning
To be honest, they do like England a lot otherwise they wouldn’t come here
Get irritated
Now tell me if this is weird, or not, right?
Washing up liquid
That could’ve been my house. That could’ve been me.
How else would you do it?
Sorry, I didn’t catch that
You have to soap them all individually, then rinse them
It’s got soap left on! It’s got the residue!
Can I just clarify what we’re talking about?
Put them under running water
Run them under the tap


  • Deniz

    Hey Luke. That’s very interesting and nice episode, especially with that old tape recorder part. Your voice did not change at all.

    Btw, was R2-D2 your colleague by then? Just check the sound at 17:55 :)

    • Yes, R2 was the teaching assistant.

      • Deniz

        Yeah, I thought it was :) Btw audioboom embedded record doesn’t have that “sound” I mentioned, but the downloadable version has. If you checked that time by using embedded version, probably you thought “oh he is probably high or something”.

      • Really? But it’s the same file in both cases. Maybe one of the versions has a different timecode than the other, but the sound should definitely occur in both versions.

      • Deniz

        Yes, it’s solved! That sound is at 17:12 with the embedded audioboom version.

  • gooodeer

    Thank you teacher Luke. Thanks to u i am English come along .someday… l hope to write about ‘Thanks’ more longer than now. sincerely Thank you.

  • Hi, I’ve just discovered your podcast, and I think it’s brilliant. Thank you very much for your work. As a foreigner I find out a lot of interesting stuff here, and it makes my education process really enjoyable. Thank you again, and keep going!

  • Yaron

    I don’t know why everybody complained about 2 taps in the sink. 2 taps is brilliant, in my country it is even better. We have 2 taps in the shower, so, when I take a shower, I need to jump from the hot stream to the cold stream!! it just me being sarcastic… :-)

    If I would be serious, in my opinion, it is brilliant that every country has a different culture. I just can’t imagine how boring the world could be if we all have the same culture.

    Luke, I wonder, did you read “Shogon” by James Clavell? This book mix English guy, Japan and culture shock… sounds familiar? Well, the different is that “Shogon” story occur on the 16th century.

    (I know that also asked you about it in the discussion forum, I don’t want to bother you by repeating myself, but it really interest me… if you do read it, so what you think about this novel, and if you don’t read it, so, in this case I highly recommended it to you)

    Brilliant episodes about culture shock!
    Thanks you for your amazing podcast.

  • Anonymous

    I really tried very hard to understand the recording. It’s impossible for me to understand. I used the slow playing, but it didn’t help very much.

    • Sorry you couldn’t follow the episode. Why is that? Was I speaking too quickly? Was it the sound quality?

    • Ah, I think you must be talking about the recording from the tape machine in the teachers’ room.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, it was the recording from the tape machine. I had had never trouble before understanding you on a tape recording only this time. However it was even more difficult to understand Claudia.
        Nevertheless I got what you were talking about.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Luke
      I listened to the recording from the tape again and I could guess some more words. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.-:)
      It’s fun but only if there is a bit of a success. Today I found three more words which I didn’t understand last time and I’ll try again tomorrow.
      And the recording gets better after you talked to Claudia.

      • Well done Maria, I know that recording is a challenge, but I think it’s quite good to practise listening in slightly poor conditions sometimes.

  • Serge

    Hi, Very useful podcast and interesting one. The unique one. Nobody made that before! You apply so many techniques for us to be into this. Thanks!
    About the first car. It was invented by self-taught Russian inventor Leonty Luk’yanovich Shamshurenkov. As well as the first speedometer/ odometr was invented by him and presented in 1752 in Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

  • Gábor Gazdag

    Just to response to your question on “why are the others drive in the other side” I heard an anecdote that says originally Napoleon started to ride his horse on the right side because he was left-handed and all others was forced to do the same :-)
    I don’t know if this is true but when you asked that makes me to remember this from my school time :-)

    • If it is true, that’s a pretty arrogant and misguided thing to do! It would force most of his soldiers to ride in a weaker position.

  • libardomm

    Hi my dear friend :). I think that your podcast are the best ever. The only bad thing, I think is that those podcast are too long and for to be honest I can’t hear the entire episode because I’ve a lot of work to do :(.
    Anyway I’m sure you’re the best english teacher with the best podcast’s colecction ever :).

    • Thanks for the comment!
      Regarding the length of episodes, why don’t you just pause the episode, do your work, and then listen to the rest of the episode later?