Differences in Culture and Consumer Behaviour Between the UK and US

July 8, 2024

Historic and linguistic ties mean that the US and UK share many cultural similarities, and it’s important not to overstate what in some cases have become cultural stereotypes. Not every English person is a tea-sipping monarchist.

This post will cover some commonly identified cultural and behavioural differences of which to be aware when doing business across the Atlantic.

Communication style

Americans tend to be more direct and straightforward, whereas the British often value understatement and may communicate in a more indirect or nuanced manner. Brits often appreciate dry, subtle humour, including sarcasm and irony. They are wary of overly aggressive sales tactics, which some see as a characteristic of American marketing.

This isn't to say that Brits don't appreciate an ability to get to the point of a meeting and make a proposal. They may just also appreciate the chance to uncover all the background and talk through different solutions.

You may want to consider how this affects the tone of your marketing and website design, and be mindful of cultural references and idioms which may not be understood by a UK audience.

It's not all about afternoon tea


Meetings in the UK may start with some light conversation as a form of courtesy, while in the US meetings may be more agenda driven. American business culture tends to be more results-oriented with quicker decision-making, while the British apparently take a more measured, analytical approach.

Despite this apparently more relaxed approach to the course of a meeting, Americans typically work longer hours: according to the OECD, over the course of a year the average worker in the US works 1,811 hours compared to 1,532 in the UK.

Partly this is attributable to holidays. While Brits have a legal right to 28 days of paid holiday per year, there’s no minimum in the US (although most employers tend to honour various federal holidays and give 10-15 days of additional holidays).

Politics and Society

Although the UK has a free market economy, attitudes towards the appropriate level of government involvement in society differ. The UK has a publicly funded healthcare system (the 'National Health Service' or NHS) and most employers do not offer healthcare benefits as a result, while the US historically has a more private insurance-based model.

Middle-income earners in the UK pay a slightly higher share of tax from their pay, but expect more public services as a result, and the chief reason for the lower disposable income than in the US is because of lower pre-tax incomes on average.

The UK has seen a trend towards secularisation in recent years, with the British Social Attitudes Survey finding that over 50% of Brits may now identify as non-religious. Religion is generally seen as a private matter and has limited impact on public policy debates. This contrasts with the US, where Christianity is more prominent and it’s normal for politicians and celebrities to make public proclamations regarding their faith.

It’s worth contrasting the strong culture of admiration for the military in US society, which isn’t entirely absent in the UK but is noticeably subtler. The UK armed forces are much smaller and people are less likely to have serving family members. Expressions of support for the military tend to be less overt, although the wearing of poppies in November before Remembrance Sunday is a deeply engrained tradition.

There is widespread pride about the country’s role in the Second World War in particular, but military culture is in general much less visible in the UK. Much national pride is instead tied to the NHS, the country’s publicly-funded healthcare system. A ‘10% discount for healthcare workers’ would be seen as normal and appropriate, whereas a special offer for 'veterans' would sound unusually American.

Ethnic diversity

The UK is ethnically diverse, and while racial tensions exist, they are less prominent than in US public discourse. 18% of the UK population are of non-white or mixed racial heritage (compared to around 24% of the US), with roughly 15% of both countries born abroad. But this comparable overall diversity masks significant differences. For example, according to census data, 13.6% of the US population identify as black or African American, with a significant portion tracing their heritage through hundreds of years of US history. In contrast, the UK’s smaller 4% black population is mainly linked to more recent economic migration in the second half of the twentieth century, and is heavily concentrated in London.

The number of people claiming a Latin American background, while significant in the US, is tiny in the UK. The UK does have a significant Asian population, chiefly in cities, associated with migration from the 1970s onwards from countries which were formerly part of the British empire, including in East Africa. The term ‘Asian American’ tends to refer to people of East Asian descent, while in general it’s assumed that ‘Asian British’ refers to people with a South Asian racial background.

These differences can play out in unexpected ways for an ecommerce business straddling the Atlantic. For example, one UK brand began selling their most popular poster design into the US market, which featured a group of women marching with a banner promoting votes for women in the early 20th century. The historic design had been popular in the UK and no concerns had been raised about the ethnic profile of the women (who appeared to be white), perhaps because of a general awareness of ethnic diversity as a more recent phenomenon in the UK. In contrast, the design drew accusations of racism when launched in the US for its failure to accurately depict what people may have assumed was a historically more diverse society.

Food and popular culture

Portion sizes in the US are generally larger than in the UK, with the dining experience more service-oriented and the food itself possibly sweeter or more heavily seasoned. The UK has a very competitive supermarket sector which keeps consumer grocery bills relatively low.

Popular sports in the UK include soccer (called ‘football’), cricket and rugby. While many Brits enjoy the same television, movies and music as Americans, be careful of referring to sports stars and celebrities who may be less familiar - Brits are far less likely to watch American football, baseball or basketball.

Customer Service

While expectations for customer service have converged in recent years, the British approach to customer service can be more reserved. While in the US customers might expect more proactivity and more of an emphasis on speed, customer service tends to be less intrusive in the UK, with the customer initiating the interaction. The US favours a more personal and informal style, while the UK leans to a more formal and polite tone.

There is a bigger tipping culture in the US, with 20% considered normal in hospitality, whereas 10% would be considered more appropriate in the UK. British customers may be less direct in expressing dissatisfaction. They value discretion and might express complaints in a more subdued manner.

While it’s worth being aware of these sorts of nuances, the core principles of good customer service - such as respect, efficiency and helpfulness - are of course universal. Customer service representatives can be coached to take into account different cultural expectations, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to run your customer service centrally rather than have a separate team for the UK.

Online Shopping & Payments

Given the UK’s size, 24-hour shipping times are more normal than in the US (Amazon’s Prime service, for example, promises free 1-day shipping compared to 2-day in the US). This also means that consumers are used to being offered a free shipping option, at least for orders above a certain threshold.

Credit and debit cards, alongside other options like Paypal, are the norm for consumer online payment methods and paper cheques have all but vanished. Meanwhile, business-to-business payments are often expected via an instant bank transfer called BACS (normally free), and many may not allow credit card payments without an additional fee.


If you're a US ecommerce brand, it's worth having a rough idea of the range of cultural differences before launching in the UK. This is especially the case assuming your marketing leans heavily on one particular demographic.

There's a great chance your target audience not only exists in the UK but will be large enough and interested enough to want to hear from you. But you'll at least want to have some conversations with British people on how your target audience might differ from the equivalent US audience.

If you want to do this properly, you'll need to do it in person.

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