USS Clueless -- British and Americans

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British and Americans

Winston Churchill said "The British and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language." That's not the only thing which separates us.

I'm a big fan of an imported show called Junkyard Wars (known as "ScrapHeap Challenge" in the UK). TLC now has enough episodes of this series that they can (re)run it pretty continuously. (I wonder if we're in the sweeps; it seems as if a lot of the cable channels were running special programming last night [20010415].)

TLC was running a Junkyard Wars marathon, and ran three episodes from a tournament I didn't know they'd done. It was filmed in the US, and the eight teams were all Americans. (I see from the web site that it was the fourth season.)

I watched three episodes of American teams. One was to make all-terrain dune buggies, one to make hovercraft, and one to make sky rockets. And it was interesting to see just how similar -- and different -- Americans approached the process than did the British.

One thing was that the Americans were perhaps a bit less formal. For instance, that was the only time I've ever seen the two teams exchange quips with each other over the radios; until then I'd assumed each team had its own frequency. And sometimes they'd shout jokes (insults!) over the partition to each other, something the British never have done.

Indeed, the inter-team interplay was much different. The British attitude seems to be "never offend anyone". The American attitude was "give as good as you get, but don't take it seriously". There might be some culture-shock in inter-nation competition. The American teams did indeed make disparaging jokes about each other's designs -- all in good fun, of course, and absolutely not nasty. (Things like "Now I've seen their design, and I'm no longer worried." Interestingly, that guy's team lost.)

It was also interesting to see different usage of terms, such as "duct tape" instead of "gaffer tape" (an indispensable construction material for these kinds of projects nearly always). I also wondered if the British audience would be mystified when hearing Americans talk about "trannies" in the context of cars (referring, of course, to transmissions). They brought on an American co-host, and his style was quite different from the British host he replaced.

But the most surprising thing was this: in two of the three episodes the competing teams got together and did some horse trading. Each team had scavenged from the junk yard things the other teams needed. In all the episodes with British teams I've watched, that's never once happened.

Once, indeed, a member of one team actually went into the construction yard of the other team to propose a trade. That was when they were making rockets. One team had a woman as a member; the other was all men. There were more than one size of rocket motors sprinkled over the yard, and the all-male team had found one of the largest ones. Their design required three smaller ones and they didn't have them. The other team needed one large one. And they had heard that the all-male team wanted to use (believe it or not) panty-hose (British "tights") in their design. (The goal here was to loft a raw ostrich egg and recover it without breaking it, and they wanted to use panty-hose to help suspend the egg inside the nose cone -- and it worked, and their egg survived.) The British woman co-host (also the producer of the show) was talking to them about this, and one of the men said "Hmmm", looked at her speculatively, and then bent over and pulled up the ankle of her pants a couple of inches to see if she was wearing any. (Can you imagine Brits doing that?) She danced away and was by no means offended, I think. (And later in banter with her co-host when they were talking about panty-hose she said "They tried to get into my pants." I'm not quite sure if she understood the implication for Americans of that particular phrase, since it means "They tried to have sex with me" to us Yanks when said by a woman about men. Maybe it means the same thing in British.)

It's the habit of the hosts to gossip with each team about what the other is doing, and I think she may have mentioned to team with the woman member that the others had a big rocket motor but needed smaller ones and panty-hose.

So that team sent their woman member over with two small rocket motors to trade. And the all-male team was reluctant. So with a big grin on her face she said "I hear you're also looking for panty-hose" and as she said that she reached down her collar and pulled a pair out from between her cleavage where she had concealed it (not a low neckline; she was wearing coveralls) and grinned. And one of the men, without a word, reached over and got the big rocket motor and handed it to her; and she gave the panty-hose and the two small rocket motors to them, and then returned triumphantly to her own side holding the big rocket motor in the air. (I refuse to speculate about where she got panty-hose. It doesn't seem like anything you'd wear on that show but maybe she raided her luggage.)

It was a very American moment, and that was when I realized that I'd never seen the Brits do anything like that in about 10 episodes I've seen. Horse trades between opponents in two out of three American episodes; zero out of ten Brit episodes. Strange that something like that should be so different.

There are stories like that about the US Civil War. For instance, at the siege of Fredericksburg in Virginia, there was a place where the trenchlines were about a mile apart, with a woods in between. It was the habit of one side to patrol the woods at night, and the other to patrol in the day. But of course patrol is scary and nasty and a thorough hassle, and there was a cabin in the middle with a stove. And each side's patrols got in the habit of just going to that cabin and hanging out, warmed by the stove, out of the weather, sitting down, instead of patrolling like they should.

Inevitably once the two ran into each other at that cabin. They didn't fight; on the contrary, they sat down and started talking. After that, each side left a fire going in the stove for the other, and if they collected firewood and had some left over they'd leave it for the other side.

When there weren't battles, each soldier was under orders to fire ten rounds per day at the enemy. But the soldiers rapidly realized that all this did was kill and mame people to no good purpose, so on most parts of the front, before doing so they'd shout a warning to the other side to take cover, so that no-one got hurt. Which didn't diminish the ferocity of real battles, where it really did make a difference (and those were ferocious indeed, with appalling losses on both sides). (And this didn't happen on the parts of the front where the Union was using black troops; there the soldiers aimed to kill.)

In other places and times when patrols from the two sides would meet, they'd haggle. Each side's soldiers had things the other side wanted: the Rebs had tobacco and sometimes whiskey; the Yanks had better food and in particular coffee (which wasn't available in the South because of the naval blockade of Southern ports). So they'd sit down and dicker and trade supplies.

In WWII there was a non-trivial amount of culture shock in philosophy of command between the British and American forces when they tried to run a unified military on the western front in Europe. The Royal Army insisted on tight discipline. The US Army recognized that with American soldiers, morale and effectiveness are improved if a certain amount of insubordination is tolerated. Indeed, in some cases insubordination was institutionalized. "Stars and Stripes" routinely ran articles and cartoons making fun of officers (in general, but never in specific), not to mention making fun of the Germans and the British and the French and the newspapers and the politicians back home and nearly everything else. If the RA ever did anything like that I never heard of it.

In some American engineering units, command had nothing to do with rank. When doing things like constructing bridges, the men who knew what they were doing would tell the others what they should do to help, irrespective of the ranks each held. Privates would give orders to sergeants and sergeants give orders to officers, and no-one thought anything of it. They weren't an Army unit doing a job, they were men doing a job for the Army. The British would never tolerate such things, I think.

The American attitude towards authority is "We understand that command hierarchies are needed, but we're damned if we'll worship it." I've never had a boss that I didn't address by first name; I call no superior "Mister". I honestly think that the American on JunkYard Wars who pulled up that woman's pants leg was really doing it because she was the show producer, as a genuinely American gesture of "You may be the producer but that doesn't mean you're better than I am." Americans are equal-opportunity jokers.

It's easy to forget just how different British and American cultures really are.

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