The exercise is tired, using a single fulcrum upon which to distinguish two different cultures. It is familiar but does have some element of truth to it.
This last sentence encapsulates what is, to me, a fundamental difference in the British and American psyches. The frustration an American feels upon removing a poorly washed, barely-dried load from his or her UK appliance isn’t really about the laundry at all. It’s about the tension between how each culture sees the world.What she says is all true.
But first, for the uninitiated, some background. A typical London flat dweller fortunate enough to have in-home laundry facilities likely has the combo washer-dryer Furseth described above. The machine’s basketball-sized drum holds an amount equivalent to one queen-sized fitted sheet and two pillowcases, or two bath towels and up to three washcloths, or 1.7 days’ worth of a family’s dirty clothes. A wash-and-dry cycle takes three to four hours. Because the machine rumbles like a rocket on a launch pad, your drying is best done at a time that doesn’t disturb downstairs neighbors or sleeping children. Also, London water is hard and seduces the dye from the fibers of your clothes, commingling passionately for a few wild spins before draining away and leaving all items the same Dickensian gray.
The color challenge can be circumvented through assiduous sorting. But there is no getting around the fact that the drying function just doesn’t work. Clothes come out damp. The end result is a flat with socks and undershirts dangling over bathtubs and radiators. Of course, there are worse ways to live. But—why? When a technological fix is available, why would anyone choose to live this way?
Home drying technologies have been slow to catch on in the UK. An estimated 85% of US households have a clothes dryer; only 56% of UK ones do. “The first time I saw a tumble dryer was on an episode of Baywatch, when the clothes of a would-be drowning victim were put through the wash,” Furseth wrote. “My family had all the standard home appliances, but dryers aren’t very common in Europe. The idea that you could wash an outfit and wear it again the very same day seemed impossible.” That’s insane! Baywatch ran from 1989 to 2001. Electric tumble dryers were a fixture of middle-class US homes by the 1960s. What was happening in Britain during those lost decades? Why would a nation prioritize satellite television over the pleasures of freshly-laundered socks?
To an American, this is baffling. Britain is not sunny Italy, where I’m guessing you can simply fling washed clothes onto the terrazza in the morning and they’re crisp by the end of your post-prandial nap. Britain is damp. It’s wet all the time. It rained every single day for a month when I first moved there—and that was in the summer. It is a place crying out for the convenience of warm, dry clothes.
This acceptance is at the heart of many American immigrants’ frustrations about life in the UK. And it highlights a fundamental cultural between the US and UK that I’d characterize, broadly, as a British inclination to accept things as they are, versus an American inclination to alter and change them.
Decades ago, a cartoonist in Punch (or possibly it was the Spectator) made the same point much more succinctly.
The single frame cartoon showed some angels in heaven, in the foreground, speaking to one another were two English angels, and on a cloud in the background, a rowdy group of angels hooting and hollering, clearly celebrating something. The one English angel says to the other in explanation, "Its the Yanks. They've struck oil."
That, to me, summarizes the difference in cultural orientation. The Americans are always seeking to make things better while the British, as described by Purtille, do take pride in their stiff upper lips, and capacity to muddle through no matter how challenging the circumstances.