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Getting to know... the English

Jeff Pringle

Article © 2009 Jeff Pringle

T/T #97
FreeStyle 7.1 Article

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Until they get to know you, conversation is a tricky thing for the English. And unless you play by the rules they may never get to know you.

Queen's Guard

© Bennewitz

The Weather. Foreigners rarely understand the fascination the weather has for the English - but then they don't live in the British Isles. Sitting, as it does, at the sharp end of the Gulf Stream, the British Isles heavily depend upon the comforting warmer waters channeled across the Atlantic for any mildness in their climate. Were it not for this, the climate might be more like that of Norway and Sweden. And of late, even teh Gulf Stream has taken to wandering too far north. (All that ice-melt, perhaps?) So the weather is finely balanced and can be affected by both the Gulf Stream and colder northerly climatic conditions. The result is the weather can change daily - sometimes, it seems, hourly. So to talk about the current weather is to observe the current phenomena - and foreigners should have some patience with this. After all, it is no joke not knowing whether to take an umbrella or sun glasses; whether it will be hot or cold (and the resulting fears of being too cold or too hot because of wearing the wrong clothes). Whilst extremes of weather like tornadoes and monsoons might not be part of the English weather pattern, it is the unpredictability that is. And if the weather stays good or bad for a few days running that, in itself, is worthy of comment as a really good/bad patch.

Conversation. Until they get to know you, conversation is a tricky thing for the English. And unless you play by the rules they may never get to know you. The 'English reserve' is a well-known and true phenomena, so much so that when they encounter really outgoing and friendly strangers they may be suspicious - an unknown Englishman with such characteristics is probably trying to sell them something. This reserve is usually best breached, even by fellow Englishmen, by vague comments about the weather which, as you have seen, is always of interested and serves as the easy ice-breaker. That unusual phenomena - snow - really brings the barriers down, however, and adults, like little children, will suddenly be open and conversational. (It workd with wars and disasters, as well, but not let's think of that.) But don't wait around for the snow - particularly in the south - for it rarely happens. Whereas an American might greet a stranger with "Hi, I'm Harry from Boston," that sort of thing is far too forward for the English. You need to build up to the release of such personal information. In fact, the most successful conversations between strangers only skirt around specifics and wallow in generics. Giving away a bit of information about yourself is the most likely way to get any reciprocity, but be wary if no disclosures are given - in which case, better try someone else! And remember to talk about the weather first. Offer any disclosures slowly and gently, and don't excpect revealations without gently giving your own for fair exchange. "How do you do?" is the 'correct' personal greeting, along with a shaking of hands, but the person asking does not expect to be told how you actually are. They expect a similar response, with similar lack of expectations. So, code words exchanged, Englishness proven, things may then slowly progress. The European kissing exchanges would generally cause great embarrassment between English strangers, although girls and theatrical luvvies are up for it. A double-kiss exchange between males would be just shocking and might, in any case, result in a crashing of heads. The English are really only used to wanting to give their name when it is virtually too late - on parting, and that generally takes the form, "Oh, I'm Jackie, by the way, I didn't catch your name." It is then permissible to exchange names and undergo a long parting, as if long-lost friends.

Humour. A sense of humour is at the heart of the irony-saturated culture of the English, and it is often 'dead-pan'. So the English often misjudge foreigners as having no sense-of-humour when their quips are taken as serious comments; no twitch of the lip gives any indication the words might be weighted in some way. Being funny without appearing to try to do so - with the other party realising this - is a natural aim, so it is true that ironic humour is a big thing for the English - and foreigners spend most of their time, when they don't quite understand the direction of a conversation, wondering whether they are misunderstanding humour. (When in doubt, assume odd remarks are humorous. Smile and nod.) The English seem to love saying the opposite of what they really mean. "Lovely day," for example, would be a normal observation as the rain pelts down their collars while they wait for a bus. (My grandfather would have made this easier for a foreigner to understand by adding, "for ducks", but such subtle clues are long gone.) Understatement is part of all this, so someone with a chronic illness might say it is "a bit of a nuisance, really." The English, you see, really don't like making a fuss. Making a fuss is generally a no-no; it is rude to make a fuss - no matter how justified.

Courtesy. Not making a fuss is all part of their old-world courtesy. I say 'old-world', in particular, because a more insular mode of behaviour is coming to the fore in recent years and the 'old school' is not so obvious. Like opening and holding doors for people, especially a man performing this duty for a woman. Yet the 'equality rule' that some women promote sees this as almost unseemly, which goes against the grain of many of the older Englishmen, who despair at the growing 'lack of manners'.

Queuing and Fair Play. This is a peculiarly English thing, and an English person abroad cannot abide the lack of observation of ones automatic rights assigned by prior occupation. In England, formal queues form for just about anything from waiting for a bus or waiting for a stamp in a post office. If there is a problem, like there being no obvious way to queue, a general unease develops and people look around to make mental note of who was there before them. They look worried because they know they must get this right. A virtual queue thereby forms, where everyone knows his or her place like the pecking order of an animal pack. Woe-betide anyone who tries to push ahead of a real or virtual queue for this is where you will observe a fierce exception to the English reserve - for the English sense of 'fair play' is one of the strongest emotions. Break queuing conventions and you make a host of enemies in a flash. But that's only fair, isn't it? After all, if you've spent 20 minutes waiting for something, how dare someone else come along and imagine they have the right to get ahead of you? Abroad it is a different matter, for if 'push-and-shove' is your norm then fair enough, Brits can do that on foreign soil. It's just not 'British' though.

English or British? Once upon a time the English thought of themselves as British - although the Irish, Welsh and Scottish - all part of the same country - would state their true roots. The English were aware of the union instead and used to be happy to say 'British'. But there is a growing frustration and and the greater likelihood of the English saying they are English now. The Scots, you see, now have their own parliament and the English have no say on their matters - although there are Scots in the English parliament that have a say over the English. As you will now realise, this goes against the English sense of 'fair play', and hence their growing sense of being 'English' - since you get taken advantage of by just being British. After all, much financial support flows from England to these other 'nationalities'. And it now flows also to many European immigrants. They are welcome if they behave in an English manner, and work - but remember: fair play.

Sport. Serious stuff. If the government pumped money into it in the same way as many other nations do, the English would be a force to reckon with. If! Football catches most support but, unfortunately, though a relatively unaggressive game, it attracts more than its share of aggressive spectators (as opposed to 'supporters' who are not looking for a fight - other than on the pitch, by the players). Then there is rugby, a seemingly aggressive game that attracts few aggressive supporters (and is more rough than aggressive). Then there is tennis. We keep trying. One day. For those 'footie' and rugby supporters who cannot make the match there is the big-screen showing at the local pub - where the match can be washed down with plenty of beer and shouting. Ah, pubs, those places where we meet. What would we do without them (although they are closing in droves because of new drink-drive laws and cheap alcohol in supermarkets).

Pubs. These are a peculiar institution with their own customs and unwritten rules. Foreigners find it hard to understand you have to go to the bar to get service and often sit at tables waiting to be served - to the great amusement of the English as they watch their growing dissatisfaction. Because bars - unlike counters - present a horizontal aspect to their patrons, and bar staff range their full length rather than staying at a particular spot, this presents the uneasy situation of offering no prospect for an orderly queue. So here there is the need to actually get to touch the wood of the bar and then catch the eye of the bar staff - although, if it is impossible to get that close, you must create a virtual queue anywhere you like and then filter through to the bar when the opportunity arises. You are not allowed to issue any verbal clues that you wish to be served and are not merely standing there to pass the time of day - which the 'locals' do, right up there cluttering the bar area - and any physical clues must be subtle: no clicking the fingers, for example, which would greatly offend customers and staff alike. The subtle raising of an eyebrow, a smile but, most importantly, gaining meaningful eye-contact with the staff is the object of the exercise. The bar staff, aware of the problems of serving someone out of turn and making anyone get hot under the collar, will often check 'Are you next?" Never - repeat never- say "yes" if this is not true, otherwise the queue-breaking reposts will fly and you're in real trouble. Pubs also offer such fascinations as local bands, quizzes and karaoke: open mikes, when dreadful singers imagine they are good - and prove it's just in their imagination. Save our souls! What night was it again?

Clubs are the alterative to pubs for the younger scene: where 'getting bladdered' - binge drinking - now seems to be the norm; it got much worse after 24-hour opening was permitted. Loud music, cheap drinks, and undesirable behaviour go hand-in-hand with many late-night clubs. (Lockup your daughters - or get them to wear something.)

Ps and Qs. Please remember your 'please' and 'thank-you' in England or you will offend very quickly. (I guess it doesn't matter in clubs, where sign language is all that will be recognised above the throbbing music. No wonder youngsters shout so much these days.) Those who serve really don't like the demeaning aspects of it and so appreciate this recognition of the fact they 'chose' to serve - but are not servants. This politeness would conventionally be reciprocated by the bar or shop staff. The English have a heritage of being polite and it is so inherent in their nature they will generally apologise to you even if you bump into them; apologies are their natural reaction - and all part of their old-world charm, of course. The typical purchase should therefore involve at least two pleases and three thank-yous (but it might be as many as five, if all goes well).

Privacy. The English like their privacy, and the intimacy with which they live with others often shapes how open and friendly they are. Villagers, for example, used to living with open spaces around them, pleased to see their neighbours and discuss the weather, will appear more friendly than city dwellers who live cheek-by-jowl - and are interested to know more about you; you are, you see, an event. This is part of the human unease at not having personal-space, and when this is invaded - as on a tube train or bus - the typical English person shuts-down their sensors, becomes glassy-eyed, pretends the barriers have not been broken, goes into his/her shell. Abroad, however, and clearly in other people's space, the near neighbour who never considered speaking to you may become your best friend - for the duration of the holiday. Brits abroad are loyal to each other - as are most nationalities - but it is a source of great sorrow to many that a small proportion or Brits abroad give the nation a bad press. One of the reasons the English like their gardens is that this gives them a private space: then they can even be outside without anyone invading their privacy. Better still, if they own the property, they can guarantee it! Which explains why renting is not nearly so popular in England as it is elsewhere in the world.

Food. Where many nationalities take great pride in their national food, the English put many things higher on their list of priorities. I wonder if this was because, in days of old, the variety was much less due to climate, and they were used to making do with what was available? I think the truth is that English food is not as bad as many of its detractors would have us believe, but not nearly as good as it might and can be. The English nature of 'not wanting to make a fuss' does not help raise the bar in this arena. For a typical English person when asked by a waiter/waitress "Is everything all right?" will invariably response, "Yes, fine thank you," even if moments before decrying it to their companions. We were in WWII you see and don't want to make a fuss. Nor do the English want confrontation or 'making a scene' - all unwritten rules. Better to suffer in silence. Some may venture as far as the apologetic complaint: "I'm sorry but this soup seems, well, not very hot. A bit cold, really." Apologising for complaining makes the whole thing seem more seemly, and may be necessary even for very reasonable requests. "Sorry, but do you think we might have some pepper?" If ever a complaint does erupt into something that 'causes a scene', then the red-faced patron pushed beyond all limits will be the focus of much attention and might well be shunned, even for reasonable complaint, as a 'difficult customer' - even by similarly suffering fellow patrons.

Nothing to Excess. The English do not approve of anything in excess, whether this be complaining, money - or rather, its obvious display - food, gossip (fine in reasonably doses), criticism (of others, particularly celebrities), over-friendliness from strangers, boring conversation about self, etc. Excess of criticism is really only allowed in the press, and some newspapers make a living out of this. Others voicing one's own seething criticisms provides some welcome release, you see. (Thank goodness you are not alone.)

To sum up, the English pride in carrying oneself in a seemly manner, playing fair, being polite, and not being pushy, are characteristics which bring upon them many more woes than many other nationalities - including governments, rules and regulations of which most disapprove - but few will make public complaint about. Other countries might grind to a halt before the English will publically take issue. And as part of the European Union (against the will of the majority), out of fair play we play by even the most ridiculous European rules - where even the countries perpotrating them fail to comply if it is to their disadvantage.) That, you see, is our lot. Born to forbearance. But always, yes always, playing fair. Even to foreigners. (Unless they jump queues.)

One last word of warning after this insight — be careful of the stereotypes! Whilst you can always draw a thread of similarity between the nationals of a country, the extent and size of that thread may vary widely!

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