Manners, American and British

The British have manners. They have such good manners that from time to time they’ll throw them out the window to scold strangers for their lack of them.

Wild Thing and I were in the outdoor section of a café once—a cramped, eat-your-lunch-and-get-out kind of place—and as a couple who’d been sitting nearby wove past our table to leave, one of them said, “In this country, we say please and thank you.”

Sadly, by the time we’d processed the words, they were too far away for a snappy comeback, but “In our country, we’re polite to strangers,” did come to mind. It may not be true, but I still wish I’d been quick enough to say it.

mulfra 030

Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire

I have no idea what we’d done, or more likely not done, to piss them off. I’ve been a waitress. Wild Thing and I have both been cab drivers. We’re not the kind of people who think that if they have the money for a meal, or a cab ride, or a tube of toothpaste, it gives them the right to be obnoxious. But we are, I admit, incapable of saying thank you as often as the British do. Buy something at a small store and when you hand in your item to be rung up, the clerk will thank you. When you hand over your money, you’ll get thanked again. (A variation: The clerk may look at the twenty you handed over for something costing less than a pound and say, “Lovely,” or “Brilliant,” as if you’d handed them a slice of chocolate cake, or exact change just when they were about to run out and the banks had all closed and the vandal hordes were all lining up to do their shopping and none of them had brought the exact change.) Then when you go to leave, unless some other customer’s diverted the clerk’s attention, you get thanked a third time, often with the phrase, “Thank you very much, thank you.” Or, “Thank you. Thank you very much, thank you.”

At least it’s like that way out in the country, where we live.

I can’t do that. Can not. Am constitutionally incapable of. I also can’t manage to say you’re welcome three times for a single transaction, especially when I haven’t done anything. I mean, you’re welcome? For what? I bought something. I wanted it enough to hand over money. That’s not a gracious act that I should say “you’re welcome” for. Sometimes I find myself saying “thanks” instead, which is also absurd but doesn’t feel quite as bizarre as “you’re welcome.”

I asked S. once how often she said you’re welcome in response to the multiple thank-yous. She looked startled and said she didn’t think it was “called for” unless you’d done something particularly—well, kind may not have been the word she used but it was the impression she left me with. Unless you’d gone out of your way, somehow. But I doubt she’d never noticed how many times she got thanked per transaction. It’s that old thing about the fish and the water. She swims through an ocean of thank-yous and wouldn’t notice them unless they stopped.

Or that’s what I thought, anyway, until A. and H. told me that you’re welcome is an Americanism, although H. added that there’s an equivalent phrase in Welsh. R. swore that it’s a class thing: If you’re working class, you learn to say “you’re welcome.”

At this point, I understood two things: 1, It’s complicated, and 2, I’ll never completely get it.

“What do you say?” I asked.

“That’s okay” would do, apparently. So would “cheers.” But “cheers” can also be used to mean goodbye, or as a kind of toast—when you lift your glass to someone. According to my British English A to Zed, it also means here’s how! What does here’s how! mean? I looked it up and it’s either too obvious or too unused to include, so I don’t know.

I asked M. and Wild thing what here’s how! meant and they were as blank as I was.

So in this country we say “please” and “thank you,” but we don’t say “you’re welcome.”

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that was rude.

36 thoughts on “Manners, American and British

  1. Ok, I’m just a dumb American so maybe I don’t understand the incident that inspired this post–the couple that made the “In this country . . .” comment–was that directed at you, sitting at the next table? In the UK, are you expected to go around and thank the other patrons at a restaurant before you sit down to your meal? Because if so, I imagine my french fries might grow cold, depending upon how many other diners are in the McDonalds . . .

    Just yesterday, I was chatting with a blogger friend who is also from the UK about a “fight” he got into in the comments section on his blog. The exchange went something like this:

    Commenter: “I’d like to say to the good fellow that he may be mistaken about blah blah blah.”
    My Blogger Friend: “Oh, yes, I see what you mean, and you make an excellent point, but I’d like to add blah blah blah.”

    Huh? That’s a fight?

    This is a very long comment just to agree with your post. Yes, the British are crazy polite, and, as an American, I would have cursed and made an obscene gesture.

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    • Doesn’t sound like much of a fight to me. I’m with you on a few well-place swear words and an obscene gesture–although the gestures are hard to manage online.

      In the cafe, I don’t think we were expected to say anything to the other patrons. My sense is that in a public place we’re all supposed to pretend we don’t notice each other. An Irish man we once met commented on how strange it was, when he stayed in an English B & B, that no one in the breakfast room talked to anyone else in the breakfast room. When he walked in and boomed hello, as if they were all actually there and he could see them, they looked embarrassed and horrified. So exactly what the couple leaving the cafe thought we should have done remains a mystery.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a brief stint in London where I worked in a coffee shop and people also said “cheers” in the place of thank you, so apparently it means that as well. I was not aware that I was supposed to thank people for handing me their money, though. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t get a full-time job.

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    • I’m not sure how true that is in cities–less, I suspect, than it is out here in the countryside. As for cheers, I hesitate to run around saying anything whose implications I don’t really understand. I sound silly enough when I do know what I’m saying.

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  3. I must have a UK gene in me somehow, for I am almost always compelled to acknowledge EVERY transaction in a public service situation like a restaurant or retail sales place. I think the key word is “acknowledge” rather than to show gratitude or thanks.
    Cheers, dear.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Ellen,
    What amazes me in merry old England is that “thank you” is even used when a waiter puts your meal in front of you instead of the “here you are” I was used to.
    Btw, as a German I’m always amazed here in the US how often “thank you” and “you’re welcome” are used. I also still need to get used to “mh mh” [or something like these sounds] instead of “you’re welcome”.
    As we use to say in German, “andere Laender, andere Sitten” [“different countries, different customs”]. And therefore, to speak with Mark Twain,”Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
    Have a good one [as they say here in Texas],
    Pit

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only phrase I can think of that people here think is funnier than “butter” said in an American accent is “have a good day.” Occasionally someone will say it to me and laugh at their own joke. So, yeah, have a good one.

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  5. No, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong. I’m sure you have. Ask me how I know.
    How do you know? She asked.
    What’s the question again?
    …that’s what I thought…thank you anyway.
    Thank you for what? I asked.
    Nevermind Poppet, just say”You’re welcome.”
    You’re welcome.
    Cheers…

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  6. I’m forever saying Thank You at any dining experience – I thank the person seating me, I thank the waitress for taking my order, I thank the kid who brings me silverware and a glass of water, I thank the waitress again when bringing my order, another thank you for bringing the check and again for the cash-out.

    Any time I have contact with any staff at a restaurant, I’m chirping those two words. I like to beat ’em to the punch, so I don’t have to utter the dread ‘you’re welcome…’

    Cheers :D

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s safest to say thank you/thanks when a cafe employee does anything for you – from wiping down the table to giving you cutlery, then your meal and drinks. That couple are not typical. I would never feel the need to comment on someone at a different table unless they were being extremely rude/obnoxious or racist to staff or fellow diners – and I’m sure you weren’t any of those. What sad lives they must have to feel the need to comment on other people’s perceived behaviour. If the staff weren’t complaining then it was none of their business. Did they say please and thank you when they squeezed past you to go out? I bet they didn’t.

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    • They didn’t. That much I can swear to. And I’m guessing that we did say thanks when whoever waited on us brought stuff, because unless we’re half comatose on a particular day, we do. I agree that the couple weren’t typical, but what fascinates me is that when people get obnoxious (and most of us are capable of it, me included) we’re likely to gravitate toward some cultural certainty that makes us feel Right about our obnoxiousness. So for them it was saying please and thank you. I’m not sure what it would be for an American. Sometimes it needs an outsider’s eye to see that.

      But speaking of cultural certainties, I’m with you on telling off people who are racist or obnoxious toward other people.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Vive la difference. Embrace it. I’ve lived in France now for almost ten years and I’ve accepted that although only separated by 26 miles of water, culturally we’re worlds apart. I no longer get cross when my change is thrown onto the desk in front of me, rather than nicely placed into my hand as I’m used to and there are many more.
    There is one though, one thing that still properly grips me. When driving around the little tiny country lanes where I now live, we all drive slowly so as not to have head ons around a corner. This means we stop quickly when another car comes, and one of us will move to allow the other to pass.
    The French DONT acknowledge this as an act of kindness, not a single hand is raised to say thank you, unless you know each other.
    The laydee of the house is always staggered when we go to England and people actually do this, show their thanks for having avoided a shattering head on collision. She just can’t understand why we would do it.
    I’m stopping now as I feel my blood pressure rising.
    Thank you for reading this.

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  9. Brilliant blog post again – I love the way you observe our crazy culture! You probably need to head a bit further north in England to hear ‘ta’, but I can confirm it’s a real English ‘thank you’ in places. I’m still mystified about what actually happened to you. As another Brit has already commented, I assume it’s because saying thank you for everything at every stage is the cultural norm. But that’s no reason to speak as rudely as they did. We do it, bit I don’t think we notice its absence and especially not with an obvious overseas accent involved. Anyway, they should have been saying ‘sorry’ several times for squeezing past you. We must surely be the only nation to say ‘sorry’ when someone else bumps into us, knocks us over, or stands on our foot! I have to bite my lip not to say it in other countries when a local has nearly knocked me over and hurt me in the process!

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  10. Someone else mentioned that horrible American habit of saying “Uh-huh” when you thank them for a service rendered. RUDE!

    And “Here’s how!” is what you say as you clink your glass just prior to upending it and sending the contents gulletwards. It’s equivalent to “Here’s looking at you”. which I think is American – both rather old-fashioned.

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  11. We do have manners but the guy you encountered got out of bed on the wrong side.

    There are manners elsewhere too – in Germany, I could never get used to saying “good morning/ good afternoon” and “goodbye” in a bright and cheery manner when entering doctors’ waiting rooms – after that you could hear a pin drop. However, I was always the first to comment when people tried to push into queues. The unfairness of it annoyed me insanely and to be honest, I sometimes thought the foreign accent was actually helpful – it shamed the ‘locals’ into behaving!

    I also spent a lot of time explaining to German educators that the prevalence of ‘would you be so kind’ etc in English actually meant that when they directly translated their German into English, parents were going to get awfully upset…

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    • That reminds me of the times a doctor has asked “how are you?” and, mistaking it for conversational time-filler, I’ve answered, “fine.” To which they were polite enough not to say, “So what are you doing in my office?”

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I am American, but I thank everybody, way too much, even at inappropriate times.
    Cop pulls me over? Thank you. Thank you very much. Someone shoulders into me in a crowd? Thanks. Shell out my taxes at city hall? Thank you. Boss keeps me three hours over at work? Thanks. Thank you. Someone cuts in front of me in the supermarket? Thank you.
    I don’t know where I learned it. But thanks.

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  13. Thank you Ellen, oh no it just flew off my tongue (off my keyboard to be precise, lol). It comes out of me all the time (far too much), comes out of the younger generation far too little – is there a happy medium some where?

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  14. Ha, this made me laugh! I never realised how much I said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ until I moved to Latvia where NOBODY says anything! You’re lucky if they grunt at you or make eye contact ;) When I went to work in the UK for the summer after living there for a while, I almost wrapped myself around the legs of the woman at Luton Airport, I was so pathetically grateful that she was nice to me! Linda.

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  15. I’m shocked you were allowed to become a Brit citizen when you are so clearly lacking in the class and courtesy aspects of dining in public what with improperly turned forks and ill-timed cheers and ta’s. How about “Too right, Mate” as your reply to all those thank you’s. Let ’em think you’re a Sheilagh from Down Under 😊

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