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.
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.