More about manners in the U.S. and U.K.

“What do you like about living here?” someone asked me recently.

The questions comes up often enough that I should have a neat answer by now, but for whatever reason, I don’t. Instead I blither vaguely about place and people and history, and sooner or later the other person either takes pity on me or gets bored. Either way, the conversation moves on.

This most recent time, it moved on to the feeling of freedom that the person who’d asked me—let’s call her S.—had when she visited the U.S. To her, Americans are expansive, expressive, and probably a few other ex-things. Expository. Ex post facto. Expresso. (Yes, I’m spelling that wrong. Oddly enough, Spellcheck hasn’t noticed, which is why I’m whispering. It does, however, object that it’s not a full sentence. I love technology.) When S. got back to the U.K., everyone struck her as closed in. She mimed what they looked like and if I’d suggested miserable I think she’d have agreed, although as far as I can tell the people I know here are no more (or less) miserable than the people I know in the U.S.

Irrelevant photo: a camellia, coming into bloom in late winter.

Irrelevant photo: a camellia, coming into bloom in late winter.

Still, I’ve heard this kind of comparison before. A British man married to an American told me he wanted to move the family to the U.S. before his kids started school. The kids would grow up feeling freer, he said.

Before anyone starts waving flags and getting out the marching bands, no one’s talking politics. They’re talking emotions, behavior, deep-rooted culture–hundreds of years of culture. People here complain, just the way people do in the U.S., and the way people have throughout history, that kids these days are badly behaved, but the ones I know are so well behaved they terrify me. They say “please” and “thank you,” not occasionally but often. They say, “Yes, please.” Sometimes I want to ask, Who’s in there, under all those good manners?

I know: I’m an adult. I’m supposed to like good manners, and up to a certain point I do. But—maybe it’s the American in me—beyond that certain point, I get uneasy. I can’t tell who I’m dealing with. All I see is polished surface. I’d rather catch an occasional glimpse of the unplanned person. I mean, if I try to feed you something you don’t like, I’d rather hear about it than worry that you’re choking it down and struggling to look happy.

That’s not good manners, that’s self-punishment.

So yes, on that level, Americans may be more ourselves, although Wild Thing argues that we—and by that I mean Americans—aren’t so much free as disinhibited, which many people mistake for freedom.

Think about it for a while. I’m guessing she’s on to something.

The place where the British are, I think, less about surface than Americans is in the area of looks. My small and unscientific survey reveals that people—and especially women—in the U.K. feel freer to look like themselves than their counterparts in the U.S. Do a comparison of actors—again, especially women. A wider range of looks is acceptable in the U.K. In the U.S., most of them look like they’ve been squeezed out of the same Plastic Princess tube.

Admittedly, as soon as you talk about what people want to look like, you have to talk about income and region and ethnicity and sex and sexuality and gender and a dozen other ways to subdivide the population, and the impact all those things have on how we present ourselves. But I still think that, overall, we’ve locked ourselves into a set of ideal looks that have damn little to do with ourselves.

When I kicked the question around with Wild Thing, she reminded me of the time we looked through A.’s family album with her, when we still lived in the U.S. In the pictures from the thirties and forties, each person looked distinct. As we got into the fifties and beyond, they started to blur and become almost generic—the women most markedly, but the men as well.

But I’m not basing my wild and unscientific theory just on TV, movies, and one family album. I’m basing it on the people I see.

A bit of background, though, before I go on. I’m somewhat face blind—a phrase I learned late in life, which describes an embarrassment I’ve lived with since I was a kid. I have trouble recognizing people I don’t know well. It’s not my eyes, it’s something about the way I process what I see. Basically, within some broad categories (you know: male, female; tall, short; old, young; black, white; scarred, not scarred), everyone looks pretty much alike—two eyes, one nose, all that sort of thing. Back in the U.S., when I taught fiction writing I struggled to sort out which of my students was which, and somewhere along the line I realized that I had more trouble with the women than the men. Why? Makeup. Hair products. Fashion. They worked hard to look alike—at least to my incompetent eye. The men looked more like themselves.

In the U.K., I still have trouble recognizing people, but I don’t think I see as much surface. They don’t all seem to be going for the same set of looks. Some of them don’t seem to be going for any look at all, they just look like what they look like. That’s not the same as not caring what they look like. It’s that they care to look like themselves.

Which is a radical, and freeing, idea.

Having said all that, I’d better repeat that this is all based on a wildly unscientific survey. And now it’s time for everyone to tell me why I’m wrong. Or right.

55 thoughts on “More about manners in the U.S. and U.K.

  1. I would like to contribute something bitingly accurate, making me look erudite and distinguished. Unfortunately, your ‘irrelevant’ photo of the camellia just made me think of this, and I got sidetracked. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dame-Cam%C3%A9lias-Oxford-Worlds-Classics/dp/0199540349
    Oh, I do have a look though. It involves wearing a fleece, scarf, gloves, and big coat. I call it my ‘winter look.’ In the summer, I wear shorts for months on end, with a short-sleeved shirt. I call that my ‘summer look.’
    And Baseball caps should never be worn by anyone not playing baseball. No excuses.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. I don’t think you’re wrong. It is just your experience. I find mine to be a little different in terms of manners, at least. I must be associating with a different crowd because I run in to manners ALL the time. It is much more the norm than the exception and it goes way down to the little ones 3 and 4 years old that know when and how to say “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “please”, “excuse me”, etc. This has changed over the years. I do remember thinking, about ten to fifteen years ago, that no one was polite anymore but it’s different now, and that’s a good thing.

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  3. When we were in the Lake District a few years ago, I was struck by how many women had gray (or grey) hair. Tending toward gray myself, I’ve started noticing how few gray-haired women I see in the US. It also struck me that the women weren’t wearing hats, which made my skin-cancer-averse self feel a bit anxious. (When I was walking up the San Francisco coast through a nude beach, my first thought upon seeing a naked fellow was to hope he was wearing SF 50.) Non-scientific observation–on the gray hair–but your post reminded me of it.

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  4. I think there might be even more sub-sets than you describe. When we were in England, most of the young people in London had a “look” but when I visited Cornwall, it was pretty easy to tell your neighbors one from another, even after three days.

    I saw someone lately who looked like Wild Thing but I knew she wasn’t WT because WT’s personality makes her look like only WT even if someone else, grey haired, getting up there, authoritative and with similar features might be trying to be an WT-like person. That said, I attended a conference some time back with a room full of white women with grey hair and, I swear, red blazers one and all. Name tags were important. (Does WT have a red blazer?)

    Many of the youngest kids and some of their parents always mixed me and Susie up at Family School. I guess we sorta kinda look alike but the energy is so different, how could that be? But if you’re a kid, and the women are adult authority (albeit benign) figures in your school life . . .

    I think age might be a significant factor for women in deciding how they look. At some point, you just let go of the norms, look in the mirror, and say, “Well, that’s it.” One hopes to get the tooth paste wiped off one’s cheek but after that . . . the ridiculous hat and the mis-matched gloves are fine as long as they keep the wind away. Maybe it’s winter. No one knows what anyone looks like in Minnesota between Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day.

    Men as they age have another identifying challenge. Hair loss. At my 45th high school reunion I could not tell one bald guy from another. I could figure out who roughly 1/3 of the women were.

    I guess the important point is how much you care. I can’t align name & face much of the time and am used to people getting me mixed up with Whatsername. If I wore a mink stole, a mini skirt and blue spike heels, they might remember me or maybe they’d rather not. Or they might take out a tissue & wipe the tooth paste off my cheek.

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    • I think what she’s getting at is that being uninhibited doesn’t necessarily make us freer (or happier, while we’re at it)–it can just make us noisier while we’re stuck in our same old problems. Although it can look like freedom to the inhibited. (Wild Thing worked as a family therapist before she retired. She saw lots of uninhibited drama that freed no one. This may be relevant.)

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  5. I also am face blind. I make my husband wear a name tag. Joking, but just barely. I am a people watcher, though, and I think you’re right at least about actresses from the U.S. and the U.K. Studly and I often have to google actresses names because we can’t figure out which ubiquitous blonde is starting in a given movie.

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  6. “Face blind” – I’ve never heard that term before. So it’s a thing? I really, really struggle in that area … I mean, I went to meet my daughter at the airport after she’d been gone for two months and I didn’t recognize her. I sort of thought it might be her – and in fairness to me, she had cut her hair (from waist length to buzz cut) and died it blue, AND she was all swollen up and miserable looking from flu … but still. My own daughter, I didn’t recognize her. Once I spent TWO HOURS interviewing the owner of a small business – walking around his operation and sitting opposite him in his office … and that evening I took my daughter out to dinner at a local steak house and was embarrassed by this total stranger who kept waving and smiling at me. Yes, it was that same man, that I’d said goodbye to that very afternoon … He was pissed! I live in a small town and have interacted with a LOT of people due to running a dog rescue for five years, and the only way I recognize people is if they tell me which dog they adopted (or, if they have the dog with them, that helps the process considerably.)

    I read somewhere that lack of facial recognition is typical of people on the autism spectrum. I’m not generally autistic, as far as I know, but … yeah, I’m a tad whacky. So maybe it’s that. The worst of it is that watching movies with large casts is just impossible – I can never keep track of who’s who. Ocean’s Eleven? Impossible. I simply couldn’t do it.

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    • Sounds like face blindness to me. I first came across the term in an article written by a woman who’d gone up to a stranger in a bar and kissed him, having mistaken him for her boyfriend. Oops. I’ve never done anything along those lines–I’ve learned to be pretty cautious–but it was a real relief to discover that it’s not just me not paying attention.

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  7. Dear Ellen,
    What an insightful post and one based on your own experience – if some one would develop this as a hypothesis and do a sociological research on this, I am sure you can come up with a theory which can make text books.
    There is another theory that husbands and wives who live together for many years look like each other somehow- indescribably. This sort of substantiates your position.
    I would like to reblog your post on my blog, if you will let me ?
    Thank you,

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  8. Although every culture has their own pros and cons, I have to say I disagree with you. Whenever I travel outside the US I am quick to keep a low profile and blend in with the surrounding crowd. It is inevitable that the loud, boisterous and annoying American will pop up yelling at the top of his/her lungs for a waiter rather than the simple head nod. I don’t want to be associated with that it is more often than not. I will take choking down a piece of liver with a smile rather than the looks of disgust any day.

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  9. My impressions have been created solely by movies, but I have believed that people in the UK are less inhibited when it comes to cursing and talking about sex. This is an insightful post, and it is nice to have perspective from someone who has lived in both places. We could do with a bit more in the manners and respect department over here, in children and adults alike.

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    • Interesting possibility, that the British are less inhibited about swearing and talking about sex. I’m not sure, and I’m not sure how to go about taking a survey without totally spooking people. I do know this much: If you’re going to measure cursing, you have to figure out how strong a swear word bloody is, and I’m not quite sure. I tend not to use it, because it feels silly coming out of my mouth. That aside, I can usually out-swear pretty much anyone around me.

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  10. This is something I have been pondering lately as I have noticed that my kids are much more “buttoned up” than their American peers. It is not that their little American-born-and-raised buddies are rude or ill-mannered but they certainly seem much more comfortable speaking up and offering their opinions or asking for things than my little Scottish brood are. I notice this particularly when we have their friends over for a meal. Whereas my kids – in the company of other people because they are abundantly rude about the food I provide for them when we are alone – will try their best to eat what is put in front of them or will just quietly sit with uneaten food on their plates, their friends have no problem telling me that they do not like the food I have set before them and asking if they could please have something else. That is just one example and, of course, my sample is totally unscientific.

    As an adult, I find that many Americans are far more open with their views on things and also about their personal lives. I have had complete strangers tell me things about their private lives within mere minutes of meeting whereas I am very private even with my friends. I find it quite disarming actually simply because I am not used to it. Americans also appear to be more effusive and enthusiastic, more emotionally expressive. Again, not a scientific study.

    I think it is going to be interesting to see if my kids maintain their Britishness in this respect or whether they adapt to being much more like their American counterparts.

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  11. This is a great exchange of information on the UK/US similarities and differences. In fact it has given me the shove I needed to blog about this very subject. I am American, of strong and deep UK background, and have ties through a family that I swear would match up my genetic tests. :-) Thanks for some great reading while eating my cheese Danish with black coffee breakfast..

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  12. Pingback: Comparative swearing in the U.S. and U.K. | Notes from the U.K.

  13. I’ve never heard the term face blind. I like that I have a name for it now. I saw a documentary about the condition once, and was so relieved to find out that it’s a real condition, and not just me being antisocial. I also drive my s.o. crazy watching movies, but I think he’s gotten used to the idea that it’s his job to keep track of the cast for me. The worst are old black and white movies. All the men have the same haircut, the same suit, the same hat… nothing AT ALL to work with there.

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  14. I struggle with names rather than faces and might see significant enough of a difference in movie stars to note they’re not all of a one but can never remember who they are or in which film I might have seen them.
    I think there has been a change in the way children feel in being able to express themselves. Self-confidence to do so may be encouraged by family or by the prevailing cultural norms. It has, and possibly still yet, swings too widely between healthy confidence and in your face. I like to see children confident enough to express themselves and give opinions but I’ve also wanted to tell others to pipe down. My own included. Balance, as always, elusive. :/

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  15. My son took a close-up of my eye to show off a new app on his phone and I figured I liked it for my blog, my sub-heading being ‘What I See’. Glad you like it. He did the whole family by the time he was finished. :)

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  16. I liked this blog post and the comments which followed even more. People always ask me: ‘why did you move to the UK?’ and ‘don’t I miss home?’ and ‘isn’t NY the best for shopping?’ and ‘have I been to FL?’ Good grief. People are just curious I guess. I am a friendly person but having strangers approach me with so many questions can be unnerving. Uh oh-have I been in the UK too long? As many Brits always say how super friendly Americans are -especially when they say ‘How ARE you?’ Seriously though, half the time I am either trying to figure out the money or trying to get un-lost in London so I don’t have time to chat. Also in your comments you mentioned wearing a baseball hat-I wear one pretty often and people tell me that it is an American thing to do-is it? I had no idea. It rains a lot here and I can never find my brollie-enter the baseball hat. Anyway, like I said-great blog post.

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