How to be British

P. and S. sent me a clipping from their local paper, in which columnist Ericka Waller, moved by the refugee crisis, kindly offers newcomers an eight-point guide to being British. I won’t cover all her points—that dances on the border of copyright violation, not to mention bad manners—but I’ll paraphrase a couple of them. Read the rest for yourself, because you need to know this stuff, even if you’re not British and have no intention of being. And even if you’re already British. With the government’s emphasis on British values these days, you don’t want to give someone the wrong impression, do you?

Besides, it’s a good article.

It may be irrelevant, but it speaks for itself.

It may be irrelevant, but it speaks for itself.

Point number 1: To be British, you must greet people by asking, “How are you?” but if they ask you the same question the only possible answer is, “I’m fine, thanks.” If you say you’re wonderful, you’re being a showoff. If you say you’re terrible, you’re moaning.  If you follow that by going into the details of your toothache or unpaid bills, you’ll either scare people or embarrass them. Or both. People don’t ask because they want to know, they just want to seem polite. Emphasis on seem.

The how-are-you? rule shares a common root with American greeting rituals. We (that’s Americans) ask without remembering that it’s a real question, although we do allow room for someone to say, “Wonderful,” or, “Tired, thanks,” or something along those lines. We also appreciate an occasional twist in the answer—something along the lines of  “better than nothing.” But your toothache? Your unpaid bills? The thousand ways your life’s threatening to fall apart? Nope. We don’t want to know either.

When Wild Thing first started to work as a therapist, she’d occasionally run into clients out in the real world, and if they greeted her she greeted them back. (If they didn’t, she walked on. Being a therapist is—says me who’s never been one but was in a position to observe—deeply weird.) She had to learn not to ask, “How are you?” because in the relationship they’d established that it was a real question. Some people would actually answer. In the middle of a supermarket aisle.

On the flip side, I went to the doctor once about I can’t remember what, and when she walked in and asked how I was I automatically said, “Fine. You?”

She managed not to slap her forehead—or mine—but I expect she wanted to. Imagine that happening to you twenty times a day.

Point number 2: To be British, you must also tut and learn to respond to tutting. “Nothing says Brit like a disapproving tut,” Waller writes. “As you finish the tut, raise your head slightly and roll your eyes elaborately to the heavens for extra punch.” And if someone notices and asks what’s wrong, deny everything. You’re not allowed to explain a tut or say how you actually feel.

As a rule, Americans don’t tut. Or I don’t think we do. But my understanding of the subject is colored by—how am I going to explain this to you? I don’t do well with subtle. If you want to insult me, you need to be clear or it’ll go over my head and where’s the fun in that?

This was a problem in Minnesota, where the official language is Indirect English. Wild Thing was called into service periodically to interpret for me. So maybe I’ve been tutted at all my life and didn’t notice. But I don’t think so. I think we leave the tut, like the tea, to the British.

I’m only aware of British tutting because I’ve been reading about it, both in Waller’s article and in Kate Fox’s wonderful Watching the English. So this is a nation that not only tuts but writes about tutting and ponders the deep cultural meaning of tutting. It wouldn’t be too much to say, the philosophy of tutting. This is a nation that cares about tutting.

The tut is powerful here—or so Fox says. Someone jumped the queue? If they’re British, a lone tut will be enough to shame them back into place. And in case you’re American, you need to understand that a queue is a line, and standing in line is the real British national religion. The Church of England? That’s for show. So we’re talking about someone violating the country’s most sacred principle. And a tut will be enough to remind them of it.

It sounds as if Fox differs from Waller on the tut’s power, but underneath there somewhere I expect they’d agree that it’s power comes from not needing to be explained (or something along those lines—we’re getting into murky waters here) and it will be understood regardless of how much it’s denied.

It’s a wonder this country’s let me stay.

65 thoughts on “How to be British

  1. very funny read before launching myself out there (Rome) where “how are you?” leads to long-winded replies about aches and pains, liver troubles and detailed descriptions of family member’s ills. Nobody would ever notice anything as subtle as a tut: to get attention you have to raise your voice (and goodness knows voices are already pretty loud), possibly with some really rude remark.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Luckily our doctors have now stopped asking ‘how are you?’ And instead ask more sensibly ‘how can I help?’. Another very British saying is ‘we must meet up!’. My mother the first few years after moving here thought this was made in earnest, offered dates etc but never heard anything again…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Smart doctors. Or ones who’ve been driven by sheer despair to change their behavior.

      The American version of meeting up is having lunch. Or coffee. Or something vague that never happens. And everyone’s supposed to sound enthusiastic and forget about it immediately.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. that link does not take me where I expected…
    it just tells me about the journalists…

    I suspect that the article would tell me what I already know, I am not very british. How I have become so non british after living here for all of the years of my life I will never figure out!
    I keep expecting the Britishness police to turn up and deport me!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The things that I learn about here … if I were going to impersonate a British person, perhaps by dredging up some combination of images of Bertrand Russel, Judi Dench, Paul McCartney, the Queen, and a few random Jane Austin characters, I don’t think that I would be doing any tutting. I had to read your last paragraphs a few times to figure out what you are talking about. Now, I can hear that tut-tut in my mind, perhaps learned from old episodes of Monte Python and Are You Being Served.
    And, yes, Americans do have some equivalents to the tut, because I have heard them in the background like gnats, for all of my days on Earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I always enjoy your writing. My father taught us to always respond, when asked “how are you?” by saying “fine, thanks, how are you?” He made it clear that it didn’t matter if were wee fine or not, that was to be our answer because nobody really wanted to here the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You are right about Americans not being able to ‘tut.’ – the subtleties of it are beyond most of us. Especially this younger generation, who don’t seem to respond to anything less than a sharp slap to the back of the head.

    Strangely enough, though – the younger generation ARE beginning to understand tea as something besides the little bags of Lipton…

    We may be in the midst of a revolution :D

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m a doctor working in Swaziland. Here, it is very bad form not to greet patients formally when they enter the consultation room. If I asked “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help?” my patients would probably suggest giving them money. The greeting is “sawubona”, which means I’ve seen you, acknowledging your presence. But before I can say anything else, they tell me they are fine, even though they obviously are not fine, because they have come to the clinic.


  8. Ha- enjoyed reading this! I must say, in regards to the waiting in line bit, that I was so impressed with the manners while driving. When there came a sign saying the road was going to one lane, everyone went over immediately- no one stayed in the lane and tried to merge in last minute and I think that made a huge difference in traffic flow. That’s definitely a pet peeve of mine!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, drivers here still amaze me. Two lanes of traffic will merge as neatly as the two sides of a zipper, and with as little jostling for place. And if you’re stuck in some hopeless place, trying to get into traffic? Sooner or later, someone will hold back and let you in. When it happens to me, I still feel like a wave isn’t good enough, I should be blowing kisses or throwing flowers.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. When I started dating Mrs Sensible, I would say “do you fancy going out for a pizza tonight” and she would tut at me!! Now I was used to being tutted at by my mother or maybe by my employer when I made some excuse for not handing in my monthly expenses, but not from my fiance!!!!

    It took a couple of tuts before I understood that tutting is a quick way to say no, if you are Sicilian.

    And never ever ask an Italian how they are, unless you want to learn that they are suffering from cervicale, their mother has rickets and their dog is constipated.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh I think we tut. My MIL is the queen of tutting, but I tut, too.
    It’s very important to say thanks after everything, isn’t it? I notice that with my British friends a lot. Lots of thanks. Very polite. I like it. But I think it accounts for why everyone seems to find Americans rude.
    “How was lunch/ the concert/ vacation?”
    It had to be fine, thanks.
    Americans don’t thanks so much.
    Another great post :)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Very funny post. I’ve been to London and can vouch for the British love of queuing up. We participated in this frustrating pastime for a couple of days at the airport trying to get home and were amazed at their acceptance of and patience with the practice. Pretty amazing, but I don’t remember any tutting! Lol. Thanks for the memory.
    –Joan :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a word I recognized when I heard it used over here, so it wasn’t completely foreign to me. My best guess is we know the word but don’t (mercifully) really know what to do with the thing it describes.


  12. Pingback: Face masks, tutting, and electric fences: It’s the pandemic news from Britain | Notes from the U.K.

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