Adaptation and pig headedness

Wild Thing and I need to renew our American passports. To do that, we each have to send in two passport photos measuring two inches by two inches. British passport photos measure something else by something else, as do driver’s license and everything else photos, so we can’t just plonk ourselves in that little booth in the supermarket entrance, looking our worst, plug some money into the slot, and walk away with photos. And for all I know, an inch in the U.K. isn’t the same as an inch in the U.S. Why should it be when a cup, a pint, and yea, even a breath of air all change size as they cross the Atlantic?

But don’t let me sulk about that. I have and it didn’t help. The U.S. embassy is very clear about what it wants. Send us the wrong size photo, it warns, and we’ll send them back.

And put us on a watch list so we’ll never be allowed to fly again. Because the wrong size passport photo? It’s an indicator of political unreliability and who knows where it could lead.

Irrelevant photo: The beach in a storm. The wind was high enough that I had  stop walking during the gusts.

Irrelevant photo: The beach in a storm. The wind was high enough that I had stop walking during the gusts.

So we went to a local photography studio. We walked in looking our worst and came away with two two-by-two photos each. In the process, we got to know the photographer’s two dogs (sorry—I’m not making up the numbers; there really are that many twos involved) and their histories and friendships and enemyships. (Did I mention that if you ask about a dog around here, you’ll find out about the dog?) A neighbor stopped by with a chew stick for each of them, as she does every working day. We discussed dogs a bit more, then moved on to being Cornish (“you have to have four generations in the ground here before you’re Cornish,” the neighbor said).

Wild Thing said we had dual citizenship. I can’t remember why that came up, but it made sense at the time. The neighbor said that if we were British we had to say—and I may well get this wrong but I’ll do my best—“dyual.” Or maybe I should spell that DYOO-wel, as opposed to the American DOO-wel.

The photographer agreed.

The hell we do, I thought and didn’t bother to say. It’s not something I need to argue since I have no intention of doing it.

But Wild Thing’s an accent adaptor. She repeated “dyual.” I don’t know how close she was but close enough that they accepted it for at least the effort.

I tell you this story because when I asked what people wanted to know about either Britain or the U.S, bethbyrnes wrote, “My family is from England and I grew up with a lot of rules. When I go back to the UK, I get the impression that the Brits (my family included) see Americans as naughty children and treat us accordingly. I so love England and thought of moving there eventually but I feel I might resent being seen in such a negative light. What do you think? Am I imagining this? I hope this isn’t too rude to ask!”

That isn’t even bordering on rude. But then, I’m an American, and not one with an ear for subtle rudeness.

I suspect the answer depends in part on how seriously you take dual/dyual comments. I heard the conversation as good-humored bullshit—the kind of thing you say to someone so that you have something to say to someone. In other words, teasing. Which has an ugly side, a side that not only hurts people’s feelings but also enforces conformity, but it also a we-all-agree-not-to-take-this-seriously side. What people really mean is often a matter of guesswork, and I tend to hear that second side more often than the first. I won’t argue that I’m right, only that I tend to hear it that way.

Wild Thing, I think, takes these comments more seriously than I do. When—as often happens—people talk about some TV show or comic that they find hysterically funny and we say it leaves us cold, someone’s bound to say, “Oh, well, you’re not British.” Wild Thing hears an element of pity in it. I hear a simple statement of fact. I don’t know who’s reading the signs more accurately.

I can’t remember ever thinking that we were being treated as naughty children, although we’d be an easy target for that. J. did once say that now that we were British we had to start eating dessert with a dessert spoon (which I’d have called a soup spoon) instead of a fork, but again I heard it as good-humored teasing and kept right on using my fork. I do set out dessert spoons for our friends, but you’ll find forks right beside them. Choose your weapon. This comes up often since we’re part of a small group devoted to eating dessert, discussing politics, and occasionally taking action. Not to mention trading the odd bit of gossip. The group meets at our house. So setting out spoons? I don’t expect my friends to change the way they eat any more than I expect to change the way I do. But I’m hard headed. I can take a fair bit of criticism, comment, and teasing, as long as it’s well meant, without feeling like I’m under attack.

And when a comment is meant seriously? When people genuinely do think I should eat differently, talk differently, or turn myself into their idea of what a person should be? I don’t spend much time with people like that and they don’t go out of their way to spend time with me, oddly enough. They’re welcome to their opinion and much good may it do them.

So yes, people like that are out there. But another group seems to think of Americans as free spirits and envy us our lack of inhibition. But Wild Thing, who was a family therapist before she retired, makes an interesting distinction between being uninhibited and being emotionally free. Americans, she says, are indeed less inhibited, but not necessarily emotionally free. I had to think about that for a while, but I’ve come around to her way of seeing it.

Even if it’s not true that Americans are free spirits, though, the belief’s a great counter-balance to the you’re-doing-it-wrong group.

Both responses, I think, stem from the number of rules the British grow up with. As does teasing people about differences. People learn not to call attention to themselves in public. Say you’re out in public and you trip and people rush to help you up. Huge embarrassment. Sat people you know wave their arms to get your attention from a distance.  Ditto, apparently. And so on. Not everyone abides by the rules to the same extent, and there are patterned ways to break them, but the rules exist.

Whether as an American you’re treasured or criticized because you break them will depend on who you hang out with. And whether the comments you hear bother you will depend on how deeply you take these things in.

53 thoughts on “Adaptation and pig headedness

  1. A most timely post, and very accurate I think. There is a person in my friendship circle here in the UK who is definitely in the ‘you Americans are naughty children who must be corrected’ camp. I tried to be personal friends with her for a while–she has many positive qualities–but in the end it was too disheartening. There are others among my colleagues (a different group) who notice and tease about my accent or choice of words, but it is clearly meant affectionately, and two-way banter can be engaged in. Fortunately, the vast majority of people I encounter only treat me as an individual, whose voice may be different from theirs, just the same as I hope to treat them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t think to mention the number of people who comment on my accent either because they like it (which makes me want to say, “What, this old thing?”) or simply because, like Everest, it’s there. If it happens too often in a short space of time, it can be wearing, but it’s mostly said in a good spirit and I take it the same way. A pity about the woman who can’t drop the superior act. I wonder how many other situations she does that in.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If I ever meet you, you can say doo-al all you like…but if it is too many times out of context I may get confused ;-)

    I can’t believe there are british people out there who do not set out forks for dessert as well as spoons!! I was always taught that the proper way to lay a table for a dinner was knives and forks on the sides of the place setting and at the top a spoon and a fork with the fork handle closest to the fork tines of the main course fork and the spoon facing the other way so they tessellate after a fashion.

    If the pudding is cake then it must be meant to be eaten with a fork, other wise why would cake forks exist!?!

    Mind you, in some parts of Cornwall I suspect I would be regarded as an interloper too! Possibly more so as I am northern (although this is not always immediately obvious!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I *think* this was a great post. But to be honest, all I keep hearing is “part of a small group devoted to eating dessert”. Seriously? That pretty much sums up my life goal. Where do I sign up?

    About the rest of it though… It’s been my experience that people here (UK) are very polite until they get to know you. When they start to tease you (especially about being a Yank), it’s a sign that you’re in.

    For example, when a British person encounters an acquaintance (in a pub of course, because otherwise both would be forced to pretend they hadn’t seen the other/were talking on their phone/ suddenly remembered an urgent thing that requires them to turn around and walk in the opposite direction), he offers a drink. However, if people greet each other with obscene—possibly racist and/or homophobic—suggestions, then you know they are close friends, if not family members.

    Liked by 4 people

    • First, the dessert-eating organization. Geography’s a serious obstacle to your joining. Sorry, sorry, sorry. The best I can do is suggest that you form one yourself. All you need is like-minded people with a serious interest in food and friendship. It helps if at least a few of them bake. It’s been a blast. I don’t think we’ve made a single decision that wasn’t by consensus. It helps that we’re all sugar saturated by the time we decide anything.

      I agree about the teasing, although my experience with racist and homophobic comments is–well, I have a habit of squelching them as quickly as possible. (I have seldom have a problem with obscene.) In spite of which, I do have friends. And they do give me hard time, bless their perverse little hearts.

      Liked by 2 people

    • You’ve got that spot on. And to add: if people start to take the piss (tease) you before they get to know you – that’s when to realise they’re being deliberately rude or offensive .

      Liked by 1 person

        • Curiously, I was thinking about this last night and in fact, there is a line one shouldn’t cross in the UK which a lot of people do cross, but not just with people from other countries, etc. It’s very much a childish response from Brits who are trying to show off to their friends (of all ages, to the embarrassment of anyone outside their clique) or from ones who simply have no empathy.


          • I could be wrong about this, but I think more people in the UK than in the US have a sense of absolute rightness about their manners, accents, way of dressing, etc. Which, of course, leaves them free to criticize those of us who are ignorant enough not to behave that way.


  4. “Not everyone abides by the rules to the same extent, and there are patterned ways to break them, but the rules exist.”

    Did I read this correctly? It sounds as if there are rules governing how rules can be broken. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s Kate Fox’s take on it in Watching the English. Being drunk allows you to, among other things, make a massive public spectacle of yourself without (I assume) feeling bad about it. Although strangers will, by common agreement, ignore each other in public, the bar of a pub is a place where it’s acceptable to strike up a conversation. (And around here strangers will, for the most part, say hello when they pass on the road.) You can also talk to people about their dogs. Or the weather, although that’ll probably be a brief conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well the photographer has probably lost your future business by being a pedantic *@x! and voicing his views on the matter – obviously more important for him to be ‘correct’ than be able to pay the mortgage! I’m old enough to remember having my hand caned at school for inaccurate grammar in written English work. That stayed with me and dampened any creative writing I wanted to do. So yes I think we English are inhibited and too hung up on correctness because some have literally had it beaten in to us at a young age. Americans appear to us to be so confident and able to just let it all out and we secretly envy that. It’s easier for us to pull you up on it than to let go and join you.
    The bit Wild Thing said about not necessarily being emotionally free I thought was interesting, the Americans do seem to pay emotionally for their confident nature which begs the question is it for real or are Americans just as insecure as the rest of us but better at ignoring it.

    I say don’t change anything because we love you guys just as you are, naughtiness included :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The photographer didn’t offend me, really. The tone wasn’t hostile or self-righteous, just teasing. I was interested, amused, and frankly distant enough from it all that it didn’t have much of an impact except as something worth writing about. But getting caned for bad grammar? It’s a wonder anyone learned anything.

      I was about to pontificate on the relative confidence of Americans and Brits, but halfway into the first convoluted sentence I decided I didn’t (and don’t) know what I’m talking about. I’m going to flee before I commit myself to some statement I can’t justify. It’s a fascinating topic on which I have no data whatsoever.


  6. I’m almost surprised they don’t make you fly home renew your passport. Good luck with the photos. These days, I think we are trying to catch up with rules over here, but not the ones enforced by the people you know. Those seem to have broken down even farther than they were when you moved. I don’t care what you eat desert with (the sticky toffee stuff requires a spoon, I think) but I like it when people aren’t really rude. The kind of rude we would recognize. I enjoyed this, as I usually do.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. First of all, the passport photo thing: Yes! Why can’t they just be universal? I don’t care whose system is adopted but can’t we just have one? Because I lived in a rural area of Scotland, I had to travel 80 miles – each way! – just to get the US standard sized passport photos taken for part of my immigration paperwork.

    I cannot say I have observed Brits treating Americans like naughty children but I haven’t conducted a study on it. I rather think that rather than it being a cultural or national truism, it is just a case that some individuals think that their way is the only way and that any differentiation is an aberration. Likewise, I find that some Americans infantilise me as if my not knowing one thing about American life means I really don’t know anything much at all. That is not the majority of my experience, however. Most people enjoy my different perspective and are curious about the reason why I don’t know how something works or what the right word is.

    I have always eaten dessert with a fork. Normal place settings for dessert would be a fork and a spoon. It would never cross my mind to only set out one or the other unless dessert is ice cream in which a solo spoon suffices. What I do find tricky these days is that I grew up calling dessert pudding whereas here in America pudding is a specific type of dessert. I just cannot seem to compel myself to say the word “dessert” at the right time – much eye rolling from my sons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expect you’re right about some certain number of people in pretty much any culture mistaking outsiderdom for ignorance or childishness. I remember some of that when I was in Mexico, although I was sixteen at the time so there was some justification for treating me like a child. Although I wouldn’t have said that at the time. I do wonder, though, if our history of political and economic domination of other cultures hasn’t emphasized that tendency in both the U.S. and the U.K.

      And having said that, I’ll admit that some small part of me still giggles silently when I hear someone say, “What’s for pudding?” I don’t know why I think it’s funny, but I do.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Ellen,
    I have the same problem, only the other way round. I can’t get the right size of the foto here in the US when I need to renew my German passport. But, if I remember correctly, the German Consulate in Houston [“only” 240 miles away!] has a machine that gives you the correct size. Does the American Embassy have one? OK – that’s in London. I’m just being curious. I remember that the American Consulate in Frankfurt had one when I applied there for my visitor’s visa. I didn’t know that, though, until I got there. So I had an interesting meeting – like you – with a local photographer in Bonn. He took the digital pictures and gave them to me on a disk for me to print at home in the correct size. It worked. I also once took selfies – at a time when nobody knew that term yet. ;) That, too, worked.
    Good luck with your passports, and have a great advent time,

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m not technically an American so I don’t have the 2×2 inch passport photo hassle, but my accent is US and most of my habits tend to be too. I get into interesting squabbles with Brit language trainers, some of which can be funny, like not managing to meet up because the Brit said “in an hour at the café by the tiebahhhh” and rushed off. Pre-cellphone Age, and I couldn’t connect what I’d heard to what I knew as the Tiber (as in Ti-burrrr). Habit-wise I need to dash around this chaotic city very quickly, so I usually arrive at upscale company headquarters in my colour-clash rap-like pro running shoes. Security guards let me through now – after a great number of previous ID checks that were unecessarily detailed – , but my clients (think Italian shoes and elegance…) probably think it’s an example of naughty-children behaviour. Which they do put up with nicely I must say. I suspect I put a note of colour into their corporate-disciplined days..

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Always interesting.
    I could obsess about size differences. I’m really still hung up on those measurement differences in cooking in a post you wrote some time ago.
    Spoons for pie? Hmm…I’m clumsy and I’ve a small mouth and am not a fan of proper cutlery.
    I often misbehave in public.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Spoons, apparently, for lots of desserts but I’m not at all sure which ones. Pie? Probably but don’t take my word for it. I’m prone to misbehave in public myself–both deliberately and out of sheer cluelessness.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Ah yes I nearly fell foul of the photo sizing when producing the pictures I will need to send in for my green card, luckily I investigated the “visa” option on the whizzy machine menu, even though it was more expensive for fewer pictures (that’s a British grumble right there). Somehow I look less like a serial killer in the larger format so I’m happy.
    Likewise I thoroughly confused my step kids at Thanksgiving when I laid the table with knives and forks and spoons and forks. And there was an awkward and almost frosty moment when middle child showed me a craft project and I said he’d done a “cracking” job on it and he thought I said “crappy”.
    I’m now at the point of waiting to hear from the embassy about my interview and medical, when I will have to go to a Harley Street doctor designated by the embassy and pay them £250 to look in my underwear to check I’m a real girl! I’m not looking forward to it, but I’m grateful that it isn’t the full, rubber glove, James Herriot treatment. I can’t helpe but feel there are Doctors equally qualified nearer to home and much cheaper.
    Youngest step child has just come in to the kitchen to announce she has a Jolly Rancher in her pants, I managed to wait until she had left before my stiff upper lip failed me completely. My husband who understands the British meaning of pants was no help at all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You might want to plant a jolly rancher there yourself when you go see the expensive (and therefore ever so competent) doctor. It might sweeten him or her up.

      Pants, by the way, is one of the few language adaptations I’ve had to accept in order not to freak folks out. I can’t make myself say trousers–they’re those dowdy things that form half a man’s suit–but I will say I’m wearing jeans instead of pants. (I almost always am, so that works.) I also avoid saying that I want to fill the car with gas. There’s been enough laughter over that already.

      Liked by 1 person

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