What happens when British manners break down?

Let’s talk about manners. And anger. And Britain.

Large print: The British value manners and avoid conflict.

Small print: Except when they don’t.

And there, in two lines, you have the problem with generalizations and stereotypes. They make the world so simple and they fall apart so embarrassingly.

The small print means it’s easy for one mannerless, angry person to turn a roomful of polite people into emotional hostages. I’ve been in two stereotype-smashing situations recently, which is why I’ve been thinking about this, and in a rare moment of discretion I’m going to make every effort not to tell you where they took place or who was involved.

Sorry. It would be a hell of a lot more fun to fill in the details, but no one but me (or I if you want to be formal about this) signed on to be blogged about. So I’ll tiptoe around any identifying information while I try to find something solid enough to be worth reading.

Irrelevant photo: crocuses. It’s spring.

What happened in both situations was that two or three people broke the unwritten group rules by shouting, accusing, or mocking. And what happened next?

Well, not a hell of a lot. In the first situation, our opening move was to pretend it wasn’t happening, or at least try to. And that included the very un-British me. When it happened a few more times, some weeks later, several people had what folks here call “a quiet word” with someone about it. A quiet word is polite and discrete, although a few of them were spoken in places where they could be overheard, but as far as I’ve been able to establish they weren’t disruptively public. In this case, at least, they didn’t fix the problem, because it happened again. After that, no one knew quite what to do next. Several of us stewed and fumed to each other, which (at least as I understand it) is very British. I think it’s Kate Fox, who wrote Watching the English, who defined moaning (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) as complaining about a problem to the people you’re absolutely certain can’t fix it.

Our moaning wasn’t entirely useless. A few more quiet words were had. A few letters were written. A few quiet conversations were held, and some of them were with the person who could solve the problem. I don’t know yet if we have a solution, but it looks like we might.

But it took a long time to get to that point, and the important question is probably, What didn’t happen along the way? No one stood up publicly and disruptively to say, “Hey, knock it off.” Including, I’m sorry to say, me, because it just plain didn’t occur to me. I get trapped by politeness as surely as anyone else does. On top of that, the most recent time it happened I managed not to quite pick up on what was happening. Afterwards, with twenty-twenty hindsight, I geared myself up to be loud and public when it happened again, but then it didn’t.

Would it have helped if I’d pulled myself up to my full five foot not very much and made a scene? I have no idea. But when playing by the rules doesn’t work, it’s always worth asking yourself if you shouldn’t break them.

The second situation was a fairly formal meeting. Two people refused to shut up when the chair asked them to stop disrupting the meeting. The chair was good, I thought, at acknowledging what was going on while still avoiding a full-blown, let’s-all-get-in-a-wrestling-match confrontation. I didn’t take on one of the people who was being disruptive—I’m not sure why—but when the other one talked through the chair, I talked through her, so neither of us could be heard. When she stopped, I shut up with a powerful feeling of relief because I was running out of words and was only talking to keep her from holding the floor.

No one acknowledged what had happened, and for all I know, although she’d alienated most of the people in the room, I may have embarrassed them by being impolite. And public. And loud.

How would those challenges have played out in the U.S.? I’m not sure. It might depend on region, ethnicity, and age group. It might depend on those here as well. For whatever it tells us, both groups I’m writing about had an average age of, oh, maybe 60, although a few people were a good bit younger. As a general rule, that means no one’s likely to start a knock-down, drag-out fight just for the joy of it or because they need some exercise, although in the second situation a fight might have happened if the chair had been hard nosed.

As for place and ethnicity, both groups were in Cornwall. Cornwall’s startlingly white, and so were both groups. I’m not sure how either of those facts affected what happened. I’ve lived here eleven years now, but I’m still American and there’s some stuff about the culture that I just can’t read.

What I do know is that a good number of people here talk about the embarrassment of being noticed in public—because they tripped on the street, say, or because someone with them did something visible like (gasp) waving wildly. It’s not a mindset I understand, but I do understand that it’s real. It’s not something I remember people talking about in the U.S.

So one strain of the culture pulls toward invisibility and conformism.

There’s also a streak of violence running underneath all that politeness and restraint. It shows up in sports, where getting in a fight is, for some people, part of the fun of going to a game. Or it was—I don’t read about that happening as much as I did when we first moved here.

I’m guessing the people who go to a game to get in a fight aren’t the same people who’d be embarrassed to stand next to someone waving too enthusiastically, but as usual, I don’t know. They coexist, however uneasily.

It’s not–do I even need to say this?–that the U.S. isn’t a violent country. The number of gun deaths in the U.S. and our attitude toward guns regularly throw the British into shock. All I’m saying is that violence lies under the surface in both cultures but pours itself into very different forms. Which is an inconclusive way to end a post but the best I can do today.

All insights on the subject (or off the subject) are very welcome.

74 thoughts on “What happens when British manners break down?

  1. Hmmm, how thought provoking.
    I’m having a problem with someone I am ‘friends’ with on Facebook, whom I have worked with for years remotely, spoken to on the phone, but have not actually met. And in response to his aggressive anti-everything-mainstream rants I am behaving mostly as you are describing. Politely disagreeing but not in the same hostile way, asking him to tone it down, sending emails behind the scenes. Friends (real ones) doing ditto to me. ‘Who is that man?’ kind of emails. Then they jump in and like my comments when I try rational argument back, while avoiding it themselves.
    I have no brilliant insight into this (and as a blogger myself am relieved to see you not reach a conclusion – I always feel that pressure) but you are making me think about it, so perhaps a post of my own in due course, we’ll see. Meanwhile, if you have a road to Damascus moment – let us know!

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s hardly an original solution, but you could always block him. Or chop him into little verbal pieces and then block him. Or–well, what do I know? You’re right–I don’t have a solution, although it’s so much easier to think I do when it’s someone else’s problem, not my own.

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    • This is so timely for me, too, as I recently got into a confrontation online with someone I did not know but with whom I was attempting to engage philosophically. It backfired–big time. I suppose my surprise comes from my lack of real experience with the blood bath that online forums can become because I’ve mainly just observed–amused and bemused–from the sidelines.

      The full effect (I do hope it’s over) came down today, and I’ve been nursing my wounds. Mine was a little different as it was about being shut down with immediate vitriol for questioning someone and offering a different perspective, even politely (or so I thought) and not “out of turn.” Basically, it was name calling from one respondent and castigation from another.

      But it’s interesting how your questioning, Ellen, focuses on the “what should I have done” part rather than the “what will happen if I do X” half of things. It sounds like you’re generally more sure of yourself and of being right than I am, almost as if you take a sort of peacemaker’s role very seriously because it’s what comes naturally. Or, maybe you just have a greater official responsibility in those meetings than you’ve made explicit. I try to mediate sometimes, and I genuinely want civil yet robust debate (does that exist?), but I suppose I instigate things just as often.

      Political topic + absolute stranger + point of disagreement, for me, now will mean, “Stay away. Stay far away.” But that’s not really a good solution either. There has to be a happy medium between absolute self-preservation and trying to help people, even indirectly, who don’t want or don’t think they need to be helped. Picking one’s battles, as it were. That discretion and shielding people from (further) embarrassment that you describe, while still laying down some boundaries, especially when a pattern emerges where you KNOW no one else will.

      I continue to assume falsely that everyone is like me and likes to learn and grow. My–teacherly–mistake. Tactics and techniques . . . It IS thought provoking and worth further discussion, but “with whom?” is my current urgent question. I might need to be more careful about taking leaps of faith without a net beneath me (I’m too sensitive to the backlash not to tread more lightly or at least wisely), or re-examine my rhetoric for irksome elements, or just hire a “sensitivity reader” to screen all my posts and comments before I post them. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.

      Either way, it’s likely that this virtual field is going to be my workplace–my most formal meeting space–for the foreseeable future. I might as well start learning how to identify and side-step, or even disarm, some of the land mines.

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      • Something does seem to happen online, because of distance and invisibility, that leaves some people feeling free to be complete assholes–to put it non-judgmentally. I’m guessing they feel no one can come back at them the way they might in person, and it brings out the worst in them. I have no idea how to deal with it. So far, I haven’t had to here, although I suppose it’ll happen eventually.

        Interesting comment about my approach. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been a peacemaker in more–but by no means all–situations. I’ve discovered that I can use both my size and my age (I’m small and 70) to lower the emotional tone, which can be helpful. But sometimes I’m full-on confrontation. I grew up in New York, and I’m still a New Yorker at heart. I know how to get nose to nose with someone and be a complete jerk. Sometimes I’ve been proud of doing that and sometimes I’ve come away wondering what I was thinking. It depends on whether I thought I was standing up for myself (or someone else) or–well, just being a jerk in a situation where other people were also being jerks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Something does seem to happen online, because of distance and invisibility, that leaves some people feeling free to be complete assholes–to put it non-judgmentally. I’m guessing they feel no one can come back at them the way they might in person, and it brings out the worst in them. I have no idea how to deal with it. So far, I haven’t had to here, although I suppose it’ll happen eventually.

        Interesting comment about my approach. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been a peacemaker in more–but by no means all–situations. I’ve discovered that I can use both my size and my age (I’m small and 70) to lower the emotional tone, which can be helpful. But sometimes I’m full-on confrontation. I grew up in New York, and I’m still a New Yorker at heart. I know how to get nose to nose with someone and be a complete jerk. Sometimes I’ve been proud of doing that and sometimes I’ve come away wondering what I was thinking. It depends on whether I thought I was standing up for myself (or someone else) or–well, just being a jerk in a situation where other people were also being jerks.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was in John Lewis in Oxford Street yesterday picking up my laptop which had been repaired. An elderly gentleman, in a very loud voice berated a chap, in a pin striped suit for queue jumping. His words where along the lines of “in my day people queued and had manners”. The gentleman being berated just replied “OK” which, oddly enough (in my eyes at least) made the gentleman doing the shouting come across as rude and aggressive. Speking to my friend afterwards, neither she nor I where certain as to whether the man accused of queue jumping had done what he was accused of having perpetrated. I have seen situations like this resolved in a much better manner, with the agrieved party saying “excuse me, I was first” or, in typically British fashion, “Excuse me, “I think I was first” in a rather quiet tone of voice. Incidentally I usually apologise when someone bumps into me, even where it is clearly their fault which does, I guess make me very British!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Apologizing when someone bumps into you is British. Kate Fox opens her book by writing about the time when, for research purposes, she had to gear herself up to bump into people accidentally to see what they said. (It took a drink or two before she could manage it.) The English all apologized. Other nationalities would saying things like (if I remember correctly), “Are you okay?” and “Careful.”

      I’ve been chewed out for queue jumping when I wasn’t. (In his opinion, the queue was on his right, not his left. Or maybe it was the other way around.) The guy who did it came off as a complete asshole and the woman behind the deli counter apologized to me once he left, although she hadn’t done a thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. No one, and I mean no one, messes around in meetings that I chair. I’ve actually just sent out some papers yesterday. We are on first name terms, we have a formal agenda and there is no AOB (recipe for disaster that, learned it from my dad). Ages vary from 40s to 60s.

    I first chaired a meeting in my 20s. Ugh. In my 30s I had it sorted. When you can take down arrogant consultants (ie medics) you know you are getting there. I watched one woman, who I previously thought was wimpy, totally silence one director.’Yes, X, we’ve heard your views before and know your tactics for disrupting meetings, so shut up.’ Or words to that effect. He shut up.

    British usually (?!) respect authority. I’d have thrown continual disrupters out. Called security. A meeting isn’t someone’s ego trip. It’s to achieve results. /rant

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  4. Love the opening with the large and the small print. :-)
    Sad to say, we experience confrontation with locals in North Norfolk, you know Farage county, when people feel threatened to a livid point by non exisitng things …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “when playing by the rules doesn’t work, it’s always worth asking yourself if you shouldn’t break them.” It always amazes me when I see this come about because one or two or six people refused to play by the rules. It’s not like th rules weren’t working, it’s just that someone felt they didn’t apply to them, and then it all goes down a rat hole.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your observations on British culture remind me so often that in many ways I am extremely un-Brittish!

    To be honest I am constantly surprised I am not thrown out of the country!

    I have a habit of confronting rude people, even if I don’t know them. I answer back when people make rude comments in the street and embarrass them into shutting up (this is normally to youth who think it is fun to heckle the unusual looking me…)

    I am extremely noticeable in public…I wear loud clothes in my gym amongst all the grey and black clothing, I have bright giant hair and tattoos, and I talk to strangers at random! I am constantly surprised that my friends don’t disown me!

    I even complain about problems to the people who can fix them!!

    I had better get my passport in order…

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    • I hear that too. I also hear that water isn’t as wet as it used to be.

      Really, I’m not sure, since I don’t have a point of comparison–I’ve only lived here for eleven years, which isn’t enough time to see serious change–and I live in a village, not a city. I consider the kids around here shockingly polite, but then I’m American, so what do I know?

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  7. Do you have any thoughts on why the stereotype about British politeness even exists? I have found people to be as equally capable of being polite and impolite in both the U.K. and US and, indeed, most places I’ve ever visited. I feel like I’ve encountered the most impolite behaviour (by far) from strangers in New York, London, and Paris so perhaps it’s a big city thing rather than a national thing.

    I’m pretty rubbish at intervening in the type of situations you are referring to when the context is informal. I think I’m just unsure of the rules and the dynamic and get flustered by my own social anxiety. In formal situations, however, such as meetings, I’m fairly adept at nipping that sort of behaviour in the bud right away because I have a default phrase bank and tool kit for doing so and I feel more justified (especially if I’m chairing) and confident in asserting myself and essentially calling someone out on their poor attitude.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A default phrase book wouldn’t be a bad thing to have.

      I don’t know where the stereotype came from. The upper class, maybe, which can be impolite with impeccable good taste. Whatever the source, though, it’s firmly linked with the country in a lot of people’s minds. And people I know over here are convinced that Americans are, by comparison, uninhibited, so I think the British believe–well, if not that they have good manners (and some do, and correct ours periodically–or try to, in which efforts I can only wish them luck), then that they’re inhibited. Which may not be the same thing as polite, but it is related.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Having been raised by Brits until a parent married into an American bunch of step-yahoos, I am often of two minds. Politeness and manners have their place. It’s hard to exchange ideas while in a brawl. But there is a distinction between passionate expression and bullying behavior – that of stomping on or talking over others.
    However, for years I was easily embarrassed around people who were wild wavers or oblivious loud talkers, even though those people were often friends. It’s a level of self-consciousness I will always likely carry, but I’ve gained some attitude with age that curtails it. These days I speak up more often than not – mostly because I believe it’s an art form to disagree agreeably and I need the practice.

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  9. “a quiet word”. I love it. We didn’t get that when we were growing up. we were taken to the shed. dunno why. I was always a good kid … most times. OK, maybe every now and then.

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  10. I think we Brits are very good at muttering and tutting when under duress. I sometimes think it would be healthier if we just let it out like I’ve seen in places like Spain, Italy and Greece where they often gesticulate wildly and look like they are having a really good barney but are probably just discussing the price of a pint of milk – sorry, make that a litre of milk .. All this holding it in can’t be good for us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Both approaches, I think, have their down side. I grew up in New York, where people are likely to get right in each other’s faces over whatever. I can testify that you don’t walk away from those feeling cleansed. Or I never did. I walked away replaying the whole thing and thinking about what I should really have said. Or done.

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  11. Over HERE, lately, there have been an even more disturbingly high number of incidents where someone “in their 60’s” shot someone -often- younger. (The geezer in the movie theatre claimed “stand your ground” which the court, thankfully, laughed at. Locally a 60 something shot a guy who they THOUGHT had stolen his son-in-law’s dirt bike.
    At least in Dodge City, EVERYONE carried openly and you weren’t surprised by this.
    Plus what just happened on Westminster Bridge.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It’s definitely an art form to deal with these things, and my lord, there is underlying anger wherever you look. I have usually been pretty good at speaking up in a decent way (others may say different!) if needed and while many things in life have embarrassed me, this sort of thing rarely did. Having said that, I’ve spent the last twenty years deeply embarrassed and frightened by my drunken ADHD (probably) ex-chap talking far too loudly, getting angry and saying completely inappropriate things and it’s taking some time to get back to normal. The lunacy you talk of in your comment above seems to be ruling the planet these days. That to me is partly because of a lack of education and partly an insecurity that has come from bad parenting and the attitudes from ‘those above’ who act as dreadful examples. If it’s not that, then there’s a huge increase in narcissism, ADHD and associated conditions where the brain is wired differently. What a lovely life!

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  13. I suspect it’s the same everywhere: some people are bullies, some are wimps, some choose their battles on philosophical grounds and some are totally controlled by their mood swings.

    I don’t mind making a real scene if (for example) someone is trying to get away with bad behavior (like stealing a bag I set down for a minute), but I’m mortified by acquaintances who try to converse across the street rather than crossing the street to speak quietly.

    Oh-so-very-tactful hinting and talking to third parties often seems to me to border on bad behavior. As a teenaged babysitter I once used a word that was forbidden by the rules of the client’s church (it was “darned,” but to describe an annoying TV ad rather than a sock). Rather than just tell a half-grown employee not to say that in her house, the client waited until her own child giggled and repeated what I’d said, then hit the child. *Urgh.* I would sooo much rather have been directly confronted.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I don’t know but I think there is a reason why I’m in Italy and not in Vienna, for example. When father was working there and I visited a lot, I thought I’d kick the next one who tells me Entschuldigen Sie (Excuse me) for bumping into me. I’m NOT a polite person. I think justice, immediacy, honesty, good cause, friendship and on and on all have priority. I’d fare poorly over there, I’m afraid. Now, the question is what your reason for being there could be, and not in New Orleans for example (to bump out a city). I like the Italian way of solving conflicts – all out, scream, hand gesture, including three fingers just under the opponent’s shoulder while yelling Auuuu. I think it’s healthy. (And I’ve just seen another list of healthiest nations where they hold #1.)

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  15. Down the centuries ambassadors to what was then England frequently commented on the violent character of the English – and of the alarming readiness of their women to make physical contact.
    Little has changed….the red trouser brigade are as ready with their fists as the football follower – indeed, the red trousered have taken to following that sport – now there is money in it.

    As for the stereotype of British manners …’The upper class, maybe, which can be impolite with impeccable good taste’…..They can indeed be rude, but the ‘impeccable good taste is what they have taught the rest of us to use as a description of their particular form of rudeness.

    From my experience of life in Britain, if you have the power to be rude you can; if not, you tend to mutter and tut.
    Having the power, whether you choose to be rude is up to you…always bearing in mind the limiting factor of the ancient art of arslikhan – imbibed with others’ milk by the red trousered – which inhibits showing rudeness to one who might be useful to you.

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  16. Then again there’s that reaction I’ve encountered more than once where I’ve made an honest remark to someone that could have been taken as a bit snarky and have a friend marvel at the fact that I could get away with it without some hostile reaction. I’m not sure I’m describing it very well, but hopefully you get the gist. The manner of delivery apparently makes a difference. Some things said with a smile can get the point across without necessarily raising hackles. Or perhaps it’s about how much hostility is injected. I don’t know… I think I’m rambling, but it’s what came to mind at the end of this discussion. And I can’t come up with any conclusions either. We’re talking about human nature after all.

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  17. I have loud Italian hands and passionate opinions. No one (who doesn’t know me) suspects this, and so I often sit quietly, patiently, waiting for someone else to make my point politely, and then when they don’t, I rupture like a volcano and leave people speechless. I’m certain it’s bad manners, but I am this way.
    We’re yellers, we are. People are always yelling in my house. Mind you, no one has to be upset to yell. Violence comes in the form of tickling and raucous laughter?
    I don’t trust people who have immense self-control over their emotions. I never know where I really stand, so that volcano thing can be a test for proper reaction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s kind of how I feel about people who are so polite that I don’t know where they stand. It’s not so much that I don’t trust them as that they make me very uncomfortable. I like something solid to run up against in my friends.

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  18. I have found that some people are inordinately in love with their own voices. They have to be the center of attention much to the chagrin and consternation of everyone present. These bellicose individuals are usually the type to become involved in altercations like you mentioned. If only people would work hard at listening and having dialogues. I realize that is a Utopian construct. Good food for thought post, Ellen.

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  19. When my bipolar disorder gets to the point where I need outpatient services, the usual format is “group.” It is very much like your community meetings. Someone kidnaps the meeting, or another has a response to everything everyone else says. Shouting and abuse are absolutely not allowed, but I usually have to leave and sit in the hall a while anyway.

    I depend on the facilitator (or chair in your case), to keep folks (even mentally ill folks) in line and playing by the rules. I don’t feel like it’s my place to remind Charlie that it’s Suzy’s time to speak, so kindly shut the hell up. Once, when the group was only 3 of us, I brought up the subject with a facilitator. Immediately, the other 2 patients agreed with me, with much relief and some tears. He said it was perfectly appropriate for us to calmly confront the disruptor if we felt the need, which I did the next time it happened. I may have a mental illness, but I have some skills.

    I may be American, but I do have a fear of overstepping my bounds. What I wouldn’t give for Roughseasonthemed to take on the therapeutic group setting!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’d expect a group leader to have some serious authority, and to use it, but I guess that’s a naive as expecting people who voluntarily go to a meeting to respect the chair. We may have enough work for Roughseasinthemed to work at this full time.

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