What the world wants to know about Britain, part fifteenish

How can I tell what the world wants to know about Britain? It sends me questions on search engines. The method is roughly as reliable as reading tea leaves, but it’s what we’ve got. They’re reproduced below in all their oddity.

how do brits interpert tourist

Is “badly” a good enough answer? The British are famous (at least among themselves) for not learning other people’s languages. So interpreting for tourists? Don’t visit the country on the assumption that someone’s going to step in and do this for you–at least not unless you know how to find a community of people who share your language.

Of course, if you don’t read English, you’re not likely to be reading this.

Or is the question about how the British understand tourists? If so, the answer is simple: How is anyone supposed to tell you what an entire country thinks?

This raises the question I keep circling back to when I dredge the search engine pond, which is why so many people assume that a whole–excuse me–fuckin’ culture feels or thinks the same way about anything. And for what it’s worth, the questions are usually about some bit of triviality, like whether the British like soft cookies or how the British feel about tourists.

Excuse me a minute while I go into the corner and yell at the paint. 

Irrelevant photo: A camellia. The entire British nation loves camellias. Everyone who doesn’t left in disgust.

what do londoners think of american tourists

All Londoners? Okay, first we have to define London. It’s made up of 32 boroughs plus the City of London. The City of London is not London. So just to be clear, or possibly to confuse the issue a little more, there’s a difference between the City of London and the city of London. The City (capitalized) is a tiny little place with lots of financiers and a bunch of arcane traditions. If we’re talking about London itself, which an outsider might be silly enough to call call the city of London, we’re not talking about the City of London.

Is that clear?

The question is, do you, O prospective tourist who typed the question into a search engine, plan to visit all 32-plus boroughs? If not, maybe it’s only the single opinion held by all the residents of central London that matters to you. And, of course, they all hold that one opinion.

Or maybe it’s the opinion of the people who live in, work in, or commute to central London.

You see how complicated this gets.

Next we have to make sure they can tell American tourists from other brash English-speaking tourists. My Texas-born (although not usually Texas-accented) partner has been mistaken for Australian. She sounds roughly as Australian as I do, and I have a New York accent, although it’s not the accent some people think is the only New York accent. (Sorry. Life’s complicated.) We’re both regularly asked if we’re Canadian. I’m convinced this is an attempt at politeness. But you see my point. Are we talking about what all Londoners think of people they think are American tourists or of people who genuinely are American tourists.

And then there’s that whole business of what American means. I seem to be stumbling into this issue a lot lately. America involves two continents and that central bit that connects them, part of which isn’t Central but North America. American isn’t just the U.S. of What-do-we-call-this place?

If all that is murky enough, I think you’ll understand why I’m not going to answer the question. No answer is possible.

Conveniently, though, the question was followed by yet another one about the two-finger insult, and I’m grateful for that because I’d like to use it just now.

Nobody has yet asked what Americans think of the two-finger insult, but I’ll tell you anyway: They have no idea what it is.

You’re welcome.

what beer uk has that american doesn’t

Among many others, Doom Bar. Ask for that in a bar in Fridley, Minnesota, and see what happens.

Some of my most popular posts are about beer. Which I haven’t tasted in years. That qualifies me as an international expert on the subject.

why is britain called great britain

Because Big Honkin’ Britain lacks dignity and would lead to me being investigated by the Parliamentary Committee on Un-British Language.

why is called grand britain

Because you have cotton in your ears.

history of the plougman’s lunch

I came, I ordered, I ate, leaving the pickled onion, the chutney, and most of the salad untouched and making myself wonder why I’d ordered it, since what I actually ate was a do-it-yourself cheese sandwich on a very big plate.

If you want a more general history of the ploughman’s lunch, as opposed to a report on the one I got, you’ll find it here.

difference between british and american bueaurocacy

One of them has a second R in it. The other one also has a second R in it. We won’t get into the vowels. They’re best left to the experts.

The people who work for one will say please and thank you and will expect you to do the same. The people who work for the other won’t say thank you and will think you’re up to something if you work in a please. If you’re not sure which is which, leave me a comment and I’ll clarify it.

british manners

This is related to that thing about bureaucrats–or bueaucrats if you prefer.

The people who type this question into search engines have read a nineteenth century novel, or many nineteenth century novels, and think British manners involve knowing which of seventeen forks to use for the fish and not calling anyone by their first name until you’ve known them for as many years as you have forks on the table.

They haven’t noticed that different centuries have different manners, and so do different groups within a society. So, basically, British manners depend on who you’re talking to. What’s universal is that you don’t jump the queue (translation: butt into line) and you do say please and thank you.

A lot.

An absurd lot. In our local store, before it closed, I was thanked when I handed over whatever it was I wanted to buy. I was thanked again when I handed over my money, then thanked again at least once more–possibly when I was given my change or when I walked out the door. By that time I’d generally lost track of what I’d done to trigger it. Every so often, I was told, “Thank you, thank you very much, thank you.”

Yes, that’s a direct, undoctored quote.

Why did the store close? It ran out of thank-you’s. You can blame Brexit if you like. They got held up at the border in anticipation of a no-deal crash-out.

At first I worried that I wasn’t managing to say enough you’re-welcome’s in response, but it turns out that no one expects them. I still haven’t figured out what is expected. You’d think after thirteen years I’d have worked that out, but you’d be wrong. I just thank people back. Not quite as many times, but as many as I can manage.

It’s okay. I’m American. People expect me to be rude, or at least strange. I like to think they make allowances and notice that I am trying.

You also say please a lot. The American form of politeness is saying can I? or could I? as in “Could I have  a can of Coke?” Here that sounds rude if a please doesn’t hitch a ride on the request, and it sounds absurd either way, because the question isn’t whether you could or couldn’t have it, it’s about whether you’d like one.

Final bit of politeness? You never, ever butt into a line. Not even if you’re bleeding.

stéréotypes of u.k

That the British don’t do emotions, or possibly even have them.

That they have seventeen forks to a place setting and know what to do with them.

That they have Manners–capital M because they’re so important and so British that no one else will ever get them right.

That everything stops at 4 p.m. for afternoon tea.

That no one uses teabags.

That they all have a single, posh accent. Except for the ones who sound like Dick Van Dyke in the first Mary Poppins.

Please note: I’m not claiming any of those are true. They’re just what I happened to dredge out of the lazy stereotype pool at short notice.

morris dancers

Morris dancers are what prove that whatever you think British manners are, you’re wrong. Why’s that? Because everyone who isn’t a morris dancer makes fun of morris dancing. Even if we don’t want to. The social pressure’s immense.

For further information on morris dancing, I refer you to that well-known non-expert, me.

how to be an aristocrat

You arrange to be born into a family with a title, silly.

You didn’t do that, you say, and you’re trying to correct your mistake? Too late. You blew your chance. Because that’s the thing about aristocracy: It’s a closed group. Sure, people have historically been given titles who didn’t start with them, but don’t think the people who inherited theirs are impressed. They’ve all known each other since before their great grandparents many times over were born and they’re not anxious to expand the gene pool.

Why does anybody think they can (or want to) worm their way into this foolishness? I have no idea, but I get regular variations on the question, all because I wrote a post about an aristocrat behaving badly and put a snarky title on it. I don’t recommend using him as a model.

I don’t recommend using any other aristocrat as a model either. 

is sticky date pudding bad for cats

The last version of this question I got was about whether sticky toffee pudding was bad for cats. I thought it was a glitch–just one strange cat owner who’d gotten loose on the internet–but apparently there’s a new idea loose in the world: feeding sticky puddings to cats and worrying about whether it’s bad for them.

When did the world get so strange, people?

why are mps wearing roses

On May 8, MPs wore white roses during Prime Minister’s Question Time–a slot dedicated to making the prime minister of the moment squirm and suffer. The roses marked World Ovarian Cancer Day. The only thing Parliament can agree on at the moment is that ovarian cancer is bad, but at least no one spoke in its defense.

Several perfectly sensible news articles covered the story, and they’re where I found my information. How did someone asking about it land here?

87 thoughts on “What the world wants to know about Britain, part fifteenish

  1. And Canadians are regularly asked if they’re Americans, the difference being most of them freak out every time.

    Germans, by contrast, love foreign languages, and you rarely meet a German who doesn’t speak at least 2, in most cases 3. A funny thing happened yesterday. I wrote a letter (have been having some problems with my health insurance) in English. Said I have a headache explaining things in German and needed to make sure I tell them what I thought of them. You can imagine the tone of my letter.
    I get a reply the following day, saying – Frau S, you seem to be angry. Could you please write in the official language of the office in the future so that we could avoid possible misunderstandings? Well, hello, that’s why I wrote it in the most international language in the world. I even said – if you don’t understand, I’m sorry. Have it translated.
    Well, they asked for it.

    Liked by 7 people

    • I really admire countries that make the teaching of foreign languages part of the fabric of education. In the U.S. (and in the U.K., actually), you’ll find people who are offended to hear other languages spoken in public–including one of my aunts, now that we’re talking about it. What their problem is, I can’t quite wrap my head around. Give one of them a letter in a–horrors–foreign language and they’d be more likely to just toss it aside as unmanageable than to actually answer it, even if the answer wasn’t helpful

      Liked by 3 people

  2. As a British person I can clarify that you have correctly figured out the method of responding to polite “thank you”s – by thanking back. Next you just need to begin making use of synonyms such as “ta” and “cheers boss” so that it’s not as repetitive.

    Liked by 8 people

    • Thanks for that (she said finding a perfect excuse to wedge an extra thanks into the discussion). I don’t think I’ll ever manage either “ta” or “cheers.” In my accent, they sound just plain strange. But I did wonder what they meant, as opposed to how they’re used. My mind is more peaceful for knowing. Um–thanks.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. I think that in Britain, if you have an accent that is not immediately recognisable, it is the default assumption that you are Australian. I was asked by a class of children in Manchester if I was Australian. I am not, I am British and by this point I had lived in Hull for 19 years and Guildford for 4…
    Mind you I was once asked if I was South African too…

    Everyone who doesn’t understand how cool morris dancing is makes fun of morris dancers… although not around my side because we wear black masks and big boots and carry big stick and are apparently scary…
    (you know I’d comment on the morris dancers didn’t you :-) )

    Liked by 6 people

    • I figured you would and looked forward to it. My policy is not to make fun of people carrying large sticks if I can possibly avoid it.

      I was once asked, back in Minnesota, what country I was from. I said New York and we went on as if we’d agreed that it was a different country. For no reason I can explain, I like the idea that Australia’s the default assumption. Maybe it’s the absurdity of there being a default setting for that.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Well well Sam, it appears you are a Molly Dancer. Know Chris and Tracey Rose or Tim Burnett by any chance? Got to say a bit like Amateur Musicals, generally the only ones who really enjoy the spectacle are the performers ;-)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sorry to be pedantic but I am a
        Border morris dancer not a molly dancer, the traditions are similar but separate.
        I don’t know those people I am afraid, but I meet a lot of people whose names I don’t find out.
        Your statement may be true of amateur musicals, but just ask the huge crowds we draw and the people who book us for events (generally a year in advance) if the only ones enjoying the performance are the performers… 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well we’re still using ‘your welcome’ here oop north, where I suppose we are more archaic than our hip and groovy compatriots doon sooth, but it can be substituted with ‘not a problem’ or no worries, if you fancy a change.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. “Thank you” from the shopkeeper is code for “I really appreciate the fact that you shopped here today and I hope you will come again soon or I might have to close.” And from the customer it’s code for “I really appreciate the convenience of being able to shop here even though it’s more expensive than the supermarket in town. I hope you don’t close, even though I do most of my shopping at the supermarket in town.” Doesn’t seem to have worked in the case of your local shop.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. We come to you for answers, at least answers we can understand. Given that the other primary source is Wikipedia, and that can be written by self-proclaimed experts, I’d rather come here where you quote real experts. Of course your real expert might be a former version of yourself, but you would know best, so…

    Off-topic (if that’s possible here) I was recently in Minneapolis. A group of us were drinking outside at a brew pub. The patio was near an intersection (sorry, I’m getting there) and I noticed that the drivers were rude. I didn’t expect to see rude drivers in Minneapolis. Maybe I wasn’t in the City of Minneapolis, I don’t know.

    Have a wonderful weekend – I loved this post.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Minnesotans have their own ways of being rude, one of which (and this doesn’t involve cars) is to say, “Well, that’s different.”

      Somehow it’s always preceeded by “well.”

      Maybe after they say that four or five times, they crank themselves up to honk their horns and cut off other drivers. I can’t remember. It’s been too long. But I find it oddly heartening to know they can pull it together to be rude. It’s the New Yorker in me. All that Minnesota niceness unnerved me.

      And I might as well confess, I do sometimes use Wikipedia. I try to cross-check it against something more stable but I can’t always find an alternative source.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My hubby’s Canadian, and is regularly asked if he’s American. When he says he’s not, and tells them he’s Canadian (which he’s gotten pretty good about not freaking out while saying… I suppose it’s practice) they then say, “I thought you were.” Which totally tests his patience for the issue, since why ask if he’s American if you think he’s Canadian?

    It’s OK about the, “Thank you,” thing. You don’t have to match other people’s number of thank yous. Actually, I think some people actually like it if they say it more times than you do.

    I love these posts, by the way.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m glad you do, and even gladder to know that I can make someone happy (or at least smug) by saying thanks fewer times than them. I thought people kept count and I worried about being down a few hundred thank-yous. How was I ever going to make it up?

      People are weird about thinking they need to know where people are from. It makes sense to me if you’re actually involved in a conversation with someone–as in, you’re getting to know them a bit. But as something to ask a stranger? Once you get your answer, what do you actually know? Not much.


      • Oh, they keep count. They just like it when their count is higher than yours. ;)

        I agree about the wanting to know where people are from thing. It seems to be important though. Maybe they’re trying to fill a world map with pins representing random people they’ve met? Maybe there’s a prize for the first person to fill it? If so, why wasn’t I told?

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Liked the photo of the camellia.

    Post was good also.

    I understand how you feel


    I’m sorry I . .

    seem like good things to say that I throw in a lot. Lots of pleases and thank you’d also.
    All groups of people seem to get hit with stereotypes if their manners, behavior and attitudes. I just see that as human nature to do that.

    Over here we are into the abortion debates. States including my state if Georgia have passed restrictions. Supreme Court may take it up again. I mention that as a suggested topic.

    Next ten says are predicted to be in the nineties here. Weather that hot I’d unheard of for May. How do Brits deal with the heat waves. Another topic idea.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the suggestions. Briefly on one: Heat waves–welll, yes, and the definition is different here. A heatwave starts at, oh, maybe 80 degrees. Any hot weather at all is a heatwave, and people deal with it by going into shock.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Loved this post!
    I get lots of ‘darlings/honeys’ when I go about. Less of the thanks. Though you definitely have to add the please! My grandmother would still wait for me to say ‘please’ before giving whatever it is.
    I’ve actually often been asked if I’m Irish/Welsh. supposedly I don’t sound british. Who knew?

    Liked by 4 people

      • :) I’m young, and I’m often naive and clueless, you know when someone is shopping and has no clue where to go, or when they’re parking and have no clue how to and are terrified of scratching the cars, or on the train and asking advice about the stations…. that’s me. People are mostly always nice to me, and usually always ‘honey/darling’ me. Though it’s the women folk who do that. The menfolk are just helpful in general.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s good to hear that people are helpful. And it’s always been women who’ve said “love” to me as well. Which is good. You can hear the warmth and not have to wonder if they’re being creepy.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Ellen, I do so wish one stereotype was true–and you can probably guess which one. Yes, that everything stops at 4 o’clock for afternoon tea. I might be in the US in 2019, but I’m really in my own time in my own little world! BTW, I’m doing a wonderful tea giveaway this week (open to US and Canada).

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m not sure it’d be a good idea for everything to stop at 4, but I do know that by now I’ve been in Britain long enough that if I don’t get a cup of tea somewhere between 2 and 4, I wilt.

      Hope the giveaway goes well.


  11. I can somewhat figure out who are Americans, Australians and British. British people have a very lovely but strong accent, Australians use the word “mate” a lot. Americans have different ways of pronouncing words when compared to Canadian English.

    French is also an interesting topic as people in France have trouble with Quebecer French (much stronger and some words are different in meaning). I got so angry when a Frenchman refused to serve me when I was speaking in Québec French, saying he does not understand me. Everyone else at the airport understands me except for him.

    As for thank yous, I always think it is better to be overpolite than not. It is still work in progress, but my little person will be expected to say thank yous like the British…

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I had always thought that it was us in the Former Colonies who never bothered to learn another language. (We seem to believe that if we just speak s-l-o-w-e-r and LOUDER we will be understood. Relieved to learn it’s an Engish-s[eaker’s thing.
    Most of what I know abut the city of London is that line from “A Christmas Carol” about “the corporation, alderman, and livery.”

    I did have a Great Uncle Morris, but I don’t think he was much of a dancer.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. “how do brits interpert tourist” I think you made a mistake here. I don’t think they asked how brits interpret tourists, but how they interpret “tourist” (the word). I think they interpret it as torist, since brits and ‘mericans can’t seem to agree when to use “ou” vs “o”.

    To your point, I never had problems with brits understanding what I said when I was there. However, I’ve never quite understood why they still set fire to a stick to see into dark places. Throw away the torches and just use a flashlight like the rest of the world. You’ll have fewer fires that way.

    “what do londoners think of american tourists” I blame this on Davy Jones, he released an album here in the ’60’s which included the song, “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner”. It has confused everyone for decades.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You make a good point about torists. I’m only sorry I didn’t get there first. As for those torches, it gets really messy, here in the country where we don’t have street lighting everywhere, when you go to put one in your pocket.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Laughed through the blog. Chortled through the comments. And those cat people need to feed their cats cat food. Maybe it was like feeding a horse caramel and they had to watch in horror as their cat did all sorts of weird things with its mouth…

    Liked by 3 people

  15. When living in England, I made a number of lifelong friends but I truly came to love my landlady and used to call her my English Mum. She was a very stately woman with a posh accent and public-school background. It is still a minor mystery why the British call a very expensive, very private school – public. She lived in a 12th century converted carriage house in a small village on the Norfolk Coast. She told me the golf club she belonged to on the edge of the village was world famous and usually punctuated that statement by telling me Lee Trevino played there. I was happy to take her word for it because I’m not a golfer. On a couple of occasions she invited me up for the weekend to attend a social event as her companion. I always found it interesting that I lost my first name when being introduced around to her posh friends and became Captain Day (I was in the USAF). Somewhere in the introductions she would make a discrete suggestion I was in the Navy (in case you are unaware, a Captain in the Navy is a much higher rank than a Captain in the USAF). At these soirees I was always amazed that there seemed to be more forks on the table than i have toes but I followed the rule I learned from my mother – always start with the fork farthest out and work inward. Some weekends Ed and I would spend the week with her and do small routine maintenance jobs around property and spent the evenings in our pajamas playing poker and drinking sloe gin she had made herself. She was a wonderful and passed away some time ago but I have many great memories and was fortunate to know her.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I didn’t know that about captains, and I can trade you a bit of information about public schools for it: When they first started, they were established as charities–what Americans now call nonprofits–to educated the sons of the poor. The rich gradually noticed that the poor boys were getting an education they wanted for their own sons and the poor kids were squeezed out by kids whose families could pay the market rate. Now we get to the public/private bit. Other schools charged fees and whatever profit they made went to the people who owned and ran them. But the public schools were charities. The fees paid by the students’ families went to the schools, and as charities there was a (by then highly questionable) sense of they’re being for the benefit of the public.

      So there you go: why public schools are private.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for the explanation. It is convoluted but seems very British. Since sending you the note this morning, I had to check out my landlady’s claims about the Golf Club. 40 years since the last time I set foot in Sheringham, I went back today on the internet to do the research. It’s rated as the 77th best club in England and Lee Trevino as well as my other famous golfers have played there. It also reminded me of how beautiful the location is with the golf club extending right up to the cliffs overlooking the sea. In the village there was a popular holiday beach which had all the features of a beach in the 1920s. Instead of sand, the beach is made up of small water eroded pebbles. On a beautiful summer day I made the huge mistake of wading into the water. I experienced the searing pain caused by nearly freezing water. Yet there were swimmers in the waves and small children playing in the water. It gave me a better understanding of the hardiness of the British population.

    Liked by 2 people

    • These days, a lot of people wear those ankle-to-wrist surf suits. Even in the summer, some of them wear short versions. It keeps them from turning blue with the cold. I’m not a swimmer–on a hot day, I’ll maybe wade, but that’s about my limit. But those pebbled beaches are beautiful, and the surf turning the pebbles makes a gorgeous sound. Our local beach is usually sand, but periodically some storm will steal the sand, leaving very slick, algae’d rock. A few years later, the sand comes back.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Barnier should wear a white rose when the next prime goes to renegotiate the agreement the EU has repeatedly said wouldn’t change.
    (Or will that start a new war of the roses?
    A Texas accent confused with Awstraylian? Bless mah soul.
    Thanks for the post. It makes me understand that it’s not just me, the whole world has gone bonkers.
    Good dahyyy…

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Pingback: What really happens in Britain. And elsewhere | Notes from the U.K.

  19. For some odd reason, this reminded me of something that happened in high school. We had a substitute teacher who was British and asked us what stereotypes we had about British people. One of the guys said that the women always kept a tissue in their (cardigan) sweater sleeve. She looked startled and pulled a tissue from her sweater sleeve. It was the first (and last) time I heard about that stereotype.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That strikes me as hysterically funny, and typical, although I can’t think what it’s typical of. I wonder if that isn’t a generational thing, though. I seem to remember that when I was a kid some older women did that–and that would’ve been in New York. Women’s clothes didn’t have pockets, for the most part. So what were they supposed to do? Carry a purse everywhere they went?

      Liked by 1 person

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