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.

British understatement

Every so often, I ask what people want to know about Britain or the U.S., and every so often they answer. Zipfslaw wrote, “I’d love to know how to understand British understatement. Like, I’ve heard that ‘at your earliest convenience’ means ‘RIGHT NOW’,’ but I don’t really know how it all works.”

Neither do I, so I went running to my strange friend Dr. Google and found a 2001 Guardian article, which gives a memorable example of what happens when the British and non-British try to communicate.

During the Korean War, a British brigadier informed General Soule, his American superior in the U.N. joint command, “Things are a bit sticky, sir,”

He meant they were in serious trouble. “His men were outnumbered eight to one, stranded on every side by human waves of…attackers…. But Gen. Soule understood this to mean ‘We’re having a bit of rough and tumble but we’re holding the line’. Oh good, the general decided, no need to reinforce or withdraw them, not yet anyway.”

More than 500 British soldiers were captured and 59 were killed or missing. Only 39 escaped.

So, yes, I can see why Zipfslaw’s question is worth asking.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

From the Guardian, I went to a site I never expected to visit, Debrett’s, which calls itself “the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement.”

Yes, and modesty as well. Haven’t they heard about understatement? Well, sure they have and here’s what (as the recognized–note the American Z I’m using, please–authority) they say about it:

“A quality that is much revered – and exploited – by the British, understatement is frequently seen as being synonymous with good manners. Understatement is characterised by a number of negatives: a refusal to be effusive, overdramatic, emphatic or didactic. More direct remarks are frequently accompanied by tentative or provisional qualifications: ‘perhaps’, ‘it could be’, ‘I wonder if’, ‘maybe’. The overall effect is an aura of modest reticence, quiet understanding and considerate behaviour. Like self-deprecation, understatement is an attractive and effective quality, which is often more persuasive, and appealing, than a direct approach.
Understatement permeates British humour.”

So that’s the answer aimed at aristocrats and those anyone who wants to behave like aristocrats. J., however, tells me that Northerners and the working class in general are generally more direct than the upper class(es) and people from the Southeast. (I’m not sure where that leaves the Southwest, never mind Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Midlands, since I didn’t think to ask, but let’s keep this simple.) Notherners and the working class may be the only reason anyone on this island ever gets out of a burning building: Everyone looks around for someone bold enough to shout, “Fire!” instead of murmuring, “It may soon become a bit warmer here.”

J. told me about a scenario in which an aristocrat offers a working class person a lift, expecting to be politely turned down. But the working class person thinks it’s a genuine offer and accepts it.

Inevitably, it would be raining. I’d have accepted too. The aristocrat would be put out but too polite to say so, and I’d have no idea I just broke the rules. Subtlety’s wasted on me.

At roughly the same time, a different friend whose name also starts with J. sent an email saying something I’d written wasn’t half bad, then added, “(British upper class understatement from 1930s). In fact its a  jolly decent letter.

“Not sure it is just a public school thing though. Consider the (working class ) phrases “fair to middling” and “mustn’t grumble,” which are responses to “How are you?” when the person is actually unwell. Then there is professional middle class mealy mouth. A girl at my school hit a student teacher over the head with a book. On her term report, the teachers wrote, ‘Amanda must not allow her keeness to learn to overcome her natural good manners.’ “
Now that’s understatement.
This is probably a good place to note that “not bad” (depending on the tone of voice) can mean very good, but “not terrible” means bad, although probably not disastrously so.
As people used to say in the U.S. when I was a kid, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
I only threw that in because I suspect it’ll be as baffling to anyone who doesn’t already understand it as the not bad/not terrible distinction is to the rest of us.
You can see that understatement quickly shades over into indirectness, or even opposite-of-what-you-mean-ness. On Quora, someone wrote that “incidentally” means “the primary purpose of our discussion is.”
I was beginning to think that you’d have to grow up with this to understand it, but then I found Anglophenia, which along with a few other sites ran a translation chart for a range of phrases. As an example, “I’ll bear it in mind” means I’ve already forgotten it.

Before you decide that expanding your head so it encompasses understatement is all it takes to understand people over here, I’ve also heard classic British overstatement. Friends periodically tell me they’re gasping for a cup of tea, although I have yet to hear an actual gasp. Or that they’re perishing for one, although so far none of they have died when no tea materialized. But then I don’t (thank whatever laws of the universe control these things) hang out in Debrett’s kind of circles.

I’d add more examples here but the only Briitish overstatements I’ve been able to think of involve tea. That’s worth pondering.

In the U.S., Minnesotans are known for their understatement. I’m working from memory, which is an invitation to disaster, but Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan had, I think, a segment about a guy using a welding torch near a car’s gas tank. What does the Minnesotan watching him say? “Y’know, a feller might not want to do that.”

So all I can say in answer to Zipfslaw’s question is, Consult your translation chart. It’s incomplete, but that may be a result of classic British understatement.

*

Apologies to anyone who read this a week and a half ago when I accidentally posted a draft. Since then, I’ve moved three commas, put two of them back where they started, removed a stray URL, and added a photo. You can see, it’s a massive improvement.

I’ve also added J. emailed comment, which is a genuine improvement.

Finally, this P.S. gives me an excuse to mention another crucial cultural difference between the U.S. and Britain that the Guardian quote reminded me of: We do the dash differently. American publishing uses what’s called an em dash–a dash the width of the letter M–with no space on either side. British publishing uses an en dash–the width of the letter N–with a space on either side.

People, this matters.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. They take me places I wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise.

Are Americans louder than the British?

You know that stereotype about noisy Americans? If you don’t, you’re American and you think the whole world talks at the same level as you.

It doesn’t.

Back when Wild Thing and I lived in Minneapolis, our friends D. and D. traveled from quietest Devon to visit us. When they reeled off the plane, jet lagged and culture shocked, they confessed that they’d thought Wild Thing was loud until they changed planes in Chicago, where they had a revelation: Wild Thing isn’t loud, she’s just American.

Okay, they might have waited a few days to say that. Or it could’ve been a few years. I don’t really remember. But they did say it. And since they worry (especially the one D.) endlessly and unnecessarily about offending people, I should add that we weren’t offended. We thought it was (a) true and (b) very funny.

The British, as a rule, are quiet–at least when sober. They don’t like to stand out in a crowd. They teach their children seventy-four forms of politeness, most of which I don’t understand but at least a dozen of them are variants on not calling attention to themselves. And Americans? The positive way to see it is that we’re less inhibited. If you want the negative spin, we’re thoughtless and rude. Take your pick. Or take both. It’s not an either/or choice.

Irrelevant photo: Red campion (which is actually pink) surrounded by nettle leaves.

Irrelevant photo: Red campion (which is actually pink, and polite) surrounded by nettle leaves, which are not polite.

But when D. and D. commented on Wild Thing being noisy, they didn’t mention me. So when I’ve worried about whether and how and when I offend British sensibilities (and I do occasionally worry about it, although I don’t lose sleep to it), I’ve spent the past ten years thinking I was doing pretty well on volume level.

It’s not that I can’t be loud. I learned what my voice could do when I was thirteen or so and spent my Saturdays on picket lines in front of Woolworth’s because the store’s lunch counters in the South refused to serve African-Americans. It was my first independent political activity. We handed out leaflets and chanted slogans, and I was young enough to think we could end segregation by being loud, so I was loud. Without anyone teaching it to me how to do it, I stumbled into the trick that lets your voice feel like it’s coming directly from the chest, bypassing the throat and emerging into the world resonant enough to shatter antiquated and oppressive social systems.

Changing the world has turned out to be more complicated than I thought, but that form of segregation did eventually end and what we did wasn’t the primary reason but it wasn’t irrelevant either. And I walked away with an interesting education as well as a powerful sense of what my voice could do.

Somewhere during that time, I heard Odetta sing. She had a huge voice—strong, resonant, and lower than most women were willing, or maybe able, to sing—and she gave me an expansive sense of what a woman’s voice is capable of. If you’ve never heard her, follow the link. She’s gorgeous.

But enough background. We’re talking about noise levels and culture clash.

Not long ago, I attended a conference about health care, social care, and politics, which are a potent combination and should not be mixed by any but the most expert of bartenders. An amateur is likely to screw it up so badly that they’ll blow the country’s infrastructure to bits. Unfortunately, Britain’s recent governments have been sticking nursery school kids behind the bar and encouraging them to pour any old thing into whatever else they find. Which is why we felt the need for a conference.

In the afternoon, J., who was chairing the conference, tried to gather everyone back together after a break. Now, J. has a small voice and at that moment had a mic that wasn’t working. So although she spoke politely and Britishly about ending the several dozen conversations that were going on and starting the meeting again, no one stopped talking.

I do like to solve problems, and I’d helped organize the conference so I felt some sense of responsibility, and without giving it three seconds’ thought I bellowed something along the lines of, “Okay, people, let’s get back together now.”

Silence fell with all the subtlety of a grand piano smashing down from a roof top. Two men sitting behind me levitated off their chairs, then crashed back into them and giggled nervously. Not being a mind reader, I can’t say for a fact that they were critical of me for bellowing, but they were—nervous is probably a fair observation. Not sure what to do in the situation. Maybe they thought I was dangerous. Without question they thought I wasn’t British, although the accent should have given that away much earlier in the day.

It did work, though. People sat down. They turned forward to listen to J. Maybe because it gave them a reason to not look at me.

It’s like that, living in a culture you didn’t grow up in. Or it is for me. I trot along happily, thinking I’m not offending anyone, then I do something that seems perfectly natural and blast two grown men off their chairs and push a piano off the roof.

How many people did I offend or shock? All? None? Most? Some? I have no idea. I asked N. later on, and he deflected the conversation so gracefully that I didn’t realize until later than he hadn’t answered my question.

And the worst of it? I can’t help thinking it was funny, although I suspect I should be feeling bad about it.

*

I can’t end without acknowledging that Americans aren’t the only loud people on the planet. Wild Thing and I were in Hong Kong once, and when she realized she wasn’t the noisiest person in the room she fell in love with the place.

Comparative tipping

According to Kate Fox in Watching the English, you don’t tip bartenders in England (and by extension in Britain), you buy them a drink. Which I always thought was code, in the U.S. at least, for I’ll leave you the price of a drink and you decide whether to drink it or put the money in your pocket. Admittedly, I never spent enough time in American bars to know the rules, so no one should take my word for that. But in Britain it really does mean I’ll buy you a drink. Which the bartender will eventually drink, nodding his or her thanks to you.

Of so Fox says, and I’m sure she’s right. She sees this as marking a sort of official class equality between bartender and customer, regardless of what the class divisions (and oh, will both sides ever be aware of them) are.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: pampas grass, which is (I think) called something else here. Don't you love it when I'm informative?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: pampas grass (and the tip of Wild Thing’s lens). I think it’s called something else here. Don’t you love it when I’m informative?

(I haven’t given you a link to Fox’s book this time, although I have before. I’d link back to the embedded link but I can’t remember which post it was in and, hey people, I only get just so much time on this planet. Besides, you know how to find a book, right?)

But back to our topic: In the only pub where I spend much time—and that only because I like the singers night—the bartenders are also the wait staff, and they do get tipped for serving meals, so it takes a finer eye than mine to figure out the distinction. But it’s true that people don’t tip at the bar.

Except me. For a long time I behaved myself and didn’t tip when I bought a drink, but I’ve worked for tips, as both a cab driver and a waitress, and after a while I just couldn’t help myself. I started tipping. Sometimes at first I had to explain myself—one or another of the bartenders would think I’d miscounted my money and return the extra.

“I’m American,” I found myself telling one of them. “I tip. I can’t help it.”

I also remember saying, “I’m awkward but I mean well” since I hadn’t managed to make it clear that I was tipping—although in the U.S. I expect it would have been more than clear enough.

But no one seems insulted. The tip goes into the jar with the tips from the tables and my behavior goes into the Weird American category.

This comes up because Dan Antion commented that before he visited the U.K. he read that the British don’t tip, so he didn’t.

Sorry Dan, but they do. Not as much as Americans—or at least not as much as New Yorkers and Californians. Midwesterners are more, um, cautious with their tips. Or stingy, if you like. I haven’t done a full survey of the two coasts or of the south and west, so I won’t go out on a limb about how they tip. But the British? They tip wait staff in restaurants and (mostly) in pubs. Either many or most cafes have tip jars. And if they don’t? Wild Thing and I leave the tip on the table.

As far as I can tell, people tip cab drivers. We sure as hell do. And if something gets delivered that’s a pain in the neck for the delivery person, we tip—which often involves offering the money for a drink after work, which may or may not turn into a drink but who cares?

Around the holidays, some people we know leave money for the folks who pick up the trash and recycling and who deliver the mail—although the last one is, I think, never supposed to happen and the post office is probably coming to arrest me for even writing about it, never mind doing it. (I never said I did it, Your Honor, I only implied it. And I could’ve been lying.) Anyway, you can call those tips or Christmas presents or whatever you like. They happen, although not universally.

I’ve been reading, both online and in the papers, about campaigns to stop restaurant chains from stealing their employees’ tips. Yeah, some do that, both in Britain and in the U.S., especially if the customer puts the tip on a credit card with the rest of the bill, but sometimes even when the tip’s in cash—or in some cases if there’s no tip at all, because the restaurant acts as if there was one and charges the waitron what it figures he or she must have gotten. And it’s all okay, because if a businessman can’t steal from people with less power and money than him, how’s he supposed to make an honest buck?

Social media’s been effective at shaming the shit out of some chains that did this, but I expect others are still at it.

So whatever country you live in, tip, and do it in cash. And follow Wild Thing’s dictum: Nobody ever went to hell of overtipping.

Of dukes and baronesses and scamsters

In September, Alexander Wood was in court for having posed as the duke of Marlborough (there’s a real one; I just checked) and for having run up a bill in the neighborhood of £10,000 at expensive London hotels. No one asked him for identification because they thought it would be “inappropriate to ask.”  I mean, this is (purportedly) a duke, after all. You don’t do a stop-and-frisk on him, and you don’t ask for i.d., even when he runs up a huge whackin’ bill. They did eventually get suspicious when he bought drinks for fellow guests—something I gather no aristocrat would do.

Setting aside this one person’s motivation (the article makes it sound, not surprisingly, like mental health comes into it), Britain does tempt a person to borrow titles.

Irrelevant photo: teasels

Irrelevant photo: teasels

When I went online to donate the money from our village fundraiser to the Red Cross, I was offered a choice of Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms, Doctor, Lady, Professor, Reverend, Dame, Sir, Major, Captain, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Sister, Lord, Canon, and Other. Oh, wheee! I lost my nerve before finding out whether Other would have given me a blank space to fill in the title of my choice, but I expect it would have.

As an aside, I was once called a dame, but no one mistook me for an aristocrat and no hotel bill was involved. And it wasn’t a compliment.

The Guardian’s subscription form despairs of coming up with a complete list and just leaves a blank line, where you can play as much as you dare. You want to be a general, or the Lord Mayor of Mill Crick? Feel free. Then sit back and see if your correspondence is addressed appropriately. And complain when it isn’t.

Why the blank instead of the list? I can’t help picturing some committee trying to list everything necessary to this title-obsessed land and sinking under the weight of the task. Why, for example, include Colonel but not General? And since this is the Guardian, a generally leftish and egalitarian paper, what about Private? Don’t privates deserve the respect of their title? And since the women members of the House of Lords are addressed as Baroness (something I happen to know because I’ve written letters to a fair few of them, and there’s a tale of its own), doesn’t that merit a mention? Or does Lady cover it? I haven’t a clue. If they’re Lady Whatsit, even though you address them as Baroness, what do they address themselves as? And what about the Barons? The male members of the House of Lords are Lords, not Barons. No, I don’t understand it either. But there are real barons out there, aren’t there? Granted, they probably don’t read the Guardian, but what if they wanted to?

And what about all the Lord Mayors dotted around the country. And the Counsellors: Spare a moment’s thought for all those long-suffering folks who sit on Parish Councils around the country, doing their unpaid and non-party-political bit for the most local level of local government? And Citizen. It was a popular title during the French Revolution. Give it half a chance and it could catch on again.

You can see the problem. Either the committee voted for the blank line and fled or else they’re still meeting, trying to complete the list, sinking deeper into despair with every passing week. Several of its members have been hospitalized for stress and clinical-level nit-picking.

This is what happens in a status-obsessed society. Everyone with a title needs to be recognized, placated, bowed to even.

And on the lowest level, where the rest of us live our lives? I still can’t get myself called Ms. Instead of Mrs.  No matter how often and politely I ask.

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.

How Minnesotans call their kids: an extra

After reading my comment on how differently Minnesotans and New Yorkers call their kids, P. wrote to say, “You may be right about Minnesota nowadays, but in the late forties my mom called to me down the block in south Minneapolis. Other moms did the same thing.”

But sometime in the fifties, he writes, “a seismic shift  occurred, and the practice suddenly vanished. I like to think that Minneapolis was more like a big small town before then, and many houses in the neighborhood were owned by people who were fresh off the farm and spoke in heavy Scandinavian accents, now nostalgically recalled by Garrison Keillor and parodied by the Coen brothers. They used to call their children as if they were calling them across eighty acres of corn. They also mostly drove Chevies, while my Father drove Frazers, which they stopped making in 1952. Then Minnesotans decided they needed to become respectable and they elected Eisenhower. The shouting is gone now, and they switched to Buicks.”

British stereotypes of Americans–and my own

In the U.K., Americans have a reputation for bluntness, but do we live up to the stereotype?

In my last post, without even noticing it I went along with the stereotype, and Belladonna Took wrote, “It absolutely fascinates me that you consider Americans ‘blunt and to the point.’ Maybe that’s true over on the East Coast, but here in the Pacific Northwest? Oh dear, hmmm, I think perhaps it may be a little different. (Note: Everything in the preceding sentence after ‘Oh dear’ is Pacific Northwestese for ‘Oh hell no.’ And it’s pronounced in a lilting smiley voice, so I should probably insert lots of smiley faces. Only stuff it, I won’t, because I’m from Johannesburg.)

“…I had lived here two years before it finally dawned on me that when smiling women remarked, “You’re very direct, aren’t you?” they weren’t actually complimenting me.”

Irrelevant photo: flowers growing in a drystone wall

Irrelevant photo: flowers growing in a drystone wall

Well, damn, it’s amazing what I can learn when I listen to people.

Although I lived in Minnesota for forty years, I’m a New Yorker by birth,by accent, and by attitude, and I don’t think I’m the only New Yorker who’s blunt, but having fallen for one stereotype I’m starting to question everything I take for granted. Still, I think that’s what we’re generally like. Not all of us, but enough to set a pattern.

For years after I moved to Minnesota, I felt like a steamroller. With no particular effort and no intention at all, I seemed to leave people flattened on the pavement, and hell, all I was doing was talking. It’s not that I like an argument, but I do like a good, spirited discussion, and to the people I was now around in Minnesota that sounded like an argument. I guess. You’d have to ask them what it was really about, although they might be too polite to tell you, because if New York’s known for its directness, Minnesota’s known for Minnesota Nice: a relentless effort to keep things bland. Smooth that surface, folks, because it’s all that matters.

Years ago on A Prairie Home Companion (and the link’s to the show’s general website, not the specific shows I’m about to mention), Garrison Keillor did some bits about how Minnesotans talk. They were, I think, from Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. One that stayed with me was what a Minnesotan would say to someone using a welding torch on a full gas tank. It was, more or less, “Y’know, most fellas wouldn’t want to do that.”

In Minnesota when you’re making people uneasy, they’re likely to say either “that’s different” or “that’s interesting.” Ditto if you’ve thoroughly pissed them off. It took me a long, long time to understand what the phrases meant.

So I had a hard time those first few years. Or was that the first few decades? From this distance, it seems like no time at all. For a while, I tried toning myself down and ended up furious at everyone. Eventually I gave that up and let people look after their own welfare. They lived through the experience and I was happier, which it made me easier to be around, so I’m guessing everyone benefited. I was never going to blend in, so the only question was to handle my difference.

I’d lived there for several decades when my supervisor at work pulled me aside to tell me I was intimidating other (unnamed) staff members. Not by anything specific I’d said or done, just by my way of being in the world. If it had been something specific, I’m pretty sure I’d have reacted differently, but since this was about who and how I was, I surprised us both by laughing. She was twenty years too late, I told her, because I’d stopped thinking it was something I could change and anyway I’d stopped wanting to change it .

Twenty was a random grab for a largish number, but the rest of it was as true as anything can be in this complicated world of ours.

If you’re looking for a nifty strategy to help you get along with your supervisor, I don’t recommend that one, but to her credit she dropped the issue, and if she held it against me she kept it to herself. She wasn’t a native Minnesotan, but she’d adapted better than I had. So how did she really feel? I had no way of knowing and I was happy enough to leave it there.

At times when we lived in MInnesota, Wild Thing’s translated for me, because indirection isn’t a language I’m ever going to understand well. But she grew up in Texas and indirection is as natural to her as what other people think is an argument and I think is a discussion is to me. When her mother was bone-deep furious at someone, she’d do what she called heaping coals of fire on their head, which meant smiling and being nice to them to prove how angry she was. And, I’m guessing, how much better than them she was.

So, yeah, Wild Thing made a great translator.

One time we’d gotten a—no, I can’t resist it—whole shitload of manure for the garden and it was sitting in a pile by the alley, where I usually parked. And being the let’s-do-it-later kind of gardeners that we are, it sat there long enough that a neighbor said something about it. I don’t remember exactly what, but it had to do with there being a lot of it. Or how long it had been there. And I smiled and nodded and said yes it was a lot and yes it had been a while.

I’m clueless but I’m not unfriendly.

Then Wild Thing explained: The neighbor wanted some, and wanted to be invited to take it. And wasn’t going to ask. Ever. So we invited and she took and we all lived happily ever after.

I’m not sure how much of the U.S., geographically speaking, values directness and how much values indirectness. I’ve only lived in New York and Minnesota. If some of you want to fill in from your own experiences, it would be fascinating.

I can say two things, though. One is that stereotypes are powerful. If they match any tiny breath of experience in your head, as this one did in mine, you can find yourself blown right into a wall on a full-out storm wind. So thanks to Belladonna for providing the wall. I’m grateful.

The other is about the grain of truth in the stereotype. What I think gives rise to the impression of American bluntness is a sort of surface openness. In public, we take up more physical, emotional, and auditory space than the British. I wouldn’t say we’re uninhibited, but we can give that impression. And we recognize different rules of politeness. It’s easy to mistake all that for bluntness.

I offer than last piece especially as a theory, and I’d love to hear what you think of it. Am I anywhere near the mark?

Cross-cultural adventures: Two Americans call a cat in Britain

Fast Eddie went over the fence for the first time this week. We knew the day was coming, but we’d hoped it wouldn’t come quite so soon. He’s still a very small cat in a very large world. He’s built for climbing, though, and climb he did.

The first we knew about it was when we heard a bird doing what Wild Thing calls checking and our neighbor calls alarming.

Fast Eddie, the fiercest kitten for 10 yards in any direction

Fast Eddie, the fiercest kitten for 10 yards in any direction

Americans and Brits agree on what the noun alarm means, but use it any other way and we get into that odd stuff that happens when we think we share a language. In the U.S., if you’re alarmed, you’re moving in the direction of panic. It’s a feeling. Once you cross the Atlantic, though, being alarmed is more likely to involve wiring, as is demonstrated by the signs that say, “This door is alarmed.”

And there I was thinking the door was an inanimate object. So now I’m alarmed myself. The announcement seriously destabilized my world view.

Alarm can also involve actions—for example, the bird we heard was alarming, as in making an alarm call, not as in scaring the hell out of us.

So, with today’s language lesson out of the way, let’s go back to the bird. We heard it making a checking / alarming sound, and Wild Thing asked if I knew where Eddie was.

Insert a moment of, ahem, alarm here, because he was nowhere in the house. We went outside and called. He still wasn’t in the habit of coming when we called (we’re working on it), but we did it anyway because, what the hell, humans are a very strange species and it was something we knew how to do.

I need to interrupt myself for a minute here to talk about cross-cultural cat calling. I can’t swear that this is universal, but the Brits I’ve noticed calling cats tend to bend over, rub their fingers together, and say something quiet, like “puss, puss, puss.”

How do Wild Thing and I call our cats? With a two-note call that’s approaches a yodel: “kitt-TEEEE. KITT-teeee” You can hear us most of the way to Devon. Even in Minnesota, it marked us as not being local.

Okay, it wasn’t the only thing that let people know that, but I do remember standing on our open front porch one night when the air was so cold I thought my lungs would shatter and calling our cat by yodeling, “FUZZbucket, KITT-teeee.” (Go ahead, laugh at the name. Everyone else did. A friend used to call him Fuzzbuster and Fuzzduster, with the occasional Fussbudget thrown in for luck. I still think it was a great name.) From the far end of the dark street, a man’s voice echoed, word for word and note for note, “FUZZbucket, KITT-teeee.” I’d call, he’d call, I’d call, he’d call. He had the notes and the tone down perfectly, and I figured if Fuzz had any intention of coming in the echo wouldn’t hurt.

He didn’t, of course. He was a cat. And an old lady down the street used to feed him canned shrimp and keep him with her during the coldest weather. I’m sure he told her he had nowhere else to go.

But that’s a different story and a different place. In this place, I was worried that Eddie might have gone over a fence and discovered that the other side didn’t offer him a way to climb back, and there he’d be, a very small kitten on the wrong side of a tall wall.

So Wild Thing went to our over-the-tallest-fence neighbors. They don’t live on our street and to get to them you more or less have to run up to London, then Hamburg, and then come back to Cornwall to our village to a different street and go through their front gate, which sometimes sticks so badly that you need a chisel and a hammer to get through, and all of that is necessary because, unlike Minneapolis, the neighborhoods here don’t have alleys and the yards here don’t have back gates. In fact, they’re not yards at all, they’re called gardens, and if they’re close together they have barricade-like fences or hedges meant to screen you and your thoughts from any awareness that you have neighbors. It gives back yards (sorry—they’ll always be yards to me) a sense of privacy and quiet, but it could strike someone used to American yards as unfriendly. (I’m not one of them. I like that sense of quiet.)

So Wild Thing was gone for a while, hiking to London and Hamburg and Cornwall and then through the neighbors’ gate, which didn’t happen to stick that day, and I couldn’t think of anything useful to do with myself so I worked on the bread I was making, which was ready to shape into loaves. And at some point something almost weightless brushed against my ankles and I looked down and found Eddie, who hadn’t a clue in the world that he’d just caused an uproar and wouldn’t have minded much if he had known.

So I did what any dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker would do: I went out back and bellowed for Wild Thing. When I was a kid, that’s how the mothers in our neighborhood called us—they leaned out the windows and bellowed our names. (What the ones whose apartments didn’t have windows on the street did I never stopped to wonder. Chose not to reproduce? Lost their kids forever? Waited till they got hungry enough to wander home? I just don’t know.) That was also how we called our mothers: We stood on the sidewalk, tipped our heads back, and bellowed up. To this day, my voice–well, no one who hears me is left with the impression that I’m shy. If you want to bring down the walls of Jericho, leave the trumpets at home and convince me that they need to come down.

Back in New York, every mother somehow knew her own kids’ voices well enough that they didn’t all pop their heads out in unison when one of us bellowed, even though we all yelled the same word, “Mom.”

Oh, damn, I’m getting teary. Thanks for being able to pick my voice out of the maelstrom, Mom. I miss you.

Minnesotans never seemed to bellow for their kids. I don’t know how they got them home. Compared to New Yorkers, Minnesotans are indirect. Or repressed, if you prefer. Or well behaved. It’s all in how you see it. Maybe the intensity of their frustration sends out a vibe that the kids pick up.

But however long I’ve been away from Manhattan, I’m still a New Yorker, so I bellowed. And Wild Thing, who’d just gotten into the neighbors’ yard, answered in true New York fashion (she lived there for ten years and picked up the important skills).

She started the long trek home, and our neighbor, G., who’d somehow managed to hear all this (damn, that man has good ears) popped up on his side of a different fence (we have three immediate neighbors), which is about shoulder height, even on me, and said he’d heard the bird alarming, then seen Eddie running along the top of the fences. The fences make a fine highway if you’re a cat.

Then, G. said, he heard us calling Eddie.

And no doubt laughed his ass off at the volume and sheer uselessness of it all, but he was far too kind–or maybe that’s well behaved–to say so.

What Brits really think of American tourists

Gunta asked, “I often wonder what Brits or folks from other cultures think of us Americans at the tourist spots. It can’t be good.”

So I asked around. Most of the answers come from a village Facebook page. Yes, that’s an ancient custom in Cornish villages, having a Facebook page. We do things quaint around here. (If I were Cornish, I believe I’d say, “We do things proper.” But I’m not, so I won’t risk it. When you’re not 600% sure of what you’d be saying, implying, not saying, and vaguely hinting at, I’d advise playing it safe and sounding like yourself. In my case, that’s risk enough.)

Roman wall. Exeter, Devon, U.K.

Nearly relevant photo: Part of the Roman wall in Exeter. Hey, what tourist wouldn’t want to see that? This bit is right beside a parking ramp–or car park, which sounds like a place cars go to play in their time off. The bit of modern fencing looks kind of puny beside it.

A lot of the comments were positive, although I as I’m writing this I seem to notice a tinge of not-so-positive underlying them. I’m not sure if people were being polite (ah, yes, people around here are polite; except when they’re not, of course, but that happens waaay less often than in the U.S., and it has a lot more impact because it’s so unexpected) or if I’m just a sour old bat who’s importing her own view of the world into places it doesn’t belong. Take it all with the usual half cup of salt.

Several people mentioned Americans’ enthusiasm for how old Britain is. V. wrote that anything over 250 years old excites them. Which reminds me to mention that 250 years isn’t all that old around here. I mean, if we’re talking about stone circles, we’ll have to count in thousands of years, not hundreds. So 250 years? Nyeh.

S. wrote that she enjoys Americans’ love of castles, even when they don’t understand what they’re looking at.

What don’t they understand? Well, when N. “worked in Windsor years ago, I heard two American tourists looking up at the castle while a jet flew over out of nearby Heathrow. One said, ‘Gee, you’d think they’d have built it further from the airport.’ ”

If you can top that, you have to leave a comment.

M. wrote that “my dear sister-in-law is American, and when she was dating my brother she was still a tourist (she’s a hard-nut Londoner now, innit?) and we had some fun with her, like the time we (almost) convinced her that Stonehenge is moved around each solstice so it’s never in the same place twice.”

So, enthusiastic, appreciative, and, um, not necessarily well informed—either by their own (lack of) research or by their loving hosts.

And then there are the ones who are well informed but—well, H. wrote about a couple she met when she ran a B & B: “His knowledge of British history was incredible but he did admit it was easy to be an expert when surrounded by idiots. He requested clotted cream with his porridge!! She had a BRAG book containing photos of her grandchildren and proudly bored us for rather a long time.”

I should add that H. liked them. In fact, she called them fabulous.

What else?

Tourists bring their preconceptions with them, and look for ways to reinforce them. A. told a story about running past a group of American tourists (she was late, and stressed, and I’m guessing not in the best of moods) and hearing one call out, “I told you there would be rosy cheeks.” At the time she was annoyed. In retrospect, she thinks it was sweet.

She has a more tolerant nature than I do.

I hadn’t thought of rosy cheeks as something Americans expect of the British, but they do figure in a lot of English novels. So yes, I guess as least some people will come looking for them.

Another distinctive factor is that American tourists tip. And the British, in most situations, don’t. Still talking about her sister-in-law, M. wrote, “One thing I remember about going out with her in London as a tourist is that she never had an umbrella (she certainly does now), and that bar staff loved her, as she had no idea that you’re not supposed to tip them.

“Well, you aren’t, are you?”

Americans, you are not to take that as an instruction not to tip, because A.2 wrote, “And that’s why Americans will always get served before a tight, non-tipping Englishman!!”

Besides, it’s the right thing to do and you know it.

The most negative comments weren’t about Americans as Americans but about the sheer tourist-ness of tourists. T. wrote, “I think it’s just tourists not American tourists. There are a lot of people who simply forget they are travelling to someone’s home / work / life and have a responsibility to allow that to continue. Perhaps it’s just that in recent years there have been more of them and they are often …. easy to spot.”

Like all the other ellipses here, that “…” is his, not mine, so try to hear a pause there while he searches for a polite phrase.

Picking up on his comment, V. wrote, “Much like surfers, small groups of tourists always better.”

As if to prove that it’s tourists, not necessarily American tourists, G. wrote that “most English folk can’t differentiate between an American accent and a Canadian accent.”

I can testify to that. Periodically, I get asked if I’m Canadian. Since Canadian tourists are scarcer than the American variety, I’ve assumed they thought a Canadian would be offended at being taken for an American but that the reverse wouldn’t be true. And, in fact, I’ve never been offended by it. Baffled at first, but not offended. I admit, I’ve never checked my assumption about their assumption against anything as deflating as reality, so don’t take it too seriously. Especially since S. wrote to say that she gets asked the same thing “and I’m German!”

I can’t find any way to account for that.

J.’s American and does know her U.S. accent from her Canadian. She wrote, “I tend to hear [American tourists] before seeing them.” Ah, yes, the national volume control knob. Wild Thing—whose personal volume control knob is set pretty close to High—said simply that American tourists are loud. And our English friends D. and D., who visited us once in Minnesota, told us they’d always thought Wild Thing was loud until they changed planes in Chicago. So I think we’ve got a small consensus here.

Then there’s the question of looks: M.2 said American tourists “do often hit the stereotype, with the cameras, the bum bags, and the baseball caps, but I think that’s quite sweet.”

M.3 thinks they look “jolly, with their shorts and trainers [those are running shoes if you’re American] and baggy T-shirts, whether they’re male or female. They look really happy to be in England. They can’t wait to find out about it all.”

No discussion of Americans would be complete without World War II coming into it, and J. wrote that the “young Americans were very welcome in 1944, and Britain could have not have managed without the Marshall Plan in 1945.” To which V. answered, “Whilst their help in ’44 was invaluable, I didn’t think the UK got that much comparatively from the Marshall Plan … and what we did get took until this millennium to pay back … no economic miracle here (unlike Germany).”

Americans, is that a bit of history you ever heard about?

Finally, to put all this in perspective, V. told a story about her mother, who “stood at the top of the Empire State Building, looked down at the road system and said, ‘I think they could have done that a bit better.’ My sister’s response was to apologise to nearest American, saying, ’I’m so sorry, she still thinks we have an empire …’ “

I’d encourage you all to chip in with a comment, but I figure you know that already. Let’s hear what you can add.