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.

Summing up English culture

T. writes,”I was on a bus with about 15 other people and it broke down. Everyone politely got off the bus and onto the replacement and then sat in EXACTLY THE SAME SEATS as they were in before. I’ve never felt so English. The thing is, as we were walking between the buses I knew it was going to happen, and that I would play my own part in it. There is some peer pressure you simply cannot escape.”

So what I said about it being futile to sum up a culture? Wrong again, apparently. But joyously so. Thanks, T.

North Cornwall

Irrelevant photo: You can look at almost any tree around here and see which way the prevailing winds blow.

A very British form of protest

Someone was recently convicted of disrupting prime minister’s question time—called PMQ by those in the know—by throwing marbles in the general direction of the MPs. (“Marble-throwing PMQs protestor gets suspended prison sentence”)

No, that’s not the part that strikes me as particularly British. We’ll get to that.  But before we do, I should explain that it takes an expert to tell when someone disrupts PMQ, because the MPs bray at and heckle and bully each other like a classroomful of twelve-year-old boys whose teacher stepped out for a smoke a month ago and still hasn’t come back. (My writers group, whose members are an invaluable and giddy guide to all things British, advises me that the MPs sound like public school boys, which if you’re American means private school boys, because public schools here are private, but that’s too much confusion for one post. Let’s thank them politely and not get into it here.) All that braying and harassing are politics as usual. The reason this guy stood out was because he was in the visitors’ area.

And, yeah, the marbles. I admit that.

Plus his language. The MPs are allowed (even expected) to be horrible to each other, but their language has to be pristine.

Blackthorn in bloom on the North Cornish coast

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn in bloom.

What kind of language did the protester use? That’s in dispute. The prosecutor claimed he stood up and said, “I’m sorry about this, ladies and gentlemen. You fucking wankers, you’re just liars.” But the protester, who as far as I can figure out had already pled guilty, interrupted, shouting, “Can I just say, for the record, I didn’t call anyone fucking wankers. I called them dishonourable bastards.”

That “dishonourable”? That’s British. The next person who interrupts the American House or Senate will not, I guarantee, use the word dishonorable, even though I switched to the American spelling to make it a fraction of a percent of a probability more plausible.

The “I’m sorry about this, ladies and gentlemen”? That’s also British.

I’m still not sure what our protester was protesting. According to the article, he has (as the current phrase puts it) mental health problems and felt his life was wasting away. In response, I’m sure the government will make more speeches about putting mental health on a par with physical health and keep on underfunding both.

They’d outlaw marbles but Parliament’s dissolved until the election.

Comparative swearing: U.S. vs. U.K.

In a comment on “More about manners in the U.S. and U.K.,” Karen at Fill Your Own Glass [sorry, everybody; that’s almost the end of the links] wrote, “My impressions have been created solely by movies, but I have believed that people in the U.K. are less inhibited when it comes to cursing and talking about sex.” (She went on to say that it was an insightful post, but I wouldn’t want you to think I’m the kind of person who’d mention that.)

I haven’t a clue whether her impressions are true. What fascinates me about the comment is how you’d measure either.

late winter 002

Near Minions

Let’s say we want to compare how inhibited or uninhibited people are in talking about sex. I mean, I want to be scientific here. How do we compare passing references to serious what-I-did, what-I-didn’t-do, and how-I-feel-about-it conversations? Do we measure in frequency, in length, or in depth?

No puns, please. We’re being scientific here, so settle down in the back row.

If we’re talking about a serious cross-cultural comparison of swearing, how do we balance frequency against intensity? How do we measure the weight do various swear words carry?

People I know here (and it’s entirely possible that my friends swear more than the average Brit) say “bloody” fairly often. How often? Oh, you know, often enough. (You can see why I never became a scientist, right?) But how intense a swear word is bloody? I’d always heard that it’s religious—actually, sacrilegious—in origin and assumed that it packed quite a punch. But a Wikipedia entry raises several milder and way less interesting possibilities. My Dictionary of British Slang and Colloquial Expressions calls it simply “an intensifier,” which makes it sound mild to the point of insipidity. Of course, I once heard a linguist talk dispassionately about the way Americans use the word fucking as an insertion. In fact, he called it “the fucking insertion,” which both illustrated how it was used and cracked me up for weeks afterwards. From this I gather that linguists, like all scientists, whatever their passions, prefer to present a dispassionate surface.

I’ve heard bloody said often enough that it’s made itself a home in my head, and it’s trying to push its way into my speech. It wants to be said, and I want not to say it. Not because I don’t swear—I do, and without being immodest here, I do it well—but because I don’t have a sense of its proportion, its weight, its impact. I don’t like to throw things until I can gauge their impact.

Besides, with my accent it’ll sound very odd.

So there you are, folks. Comparative swearing. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the subject.

More about manners in the U.S. and U.K.

“What do you like about living here?” someone asked me recently.

The questions comes up often enough that I should have a neat answer by now, but for whatever reason, I don’t. Instead I blither vaguely about place and people and history, and sooner or later the other person either takes pity on me or gets bored. Either way, the conversation moves on.

This most recent time, it moved on to the feeling of freedom that the person who’d asked me—let’s call her S.—had when she visited the U.S. To her, Americans are expansive, expressive, and probably a few other ex-things. Expository. Ex post facto. Expresso. (Yes, I’m spelling that wrong. Oddly enough, Spellcheck hasn’t noticed, which is why I’m whispering. It does, however, object that it’s not a full sentence. I love technology.) When S. got back to the U.K., everyone struck her as closed in. She mimed what they looked like and if I’d suggested miserable I think she’d have agreed, although as far as I can tell the people I know here are no more (or less) miserable than the people I know in the U.S.

Irrelevant photo: a camellia, coming into bloom in late winter.

Irrelevant photo: a camellia, coming into bloom in late winter.

Still, I’ve heard this kind of comparison before. A British man married to an American told me he wanted to move the family to the U.S. before his kids started school. The kids would grow up feeling freer, he said.

Before anyone starts waving flags and getting out the marching bands, no one’s talking politics. They’re talking emotions, behavior, deep-rooted culture–hundreds of years of culture. People here complain, just the way people do in the U.S., and the way people have throughout history, that kids these days are badly behaved, but the ones I know are so well behaved they terrify me. They say “please” and “thank you,” not occasionally but often. They say, “Yes, please.” Sometimes I want to ask, Who’s in there, under all those good manners?

I know: I’m an adult. I’m supposed to like good manners, and up to a certain point I do. But—maybe it’s the American in me—beyond that certain point, I get uneasy. I can’t tell who I’m dealing with. All I see is polished surface. I’d rather catch an occasional glimpse of the unplanned person. I mean, if I try to feed you something you don’t like, I’d rather hear about it than worry that you’re choking it down and struggling to look happy.

That’s not good manners, that’s self-punishment.

So yes, on that level, Americans may be more ourselves, although Wild Thing argues that we—and by that I mean Americans—aren’t so much free as disinhibited, which many people mistake for freedom.

Think about it for a while. I’m guessing she’s on to something.

The place where the British are, I think, less about surface than Americans is in the area of looks. My small and unscientific survey reveals that people—and especially women—in the U.K. feel freer to look like themselves than their counterparts in the U.S. Do a comparison of actors—again, especially women. A wider range of looks is acceptable in the U.K. In the U.S., most of them look like they’ve been squeezed out of the same Plastic Princess tube.

Admittedly, as soon as you talk about what people want to look like, you have to talk about income and region and ethnicity and sex and sexuality and gender and a dozen other ways to subdivide the population, and the impact all those things have on how we present ourselves. But I still think that, overall, we’ve locked ourselves into a set of ideal looks that have damn little to do with ourselves.

When I kicked the question around with Wild Thing, she reminded me of the time we looked through A.’s family album with her, when we still lived in the U.S. In the pictures from the thirties and forties, each person looked distinct. As we got into the fifties and beyond, they started to blur and become almost generic—the women most markedly, but the men as well.

But I’m not basing my wild and unscientific theory just on TV, movies, and one family album. I’m basing it on the people I see.

A bit of background, though, before I go on. I’m somewhat face blind—a phrase I learned late in life, which describes an embarrassment I’ve lived with since I was a kid. I have trouble recognizing people I don’t know well. It’s not my eyes, it’s something about the way I process what I see. Basically, within some broad categories (you know: male, female; tall, short; old, young; black, white; scarred, not scarred), everyone looks pretty much alike—two eyes, one nose, all that sort of thing. Back in the U.S., when I taught fiction writing I struggled to sort out which of my students was which, and somewhere along the line I realized that I had more trouble with the women than the men. Why? Makeup. Hair products. Fashion. They worked hard to look alike—at least to my incompetent eye. The men looked more like themselves.

In the U.K., I still have trouble recognizing people, but I don’t think I see as much surface. They don’t all seem to be going for the same set of looks. Some of them don’t seem to be going for any look at all, they just look like what they look like. That’s not the same as not caring what they look like. It’s that they care to look like themselves.

Which is a radical, and freeing, idea.

Having said all that, I’d better repeat that this is all based on a wildly unscientific survey. And now it’s time for everyone to tell me why I’m wrong. Or right.

Manners, American and British

The British have manners. They have such good manners that from time to time they’ll throw them out the window to scold strangers for their lack of them.

Wild Thing and I were in the outdoor section of a café once—a cramped, eat-your-lunch-and-get-out kind of place—and as a couple who’d been sitting nearby wove past our table to leave, one of them said, “In this country, we say please and thank you.”

Sadly, by the time we’d processed the words, they were too far away for a snappy comeback, but “In our country, we’re polite to strangers,” did come to mind. It may not be true, but I still wish I’d been quick enough to say it.

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Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire

I have no idea what we’d done, or more likely not done, to piss them off. I’ve been a waitress. Wild Thing and I have both been cab drivers. We’re not the kind of people who think that if they have the money for a meal, or a cab ride, or a tube of toothpaste, it gives them the right to be obnoxious. But we are, I admit, incapable of saying thank you as often as the British do. Buy something at a small store and when you hand in your item to be rung up, the clerk will thank you. When you hand over your money, you’ll get thanked again. (A variation: The clerk may look at the twenty you handed over for something costing less than a pound and say, “Lovely,” or “Brilliant,” as if you’d handed them a slice of chocolate cake, or exact change just when they were about to run out and the banks had all closed and the vandal hordes were all lining up to do their shopping and none of them had brought the exact change.) Then when you go to leave, unless some other customer’s diverted the clerk’s attention, you get thanked a third time, often with the phrase, “Thank you very much, thank you.” Or, “Thank you. Thank you very much, thank you.”

At least it’s like that way out in the country, where we live.

I can’t do that. Can not. Am constitutionally incapable of. I also can’t manage to say you’re welcome three times for a single transaction, especially when I haven’t done anything. I mean, you’re welcome? For what? I bought something. I wanted it enough to hand over money. That’s not a gracious act that I should say “you’re welcome” for. Sometimes I find myself saying “thanks” instead, which is also absurd but doesn’t feel quite as bizarre as “you’re welcome.”

I asked S. once how often she said you’re welcome in response to the multiple thank-yous. She looked startled and said she didn’t think it was “called for” unless you’d done something particularly—well, kind may not have been the word she used but it was the impression she left me with. Unless you’d gone out of your way, somehow. But I doubt she’d never noticed how many times she got thanked per transaction. It’s that old thing about the fish and the water. She swims through an ocean of thank-yous and wouldn’t notice them unless they stopped.

Or that’s what I thought, anyway, until A. and H. told me that you’re welcome is an Americanism, although H. added that there’s an equivalent phrase in Welsh. R. swore that it’s a class thing: If you’re working class, you learn to say “you’re welcome.”

At this point, I understood two things: 1, It’s complicated, and 2, I’ll never completely get it.

“What do you say?” I asked.

“That’s okay” would do, apparently. So would “cheers.” But “cheers” can also be used to mean goodbye, or as a kind of toast—when you lift your glass to someone. According to my British English A to Zed, it also means here’s how! What does here’s how! mean? I looked it up and it’s either too obvious or too unused to include, so I don’t know.

I asked M. and Wild thing what here’s how! meant and they were as blank as I was.

So in this country we say “please” and “thank you,” but we don’t say “you’re welcome.”

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that was rude.