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.
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.