British manners

People here say “yes, please” a lot.

Let’s say I ask—as I often do when someone stops by—“Do you want a cup of tea?”

No one says just plain old “yes,” and not many will say, “I’d love one.” They say, “Yes-please,” and it’s more or less one word, which is why I stuck that hyphen in there. Imagine a good little girl who folds her hands in her lap and never kicks the chair legs. That’s what they sound like.

Unless they go from polite to self-effacing and say, “Only if you’re making one anyway.”

God forbid I should want to go out of my way for them because they’re friends.

But the pleases matter to people here. Really, really matter. As in, if you don’t say “please,” it doesn’t matter how nice you’re being, you’re still being rude. It runs me into trouble because—I’ve come to realize—the American version of asking for, say, half a pound of lunch meat politely is to start the sentence with, “Can I have…?” and end it with “lunch meat,” not “please.”

Why not? Be-fuckin’-cause. (Sorry. It’s a post on manners. Manners make me nervous. Being nervous makes me swear. So do other things, including air and water.) We say it that way that’s just how we say it. Don’t look for too much sense in these things, but if I had to come up with an explanation I’d say it’s because we’re doing business, not asking a favor.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. These are whatsit flowers. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful –the slugs don’t eat them.

Over here, what people seem to hear in can I is something along the lines of “is it physically possible?” Which makes them want to say, “Of course you can bloody well have half a pound of lunch meat. It’s right there in the display case. We’re trying to sell the stuff. Why couldn’t you have it?”

Although of course they don’t. Because they’re very, very polite. Mostly—but that’s a different post.

As a side issue, over here half a pound makes it sound like your talking about money. Ask for a quarter of a kilo. Ask for 250 grams. It’ll be close enough.

Anyway, to the American ear what’s physically possible isn’t the point of “can I?”. Maybe we say it to imply that the person behind the counter’s being nice in selling it to us. Maybe that’s not what’s under the surface at all. Maybe we don’t know what the hell we’re implying. It’s politeness. It doesn’t have to make sense.

In Britain, though, repeated drops of please and thank you are what you use to oil your way through the day. The country’s mind-bogglingly mannerly, but people over a certain age complain that no one has manners anymore. Store clerks are rude and kids are surly and water isn’t as wet as it used to be.

If they’re right, I don’t know how anyone found time in the day to eat, never mind build and then lose an empire, what with all the pleases and thank you’s they had to say.

A brief interruption: This is your pilot speaking. Please fasten your seat belt. The post is about to make what looks at first like a diversion but it really is related.

Building an empire, or imposing it on other countries, or whatever you want to call the process, isn’t a polite business. It involves money and guns and bloodshed. If you’re on the building end of this, you don’t say, “Only if you’re having one anyway.” You don’t say “please.” At least not to anyone you don’t consider your equal.

So give me a minute to speculate about the origin of contemporary British manners. First let’s go back in time. The empire’s being built. Within Britain, the class structure is rigid. Think great house with servants. Think of farm workers being expected to take their hats off to the lord—no, sorry, that was only the men. I don’t know what the equivalent was for women. You get the picture, though.

Who’s not the equal of who (okay, okay: to whom, if it makes you happier) is a national obsession, and this is carried over to the empire. The new rulers look down on the ruled for eating odd food and for having odd customs and skin colors and languages.

The definition of odd is “different from ours.”

But they also look down on each other, keeping a finely tuned awareness of who’s above who and who’s below. That tells them who they have to say “please” and “thank you” to and who has to say it to them. They may have the same skin color, but they had different ancestors. Most of them are convinced that matters. Because in Britain the class system isn’t just about money. I’ve heard people claim it’s not about money at all, although I’m sure money comes into it. But what they mean when they talk about the class system is each family’s place in a rigid structure and how long it’s clung on there.

So the way-back-when system meant that you were born into a station in life and were meant to damn well stay there. It gave rise to phrases like it’s not my place to… and getting a bit above ourselves, aren’t we? I’ve heard both. The second one was addressed to a cat, but I’ve never heard anyone say it to a cat in the U.S.

The cat didn’t think he was getting above himself at all.

And now let’s leave the cat behind, because I’m going to go out onto thin ice. My research on this is thin, so if anyone wants to correct me I’d be grateful.

After World War II, the class system broke down a bit. (I say “a bit” because it’s still around, but with nothing like the rigidity it once had.)

Some of the changes seem to have started earlier. Food rationing had been in place throughout the war and continued on for a good while afterward, and although it caused hardship for many it also meant that the poorest people were eating better than they had been. It was a form of equality, even if it was an equality of scarcity.

Then in 1945, a Labour government was elected and it either consolidated changes that were already in process or caused them–or more likely a little of each. The National Health Service was created, making health care free to all, and council houses (the equivalent of what Americans call public housing) were built on a massive scale.

And so on. I don’t want to get lost in the detail. For our purposes, what matters is that people weren’t expected to stay in their place anymore. They had a right to health care, decent housing, better pay, everyday respect. Egalitarianism was an acknowledged goal.

A few years back I heard someone on the BBC talking about a railway porter at the end of the war being addressed by a passenger who was high the social ladder. I can’t remember the details, but the passenger wanted to be addressed as sir, or something along those line. And the porter said, “Those days are over.”

It’s not a systematic study, but it’s one of those resonant details, although it’d resonate a hell of a lot more if I remembered the detail. Sorry. I could make it up, but I’d like to stick to the truth if you’re okay with that. What matters here is that the winds had shifted. No one was going to take their hat off anymore.

I haven’t fallen through the ice yet, but it gets thinner from here on out, because I have no evidence for this at all. That’s a sober-sounding way of saying I’m guessing. Somebody make sure the cat hasn’t followed us, okay?

My guess is that in that egalitarian windstorm, instead of sir and madam being blown away completely, they started to apply more or less across the board. If you’re a customer someplace, you’re in danger of getting sirred or madam’d. We’re all sirrable or madamable. It drives me mildly nuts, but it’s not a battle I’m going to fight.

That may be what all the pleases and thank you’s are about as well. We’re all the people we have to polite to these days. Anyone who comes in thinking they can just give orders will get a raised eyebrow and possibly even (may the angels, the fairies, and all the many sunspots protect them) a tut.

Looking at it that way, even this reckless American has an incentive to say “please.”

Again, I’m not at all sure I’m right about this. I’m testing out a theory and I’d love to know how much it matches with your experience.

If you’ll excuse me now, I’m going back to see how the cat is.

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.