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.