Adaptation and pig headedness

Wild Thing and I need to renew our American passports. To do that, we each have to send in two passport photos measuring two inches by two inches. British passport photos measure something else by something else, as do driver’s license and everything else photos, so we can’t just plonk ourselves in that little booth in the supermarket entrance, looking our worst, plug some money into the slot, and walk away with photos. And for all I know, an inch in the U.K. isn’t the same as an inch in the U.S. Why should it be when a cup, a pint, and yea, even a breath of air all change size as they cross the Atlantic?

But don’t let me sulk about that. I have and it didn’t help. The U.S. embassy is very clear about what it wants. Send us the wrong size photo, it warns, and we’ll send them back.

And put us on a watch list so we’ll never be allowed to fly again. Because the wrong size passport photo? It’s an indicator of political unreliability and who knows where it could lead.

Irrelevant photo: The beach in a storm. The wind was high enough that I had  stop walking during the gusts.

Irrelevant photo: The beach in a storm. The wind was high enough that I had stop walking during the gusts.

So we went to a local photography studio. We walked in looking our worst and came away with two two-by-two photos each. In the process, we got to know the photographer’s two dogs (sorry—I’m not making up the numbers; there really are that many twos involved) and their histories and friendships and enemyships. (Did I mention that if you ask about a dog around here, you’ll find out about the dog?) A neighbor stopped by with a chew stick for each of them, as she does every working day. We discussed dogs a bit more, then moved on to being Cornish (“you have to have four generations in the ground here before you’re Cornish,” the neighbor said).

Wild Thing said we had dual citizenship. I can’t remember why that came up, but it made sense at the time. The neighbor said that if we were British we had to say—and I may well get this wrong but I’ll do my best—“dyual.” Or maybe I should spell that DYOO-wel, as opposed to the American DOO-wel.

The photographer agreed.

The hell we do, I thought and didn’t bother to say. It’s not something I need to argue since I have no intention of doing it.

But Wild Thing’s an accent adaptor. She repeated “dyual.” I don’t know how close she was but close enough that they accepted it for at least the effort.

I tell you this story because when I asked what people wanted to know about either Britain or the U.S, bethbyrnes wrote, “My family is from England and I grew up with a lot of rules. When I go back to the UK, I get the impression that the Brits (my family included) see Americans as naughty children and treat us accordingly. I so love England and thought of moving there eventually but I feel I might resent being seen in such a negative light. What do you think? Am I imagining this? I hope this isn’t too rude to ask!”

That isn’t even bordering on rude. But then, I’m an American, and not one with an ear for subtle rudeness.

I suspect the answer depends in part on how seriously you take dual/dyual comments. I heard the conversation as good-humored bullshit—the kind of thing you say to someone so that you have something to say to someone. In other words, teasing. Which has an ugly side, a side that not only hurts people’s feelings but also enforces conformity, but it also a we-all-agree-not-to-take-this-seriously side. What people really mean is often a matter of guesswork, and I tend to hear that second side more often than the first. I won’t argue that I’m right, only that I tend to hear it that way.

Wild Thing, I think, takes these comments more seriously than I do. When—as often happens—people talk about some TV show or comic that they find hysterically funny and we say it leaves us cold, someone’s bound to say, “Oh, well, you’re not British.” Wild Thing hears an element of pity in it. I hear a simple statement of fact. I don’t know who’s reading the signs more accurately.

I can’t remember ever thinking that we were being treated as naughty children, although we’d be an easy target for that. J. did once say that now that we were British we had to start eating dessert with a dessert spoon (which I’d have called a soup spoon) instead of a fork, but again I heard it as good-humored teasing and kept right on using my fork. I do set out dessert spoons for our friends, but you’ll find forks right beside them. Choose your weapon. This comes up often since we’re part of a small group devoted to eating dessert, discussing politics, and occasionally taking action. Not to mention trading the odd bit of gossip. The group meets at our house. So setting out spoons? I don’t expect my friends to change the way they eat any more than I expect to change the way I do. But I’m hard headed. I can take a fair bit of criticism, comment, and teasing, as long as it’s well meant, without feeling like I’m under attack.

And when a comment is meant seriously? When people genuinely do think I should eat differently, talk differently, or turn myself into their idea of what a person should be? I don’t spend much time with people like that and they don’t go out of their way to spend time with me, oddly enough. They’re welcome to their opinion and much good may it do them.

So yes, people like that are out there. But another group seems to think of Americans as free spirits and envy us our lack of inhibition. But Wild Thing, who was a family therapist before she retired, makes an interesting distinction between being uninhibited and being emotionally free. Americans, she says, are indeed less inhibited, but not necessarily emotionally free. I had to think about that for a while, but I’ve come around to her way of seeing it.

Even if it’s not true that Americans are free spirits, though, the belief’s a great counter-balance to the you’re-doing-it-wrong group.

Both responses, I think, stem from the number of rules the British grow up with. As does teasing people about differences. People learn not to call attention to themselves in public. Say you’re out in public and you trip and people rush to help you up. Huge embarrassment. Sat people you know wave their arms to get your attention from a distance.  Ditto, apparently. And so on. Not everyone abides by the rules to the same extent, and there are patterned ways to break them, but the rules exist.

Whether as an American you’re treasured or criticized because you break them will depend on who you hang out with. And whether the comments you hear bother you will depend on how deeply you take these things in.

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?

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.

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.

mulfra 030

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.

The Writing on the Sidewalk of a Cornish Village

Either I’m engaging in antisocial behavior or I’m the last defender of decency in Cornwall. Some days it’s hard to tell.

Wild Thing and I live on what’s called the estate. If you’re American, that sounds all grand and Downton Abbey, but what it really means is “the subdivision.” We live in a tiny fragment of suburb, even though we don’t have a city to be suburban to. Our village is spread out—a village without any center—so this is the most densely populated bit. By dogs as well as humans.

Irrelevant Photo: A view of the south coast and St. Michael's Mount

Irrelevant Photo: A view of the south coast and St. Michael’s Mount

Yes, dear ones, I’m writing about dog shit, and I’m not going to call it poo because I just can’t. When I first moved to Minnesota, I heard a wonderful phrase: “She wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful.”

Well, I don’t have a mouthful, but I did skid through the stuff and come away with a shoeful, and I can’t see why I should call it anything else. It’s not a beautiful word, but then the shoe wasn’t looking so good either.

Shit was the mildest word I yelled. I’m sure someone was behind a window saying, “Oh, that’s one of the Americans.”

Never mind the language, though. The important point is that somebody hasn’t been cleaning up after their dog.

I know two things about this dog: It’s large and it likes to spread its bounty as far as it’s physically able. I walk with my eyes on the sidewalk these days, the way I did as a kid in New York, before dog owners were expected to clean up after their dogs. My family had a dog. We thought we were being good citizens because we got him to shit between the parked cars. In fact, back then the city put up signs saying “Curb your dog.”

After the shoe incident, I bought myself a box of chalk. Then I waited.

Several days later, I found another deposit. Right by the red metal box that everyone (even me) calls the dog poo bin. I knelt on the sidewalk and chalked, “Clean up after your dog, please.”

I stepped back to admire my work. I’d forgotten the your, so it actually read, “Clean up after dog, please,” as if a computer translation program had written it. I used to work as an editor, so that missing word bothers me, but it did get the point across. And at least I hadn’t forgotten the please.

Good manners are more important here than good grammar. No matter how ungrammatical—or, for that matter, rude—a note you tack up somewhere, you can make it okay if you write “Polite Notice” at the top. I can’t tell you how many signs I’ve seen that declare themselves Polite Notices. Even if you were to say, “Pick up after your dog, you miserable, lazy, unclean excuse for a human being,” if you also said it was a polite notice, it would be okay.

And even if the rest of your wording is polite, you still have to open with “Polite Notice.” Actual politeness isn’t what matters. You have to remind everyone that you’re being polite.

I didn’t open with “Polite Notice.” I didn’t figure a chalked notice on the sidewalk had to, but then (as I’m often reminded) I’m not British. Wild Thing’s sure that what people mean when they say that is that we just don’t get certain things, and that the speaker feels sorry for us. I’m not sure she’s right. I tend to hear it as a statement of fact: We really aren’t British. Or we are—we’re citizens—but on some deeper level we never can be.

I don’t necessarily want to know how the speaker feels about this.

So it’s hard for me to be sure how significant that missing “Polite Notice” is. I may have offended someone other than the dog walker, but I can’t tell. I’m not British.