Between the BP oil spill and the U.S. and U.K. facing off during the World Cup, the “special relationship” across the pond has gotten seriously strained in the past few weeks. This is unfortunate considering that—as I learned from spending a decade in London—creating any relationship with a Brit is not an easy task. As a 32-year-old comic in England, I suffered for years from “cultural autism,” not understanding the bulk of people’s actions and words. Or at least what they meant in “English.” I was lost in a morass of professional, social and romantic rules, constantly making shameful mistakes. But I eventually decoded the etiquette of the glorious Brits by researching their anthropology and, uh, marrying one. Here are my hard-culled tips to U.S. travelers who set off to the U.K., a land where not everyone is an American-loving Hugh Grant or Hugh Laurie. (Although everyone is called Hugh).
- Always apologize. In England, one says sorry for everything. (Also, one says “one.”) One does anything to avoid embarrassment and shame. One pretends nothing happened. If one didn’t hear me, one said “sorry.” They bumped into me—sorry. I bumped into them—sorry. Before long, I too was apologizing incessantly: “Sorry love, can you pass me the roast-chicken-flavor crisps, sorry about the weather, and sorry about colonialism.” Wait, why was I apologizing for colonialism? Doesn’t matter. Better to be safe and sorry.
- Keep to yourself. English people need private space—physically and emotionally. Accordingly, in English social interaction, certain things are allowed and most things are not. A handshake is OK. A hug is not. “Shocking weather.” OK. “Hi, I’m Judy.” Not OK. iPhone. OK. Eye contact. Not OK. “I had to take three trains to get here.” OK. “This date is going well —this is fun!” Really not OK. “Hard day at work?” OK, if meant rhetorically. “Complicated session unpacking ambivalences with your therapist?” Not OK, ever.
People walked around as if they had a home around them, and I wasn’t invited in. I’d often see someone I’d known for years, and as I approached them for a hug, they’d run the other way. American politeness is positive, making people feel included. But English politeness is negative. One assumes you want privacy, so one ignores you completely.
- Don’t share. Emotional space extends to food. My first time at a Chinese restaurant with English friends, the waiter arrived and everyone ordered a different dish — “pineapple chicken,” “beef and broccoli,” etc. I noticed no one had requested it, so I said “four rice.” Turned out, my dinner was four bowls of rice. It didn’t even dawn on them to share, except for the bill, which was worked out to the nearest shilling.
- Be not clear. One doesn’t say what one means, one doesn’t mean what one says, but one means something—and it’s often mean. When my friend Emma offered to store my furniture in her basement over the summer, I should have known that this was not an actual real-world offer, and that I should not have rented a truck, hired a driver, and brought over several large tables only to find that she lived on the fourth floor. Offers of storage space, lunch, or hands in marriage are simply ways of saying “hey, you’re neat.” If an English person offers accommodation, book a hotel.
- Don’t complain. Americans kvetch, but the English want to blend in and avoid fuss. Out for dinner with English friends, the waiter has brought the wrong order—not just overcooked food, but the entirely wrong thing—and they don’t comment. Rather than send it back, they say, “Oh no, it’s fine, it’s better this way. He knew. I didn’t order right in the first place.” Recently, an English friend called to tell me she’d broken her arm. She said, “Judy, I had an abortion.” I said, “My God, I didn’t know you were also pregnant.” She said, “I wasn’t. But the doctor started, I didn’t want to interrupt. Sorry.” OK, that was a joke. And a bad one.
- Don’t compliment. My American friends flatter to show someone we acknowledge their existence and are willing to engage with them further. English people take flattery as fake, intrusive, vindictive, and abusive. Nothing is that good, so why say it is? This is why the nicest thing anyone said about my work for 10 years was, “That’ll do.” Or at least I hope that’s why.
- Beware of class. Class doesn’t count for us North Americans (we are all just automatically “low” and considered to have none), but it heavily impacts English lives. It’s not who you are, it’s what. It’s not your cash-stash, it’s genetic, and is indicated by dress, cars, newspaper, vocabulary and how clean your house is. Uppers are messy, showing they have nothing to prove, so they must have class (pronounced “closs”). However, they are named Fiona and Gaylord, which sets them apart from lowers, who also accept mess. As my flatmate taught me by example, those in the middle (us) try to seem tidier (to show our status which we’re insecure about). So the middle-middles attempt to appear slightly upper, but not too upper because upper-upper would actually look lower. Got it? Good. Because the English won’t explain it. “Class? Sorry?”
- Show no vulnerability. Don’t ask people out, or explicitly show interest. If a man invites you to watch the football game at the pub with his 15 best friends from Oxford, that’s a date. If he insults your taste in books, clothes and politics, he’s flirting. If he spends the entire evening concerned about missing his train and then makes a mad dash to catch it, leaving you standing in the middle of Tottenham Court Road, he’s saying “you’re cute.”
- Disregard. Once you have mastered the subtleties of cultural difference, ignore them and act like a brash American who speaks her over-analyzed mind. The Brits will hate you for it, but also love you for living up to the stereotype, and secretly love you for being so bloody outrageous. In fact, that’s just how you might colonize your own Hugh, and drag him back to the States with you. Trust me!