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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Madeira, my dear? [20081226|21:35]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
[the weather today is |happy martian solstice]

I'm in Norfolk, having a terribly English Christmas with the bloke's terribly English family. Last night involved a large roast turkey dinner, a glass of sherry, a bowl of trifle, and ritual viewings of the Dr Who and Wallace & Gromit Christmas specials. In honour of my impending experience, imyril loaned me her copy of the amusing social anthropological study entitled Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox. I am but a quarter of the way through it because I have to keep stopping to marvel at the number of rules I've picked up and unconsciously respect. Also, because the bloke's sister gave me a gorgeous graphic novel version of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita so I got distracted.

Revelations have included:

  • Forming an orderly queue of one. If I am alone at a bus stop, I stand directly under the sign and face the direction that the bus will arrive. Even if I have a book in my hands, it is clear that I expect to catch the bus and to be the head of the queue which may or may not eventually materialize. I knew about the queueing rule before arriving in England. I didn't realize, however, that it had become so ingrained in me that I now queue alone.

  • Scrupulously avoiding indication of the use of money in pubs. It's been years, if ever, since I've said to anyone in England, "Can I buy you a drink?" Neither has such a phrase been uttered in my presence. The following phrases are acceptable.

    "It's my round." (Succeeded by expectant nods at each person in the party in turn.)
    "What are you having?"
    "You ready for another one?"
    "Would you like a drink?"

    It's not just the verbal dance around the money issue though. I've rarely seen anyone wave money or a card at a bartender in England. The acceptable level of visibility for a banknote or a card is discreetly just above the level of the bar, if you're going to show it at all. And if you're skilled enough at attracting the bartenders' attention with your attitude of thirsty expectancy, you won't need to.

  • Introducing myself awkwardly. To be frank, this comes to me naturally anyway. I had no idea I was doing something "right" in terms of English culture until I read this book. I dislike greeting rituals intensely. I never know if I'm supposed to shake hands or kiss cheeks or say my name or let the bloke do it or what. If I can avoid the greeting ritual and dive straight into a conversation with a remark about weather, public transport or the presence/absence of another person whose name I know, I do. And then I note the relief on people's faces as they deliver the ritual answers, relieved of the responsibility of having to figure out my name, who I am in relation to everyone else, finding out what I do, or having to recall any of that information at a later time.

  • The people I work with are middle-middle to upper-middle class. Again, this book made me recognize that the painstaking adaptation of my vocabulary from American to English has taken on a particular class flavour. Amusingly, the conversations I've had with those who've influenced my vocabulary have only served to reinforce this perception, as they've all strenuously asserted that class distinctions aren't much of an issue in England these days. (The book also points out that discomfort with/denial of the established class system is distinctly middle-middle to upper-middle class.)

[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2008-12-27 03:07 (UTC)
I wonder if the intentional disregard of all queue etiquette in Hong Kong is a blatant rebellion against all things English.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-12-30 17:29 (UTC)
I bet it is. It's such a deeply ingrained notion of courtesy in the English that deliberately flouting it actually does cause a considerable amount of distress.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2008-12-30 21:27 (UTC)
It's funny because they also count on Westerners (assumed to be British) to be too uncomfortable to actually say something when they are cutting in line (or what amounts to a line there) like at the grocery store. But they are also similarly avoiding confrontation so when you do say something (Americans and Australians loves us some confrontation) then they suddenly follow the queue etiquette. But usually after a good laugh. The laugh is probably along the lines of: "Oh my bad. I thought you were British and would suffer my rudeness in bitter silence."
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From: alice_mccoy
2008-12-27 09:42 (UTC)
Good heavens woman you can't talk about money. :)

I used to work in a car rental office in a multicultural city. Culture was only ever an issue when middle aged Asian men came to rent because they would start haggling. Firstly its rude to argue in a shop and secondly you are trying to start a 'discussion' over money. You might as well be removing your clothes and peeing against the displays because its just as vulgar !

When I dated an American he insisted on 'giving constructive feedback' in every restaurant. I wanted to die.!

If you don't like the price on the ticket, walk away and go somewhere else. If you don't like the food don't go back there. Easy !

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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-12-30 17:32 (UTC)
I can't barter. I'm way too self-conscious for it. Same with open criticism. I'll happily answer an anonymous survey at length (and moan on it if I feel it's necessary) but for me, refusing to leave a tip is about the strongest statement I feel comfortable making if I don't approve of the service or the food at a restaurant. And then I make damned sure I never, ever go there again. :-P
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