Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Shall we dance?

As the title of this blog suggests, I am a native born Brit, English to be precise (well, half Irish, but now I'm just getting picky). Most English speaking cultures tend to be pretty similar due to their shared ancestry, but one of the things I have found myself coming up against again and again is the lack of ... well, Englishness here.

In England, we communicate through an elaborate dance of body language, gestures, grunts and assumptions. We have our little rituals and unspoken messages, and everyone understands them. We know that if we have an electrician checking the wiring, we must offer them a cup of tea. We know that we must change the subject if our conversation partner begins to look even slightly uncomfortable. We know when and how to form orderly queues, and we know that we are expected to take only our share and nothing more and to keep things "fair".

Speaking of queueing, George Mikes once said, "An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one." He is absolutely right, and my friends here find it hilarious how twitchy and passive aggressively snippy I get when I see someone threatening to queue jump.

It's little social cues like this that don't exist here, and that trips me up more often than not. I am always secretly horrified when guests stomp around in dirty boots or kick them off in the middle of the floor, then head to our fridge to poke around and grab a soda without asking. I mean, I would never say anything -- that would be far too un-English -- and if I minded that much, I wouldn't invite them over. It just makes my inner Englishman petulantly wibble his stiff upper lip. How you behave at home and how you behave when a guest are two very different things in England, and the line is much more blurred here.

There is a tendency to be far less withdrawn and more openly critical here, which is both a blessing and a curse. If someone thinks something they will say it, sugar coating or not. But I still find myself looking for hidden messages and reading between the lines, forgetting that it doesn't really work like that in the US. It works in England because everyone does it, almost entirely subconsciously. Here? I am a dancer alone, and that is both amusing and frustrating to those I keep trying to tango with.

Is it easier with everyone saying what they think? Perhaps in theory. But I wonder if I shall ever get used to this upfront, unashamed honesty. Sometimes I long for my complex, silent, polite social waltz.


At 10/10/2006 6:36 PM, Anonymous Talon said...


I find it so interesting, really. Though I'm with you on the dirty, grubby boots in the middle of the floor. I usually check and see if the person in the house is wearing shoes and go from there, since I dont' like wearing shoes in the house.

As far as for the blurred line, I can definitly relate to that, at least on the USA side. It's...a measure of certain friendships and familyships to make yourself at home in their home. With some friends I do it, and with some I don't. It all depends on the friend, and/or family member. For example, my grandparent's home was a mixture of Canadian and Southern hospitality. Everyone was welcome, and everyone was family unless otherwise informed. Help yourself to the beer, a place by the fire, and if you come for Christmas, there would be at least ONE gift for you under the tree. And you'd never leave hungry, that's for sure.

On the other hand, even as a naitive USA-in...I find myself bereft in some cases...from a lack of social cues. Do I tip the hair dresser? What do I give the mailperson for a gift? How do I handle the installers for the satallite dish? What do I offer the mother of my daughter's playdate? Without such a set of social cues and dances as you so artistically put it, I flounder. I can't help but wonder if it would be easier if indeed, these things were set in stone and everyone knew them and danced to the same tune.


But then again...maybe we do, and I'm just oblivious.

LOVE the wibbly stiff upper lip!!!

At 10/10/2006 6:42 PM, Blogger Otana said...

I think English and Japanese cultures are very similar in their social rules. They're all unspoken and appear extremely complicated and unnecessary to outsiders, but to those in the know they make life so much easier. As you mentioned, they mean we know how to treat casual guests, how to behave in certain situations, what exactly to say and what's expected of us.

Not everyone follows the rules of course, but for the vast majority who do it creates a comfortable, predictable life.


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