Respectful Insolence

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Now that I’ve been in London for three full days, I’ve noticed a few more things. Here’s one.

Although my experience is anecdotal over the course of a weekend, I’ve still been wondering: Why are the British so darned polite and friendly? Is it the long Bank Holiday weekend? (And why do they call it a “Bank Holiday” instead of giving it a name of some sort, to make it seem as though there is a purpose to the holiday other than a day off?)

Everywhere we go, we seem to be approached by various Brits, who want to engage us in conversation. It started with the Tube into central London on the day we arrived, with a lovely old British lady who started a conversation with my wife and continued into Sunday and even yesterday. Indeed, Sunday morning we were at Boswell’s having a late breakfast (we were still jet-lagged a bit and haven’t quite adapted to the five hour time difference), when a quintessentially British couple sat down in the table next to us. The man looked to be in his seventies or so and looked a lot like William Hartnell, except his long scraggly gray hair was in a pony tail, and he was wearing a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, and a down vest (not to mention an ascot) even though it was 78° F outside, and his wife was somewhat younger and dressed a bit less warmly. They were the most delightful old couple, and about as British as one could possibly imagine. Overhearing our American accents apparently, they started engaging us in conversation and telling us about the area, their dog, the flooding in southwest England earlier this summer, how expensive London is, and asking us about the States.

Maybe it’s an indication that I’ve lived on the East Coast too long that I found this very odd. It was refreshing, though, and quite pleasant. Obviously my sample size was very small here, and this is nothing other than anecdotal evidence (and you know how reliable anecdotal evidence is), but it brings up the question: Are the British really this polite and friendly and, if so, why?

Comments

  1. #1 Ben D
    August 28, 2007

    If you think people in London are polite, the East Coast must be bad…

  2. #2 Ginger Yellow
    August 28, 2007

    “(And why do they call it a “Bank Holiday” instead of giving it a name of some sort, to make it seem as though t
    there is a purpose to the holiday other than a day off?)”

    Because there isn’t. We go to the seaside and/or watch Bond films and The Great Escape. It’s called a bank holiday because the banks are shut by law – they’re not statutory holidays for anyone else.

    “Everywhere we go, we seem to be approached by various Brits, who want to engage us in conversation.”

    Speaking as a Londoner, I would suggest these people were either a) freaks, or b) not Londoners.

  3. #3 Greg B
    August 28, 2007

    I noticed the same thing when I moved from Southern California to Northern California. After decades of living in L.A., Orange County, and San Diego I was amazed when I’d be standing in line at the grocery store and folks would talk to you. If I go to one of the local restaurants you’ll quite often end up talking to people at the next table.

    It’s even noticeable on the road. I’ll come to a 4 way stop and the other guy will smile and wave me through.

    I should say that I live in a small town. It’s so small that we don’t even have a population number on our freeway sign. We share our zip code with the next town 5 miles up the hill which is a much larger town of nearly 2000 people.

    Maybe that’s why people are nicer. It’s because there’s a high probability of running into each other again.

  4. #4 Andrew Dodds
    August 28, 2007

    Ginger Yellow -

    Or do DIY.

    And as far as the politeness goes.. Orac has clearly met all six polite Londeners. Of course, where I live he’d probably get eaten or worshipped by the locals..

  5. #5 itsjustanalias
    August 28, 2007

    We have plenty of polite people over here, we also have plenty of impolite people… they won’t be talking to you so you may experience a bit of confirmation bias.

    The bank holiday might have something to do with it, see if you get the same reaction on the tube during rush hour!

    And as a final thought, those people who talked to you during breakfast- terribly impolite in my humble… interrupting your breakfast and engaging you in conversation when you might not have wanted it, shameful.

  6. #6 M
    August 28, 2007

    Londoners are probably the rudest people in the UK – be warned if you leave the capital, that politeness levels will rise dangerously!

  7. #7 Ginger Yellow
    August 28, 2007

    “And as a final thought, those people who talked to you during breakfast- terribly impolite in my humble… interrupting your breakfast and engaging you in conversation when you might not have wanted it, shameful.”

    This is indeed a good point. The behaviour Orac labels as polite is (generalising of course) not considered so in London. The last thing I want when I’m on public transport or in a restaurant/pub is some random person interrupting my reading or conversation. Londoners (at least non-teenage Londoners) can be plenty polite in the British sense of pleases and thank yous and sorries and not shoving in queues (sorry, lines) and holding doors for people and so on. But we don’t talk to strangers unless prompted. It’s a different story up north, or so I’m told.

  8. #8 Melissa G
    August 28, 2007

    I have had the same experience every time I’ve been to London. Then again, every time I’ve ever left the country, all kinds of warm, friendly people just seem to start talking to me. I wonder if Americans abroad just look approachable. Or perhaps lost. :-)

  9. #9 SteveF
    August 28, 2007

    I’d say we (Londoners included) are generally polite and reasonably helpful, but only friendly when we want to be! On the tube, for example, friendliness tends to be in pretty short supply and with good reason. The vast majority of Londoners (myself very definately included) prefer to spend their time on the tube in a self contained bubble (usually a self contained bubble of misery at 8.30 in the morning on the Northern Line), not interacting with anyone else.

    I’d say most Londonders feel reasonably affectionate towards Americans (general loudness and irritating inability to pronounce Leicester Square aside) plus there are plenty of transatlantic connections. There is therefore a reasonable chance that Americans over here will experience an above average level of friendliness.

  10. #10 Marcus Ranum
    August 28, 2007

    The British are polite because they can afford to be. The whole “polite” thing really started during the Victorian era, when England’s empire was so large that the sun never set on it (because God doesn’t trust them in the dark) – backed by a military of unbelievable ferocity. The British were polite because they demanded courtesy in return. And, if they didn’t get it, the Gurkhas, Highlanders, or Sikhs demanded it for them.

    I am not criticizing the British – in fact, I love them dearly. They are a great people. For an empire that has fallen, they have done so gracefully and with as little damage to their neighbors as possible. I hope that when it’s the US’ turn to step down from the top of the podium, we’re as quiet and gracious about it.

    mjr.

  11. #11 Tony P
    August 28, 2007

    Being a life long resident of the northeast, RI specifically I can tell you that this isn’t just a feature of London.

    I’ve spoken to people in line at the supermarket, or in a mall, etc. Even on the streets, I must look approachable because I can’t tell you how many people stop me to ask for directions.

    Just the other day I was behind an old woman who was complaining about the heat and how could anyone live in FL. I told her that I’d spent six months there and loved the heat, it was the boredom that did it for me. She had a good laugh over that one.

    I guess it’s all what you put into it.

  12. #12 Mike
    August 28, 2007

    Older British people tend to be more talkative – not sure if it is something that increases with age, or something that was the norm 40 years ago. So if you’re encountering old people rather than, say, commuters, then they will be more likely to stop and chat.

    I do slightly suspect you may be unwittingly signalling to OAPs your willingness to get sucked into a conversation, though.

    As for the Tube – Londoners do seem very surly and all that, but they do take two steps away from the train before heading for the exit, which means they’re not trying to walk straight through me when I’m waiting to get on, as I found in one US city.

  13. #13 Dunc
    August 28, 2007

    People all over the world are usually nice to tourists – it makes it easier to separate them from their cash. ;) (Disclosure: I live in Edinburgh, where separating tourists from their cash is a major industry).

  14. #14 Warren
    August 28, 2007

    It started with the Tube into central London on the day we arrived, with a lovely old British lady who started a conversation with my wife and continued into Sunday and even yesterday.

    Damn. That is one long conversation.

  15. #15 Nick
    August 28, 2007

    The simple explanation is that you are obviously a foreigner. I noticed the same thing when my family first moved to the U.S. Americans seemed so much more friendly than people from England. Now that my accent makes me sound like I’m from Ann Arbor or somewhere similar, Americans are just “normal”, and English people seem especially polite and friendly.

  16. #16 Melissa G
    August 28, 2007

    Travel never fails to restore my faith in humanity. People have such unexpected similarities the world over– it delights me when some surly old lady in Small Town, Scotland, reminds me exactly of my surly old grandmother in Small Town, Alabama, for example.

    And the food… delicious things the world over!

    Dunc, in Edinburgh no one tried to separate me from my cash– just my soul. I got evangelized at by a stunning number of competing theologies while there!

  17. #17 Thony C.
    August 28, 2007

    I must correct Ginger Yellow in part of his explanation of the expression ‘Bank Holiday’ they are not called such because the banks have to close by law but because when they were introduced in the 19th century The Bank of England was closed by law on such days.

    Your conversation partners were not being friendly they were being nosey, a universal trait of the English.

  18. #18 sharon
    August 28, 2007

    Yep, you want to watch out for those OAPs – give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile. Bastards.

    It’s not just with tourists. I’m not the most naturally sociable person in the world, but I still find myself getting into conversations with strangers in guest houses or on trains and buses and so on. Even if it’s only to vent at how useless the train/bus company is. The big exception does seem to be when commuting on the Tube; it’s hard to summon up spare mental resources for socializing during that experience. I suspect that’s true of similar contexts everywhere.

  19. #19 Ginger Yellow
    August 28, 2007

    “I must correct Ginger Yellow in part of his explanation of the expression ‘Bank Holiday’ they are not called such because the banks have to close by law but because when they were introduced in the 19th century The Bank of England was closed by law on such days. ”

    Yes and no. The law (Bank Holidays Act 1971) formalised the existing practice of BofE holidays, but it extended them to all banks and also had different dates in Scotland. The current (English) holidays date from 1971.

    From the British Bankers’ Association:

    We may moan that we ought to have more of them, but until 1871, the only holidays that the general working population had were Christmas Day and Good Friday, both of which were traditional days of rest and Christian worship and were intended for the purpose of ensuring that people attended Church.

    Although some more enlightened employers granted their employees other days off, for instance Easter Monday, banks were obliged to open for at least part of the day to fulfil their obligations to pay Bills of Exchange that became legally due on that day.

    However in 1871, Sir John Lubbock, a banker and Member of Parliament, introduced a Bill which would lead to four additional days on which banks would close, thus giving bank staff, as well as other workers, a day off work.

    But, as with most good ideas, there was a fly in the ointment. Bills of Exchange falling due on Christmas Day and Good Friday were payable the previous business day in other words, they had to be paid early – and Sir John felt that if this practice were to apply to the “new” holidays, it might make it more difficult to get through Parliament. The solution was practical and simple: Sir John proposed that Bills becoming due on the “new” holidays should be payable the business day after the holiday.

    But there needed to be a way of differentiating the two types of holiday and Sir Johns solution to this was equally practical and simple. He proposed that the “new” holidays should be known as “Bank” holidays.

    It seemed to work. Some say that the “Bank” in the holiday gave the Bill added respectability; others suggest that as most Members of Parliament were businessmen, the proposal that they would have an extra day in which to pay their debts that became due on the “new” holidays was attractive to them. Whatever the reason, the Bill enjoyed a smooth passage through parliament and went on to become the “Bank Holidays Act” and introduced Easter Monday, Whit Monday, Boxing Day and the August Bank Holiday.

  20. #20 Ginger Yellow
    August 28, 2007

    D’oh. Everything after the blockquote should also be blockquoted.

  21. #21 Barry Leiba
    August 28, 2007

    GY suggests that…

    It’s a different story up north, or so I’m told.

    My experience with conversation in a pub in the north is roughly like this:
    He: Well, danhalshim marfie yutaplied falarfin right git, annamurfy creedil wiffa glar pint o’lager, inna?
    Me: Mm, hm.
    He: Arnstrof gardle heera six quid! Inardin tuffin SPARTZO guv, annimoot winnee murfa. Cor!
    Me: Too right.

  22. #22 Clare
    August 28, 2007

    I think it’s difficult to make sweeping statements about politeness in public settings. Where you are in London, and who you are, makes a big difference in how “polite” the locals are to you.

  23. #23 potentilla
    August 28, 2007

    Mmm, tell us if any Londoners under the age of about 70 are especially polite and friendly….and the couple telling you how expensive London is were almost certainly not Londoners anyhow.

    I tried to leave a comment on your other post, suggesting Rules in Maiden Lane if you want traditional British food, and the new Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn. But it wouldn’t let me. So let’s try again..

  24. #24 Brett
    August 28, 2007

    I’m visiting London too, from Australia. The first thing that struck me when I visited was how rude people were — at least in shops, when trying to get service. (Actually, it seems like they think I’m being impolite for impinging upon their consciousness …) After nearly two months here, my opinion has been revised upwards somewhat (and it’s much better outside of London, in my limited experience) — but not by much!

  25. #25 Luna_the_cat
    August 29, 2007

    Eh, just come up to Aberdeen; people here will ignore you coldly like you’re used to. ;-)

    Seriously, the further north you go in Scotland, the more reticent people are. Having said that, I also lived in Boston for a few weeks, and people here are still a hundred times friendlier than *that*.

    Bank holidays have been well and comprehensively explained, I think, but I have to say that I love the fact that they close things down every so often for a day off for no good reason, just because. I think America needs more of that.

    (And Barry Leiba — I’d love to see what you made of a Peterhead accent!)

  26. #26 MikeB
    August 29, 2007

    Brett – the lack of service in shops is a long British tradition. You are supposed to regard it as part of the whole shopping experience if you have to wait twenty minutes to get served, while listening to two pimply teenagers discuss a) who they are shagging b) who they would like to shag, c) how off their face they got last night, and d) how off their face they are going to get tonight. They of course wont be able to help you if you actually need any.

    It doesn’t seem to to matter if they are male or female, and it certainly doesn’t matter if you are local, from Oz or the US – its standard for all.

    The general rule on the Underground is don’t make conversation, and don’t make eye contact – its why the advertising on the Tube is the most effective in the world. If someone does try to talk to you, move away. The only exception to that rule is if something has gone wrong with the train, then the ‘Blitz spirit’ rule kicks in and then its OK for everyone to have a good winge.

  27. #27 Ginger Yellow
    August 30, 2007

    “The only exception to that rule is if something has gone wrong with the train, then the ‘Blitz spirit’ rule kicks in and then its OK for everyone to have a good winge.”

    Indeed. The last time I can remember having a random Tube conversation was when we got kicked off the train because of the bombings (they didn’t say why the line was being closed). Cue lots of banter about how the Tube would never be able to cope with the Olympics.

  28. #28 kath
    August 31, 2007

    I agree with some of the other commentators- londoners are reknowned as being very rude compared to people encountered outside london.

    There are many reasons for this, not all of which are their fault. t’s probably harder to be polite when your surrounded by the numbers of people there are in london. Everyone has to fight for their bit of space. Or it could just be that a lot of people move there to ‘make their mark’ or ‘for their career’ (as a musician etc) so consequently there are a lot of egos there.

    What would I know, my partner and I deliberately avoid going there.

    Here’s a good line from the drama ‘two pints of lager and a packet of crisps’ (set near Manchester).

    Said to another character:-

    “you’re the most obnoxious person I’ve ever met, and I’ve been to London.’
    :)

  29. #29 Nix
    September 2, 2007

    I’d say that if you want people to be nice, the north of England and the south of Scotland are a sort of hotspot of niceness. (Glasgow has been wrongly calumnified and is full of nice people.)

    Of course Yorkshire has nicer people than anyone else (if I don’t say that the Yorkshire Expatriates’s Loyalty Squad will come round and break my bones.)

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