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HOWTO survive social encounters with British people

Life in the UK is not always straightforward. One needs time to get accustomed to the social norms in order to be able to understand the subtle meanings that are implied in social encounters. I will attempt, through an array of generalisations and stereotypes, to illustrate these differences. Continue reading only if you don’t take yourself too seriously.

There are many differences between how people from the UK and how people from the Mediterranean respond in certain social situations. The usual British way of dealing with dislike, for instance, is to keep silent and wait until the person that makes you uncomfortable leaves or stops talking. Confrontation is discouraged and is usually avoided. The most you get is the occasional tapping of the tongue to the upper jaw, making that tut tut (or tsk tsk) sound, that when accompanied with a left-right-left nod of the head, indicates disapproval.

The way British people behave in trains is indicative of their non-confrontational attitude. In trains in the UK there is always an idiot that sits in the silent part of the train and decides that it’s a good idea to talk on the phone, despite it being explicitly prohibited, clearly marked with dozens of ‘this is a silent coach’ stickers on the windows. The British passengers sit and look at their fellow passengers in order to verify that the discontent is shared. Then they make that horrible tsk-tsk sound with their tongue but rarely go beyond that. No confrontation, not even a polite request to stop talking whilst in the silent coach.

The same non-confrontational attitude prevails when passengers have their earphones too loud in public transport. British people rarely ask the person who is being loud to lower the volume of his/her earphones, despite them being obviously agitated by it. They will look at each other, make the tsk-tsk sound and then co-exist in a spirit of mutual discomfort and passivity.

When people of Mediterranean upbringing feel discontent, they express it and they confront others in order to make them stop doing whatever they are doing that annoys them. When they have something to say, they just do; they just say whatever comes to their mind. British people, even when they want to say something that would benefit the other, they rarely go about and say “I think the way you are doing X is wrong/not efficient/whatever and a better way to go about would be to do Y”. They tend to keep to themselves. When they express their thoughts, they do so in such a way as to avoid direct confrontation. They offer their opinion as an additional option for you to consider, rather than as a direct alternative or a better way to do what you are doing. This sense of non-confrontation is embedded into the core of their social interaction.

The same attitude can be seen when they are explicitly called to give their opinion on something. It took me a while to realise that when they start a sentence with anything that includes the word ‘interesting’, what they really mean is that they disagree with you and that they probably think that you are an idiot who has no idea what he/she is talking about.

In casual conversations, especially on controversial issues that they might hold strong views on, they first acknowledge your view, before proceeding to discredit it. Phrases like “I see what you are saying”, or “I largely agree with what you say but..” are characteristic non-confrontational ways of expressing disagreement. In academia this gets even worse. You might have presented a paper that they hate. Instead of pointing out from the beginning that they don’t like the paper for X-Y-Z reasons, they use indirect ways to express their disagreement; a disagreement that can go unnoticed by the non-British individual. For instance, they might start asking questions, claiming that they did not quite understand what you meant on a specific point. Or, they might kindly express some ‘concerns’. Having presented papers in Greek, Cypriot and British audiences, I found that the former two, although more crude in their expression of criticism, were better for me, since I could understand the disagreements and I was able either to offer rebuttals or to accept their criticisms as valid, enabling me to improve the paper. The same outcome can be achieved with British audiences of course, as long as the non-British participant navigates through these conventions.

The way they use irony in their day-to-day exchanges is also different, both in context and in frequency, from how people from the Mediterranean use it. The latter tend to tell you off when you say something that they disagree with. British people don’t do that. They use an array of idioms to express these same sentiments. These idioms are usually ironic and cannot be easily detected by non-British people that have little interaction with British culture. The most notable example, I think, is the use of the term ‘bless him/her’. Every time it is included in a sentence, whatever statement follows or precedes it, aims at masking a deep dislike for the person in question. For instance, “George is a nice guy and very opinionated, bless him”, means that George is an idiot who can’t shut up and tends to have an opinion about everything.

It takes a while to get accustomed to the different social norms and conventions and it’s not a matter of knowing the language or of trying hard enough. It is about having access to social venues where interaction with native people is possible, accompanied with basic social abilities, time, patience and humour.


[UPDATE: As a friend pointed out on Facebook: ‘bless him’ is misconstrued here, as it is generally used as a genuine expression of endearment and only when combined with sarcasm (which is, I find, one of the biggest difficulties in communicating with people who are not British) can it convey dislike. So I think sarcasm is the key here, and not the phrase in itself.]

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  1. “In trains in the UK there is always an idiot that sits in the silent part of the train ”

    First, you do realise how alien the above sounds to someone from Cyprus? So how can you extrapolate that this scenario is ever likely in Cyprus. There would not even be a “silent part” of the train in Cyprus IF one ever existed.

    You say that you prefer the “Cypriot” way ,, I find this to be at least expected. You are Cypriot right? If you were British you’d be writing about the rude, coarse and loud Mditerraneans… So basically the point is – there is no right or wrong – it’s very subjective. I’d prefer people being more direct in some situation, however having the complete “freedom” so say anything that comes to mind to someone is not always the best – especially when you don’t know them well… Also, in multicultural societies I believe you are more reserved in order to avoid offending anyone…

  2. Michali,

    I’m not saying that I prefer Cypriots. I’m saying that in the UK, ppl from the Mediterranean do act differently than locals in certain social occasion. This is not to say that they are right, or that I prefer the way they behave. In fact, in many cases, I don’t. There are all sort of ways that Cypriots, or Italians, or Greeks are arrogant arseholes, especially when that weird sense of undeserved entitlement overcomes them.

    And yes, there is no train in Cyprus, and had it been one, people would be unlikely to keep silent — if that was a post about how Cypriots behave in Cyprus, I would likely comment on that. But, this is not what I am doing here. I am comparing two different groups of ppl, in a specific country: on the one hand, new-migrants from a specific geographical area, who are part of the country and are more or less integrated into its society, having accepted and to a large extend adopted its rules and, on the other hand, native people that grew up and went to schools in this country. The social setting is set and all commentary is related to it, not to the way people act outside of it.

    I accept that they have many shortcoming and in many instances I prefer the way native ppl behave in certain social occasions, but, again, this was not a post on how British people could survive encounters with Mediterranean ppl but rather the other way around. In any case, this was not an assessment of “which is best”. It was a discussion of 2-3 different social encounters. The suggestion that I would always chose “the Cypriot way” is simply not true, as I explain in the above paragraphs.

    I agree on what you say about multiculturalism. It is true that in multicultural societies people are more reserved, in order to allow the coexistence of ppl with different backgrounds and different life-plans under the same political and social institutions. This, to a large extend, might have influenced the way ppl interact. Of course, this should not be taken as the sole explanation. We have evidence that traces the sort of behaviours that I outlined in the post far before UK became a multicultural society. The evidence I am referring to is the work of their literary giants, where they describe a British society, governed by similarly reserved codes of conduct.

  3. Γιώργο,
    I read the post very quickly and posted a comment in an even hastier manner (badly written and not thought out). That’s all I guess… Like you said there is no right or wrong – merely subjective observations not to be taken very seriously.

  4. Don’t worry, your criticism was fair — I should have been more specific, especially where I made the comparisons. I didn’t put much effort into it, this being a ‘light’ piece and all 🙂 Thanks a lot for commenting