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.]