Expat Ramblings: English Politeness

Ah, yes, the English. While not giving anything away about themselves, they always manage to stay perfectly polite, with impeccable manners, stiff upper lip, shame about the weather, tally-ho, pip pip. Jolly good. Only it’s a trap!

After years of intensive studies, I have come to the conclusion that English Rules of Politeness are nothing more than Shibboleths. What seems innocent and friendly to you at first is actually a way of finding out how foreign you really are. After nine years, I haven’t once answered a “How do you do?” with “How do you do!” because I simply can not imagine that it’s the right way to do it. Sure, dozens of books have told me it is, but come on. Would you say that? No, you wouldn’t. Maybe that’s a shibboleth too, a sneaky one that has every single guide booked fooled? Maybe it’s a conspiracy. I’m 99% sure that, should I ever try to answer with “How do you do!” a buzzer will sound somewhere, and everyone will laugh and point. I’m not going to risk that. Either way, I’m instantly recognizable as a foreigner.

I am anyway, because I am told I have an accent. Not in those words, obviously, because the English are polite, but the second question strangers ask is always a variation of “And where are you from?” (The first one being “How do you do?” and since we know that I don’t answer this one correctly, I have already been exposed. So maybe I haven’t got an accent after all. Cool.) A better way, then, of determining that I’m German, is my shocking frankness. One of my favourite newspaper articles includes an anecdote about a German woman ruining her friendship with an Englishwoman by telling her, when asked, that she didn’t care for her new curtains. Reading this, I realised for the first time that I must have been unintentionally freaking people out for years. The amounts of time I told them I did not like their bread, or couldn’t understand why English windows opened to the outside! The time I was called a man because I walked into a friend’s new house and commented on the work that needed to be done on the floorboards! It’s a wonder I have English friends at all. (There is a possibility that they’re just too polite to end the friendship, but I’m going to need time to plan my next steps accordingly.) The truth is that I’m terrified of small talk. I can’t handle it, because it serves no apparent purpose and doesn’t lead anywhere. I talk to people because I want to know them, not because I want to be polite. The English tend to do the opposite.

If there isn’t a proverb about how you have to live abroad to find out how *insert nationality here* you really are, it should be invented. This is it: We don’t beat around the bush. We do things to get somewhere. And if someone asks us how we are, we tell them. Only “Not so well/Happy because my best friend just had a baby/A bit constipated” aren’t acceptable answers in England, where you’re not meant to answer that question at all. For the first five years, I kept getting it wrong, and beat myself up about not fitting in. After that, I started doing it for fun. Nothing brightens my day like seeing the panic on a polite Englishperson’s face upon being told a shockingly personal story of various mishaps in the recent life of a German immigrant. Theoretically, you could spend hours torturing your Englishperson, since English Politeness Rules forbid any sign of rudeness, which includes walking away from a conversation. But we don’t want to be rude either.

In the end, it took another foreigner to confuse me momentarily. A Polish guy I know from my daughter’s nursery, usually politely noncommittal, greeted me last week by booming an obviously well-practised “And how are you this lovely morning?!” in my direction. Taken aback, I managed to stutter something about the cold and was otherwise lost for words. He totally won. Because it is a competition; and I’m going to work hard on my Polite Small Talk skills, and will not rest until I have had a first conversation with an English person that is both efficient and not awkward. But what are the chances of that ever happening?

By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

4 replies on “Expat Ramblings: English Politeness”

I can pass for English – send me your phone number and we shall have tea and cake over the phone. We can practise small talk, too.

Gosh, this is all true. I thought it was utterly normal to smile, nod, and say something, well, polite. Also, the “where are you from?” does get asked constantly, doesn’t it?

I think it’s conversation starter/politeness and curiosity. It’s a question I’ve found to be endlessly asked at the school gate, among other places. But it’s one also asked as a more general conversation starter, though that’s just my experience as I tend to be asked it *everywhere*, though it’s often the variation of, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

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