I left England when I was 8, lived in Turkey for 7 years and returned as a junior in high school. The following two years were a mess of awkward social situations as I attempted to reconnect to my English sensibilities. Generally I failed miserably and it wasn’t until after university that I felt fully at home. Having lived in four different countries I know parties to be the arena most susceptible to culture clashes. Below are some observations and some lessons I learned the hard way, enjoy.
1. Don’t enter the room with your mouth first: Be aware of your surroundings. Are other people making as much noise as you? No, probably not right? So take it down a notch or seven, you’re inside now. A good rule is that people in other rooms should see you before they know you’ve arrived. The person most excited about you being there is you, so don’t go on about your “buzz” or your “vibe” and definitely don’t try to have fun. We’re a dispassionate bunch by default and it takes time and booze to rouse us. Get loud later when everyone else is on the same page.
Rule: Behaviour you take for granted is not necessarily ‘normal’. I know ‘loud’ is generally known as ‘affable’, ‘friendly’ or ‘excited’ in the U.S. but in England it’s mostly just rude. If you’re really interested in loving your neighbour a “thats-just-the-way-I-am” attitude wont cut it. You’re not entitled to ‘be you’, find out what’s appropriate.
2. Don’t Introduce yourself: Yep, that’s right, you’ve already made us hate you. No one cares who you are, and assuming that they do by introducing yourself is just another example of arrogant American behaviour. Wait to be introduced to people by the friend that brought you to the party.
Rule: You’re just trying to be accessible, open, we interpret it as pushy. Even with all the good will in the world, sharing it is often best done on the receiver’s terms. Wait to see if anyone wants what you’ve got to give.
3. Mentioning your successes and accomplishments: Okay, so you might have done some cool stuff in your life (your small business might be on the up and up or you may have recently come second in an Iron Man competition). The point is, as soon as you mention it, we all think you’re a self-involved arse hole. If you can’t resist the urge to talk about yourself, do it in a way that makes you look bad or severely understates the case. E.g. “Speaking of keeping fit, I attempted an Iron Man once, damn near wrecked me!” If someone is interested, they’ll ask for more details (they probably wont).
Rule: Your story is important, but not as important as avoiding the personal and keeping things neutral. Conversation shouldn’t be about establishing oneself or gaining the upper hand. Find ways to make indirect connection, not outright competition.
4. Anecdotes in which you’re the hero: This is an extension of the above point, and in fact could be broadened to ‘any anecdote in which you look good.’ Only tell stories in which you get very drunk and make a complete fool of yourself and/or have an outrageous sexual encounter. Seriously, these are the only stories about yourself anyone wants to hear.
Rule: Self-deprecating stories allow other people to breath easy and feel good about themselves. Its about celebrating the weak humanness that binds us all. One-upmanship and stories of your own success make for social stress.
5. Only take one of anything: 1 scoop, 1 handful, 1 piece, 1 cookie. If someone offers you something with the words “please have one”, they mean ONE. If its a buffet, its a buffet! You can always go back for more (although doing this frequently will get noticed and probably muttered about). Wanting something, especially more of something, is not a whim you get to indulge at parties. Be gluttonous on your own time. The only exception to this is alcohol, in which case the more you drink the better, unless it impairs your ability to stick to these rules.
Rule: In the U.S. parties are a chance to let loose and go all out. In England social situations are where propriety is most important, which is why we like drinking so much, it’s the only antidote to decorum. Basically, self-indulgence is for quiet nights in, getting over an ex-, or recovering from illness, its not a life style. Restraint, not license, demonstrates love.
6. Appropriating our slang: Brits and Americans have different jargon, we all know this. Trying to ingratiate yourself somehow by crow-barring British phrases into your lingo isn’t going to impress anyone. In fact, its going to piss people off. No one cares if you like fish ‘n chips, or bangers and mash. Don’t say “mate”, “cheers” or “jolly good”. Don’t do a Cockney accent. Using English vernacular in no way demonstrates cultural sensitivity or identifies you as an enlightened foreigner. If you like the patter, save it up and take it home. I’m sure it will make you the life of a very loud party and impress all those random strangers at the buffet table who you try to shake hands with while balancing your over-stuffed plate on one hand.
Rule: Reducing our culture to a few catch phrases, food stuffs, and stereotypical characters is impossible, this isn’t America. That was a cheap shot I know, but seriously, the reason it seems okay to talk to us about junk food is that Philly cheese steaks, ribs, and BBQ sauce seem genuinely to be topics of great interest and contention among the American populace, it’s weird. Know how much you don’t know and take time to learn.
7. Getting all sycophantic: Let’s face it, you’ve probably broken at least three of the above rules by now and are beginning to notice that you’re spending more and more time wandering from corner to corner with no one to talk to. Yes, you’ve been ostracised. Do not attempt to remedy this situation by pleadingly informing people that you’re an “Anglophile” and “love everything British (the Royals, Downton Abbey, Monty Python &c.)” No one likes a suck-up. Also, no one under the age of 50 gives a toss about those things anyway. Your only option now is to find somewhere to sit and start drinking heavily. If you’re lucky someone will notice your dedication to drunkenness and come keep you company.
Rule: Social etiquette is very complicated, but crucial. You will not be forgiven. Learn to love your enemies.
In conclusion, let me recognise that this piece makes the English seem like a lot of inhospitable, alcoholic, jerks who take pleasure in making the uninitiated squirm in social situations.
Where better then, to put neighbour love into practice?