Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mind your Manners!

Our guest blogger this week is Lisa from Anglophile's Digest. She is an American living in the north of England. Toni and Lisa weigh in on the question of manners.


I don’t think it would be accurate to generalize one nation, America or Great Britain, in terms of manners. My experiences in Britain have put me in contact with both ends of the spectrum. I have encountered the absolute rudest and most disrespectful people on my visits to London, and I have had the pleasure of being treated with the utmost politeness up here in the North East of England. The same goes for America, and I think wherever you go in whatever country you are going to experience politeness is greatly varying levels.

Receiving people into my home and entertaining is where I find the greatest disparity between American and British manners. Although I have lived here for a year, I still often feel like the rudest hostess since I don’t always perform up to expectations. Simply put, I don’t put the kettle on. I might put out bowls of chips and snacks but I never think to put the kettle on when I am having guests over. I will of course offer them whatever cold beverages I have on hand or a cup of tea of coffee when they have settled in, but it is not a compulsory thing for me to prepare tea for guests. It is especially true when I have workmen in my house. I think it is incredibly unprofessional for a plumber or handyman to take a break for a cuppa when I am paying them by the hour.

On the flip side, I find the “pot luck” style dinner is nowhere to be found in Britain. In America it would be bad manners not to bring a bit of something to a family dinner or a dinner party, or at least offer to bring a dish to pass. In Britain the hostess is responsible for every course with the exception of maybe the drinks. In fact, some proud home cooks might even be offended if you brought a dish to pass.

At the end of the day though, I have to say when it comes to tolerating the cultural differences in manners I think the British are much more patient. Possibly it is the exposure to so many different cultures in close proximity but I seem to be excused for not putting the kettle on and for bringing my famous mashed potatoes to family gatherings. My British friends, family and acquaintances assume I am going to have a different way of doing things.

I can’t say that my American brethren are as understanding. Most Americans have the attitude that their manners are “just common sense” and it can often cause friction. In the past I have been at a party or gathering where there are guests with different upbringings and their unconventional manners are either looked upon unfavorably and whispered about or sometimes even openly mocked or challenged.
Although the British are certainly not saints when it comes manners, they definitely win the day when it comes to tolerance and discretion.


People often ask me whether I think Brits, or Americans are more polite. After 19 years in the States, I still haven’t made my mind up. Both can be the rudest imaginable and the epitome of gentility. The Brits probably sound more polite but here in the American mid-west, people go out of their way to show you respect and make you welcome – unless they’re behind the wheel of a car of course.

The most important thing to remember, if you’re travelling between the two countries is that what is considered manners in one place isn’t necessarily so in t’other. The example I always give is referring to someone, as “he” or “she” when that person is in your presence. In the States, this is done all the time, and no offense/offence is meant at all. I venture to say that in the UK, it’s one of the rudest things you can do and often elicits the retort “Who’s she? The cat’s mother?” (A prize for anyone who can tell us where this came from.)

In the States, the word “please” isn’t used so much, yet British parents will withhold all kinds of treats until they hear “the magic word”. It’s not that Americans aren’t polite here, but the inflection of the request infers the manners. That’s why when a perfect stranger comes up to me in the street and says “Do you have the time?”, smacking them across the head or otherwise expressing disgust at their uncouthness isn’t my first instinct. Americans are much more into “thank you”, and the acknowledgement of the thank you, to the point that omitting “It’s a pleasure”, “You’re welcome”, or the oft heard “Mmm hmm” is a tad rude. Even my 6 year old reprimands me if he says “Thank you” and I don’t appear to acknowledge it.

And then there's "Bless you". I was in a large group of people yesterday when someone sneezed. I kid you not, everyone within about a three row range of the woman turned round to say “Bless you” even though they didn’t know her. That’s not something I remember growing up with in England- family members and some friends perhaps, but not complete strangers.

So if your impressions of Americans have all come from TV shows and movies, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at their manners.


  1. The main difference as far as I can see is that Americans are very direct. So they might ask you a question that in Britain, might seem a bit rude, but here it is fine to ask. (For example, my neighbours asked 5 mins after meeting me what we were paying in rent for our house). But everyone is very kind and friendly, much more so than in London. And this is New York, where people are supposed to be rude! The only exceptions seem to be people in either goverment offices or delivery people, who seem to go out of their way to be rude.

  2. Most Americans that I have encountered in England seem to have great manners.
    They say *Sir* or *Madam* when addressing a stranger & that is never done here.
    I think most children over here don't have good manners!

  3. I remember the first time I heard the "Sir" and "Ma'am" thing, which is much more common in the South where I first moved. I thought everyone was taking the mick! And the little kids called me Miss Toni!

  4. If you don't call people Sir or Ma'am how does one address strangers in Britain? Or do you just mean people don't say things like, "No Sir" or " Yes, Ma'am"?

  5. Hahaha! I can relate Lisa! It took me several years and many grumblings from a former mother in law before I was in the habit of putting the kettle on. But I still retain a fear of making the tea incorrectly (every Brit seems to like it differently) so I make a joke about how they wont want an American making their cuppa and I hand them the spoon, the milk and the sugar. they forgive me the tea bag in a cup (why get a pot out if it's just for one?).

  6. Elizabeth - we don't use Sir and Ma'am unless you're addressing someone who's been knighted by the Queen (Sir) or the Queen herself (Ma'am).
    If you're trying to catch the attention of someone you don't know, it can be quite difficult but you would probably just say "Excuse me" over and over until the person turned around. With young girls you could say "Miss".
    With friends and family members, it tends to be dictated regionally. In the north east for example, people call each other pet a lot. In the south it's more likely to be darlin', but I guarantee you'd get some funny looks if you used Sir and Ma'am the way one does in the States.

  7. I think these are two very insightful observations. Lisa certainly hit the nail on the head about putting the kettle on and making tea for workmen. And she's right about Londoners - we are rude! It's our job in life to make the rest of the country look good!

    Toni's insights strike a chord with me. I live in the midwest too. While reading Toni's comments I am talking to myself and saying Yes! I see the same things too. I found that I had to (and quite rightly - when in Rome and all that) learn to behave slightly differently and adapt to a different way of interracting. Nothing I can put my finger on right now, but it's there.

    Funnily enough, on a "Londoners being rude" note, when my divorce was all but over bar the shouting, my midwest (ex)wife said "Oh and by the way, all of my family think you are rude". "No" I said. "What they said was they think Im sober which is more than could be said for most of them". "See? That's exactly what I mean" she said. That was the last conversation we ever had. Maybe she's right. Maybe I am rude. But I'm convinced that conversation would be a great opener for a book one day.
    I like this Blog, Expat Mum. I'll have to read the rest of it!

  8. I held a door open for someone yesterday and he said, "Thank you, sir." It didn't sound strange to me but after reading this is does now occur to me that I never get that response in the UK. I'll have to listen more attentively when I return.

  9. You know what causes me the most pain? - When a young person calls me ma'am. That means I must be very old in their eyes. Ouch!

  10. I was astonished in american shops to hear so many people say "Gimme a packet of Winstons" or "Gimme a box of doughnuts", with no please or thank you. Also, the manners of British children have undoubtedly worsened over the last few years, but the cheek and abuse american parents are prepared to put up with constantly surprised me.

  11. They're not quite as rude in the mid-west, but they don't tend to say please much either. It's usually more like "Can I get a packet of Winston's?".

  12. Too much "please-ing" sounds geeky after a while.

    When ordering food, cigs, dougnuts, etc. from a clerk the please isn't necessary. Too obsequious-sounding.

    However, "thank you" is very important, something I don't notice much in the UK.

    Being served without the thank you--or a breezy "thanks!"--is considered rude. Besides, it just makes the conclusion of the transaction nicer, a little human touch.

    When I said "thank you, sir!" to the flag vendor at Last Night in Hyde Park, he said, "Come all the way from Syndey, have you?"

    In spite of my notable lack of an Aussie accent, my use of "sir" caused him to think I was Australian.

    Americans use sir and ma'am all the time, not to connote age, but as a friendly and respectful acknowledgement of service rendered.

    I've often said thank you ma'am to a friend who's done something nice for me.

    It doesn't mean I think she's "old", far from it.

    Americans don't have a collective memory of forced respectfulness to our "betters", maybe that's why our freely given respect is so cheerful and natural.

    The manners of American children on the other hand...*shudder*

  13. I don't actually think saying ma'am is a sign that you think someone is old, but when I get women in their twenties calling me ma'am, it makes me think that they must see me as ancient. It's just been tough going from Miss to Ma'am!

  14. I don't know about "polite" but the Americans sure are friendly. I haven't had so many conversations with complete strangers in seven years! ;)

  15. Saying please is geeky and obsequious? Thank god I live in Australia, not America, because we say it all the time! And Aussies dont say 'sir', that is a purely American affectation - perhaps from years of kowtowing to the rich and famous by those who come from the 'wrong side of the tracks,' as you yanks say.


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