Saturday, July 4, 2009

Oi! Who you looking at!

Mike's post over at Postcards prompted a thought for this week's discussion. Who's friendlier - Americans or Brits?

Toni:

I hate to sit on the fence but it really depends where you are in each country. I was brought up in the North East of England and believe me, they are extremely friendly people. You can't stand at a bus stop for more than two minutes without the little old lady in front of you telling you her life story plus medical history. Where my mother lives (which is semi-rural) I am frequently greeted by locals who have no idea who I am or whose daughter I am. I'm sure someone like the Brit Out of Water, living in New York, might have something to say about the level of friendliness there, as would many people living in London. Brit Gal Sarah, on the other hand, has experienced friendliness in Oklahoma that she could barely believe. My own southern experience has been that there is a reserve that would rival anything you'd find in the UK. Southerners are friendly, don't get me wrong, but there's a suit of armour there at the same time.

One thing I've noticed is that police officers are a lot friendlier here in the US. Not that I have had much to do with them you understand, but there's none of that withering sarcasm or borderline personality that hangs over every encounter in the UK. Many years ago I had occasion to call the police at 3am when my alarm went off and the husband was out of town. The responding officers were perfectly nice when we discovered that it was a huge helium-filled balloon that had come off its tether and set the motion detector off. Half an hour later, after they had finished looking at all the work we'd done on the house (one of them was rehabbing his own house), I was wishing they weren't so friendly if only because I had to get up in a couple of hours for the school run.

I even have a photo of me sitting on a policeman's motor bike on Beale Street in Memphis. (My mother was with me so it wasn't the 20-something drunken incident that it could have been). I'm not sure I would even have approached a British police officer with such a request although I admit I plastered on the English accent and pretended I was a moon struck tourist.

Another thing I noticed recently, highlighted by the wide grin of Farrah Fawcett that has been everywhere on the TV - most Americans automatically shape their mouths into a smile when they talk. Just do a personal survey for a few days if you don't believe me. It used to throw me because they smile even when they're not telling you a joke; teachers do it even when they're relating the latest "infraction"; sales assistants do it telling you that the 50% sale doesn't apply to your chosen item. Even political commentators, who are currently dealing with the devastating news that Sarah Palin is stepping down (cough, cough) break into a smile before they voice their carefully-worded responses. Oh wait...that may be for another reason.


Mike:

Despite the fact that I haven't had a spontaneous conversation with anyone in my hometown since I've moved here, I can't say the Brits are not friendly. They are, in my local area, simply reserved. Furthermore, despite my saying, here and now, that people in North America (mustn't forget the Canadians, who are even friendlier than we Yanks) win this contest hands-down, overall friendliness is mostly a matter of locale.

My life here has fallen into a comfortable routine, one that involves rare contact with other people. Not because I don't desire it, simply because the locals are standoffish. The people I count as friends here (and I can do that on one hand) were already friends of my wife or people who sought me out because I'm a famous author and worthy of their adulation. I have never spontaneously struck up a friendship with anyone on this island and all but a few of the conversations I have had since moving here have been with my wife.

Compare that to Canada and the US, where I have just returned from and where, in the first 24 hours, we found ourselves in three different conversations with total strangers. And when we met my future daughter-in-law's family for the first time, we were treated like family and, after about ten minutes, I felt as if I had known them my whole life. All the people we interacted with on my recent trip were open and friendly, and it made me realize just how little interaction I have with people over here.

However, as I pointed out earlier, this is a matter of location more than anything else. When I travel for work out to Devon, the people I meet on the street as I walk to work in the morning all smile and say, "Hell-o." I even had one local fall into step with me, after he saw me taking a photo, to tell me the best locations and times of day to get good pictures. The people from the north, likewise, are friendlier than the people down here, so the Brits are not all staid and reserved.

But these past weeks in the US have convinced me, without a doubt, that the Americans are the friendlier of the two nations.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box.

17 comments:

  1. Yes, I have to agree, Americans are the friendlier of the two peoples... though that's not always a great thing. I've just returned (to the Midwest) after 7 years abroad, and I'm finding the friendliness a bit exhausting. (And I'm a pretty friendly person!) Sometimes when I ask, these days, "How are ya?" I don't really want to know! Guess I'd gotten used to people not taking that question at face value.

    One of the things I really used to enjoy about riding the train from Ascot to Waterloo, was how Brits would carefully refrain from acknowledging you for the whole hour long ride. Then, as Waterloo came into sight, they'd pipe up with some comment (a helpful one, usually) indicating that they'd been shamelessly eavesdropping the whole time. That was the typical Brit approach to casual conversation -- they want to be really really sure they know what they're getting into conversationally, and if it all goes pear-shaped, the train will pull into the station in 3 minutes and they'll be off the hook after all.

    I loved that!

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  2. Maybe our American accents are the ice-breaker, but I've never been treated in such a welcoming, friendly way any where else, even the US, as I have in the UK.

    It's humbling and astonishing at the same time.

    We go to the same small country town once or twice a year and everyone from the vicar to the mayor to the local barkeeps, merchants and just regular folks have made us feel so welcome it's truly wonderful.

    They all ask us when are we moving to town, when are we returning, why can't we just stay permanently, they send us Christmas cards, emails, chatty letters.

    We've been invited to dinners, picnics, lunches at the pub, garden parties at the Vicarage, point-to-points, teas, Sunday lunches and other social occasions too numerous to mention.

    All have been friendly and gracious to a fault. Well, except for the lady who didn't like Americans because they made "their tea with salt water" (Boston Tea Party).

    As an American I just hope we treat visiting Brits at least half as well as they've treated us.

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  3. Yes, on both sides of the pond it's all about location, location, location. More important to me is whether or not that friendliness is genuine or just for appearances. Too often we say the words or go through the motions out of habit instead of a genuine caring and respect.

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  4. You live in Chicago and think the cops there are friendlier. I'm shocked! Surely you are having encounters with the best of the lot;)

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  5. If you pick a random Londoner and a random New Yorker, then the likelihood is that the Londoner is probably more likely to be friendly towards you in my experience. But I don't think that there's any question whatsoever that Americans in general are much more polite and friendly than Brits. All you have to do is travel slightly out of any metropolitan area to find people who smile when they speak to you, who will say hello to strangers they pass on the street, and who take an interest in their community. Mike's experience of not having a spontanenous conversation with anyone in his UK hometown is pretty standard, sadly. 'Reserve' is no excuse!

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  6. Americans hands down win this and yes locale has something to do with it, but not everything. I agree with the comment that they are just more open and smiley generally.

    I lived in the London area, but originated 'up north' in England with lots of family there, plus I spent years as a Sales Manager in all areas of the country. The general consensus that southerners are less friendly than northerners is certainly true. But in general the British have a looong way to go to catch the Americans on this.

    Here I have stayed in the past few years in NYC for a week and then recently in Chicago. I could tell very little difference between how friendly they are on a scale. NYC'ers are just in more of a hurry I thought, but they were more than happy to chat or guide.

    But if you want FRIENDLY then you won't beat the Mid-West! Toni is right, I have been welcomed with open arms and homes here and they are lovely people. I find Mike's situation a pretty sad reflection on my countrymen and probably their loss too. After all we all benefit from mixing with other cultures and outlooks. I have had the exact opposite reaction where I am and have many friends here now.

    But as with all things, I really do believe half of this is your own approach to others. I am a naturally friendly, smiley, chatty person and I find others react similarly to that wherever you may roam.

    That is of course unless you're in France, but that's a whole other topic!!

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  7. I've only been in the US a few weeks, but already I'd say Americans are more openly friendly. Take neighbours. In London it took us years to get to know our neighbours; here on Long Island, both sets have come round to say hello almost immediately. Not only that, but offered the use of their swingsets, sandpits and the rest, invited us to barbecues, even fixed us margaritas when we got back from a day at the beach looking a bit hot and bothered.

    Services people are generally very friendly too, although their friendly attitude sometimes seems to mask the fact that they haven't actually done what you asked at all and can't really be bothered. But it's better than a sour-faced 'computer says no' type response (if you've watched Little Britain you'll know what I mean).

    I don't think Londoners are unfriendly, but we tend to keep ourselves to ourselves. I think I prefer the US approach, but maybe it's because I'm a stranger here and need all the friends I can get.....

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  8. Nappy - I think that definitely reflects living in the suburbs, as it took us a while to really get to know our neighbours here in Chicago. In some areas, they literally have welcome committees to make newcomers feel at home. A bit creepy in one respect, but you can pick out the genuine ones and just socialize with them.

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  9. I've been in the UK for almost three years, and my friends are almost exclusively expats, and the only British friends I have are those who have lived abroad and returned to the UK. The locals are just 'reserved' as Mike said, and definitely not willing to make casual conversation out in public, or even in my office where I've worked for the entire time I've been here. Do I like being able to shop without being asked if I need anything? Yes. Do I wish the general level of casual friendliness was higher? Yah, sure, you betcha.

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  10. The point about "genuine" friendliness is well taken, but it for the most part, if they are faking it, they are doing a good job. The "genuine-ness" was not hard to spot.

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  11. This question is for Americans who now live in the UK and have felt a lack of friendship from Brits:

    Why do you think our experience, ie. very friendly and welcoming Brits, has been different from your?

    In spite of the invitations to move to their town and all the other friendly gestures (abundant), do you think that the Brits we know are being friendly because they can rest assured we'll actually leave and go back to the US after two weeks? ;)

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  12. Oh how, I have missed the banter! Mike, BTW, I've written a fantastic write-up of your book on Amazon ;) and Expatmum...will do the same with yours :)! Grovel, grovel, for being so unsociable lately. (And the write-ups are 100% genuine I am not being sarcastic....)

    Mike...just move up North and you'll see the difference! AND you've been to Haltwhistle already so enough said!!!!!

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  13. Ooh thanks petal. Reviews are key apparently. Glad to have you back.

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  14. HT: Just read the review. THANKS!!! So glad you liked the book. And glad to hear Haltwhistle is still a friendly little place.

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