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.


Lisa:

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.

Toni:

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.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bottoms up!

This week we discuss drinking habits on either side of the Pond, and welcome Marsha, a Canadian who is living in London and pursuing her dream, to be a published writer.

Marsha

Midnight in Pub-Land... and All's Quiet

It's my first week in London. Straight from the Canadian hinterland (otherwise known as the country's capital, Ottawa), I saunter into a pub for my first real night out in the big city. My friend and I eagerly head for the bar. It's quarter to eleven, and the night is just beginning.

'I'll have a glass of house red,' I say, opting for the cheapest option on the menu. I've yet to start working, and my Canadian bank account is dwindling fast.

'Sorry, last call was fifteen minutes ago.' The bartender's bored with me already.

'What?' I look at my watch. Has time suddenly shifted forward by three hours? Surely no pub would close at 11!

The bartender smiles. 'Welcome to England.'

In the five years I've been in England, I've adapted to the harsh reality of such early closing times for pubs -- although I've yet to understand it. Even with the recent legislation enabling pubs to stay open later, most have opted to keep their opening hours the same. Do British people need their eight hours' sleep? Have they drunk so much that by eleven o'clock they're so blathered they need to head for home? It's a mystery to me.

Not that I want to drink into the early hours, but I like the option of hanging out past twelve. In Canada -- Montreal, in particular -- pubs and bars stay open until at least 2 a.m. People don't even start to make their way out until around 10. But there again is the difference. Here, people see pubs as a way to unwind after work; for a quick pint on the way home. Night-clubs are for serious partying, those nights when double vision is your constant companion and the toilet bowl your best friend. And there's not a heck of a lot in between the two. You're either home by 11, or you're a slave to the dance floor. For people like me, who fancy a glass (or two) of Chardonnay after midnight in an environment where I can actually hear what my friend is saying, it's a sorry scenario.

You hear a lot in the news about 'binge culture'; of people drinking so much, so quickly, they're destroying their health. I can't help but wonder if that's a legacy of early closing times. Yes, people are responsible for their own behaviour, but if they didn't feel eleven o'clock approaching so quickly, maybe they wouldn't feel the urge to drink so fast.

All I want is a pub that stays open past the magic hour of midnight. Is that too much to ask? In my part of London, apparently so.

Toni:

I can see a pub from my bedroom window, and it stays open till 2.30am at the weekends. I live not far from several bars and the thing that continues to (pleasantly) surprise me is the total lack of alcohol-induced violence. I am sometimes woken by drunken arrangements being made for the following day, or questionable renditions of “I Will Survive”, but never a fight. They even serve alcohol at baseball games for heaven’s sake! Yes, people will be ejected or refused service if they appear too inebriated, but Americans, I find, are fairly happy drunks.

What is it that reduces the worst form of Brit to a marauding Neanderthal after one too many? Why does the aim of a night out, for many young Brits, appear to be to get as knee-walking drunk as humanly possible. When the licensing hours were allowed to be extended, some thought that this might make alcohol less of a “forbidden fruit” in the UK, perhaps leading to more responsible drinking. It doesn’t look like this has happened at all.

What I have noticed in my 19 years in the US however, is the amount of drink/driving that goes on. I was a driver when they cracked down on this in England in the 80’s; several acquaintances received a year’s ban and a huge fine for being slightly over the limit. It taught everyone a lesson and most of my friends and relatives don’t touch a drop when they have the car now. When my husband and I leave the car at home on a night out in the US, our friends usually assume it’s because we are worried about parking. The fact that we can flag a taxi down quickly makes it very easy to stay on the right side of the law. In many newer cities and rural parts of the States, there is no real public transport system, but it doesn’t seem to occur to people that it’s probably not a good idea to have a few brewskies while driving.

Here, although all states now have a .08 blood alcohol limit, the fines and consequences for driving over the limit vary wildly and aren’t nearly punitive enough to act as a deterrent. In Alabama, you’ll get a 90 day ban for your first offence/offense and a year for your second; in Arkansas it’ll be 120 days followed by a 2 year ban, while in Kansas you get a piffling 30 day ban the first time, followed by a year ban next time round. The irony is that were you to hit someone while over the limit (or under the influence as they say here) you could quite easily be punished in the criminal justice system then hit with a civil suit by the other party. Not even that possibility seems to make people stop and think.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Steroids and Sterling / Drugs and Dollars

This week we discuss sports with a guest post from John at Codswallop and Fries. John is a British expat living in sunny Florida in the US. He is a freelance journalist and now writes about whatever pleases him. Welcome, John!

John

The boys of summer are again trundling around the bases and I have to admit that after 20 plus years in America I have grown to really enjoy baseball.

I, like most Brits, started off snubbing the sport as it reminded me of a girls’ game called rounders. Boys didn’t play rounders, which has similar rules to baseball but is played with a tennis ball, so what sort of men would play baseball? The answer is all sorts of men … and that for me is one of the entertaining aspects of the game.

Baseball players don’t have to be 7ft tall like basketball players, or 300lbs like gridiron players; baseball players come in all shapes and sizes and just need either great hand-eye coordination or an ability to throw a ball faster than 90mph to make a very good living.

Just the other night I watched a thrilling game where my local team, the Tampa Bay Rays, incredibly turned a 10-0 lead in to an 11-10 defeat. The Cleveland Indians scored seven runs in the last innings and the Cleveland crowd – the few hardy souls who remained – was in ecstasy.

It was great television. I, though, was taken by the last two or three pitchers Tampa Bay used to try and end the game. They just didn’t look like athletes at all. They each had their shirts loosely pulled out around the waist to try and disguise their paunches—a trick I have used for years myself.

Yet there they were, trying their best to hurl the ball at 90mph at an imaginary rectangle running from the batter’s knees to his waist and across the 17inch base in front of the catcher. Sadly on that occasion they didn’t do it very well but they’ll get plenty more chances, as the baseball season seems to last forever even though it is only March (spring training) to October.

For people who didn’t grow up loving baseball from childhood the sport has, in my time in America, done its best to deter us from becoming fans. First there were terrible labor relations, which led to a strike in 1994, and then there is the ongoing controversy over players taking steroids to boost their performance.

Probably the game’s best batter, Manny Ramirez, who is being paid $45 million for two years, was recently suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance. He said he took it accidentally.

Ummmm. Whatever. The bottom line is that drugs besmirch baseball and no one can really take batting and probably some pitching records seriously, which is a shame because statistics are a wonderful part of baseball. Fans love questions like, “Which left handed, lead-off hitter stole more bases in the first two weeks of May 2005 than he did the rest of that season?”

If that was a legitimate question there would be baseball fans who would know the answer. Personally I wouldn’t want to sit next to them at dinner but I’d be happy to share a beer with them at a ball game.


Mike:

Like a lot of Americans, I assumed a similarity between cricket and baseball because they both involve a ball, bat and running, but that's like saying water skiing is the same as high diving because they both involve water.

Cricket is a strange game, indeed, but so woven into the fabric of British life that I maintain, if you really want to feel what it's like to be British, you need to get the game somewhere on your radar. You don't necessarily need to become a full-fledged fan, but you have to some to some sort of terms with it.

While soccer is also undeniably British, that's an easy game to get into. The rules are relatively simple, there's lots of action and, even if you're not a fan, you will generally find yourself, caught up in the energy of the crowd, shouting encouragements to the home team and speculations about various acts of self-abuse or cross-breed intimacies to the opposition and/or the referees.

But cricket is a game shrouded in lore and ritual, that simultaneously encompasses unimaginable boredom coupled with a complexity that makes me long for the clarity of the offside rule. Although many countries play cricket, it is undeniably a British game, just like baseball is undeniably American. And best of all, the British are so woefully bad at it. Just recently, in a qualifying game for the Twenty20 World Cup, Holland--where cricket, far from being the national pastime, is ranked as the 25th most popular sport--beat the British by 4 wickets.

So I rest my case: an idiosyncratic, esoteric, arguably anachronistic sport that they invented, exported and are now secretly proud of being so bad at. That's about as British can you get.

Also, because it doesn't enjoy the same fan-base (read: advertising revenue) as soccer, baseball or American football, there isn't the same degree of backroom machinations, performance enchantment scandals and gob-smacking salaries, which in my view, keeps the game relatively pure.

Besides, if you're talking about cricket as part of the British Experience, it has very little to do with the game. As my boss, who is a cricket aficionado, explained it to me once, cricket is about picnics on the green on a sunny June afternoon, drinking Pimms, reading the The Telegraph and chatting with your friends while the game goes on pointlessly in the background.

I can't claim I was a baseball fan in the States, just as I can't claim to be a cricket fan now, either, but I can say I know as much about cricket as I do about baseball. And I am getting into cricket, in my own way. Our office has a team, and I am the designated spectator; it's my job to sit on the sidelines, drink beer and cheer if they manage to get a run.

And that's about as British as I can hope to come where cricket is concerned.


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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Showing Your Colo(u)rs

This week we discuss Patriotism.

Our guest poster is Sarah, or Brit Gal in the USA, a Brit who found herself living off the beaten track in Oklahoma, where she replaced dodging traffic with dodging tornados.


Mike

When I first arrived in Britain, I was astonished that there were no flags flying from the office buildings, private homes, automobiles, baby-buggies, desk caddies (don't laugh, I actually had one in The States) and wheelie-bins. It seemed strange and alien, as if I had landed in some no-man's land.

Like many American's, patriotism wasn't something I was taught, I was imbued with it at birth, as if part of the birthing process includes wrapping you in an American flag (this, in my gender's case, would be just before the circumcision - ouch!) Flags flew from almost every home, we stood and faced the flag every morning, with our hands over our hearts, and pledged our allegiance to it. On the 4th of July we gathered to watch the fireworks while "Proud to Be An American" blared in the background, bringing a tear to more than a few eyes. On Memorial Day we stood proud and watched our soldiers march and then went to the graveyard ceremonies to hear "Flanders Field" read by the local high school valedictorian.

I know this post is about patriotism and not the flag, but to me (and, I suspect, many of my countrymen) they are inexorably entwined. It is so difficult to make my British acquaintances understand how we Americans feel about our flag. It isn't a piece of cloth that represents our country, it IS our country, in the same mysterious way the wafer becomes the Body of Christ during the Sacrament.

The flag is bound up in a myriad of rules and reverence and your patriotism is judged on how well you respect it. This is so ingrained that when some friends and I happened to see two young men lowering a flag by pulling it quickly down the pole, rolling it up and tossing it into the back of their van, one of my friends (a young woman) was so horrified she raced over and gave them a stern lecture, to which they submitted with appropriate humility. You don't fuck with the flag.

I never remember any of this feeling forced, or overtly jingoistic; it just seemed a natural part of my make-up. And it remains so.

Living in a land with no flags and an understated, almost apologetic patriotism was terribly disconcerting. Thank God for the last night of The Proms, when they wave flags and sing "Rule, Britannia!" otherwise I'd think they had no concept of patriotism at all.

As an American, I did what Americans do; as soon as I moved into my flat, I put up a flagpole and hung out the Stars and Stripes. I didn't do it to be different or to be noticed (although it comes in handy when giving directions to our place), I did it because that's what American's do. And now that I'm also a British citizen, I split the year 50/50 between the US and UK flags.

After so long in the UK, however, I get a heart-warming feeling when I visit The States and see rows of flags fluttering in the breeze, but I am beginning to understand why an outsider might view it with just a touch of unease, as if they have wandered into a large and zealous cult.


Brit Gal Sarah:

Moving to the USA in 2005 made me realise how low key us Brits are when it comes to patriotism. I was positively shocked at the level of patriotic fervour shown by my new home country, but I also found it oddly inspiring. In fact I soon found myself being sucked into it, buying patriotic wall d├ęcor for our home and embracing the American flag wholeheartedly. Living here day to day, I think it’s almost impossible not to eventually feel pride, even as an immigrant, in the love of flag and country.

As a British child growing up through the 1960-70’s I remember a time when we were also similarly patriotic. But then sadly it became politically incorrect to show your patriotism with pride. I put this down largely to the government’s determination not to be seen as discriminating against the huge immigrant population now present.

Looking back I particularly remember the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the whole country was caught up in it, with street parties abound. It was a time of great celebration, flags were everywhere and we were still very much a pro-monarchy country. This was followed within a few years by the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and still patriotism was fashionable, plus we had a new fairytale Princess to make us proud.

But sometime in the late 1980’s Britain started down the slippery slide to a new outlook on patriotism and the rot set in.

For a start both the Scots and the Welsh wanted to be devolved, which you cannot blame them for, but it undoubtedly damaged the Union. All of a sudden there were no longer as many Union Jacks proudly displayed, as we all started reverting to our national flags.

Society continued to change and immigration levels were very high, as our generous welfare system attracted in many nationalities. They brought their own cultures into the country, to the point where now some areas have become mini versions of Poland, Turkey, Pakistan and India to name a few.

Now I am obviously not against immigration, but I do believe that if you want to move to another country, you should make an attempt to integrate and embrace your new homeland as I have. But in England this has not happened, if anything the British get more cynical about the immigrants every year and the immigrants become increasingly insular, forming their home from home communities instead.

Now it seems the only time the Brits get themselves truly worked up into a patriotic flag waving fervour, is when sport is involved. We tend to be a nation of under achievers on the sporting field, especially where football (soccer) our great passion is involved. But give us a big England match to watch and the streets will be empty, the St Georges flags will be everywhere and we will once again unite as a nation.

There is therefore hope that 2012 will be a stunning year for resurgence in patriotism, as the Olympics come to London. I fully expect flag sales to go through the roof and the nation to be galvanised into patriotic passion! But this is more down to our ‘tribal’ mentality of wanting to beat everyone else; it’s the Viking in us, I think, rather than pride in our country and flag.

My grandfather had a flagpole outside his home as I was growing up and he would occasionally raise the flag on it. But he came from another generation and had fought for his country and had immense pride in all it had achieved. But I cannot think of one other person I have ever known personally back home with their own flagpole. Here they are seen in every town, we have one in our yard and just like Mike, we also alternate the flags of our countries on it.

Without some heavyweight icon being brave enough to stick their head over the ‘PC’ parapet and make waves, I see no hope for a lasting patriotism revival in the UK.

As for me, I get all the patriotism I need now in the USA. I regularly stand with my hand over my heart to sing the Star Spangled Banner, or watch with pride as the flag flies behind a lone rider around an arena. And I look forward to a day soon when I will pledge my oath to this amazing country I now call home and become a citizen.


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