Are the natives friendly? 19 Jun 2012
“You know how you tidy up the flat a bit when you know your mum is coming around? It’s the same for us, only ‘the flat’ is the whole of London, and ‘your mum’ is the rest of the world coming to visit”.
It’s a recent ad campaign on the tube. Since tidiness is not one of my core skills, I’m offering a short course in social skills for visitors.
1. The weather.
It is no coincidence that Kate Fox’s book about the hidden rules of behaviour, “Watching the English”, starts with a chapter on the weather.
She says it’s not actually about the weather, but is in fact a ritual to test out whether you know the social rules of politeness and reciprocity. The content of the remark is irrelevant, what’s important is to respond; ideally with mumbled agreement to show that you have no war-like intentions.
According to Fox, it’s a rhythmic thing, like call and response singing: “Cold, isn’t it?” “yes, isn’t it?”. Think of it as joining in to show respect, even if you don’t believe, in church: “Lord have mercy” – “Christ have mercy”.
This kind of explains a factoid that has always amused me: the first question English people will ask about your holiday is “what was the weather like?”. And it is completely true that the first question French people will ask is “was the food good?”.
Correct me if I’m wrong - I’ve been away so long that I don’t even know what the New Zealand equivalent is - but I’m guessing you might try either a DIY project, or the rugby.
Since all of my attempts at ‘do it myself’ could indeed be categorized as DIM, my attitude to rugby is similar, and I’ve already admitted I’m not a tidy Kiwi, this is a major ‘aha’ moment right here.
2. Home visits
In their native environment a New Zealander will invite you to their home as soon as look at you. Once there however they may well demonstrate how much you are accepted by ignoring you – you are their mate, they have decided, and showing curiosity would be rude since it might imply that you have to prove yourself further.
You will probably be given a tour of the entire house, and your host/ess will be more than happy to show off their latest DIY successes.
Being invited to a British home is much more formal, you would only ‘drop in’ on very close friends or relations, and generally after the age of about 30, the drawbridge goes up. If you stumble outside the public areas, into the host’s bedroom, or even open the door, you’ve got some serious apologising to do.
Be aware that any comment you make about the home will be translated, subconsciously, as referring to your host’s personality, social status or taste in general. Cosy means small. Brave is not good.
If you hear the words ‘Carthusian’, ‘Wykehamist’ or get asked which newspaper you ‘take’, then you are with posh people. One of the markers is that posh people don’t recognize the word posh, and will say ‘smart’ to identify other people like them.
The British do regard New Zealanders fondly. About the worst they would ever imply, gently, is that our level of gung-ho enthusiasm can be a little baffling and tiring.
Beware of the word ‘tiresome’ however. That is very strong criticism. And if one of your remarks is greeted with gentle coughs, you might as well get your coat and leave.
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