Saturday, May 12, 2007

To the UK and Back

A fleeting trip to the UK and I'm back already, filled of course with guilt at the coursework I've not been doing, daughter I've not seen, etc.

I've mentioned before that I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book 'Watching the English' by Kate Fox. Whilst I'm still fairly hopeless at social interactions, I now understand myself a lot more and that does give you an element of control, if you want it.

One conversation I had on the plane with a fellow brit went like this. I sat down at the bar (yes, OK, it was Virgin Atlantic's superb Upper Class service - once you've had your first Deep Vein Thrombosis you won't want to fly any other way) next to two guys who were clearly colleagues and were talking openly about their company, a certain car manufacturer. After a while, the guy furthest from me returned to his seat leaving me sitting next to the other guy.

As you might expect (if you're British) a period of silence ensued. Running through obvious topic lists (we're on a plane - there is no weather) drew a blank. Talking about the motor industry would appear rude as it would be obvious I'd been listening to their conversation - although the fact that we were the only three passengers at the bar which only seats three people would seem to make it fairly obvious that I couldn't have avoided hearing but, even so, it took the intervention of a member of cabin crew to open the door to conversation.

The interaction that followed was indeed to the letter of the book. He explained that he worked for "A car company" despite the fact that I already knew which one from the earlier conversation and, 20 minutes later when turbulence ended the conversation, the name of said company had only just been revealed to me. After 20 minutes of conversation, I knew his employer and he knew I lived in Hangzhou and worked in IT. I'm pretty sure that was it. As the book says, it is actually fairly common to assume that exchanging names is far too personal for a first conversation like this. I certainly wasn't ready for it.

No wonder Americans think Brits are standoffish and Brits think Americans are (I can't narrow it down to a single adjective). I've been in the States and in many a social setting been faced with this sort of interraction:

Stranger: Hi, I'm Bob!
Me: Er, hello

I don't know who the hell Bob is, and I certainly don't want someone like that stalking me so my natural reaction is to recoil and adopt a defensive position.

No wonder I find it so hard to give presentations. Simply standing up in front of people is like giving away part of your soul.


NewsElephant said...

Even within the introverted, British IT community, you might be described as stand-offish.

I used to think that I was cold and heartless when American colleagues (who I'd only ever spoken to on the phone) would surprise me by beginning a conversation by asking how I was - to which the answer is always OK, no matter how ill you are or what terrible trauma has just befallen you.

However, now that people from London have also taken to enquiring after my well-being, I recognise the insincerity of it - because I can be fairly sure that THEY don't care if I live or die.

DB said...

You are cold and heartless. There is a large element of determining the colour naming convention for pots and other containers used for heating water in your comments.

Replying that you're OK is of course very British - my German teacher (who was a German) once warned the class never to make the mistake of asking Germans that simple question unless you wanted to hear about their recent trip to the doctors, the consistency of their stool and review their current medications. So it's not all bad being British...

basil said...

As Picasso would say, spheroids!

NewsElephant said...

Curiously, I've never thought of responding to the enquiry "How are you?" with the reply "cold and heartless"; but I shall consider it an option from now on...

DB said...

Basil - You are one of those people that seem to decry reserved British behaviour by taking it to the opposite extreme so I'm not surprised you object.

Nelly - try it. It might be a new beginning for you.

basil said...

only the objectional object!