Thursday, October 15, 2009

London Rule #1: Don't Smile at Strangers

After five years in London, I still miss the open, friendly nature of my fellow North Americans compared to the relatively more reserved Brits.This was brought home to me last night, over dinner and drinks with an old friend and her new man.

F is originally British, but her new beau is Canadian through and through. It was the first night I'd met him, and his forthright and friendly ways reminded me of many people I know back home. The easy interaction we had made me miss my fellow Maritimers (people from the Atlantic provinces in Canada), who are well known for their social ease.

At home you can go to a party, not knowing anyone, and have a great time. Everyone will mix together (usually in the kitchen) and although you might chat to twenty different people, no-one will ask what you do for a living or even broach the subject of careers or work. Instead they'll hand you a beer and introduce you to ten of their friends. You leave feeling like you have a whole new circle to hang out with. They promise to keep in touch, and they do.And that isn't limited to house parties. The same thing happens in a pub, on the street, at a hockey game, etc etc. People are keen to get to know you, will ask you questions, and conversation will just flow naturally (with or without alcohol). Strangers help each other out without hesitation, pushing cars out of snowbanks in -20 weather.

But in my experience, Brits tend to view openness and friendliness with suspicion and, in some cases, hostility. In my first year here, The Man and I often went for walks in Hyde Park, where I'd admire the dogs of the people passing by us and smile at the owners. It took awhile for me to clock on to the fact that my friendly smiles were not being returned. In fact, the owner would dart past us even faster. The Man finally had to tell me to stop smiling at strangers, because they didn't like it.

I resisted at first, thinking surely he had it wrong. Who could have a problem with a friendly smile? But once I was finishing sulking at his admonishment, I started to observe their reactions, and I had to admit he was right. Any attempts at conversation in public places were also rebuffed, and I started to adopt the poker-face seen so frequently on the Tube.And so, after a few years here, my transformation from friendly Canadian to (sort of) reserved Brit was complete. I don't talk to people in lifts. I don't smile at strangers. And I've become very well versed in the art of British small talk at parties (weather, weather, Gordon Brown, weather).

The change was made clear to me last years when I was taking the Tube home after a long day at work. A man about my age sat down beside me and asked, 'Wouldn't it be great if people could talk to each other on the Tube?' He came from Bognor Regis, a town on the sea, and wanted to bring some of the small-town spirit to the big city.

Exhausted and frazzled, I told him in no uncertain terms that I DID NOT think it would be great to chat on the Tube with strangers. The Tube is transitional zone between work and home, a place to recover from the day and gear up for the evening; to be alone with your thoughts or novel. I did not want unwelcome intrusions in the form of Joe Bloggs from Bognor Regis! Far from trying to be polite, I am partly proud and partly ashamed of my response.Britain -- or London, for I'm sure there are many friendly people in small towns -- has definitely exerted its influence, good or bad, on me!

4 comments:

AndrewM said...

It's not a Brit thing, it's a London thing.

For one thing, there aren't that many Brits in London any more.

Nancy J. Parra said...

When I visited London a couple of years ago, I was surprised by the lack of Brits...and I smiled at people and their dogs in Hyde Park. :) Must have stuck out like a sore thumb.

Iota said...

I think it is a London thing, mostly, as AndrewM says.

Pinto said...

I totally agree. I feel disgusted to stay in Greater London. I am not a Brit, I came from India a month ago and was all geared up to work with British. Such an Irony, my colleagues are either Indians, Asians, Polish or other Eastern Europeans. The greater London -- Hounslow, Wembley is filled with Indians, Asians, Eastern Europeans. These people have not integrated to the British society. They only talk and mingle with their people, some of them don't even know English. The Brits I met in Greater London are warm and friendly. I am looking to move out to a British town in a year's time. To conclude, the northern Americans who come here for holidays may have seen Eastern Europeans and assumed them to be British.