Misplaced Manners of the Most Polite

During a Texas hospital new employee orientation, human resources taught the most basic aspects of social interaction:

  1. When a person is within 10 feet of you, smile and make eye contact.
  2. When that person is within 5 feet of you, say “Hello” or another appropriate greeting such as “Good morning” or “How are you?”

As an American, let alone a Southerner, I couldn’t believe it was a policy that had a powerpoint slide to go with it. I wondered what the other options were.  Cower in the corner, look at your shoes, pretend to read a text?

Then I moved to England. The land where strangers pretend you don’t exist.  The cultural norm in England for interacting with passers-by is:

  1. When a person is within 50 feet of you, cross the road if possible.
  2. If it is not safe to do so, avoid eye contact.
  3. Do not interrupt people by greeting them.

The English make fun of themselves for this. Friends have told me that they feel nervous around people they haven’t met before, and  just acknowledging someone by saying “Hello” is out of their comfort zone. However, they all comment on the friendliness of an individual when the rule is broken. They love to be greeted, just not the risk it takes to initiate. Being the extrovert that I am, I always follow hospital policy.

Sometimes I feel as though I have a Sixth Sense: I see English people Honestly, the English’s first reaction is  suspicion. How’s my day? Who wants to know? Why are you asking?  This store associate definitely thought I was going to ask him out when I inquired about his weekend plans. That was awkward.  

Once people realise I’m not using a pick-up line or begging for drug money, conversation spills out like a can of shaken fizzy.  I love seeing people brighten, open-up, tell something funny, personal, or worrying that is going on in their lives. So many times I am convinced I have been the only person that day to ask.  I know very frequently, particularly when I first moved to the UK, I was devastated because I felt invisible. I miss the “Have a nice day” culture of Texas.

Simple pleasantries and inquiries break down barriers of racism, classism, and other ‘isms’ because you recognise the story behind the person- instead of just assuming information based on stereotypes.  The English stereotypes of people are like high school: everyone has a clique: the jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, band geeks, and so on. Except worse because the categories are very limiting and are largely based around class, which is very impermeable in England.

The American dream- the sense that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, climb the social ladder, become someone great, doesn’t seem to be taught to the youth or celebrated by their parents. There is a certain pride that accompanies each social class and leaving the group reminds me of breaking factions at the choosing ceremony in the movie Divergent, which you must see if you haven’t already.  divergent choosing ceremony A social worker told me that statistically speaking the majority of people living in social housing today were born there, will likely die there, and their grandchildren will probably follow suite. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property  Happiness?” I am only now fully appreciating that aspect of the American culture.

The inability of strangers to recognise the existence of each other’s presence on the high street, in my opinion, leads to a culture where people assume the world doesn’t care, they have no value, there is little accountability between members, and that individuals cannot contribute to a sense of community.

Lonely in a crowd

Here’s what I’m wondering: Why are there such distinct differences in the cultural norms of people passing each other on the street? Could the religious demographic of the two places account for the difference (largely agnostic England vs. Bible Belt Texas)? Is it political? Do the English define loving thy neighbour as leave thy neighbour be? Is “Good morning” the equivalent to a construction worker whistling at me from his construction site? (I’m flattered, but feel awkward and embarrassed).

I was so sad to hear Bernadette, a 75+ year old woman, say that this hasn’t always been the case. She says that as horrible as it sounds,  she almost wishes England would have another disaster or catastrophe.

“The English are wonderful during crises. People help each other out, neighbours notice each other, community spirit develops, but when things are stable, people are completely inattentive towards each other. It’s isolating and dehumanising.”

How tragic. How true. How am I going to change this?


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