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American manners

August 29, 2012

I came across some ancient old quote, something about someone not liking American opinions and manners. Opinions are generally annoying however they’re expressed, wherever by whomever, so long as they conflict with your own. I always get on pretty well with Americans, because we at some point I get to say that I hope the Superbowl will one day be called the Hyperbole, an apt name for it.

But here in BLIGHTY, we are so very polite, are we not?

I said that in my head with a strong, robust WWII RAF pilot voice, accompanied by much quivering of jowls. Actually, my jowls really did quiver considerably, but I’m in private so it doesn’t matter. I’m in the silent section of the library. Who goes there? Except the weird guy who makes a noise like and extremely deliberate, loud, wet raspberry every time he blows his nose. And he can’t say a God damn thing. Actually, I don’t know that he is blowing is nose. A part of me sincerely hopes so. A part of me thinks that, if so, he should be dead by now.

He’s hardly what I would call polite. And neither am I, because whenever I hear him I want to kill him. I don’t say a word; just sit there with ear plugs in, getting angrier and angrier until I have to leave. I believe any idea we have that Americans speak their mind more than Brits is a partial myth; in my experience, those living in populous cities the world over cannot afford to risk rubbing people up the wrong way, so tend to keep schtum. Lets face it, if you can make it through any subway anywhere in the world during rush hour without being knocked into, you’ve broken a world record. There’s just no point making a fuss.

I have seen some kerfuffle, though. I was in Kingston once, which is a small part of greater London, and some man (apparently) tripped up some girl by accident. She followed him down the street, slapping him and calling him an arsehole. It couldn’t have hurt for that long. Her palms were probably the most painful part of her, after all that slapping. I was glad to see the man take his slapping with relatively good grace, only calling her a cunt one time.

If you do have this idea in your head of someone yelling (Brooklyn / Queens accent a prerequisite, here) “Hey! Watch it!” then I think that is a perfectly acceptable thing to say to someone who has, say, knocked you flat on your face. It’s not really politer to do it our way, and say to the person responsible: “Oh, I’m so dreadfully sorry!” only to turn to your friend and, in a carrying whisper, cry: “Some people are just so rude!” That’s passive aggression. Which incites more comeback aggression than aggressive aggression.

Also, Americans are nice. I’ve met two world-weary but pleasant Californians, one very enthusiastic Californian, one confused-but-good-natured New Yorker and two loud but very friendly New Jersey…ans. Or perhaps I am lazily stereotyping. I’m not as bad as people older than me, though. My dad was married once before he met my mum, to an American, who I’m aware had some affiliation with Gas City. Which is a wonderful name for a place. It’s like, they’re not even under any pretence about it.

The way he talks about Americans sometimes though, anyone would think he’d sort of read about them from a 1950s textbook. And if you’ve ever seen anything that came out of 1950s America, you’ll know it was hardly an accurate perception of the public mood. Something tells me that, post WWII, there weren’t that many people trotting around singing: “Good mornin’… Good mornin’… We’ve gabbed the whole night through!” I think Dad’s thing is that he’s a bit afraid he’s going to wake up one morning and everyone is going to talking about “cell phones” and marshmallow fluff. He’s old.

Mum’s worse. I don’t know what Dads’ excuse is, being well-travelled and educated, but hers is having spent her entire life in Middlesex with a father who hated everyone who wasn’t essentially him in another body. Forget Gas City, I don’t think she even knows about Indiana. She sees these films of young American men drinking milk straight from the carton and cries: “Filthy American habit!!” I have vetoed the idea of informing her that when I was a student in East Sussex, this was a common occurrence practised by all and sundry; male, female, American, British, Bulgarian. That last individual I’m thinking of also used to eat cold baked beans straight from the tin, a habit that screams more student than Bulgarian.

What makes me laugh is how the Americans I’ve stumbled across seem almost as insistent on their own stereotypes as anyone else. I got a bit stinking drunk one time and firmly informed a Californian that he was not, in fact, any more loud or brash simply for the fact. His eyes widened in shock. Mind you, things do sound oddly muted when you’ve been drinking steadily for four hours.

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