Friday, 2 January 2009

A Very British Post (Part One)

Today, I came across an article that discussed the traits of British people, those items that are typically British and the various stereotypes and icons that foreigners consider to be quintessentially British. Intrigued by this, I decided to dedicate a couple of posts to this very subject. The first is about the people (of which I am a prime specimen).

On my foreign travels I have met many people who have fixed ideas about what it means to be British. Some people have the opinion that Britain is a bizarre place full of eccentrics; others think that we moan a lot; still more think that we are so reserved that the expression on our face never changes.

Here is a list of some of the traits of British people according to some foreigners:

Bad teeth: apparently there is a school of thought, possibly originating in America, that we have odd, misshapen, crooked, yellow teeth that stick out of our mouths like those of a tiger shark. I am aware that Mike Myers depicted Austin Powers to have dreadful teeth in his three hit movies but in reality our teeth aren’t that bad. From a personal point of view, I visit the dentist every six months for a thorough check up and usually come away without requiring any treatment. I have to admit that compared to our American counterparts, though, perhaps our teeth aren’t perfect. You seldom see a “Hollywood” smile in Britain, where people have a row of perfectly sized, even teeth that are so white you need sunglasses to look at them.

Obsession with the weather: I believe this to be true. Usually, the opening manoeuvre in a conversation is to talk about the weather. Why? Well my own personal opinion is that the weather in the British Isles is so changeable that you cannot guarantee what it will be like at any time during the day, even in the summer. This is one of the reasons I am so annoyed when I see a weather forecast in the morning. Carol Kirkwood will tell me, on BBC Breakfast news, that we should have a warm sunny day. So I leave the house without a coat or an umbrella and I can almost guarantee that I will be caught in a spontaneous, localised freak rain shower that drenches me from head to toe. And this is not just in Manchester either. Once I experienced all four seasons in one day. I went for a walk in May a few years ago and when I set off, the weather was beautiful. Within hours it was raining and then suddenly I was hit with a freak hailstorm. An hour later it was sunny again. This is typical of our weather is also the reason we talk about it all the time.

Obsession with the royal family: The royal family, for me, are merely figureheads and there are two key schools of thought as far as they are concerned. First there are those who love them and are utterly obsessed with them. Second, there are those who regard them as obsolete and want them to stand down. I am somewhere in between. Personally. I am not interested in anything that they say or do; to me they are just self-important celebrities who mean nothing. I wouldn’t care if the Queen’s head was removed from postage stamps for example. I never watch the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day because she is so divorced from reality that everything she says is irrelevant. Still, those that love them do so with gusto. As soon as there is a royal wedding the whole nation comes to a standstill and we all get out our flags and wave – well the royalists do anyway. I just go about my daily life as usual.

Politeness and being reserved: Foreign people see British people as both polite and reserved and to a certain extent this is true. As a nation we are not brash or pushy and we do like to say “please” and “thank you”. Where this comes from I don’t know. You can guarantee that if we have a grievance, we will generally address it politely and will not explode in a tsunami of arrogance and rage – there are exceptions of course. The only problem I see with the “reserved” tag is that we are perceived as being unfriendly, which is far from the truth. I feel that British people tend not to want to intrude and impose on other people’s lives. Personally I don’t care. I am reserved to a certain degree (unless I’ve had too much beer) and am a very friendly chap.

Stiff upper lip: In a similar way to being reserved, we are regarded as being devoid of emotion, i.e. we have the ability to maintain a “stiff upper lip” in the face of adversity. To be honest, I regard this as hogwash. Maybe in the past it was a desirable skill but in today’s times this “stiff upper lip” mentality is probably only encouraged in royalty and the military. That said, most British men will never admit to crying. I do, but only when caught out by a surprise ending in a film. I have been known to leave a cinema, pretending to “have something in my eyes”.

Queuing: I was surprised by this because people queue in other countries. We are perceived as a nation who will happily stand in a queue for hours and despise people who attempt to push in (like Germans for example). If you ever see a queue abroad and notice British people in that queue, just for a laugh try to push in. You will certainly hear these people moan and very politely direct you to the rear of the queue. However, if you approach politely and ask to push in, you may be lucky. From a personal point of view, I despise queuing and will endeavour to do my very best to push in – or simply avoid them.

Humour, irony and self-deprecation: We love to laugh at ourselves and put ourselves down and we are very good at it. In my opinion, we are the funniest people in the world, so funny in fact that a lot of foreigners just don’t get it. Take Monty Python for example. There are British people who do not like Monty Python, but the majority of us do – and we understand why it is so funny. On my first trip to America, we were staying with a family in New Jersey. As soon as I walked through the door, I was cornered by the head of the family who said: “Before we eat I want to know two things. First, why is Monty Python funny? Second, what the hell is cricket?” I struggled to answer both questions but the most difficult was why Monty Python was funny. To me it just is. Take the “Argument Clinic” sketch for example:

Now I find this hilarious. Do you? If you do, then you “get it”. And what about irony? For example, there is a feeling in Britain that Americans just don’t understand it. I came across this on the web recently:

SAN FRANCISCO MAN BECOMES FIRST AMERICAN TO GRASP SIGNIFICANCE OF IRONY - Jay Fullmer, 38, yesterday became the first American to get to grips with the concept of irony. "It was weird," Fullmer said, "I was in London and, like, talking to this guy and it was raining and he pulled a face and said, "great weather, eh?" and I thought "wait a minute, no way is it great weather." Fullmer then realised that the other man's 'mistake' was in fact deliberate.

Fullmer, who is 39 next month and married with two children, aged 8 and 3, plans to use irony himself in future. "I'm like using it all the time," he said. "Last weekend I was grilling steaks and I burned them to sh*t and I said, 'Hey, great weather!'"

Here are some examples of British humour from some of my favourite shows:

I’m sure you will agree – very funny.

Finally, I would just like to ask any non-British people reading this post what they think are the traits of British people (be nice, please).

I will return with a post about British food.


slightlydrunk said...

Great post! I lived over in London last year (I am from Canada) and have to agree with some of the items on your list.

I look forward to reading your post on British food as I am still confused by some of these "delicacies" - blood pudding, indeed!


Plastic Mancunian said...

Thanks SD,

"Blood pudding" or "Black pudding" is indeed an acquired taste




Anonymous said...

2009 greetings, PM.

My goodness, I'm now wondering about my father's nationality as he is preoccupied with the weather, although unusually so. And there sure isn't anything wrong with being polite---I wish there were more of it over here. The last thing we need is more "ugly" Americans.

I loved the videos (and even "got" them!) but I must say that my favorite was the Benny Hill Show. It aired here in the 70s and I haven't seen it since. He was so funny! I believe he died some years back?

Pia K said...

Oh we Swedes often get your British humour - kindred spirits and all that:) - although, in parts, admittedly I don't get everything about Monthy Pyton, but "Little Britain", oh my that's one of the best things on TV ever! And Pet Shop Boys and Bryan Ferry and Julia Fordham and... I mean, the best music comes from the UK, as do darn good quality TV series and movies. And (cream) tea! And a plethora of decent vegetarian alternatives at pubs and other restaurants, and B&B, picturesque villages and castles and British Shorthairs and Tesco and Boots and... I'm sure there are less endearing "national traits" to be find also, but at the moment I'm thinking good thoughts only.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Holly,

Yes, Benny Hill did die some years ago. His show was a more light hearted form of humour, and very funny. It was popular the world over.

I knew you would "get it"; I've met several Americans who love Monty Python etc.

Among the American shows I love are "Frasier", "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the American version of "The Office".

So I get some American humour too.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Pia,

Yes - We have a lot in common with Sweden. I must come and visit your country one day.

I'm planning a couple more posts about British stuff in the next week or so.

And "Little Britain" is a modern classic.




Anonymous said...

Speaking of The Office. I refuse to watch the American version and I am American. I have never seen it and I don't intend to. I thought the original Office was so funny that I can't bring myself to watch the American one now. I tried to get people to watch the original a number of year ago and no one found it as funny as I did. They had a hard time with it. Then they started the American The Office and suddenly everyone is bananas over it.

The teeth are something that probably sticks out in my mind for some reason. I think when someone from England is interviewed on American TV they try to pick the person that most fits the stereotypes people have. So the media probably promotes many of the items you listed.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Thanks for the comment HH.

I must admit that when the US has tried to make their version of a hit UK comedy show, and vice versa, they have been disappointing to say the least. I love our version of The Office and watched the US version with a lot of uncertainty. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I don't rate it as much as the UK version but it does stand out as a great comedy show. You should give it a chance. My particular favourite is the American version of Gareth Keenan (called Dwight Schrute I think).

I know what you mean about stereotypes. Whenever I've been to the States I've encountered people who say things like "I LOVE your English accent". But saying that, I don't actually have what you would call a "posh" English accent. My accent is somewhere between "Black Country" (which is the industrial north part of Birmingham and slightly Mancunian or "Northern" as Londoners like to call it, with a little bit of "Scouse" (Liverpool) thrown in for good measure. I sound nothing like Hugh grant, the Queen or your stereotypical Hollywood bad guy with an English accent.

English/British accents is a subject for another post I think.



Goddess said...

I have a lot of British friends and we joke about the stereotypes all the time! We talk about the weather a lot, too, come to think of it.....
Irony is a big one, as well as general understatement. My Manc pal also likes to use the local vernacular so I have to look things up while I'm talking to him.
Oh here's another one.....all Brits from any area hate Brits from any other area. :)

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Goddess. Thanks for the comment.

Actually you do have a point about brits from one area hating Brits from another area. We are quite tribal particularly when it comes to:

(a) the north/south divide (people from London versus everybody else)

(b) Yorkshire - they seem to hate everybody else

(c) Football (soccer) - people from cities like manchester are almost at each others throats over Manchester City versus manchester United.



Crazy Fitter said...

One English trait that seems to be common to all areas of the country is that we are generally not flag flyers. Until we emigrate that is then we take a truckload with us and invite the Queen for tea;)

Plastic Mancunian said...

You're absolutely spot on there CF.

I'll bet you own a pair of union jack shorts




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