Thursday, January 07, 2010

British qualities

Yael pointed me in the direction of this article on differences between the British and Americans.
The opening line ("The first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns. ") reminded me of the kids I was teaching when I decided to leave for the US for a couple of years - in every class there was at least one kid who responded to my announcement with a comment along the lines of, "Ooh miss, you'll get mugged!"

The author of this article, Geoff Dyer, would clearly like to be American.
It turns out that the qualities that make us indubitably British — that is, the ones that we don’t share with or have not imported from America — are no longer conducive to Greatness. They actually add up to a kind of ostrich stoicism that, though it can be traced back to our finest hour (the blitz, the Battle of Britain), manifests itself in a peculiar compromise: a highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices (restaurants, trains), to proffer (and accept) apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement. We may not enjoy the way things are, but we endure them in a way that seems either quaint or quasi-Soviet to American visitors.
Sadly, it's too long since I spent any significant time in the UK to really be able to comment on this, either to agree with it or refute it! Of course, Geoff Dyer's audience for this article is primarily Americans as the article was written for the New York Times and that may have something to do with the slant of the article.


Beth said...

This article is suspiciously vague--it’s very odd that the author is comfortable making such sweeping statements about ALL Americans and ALL Brits. I agree with you that a slant in the article may have something to do with the publication, but the angle of this slant is pretty ridiculous.

I’m not sure what British "qualities" he’s talking about, because I don’t see anything "quaint" or "quasi-Soviet" in Londoners' behavior. But if the author is enduring poor quality and high prices, then I’m happy to share the discount UK travel websites I’ve found, and I have some restaurant recommendations for him.

nappy valley girl said...

I read this article too, and although I agreed with some of it (Americans are generally friendlier and demand better customer service) not all of it rings true. Americans do put up with a lot of rubbish as well - just look at all the queuing they have to do at the DMV! Plus many products made here seem cheap and shoddy - presumably the idea is that you just buy a new one when it breaks.
His experience in the gastro pub could just as well have happened here as in the UK - perhaps he has never lived here and only sees it as a tourist?

iwi said...

Yes, we muddle through, stiff upper lip and all that. I don't think we've been putting up with poor service in industries where there is genuine competition for many years though. Over-priced, and only the idiots with too much cash go there. Poor service, and we don't patronise them again. We know what good service is (we've learned from the Americans and the French - at each end of the scale - not that I enjoy making sweeping generalisations you understand!)

However in industries where there is no competition (although often privatised due to previous governments' dogma) we are forced to endure a privatised monopoly. I challenge anyone to explain quite what we are supposed to do about poor service on the railway? Not travel into the cities? Err, so that means no job.

NFAH said...

On reading this, I feel like someone has put into words the thing I have the hardest time describing to fellow Americans about what it's like to live in Britain. I tried just this week again, sort of mumbling about "stiff upper lip" and "willingness to put up with amazing inconvenience" and "frustration if an American dare point any of this out" and yet this just describes it perfectly and much more eloquently than my ramblings with examples. So thanks much for pointing this out, and I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one to have this opinion of the biggest difference between the cultures. Gross generalizations they may be, but stereotypes do exist for a reason! You only have to travel back and forth to see that an American restaurant meal takes half the time and costs half as much, and one is less likely to queue in a supermarket line that extends half-way to the back of the store (I do indeed refer to the local market as the "Soviet Sainsbury's") One can always find specific examples, but after living in the UK 3.5 years this is still the biggest shock when I get back to the US and realize I've actually gotten used to such inconveniences and only notice the relative ease and convenience of America when I'm back. And then I don't want to leave and go back to England!

Expat mum said...

I actually think the reverse is true - we Brits have the reputation for being reserved, but I'm constantly amazed about how tight-lipped Americans can be about how they REALY feel. Probably a mid-west thing but if you're at a party and the subject broaches politics or something equally personal, you can almost hear the spines stiffening as people desperately search for another topic. In the UK, you quite often find people yelling at each other about politics and then buying each other a pint in the next breath.

Rachel said...

I probably won't gain any fans with this comment and must disclose up front that I've only just moved here to the UK, but I'm still baffled by the lack of tumble (or other sort) of clothing dryers. While I've chosen a "greener" lifestyle for some time and haven't had one, this sort of movement towards being ecological is only a recent thing in the last 10-20 years. Meanwhile, homes in the US have had tumble dryers (especially used in the cold snowy weather) since the late 60s. I am not whinging about the lack of them here, but I'm simply interested in how/why the two countries developed differently in this little niche area. Solutions have been profferred that the UK is more eco-friendly, but as I mentioned before, that only rings true to me for the last few years. The "lack of house space" has been offered, but in the US, houses in the 60s and 70s were the same and the dryers into the 80s and so were often found in the garage or garden shed, etc. It was only in the 80s that new builds were being done with space for a "laundry room" and stackable washer/dryers are now all the rage to save space. I'm perplexed.

Ok -- so perhaps a strange tangent, but that's exactly what I thought when I read the source article to this post.

Almost American said...

Thanks for all the comments - I had a feeling this post would provoke some strong reactions!

NVG - our DMV has a decent queuing system where you take a ticket and then wait for your number to be called, but some older relatives just moved to PA and were appalled to find they had to stand in line for over 2 hours to exchange their licences for PA ones.

NFAH - "Soviet Sainsburys"? In that case the shelves would be mostly empty!

Expat Mum - Same here about people's tight-lippedness - I'd assumed it was a New England yankee/WASP thing.

Eating out is certainly more expensive in the UK, and I appreciate the cheaper meals out in the US, but 'faster' meals is not always what I want. We ate out last night and the service was slow by American standards and we quite enjoyed that!

Anonymous said...

whilst I am always very wary about making sweeping comparisons I think there are some clear differences about how good service is conceptualised between countries.

For instance taking Almost American's point about restaurants after 30 years living in the UK I have a different idea of what good service should be. Often when I am in America even in upscale restaurants I find the service intrusive and clearly intent on processing us through their system albeit in an efficient apparently friendly way. At one restaurant during my last visit they brought the bill without being asked. In the UK that would be regarded as one step short of throwing you out the door (is such a thing common in the US now?).

A more relaxed and convivial approach to eating is what I seek these days.

Peter Bond

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I'm not American or British, but are familiar with both cultures, have lived in the UK for nearly 7 years and have been to USA several times on holiday. As we are already talking about food let me express my view; Although the Americans seem to have food at a cheaper price when eating out, the proportions are (quite frankly) scary! (no wonder why there are so many obese people - sorry guys, but it is thrue) Most people I came across with that weren't (big) had the oposite body dysfunction and were very, very thin.. (And had some sort of eating disorder!) But then, it was L.A...
In the UK, what annoys me the most is not the service (perfectly good standards) nor the waiting time.. Is the lack of variety.. As an island, would expect more fresh fish on the menu (shame people aren't too keen on more of that), another thing is: Why so many take-aways and fast food? There's no need to embrace america's eating habits! But then, this is just my opinion.. Both cultures have their own very positive and some negative qualities :)

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