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Life in Britain

English Politeness and Manners

2013-09-27 08:43:29

This article belongs to Life in Britain column.

It's really true what people say about English politeness: it's everywhere. When squeezing past someone in a narrow aisle, people say 'sorry'. When getting off a bus, English passengers say 'thank you' rather than the driver. In Germany, people would never dream of doing these things after all, squeezing past others is sometimes inevitable, and the bus driver is merely doing his job. I used to think the same way, without questioning it, until I started travelling to the British Isles and came to appreciate some more polite ways of interacting with people.

People thank each other everywhere in England, all the time. When people buy something in a shop, customer and retail assistant in most cases thank each other two times or more. In Germany, it would be exceptional to hear more than one thank you each in such a conversation. British students thank their lecturers when leaving the room. English employers thank their employees for doing their jobs, as opposed to Germans, who would normally think that paying their workers money is already enough of a thanks.

Another thing I observed during my stay was the way English people rarely criticise others. Even when I was working and mistakes were pointed out to me, my employers emphasised several times than none of their explanations were intended as criticism. It has been my impression that by avoiding criticism, English people are making an effort to make others feel comfortable. This also showed in other ways: British men still open doors for women, and British men are more likely to treat women for a meal than German men. However, I do need to point out here that this applies to English men a bit more than it would to Scottish men! Yes, the latter are a bit tight-fisted.

Talking about differences between the English and the Scottish, I have found that Scottish people are a lot more like Germans where politeness is concerned. They tend to be more direct, and Scottish men especially are known for sometimes being very grumpy. Scots dialect even has a special word for this: 'crabbit'. Those crabbit Scottish men can be a wee bit intense, but at least no one can blame them for pretending to be polite when they don't feel like it.

This brings me back to English people, and the other side of their politeness coin. One word that tends to spring to mind here is 'artificial'. As enjoyable as it is to interact with perpetually friendly people, it has often made me wonder what the English really think. In fact, this confused me throughout my stay in their country. As everyone seemed to like me, I found it hard to understand who was really my friend and who was just being polite. I also wonder whether this whole politeness thing is actually connected to the great English love for getting drunk: this might give them a legitimate excuse for being rude once in a while!

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