I hope to write the other two parts to my review of my two years in London: the good, and the bad. But I’m still “recovering” and I think it only fair to our English brothers and sisters that I save those two for when I can more properly assess my feelings.
But I can easily report on the Ugly. At least in one simple regard: the British use of our shared language.
There’s no need to nitpick over differences between our two variants, such as the difference between truck and lorry. Nobody really cares or suffers from it.
Even I found myself using the British term “buggy” instead of “stroller” after being there a few months. It just rolled off the tongue a bit easier, and if you know anything about Americans, we like efficiency.
Which is why, in cases of signage, I was routinely surprised, even shocked, to see what I could only consider a completely thoughtless approach to communication. So much so that I would stop and photograph them.
To me, a sign is the essential bare bones form of communication. Drawings on a cave wall, smoke signals, morse code, and signs in our modern-day life all require they absolute briefest notation available. Unlike a blog post, no one has time to hear excuses, exceptions, reasoning, or even to devour a few extra words.
There’s no question the British are polite. They certainly outwardly display politeness more than Americans do. How much of it is authentic is difficult to tell. Like their colleagues in Canada, you may not be able to tell they are insulting you, even as they smile and speak pleasantly. At least, not initially.
A colleague of mine (Billy – you know who you are!) was particularly adept at this skill. I would realize about halfway into a business discussion that he was, in his mind, mildly mocking me (perhaps deservedly, but that’s another discussion). It took months before I began to take the time after each of our short conversations for me to realize that I needed to analyze his statements from both sides of the pool cue. Then, I began to see that when he appeared to be agreeing with me, he was actually winning by holding his own position and not changing at all, yet making me feel politely admired for my own views.
This “tactic”, for lack of a better word, is well-described in British anthropologist Kate Fox’s excellent book Watching the English. I read portions of it while living there; it may have saved me from pulling all my hair out.
Some may find this post to be assaulting. To be fair, however, for two years, I had to endure front page assaults about everything American, mostly from The Guardian, who especially seem to relish picking on small towns in America and how “backwards” they were. And I actually prefer reading the Guardian in contrast to the tabloid-esque other “news”papers available in London.
I was never a “rah rah” cheerleader for all-things America, but it doesn’t take too many months of reading such rubbish that you start realizing some of the fundamental cultural differences that will forever be a separation between us and England.
I hold, however, that we more aligned than we are distinct, but as Scott Alexander explains so well in his 2014 essay I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, the very fact that England and the United States are so closely aligned on much of our worldview is the very reason we so quickly point at each other on many trite matters.
Such as I am doing here, Guardian.
Here below are some of the signs I photographed in my two years there. Let’s start with my favorite: