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Letter From America: Eight Essential Elements Of Englishness

Ronnie Bray compares the social behaviour of the English to that of the Americans.

Do also please read episodes of Ronnie's autobiography by clicking on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

Although Americans have more than a little difficulty recognising my Yorkshire accent as a genuine English accent, and consequently in tagging me as English, I have discovered a foolproof method of detecting English people however thinly they are scattered among a population of almost 300,000,000 Americans. To make this easy for our colonial cousins I have reduced it to Eight Essential Elements, any one of which indicates Englishness or, at least, more than a nodding acquaintance with English customs and culture.

The Eight Essential Elements of Englishness are:-

1 The word ‘Please’ is always included in any kind of request.

2 The phrase ‘Thank you’ is always heard after a request has been honoured

3 The person holds the door open for others when entering or leaving a building.

4 Willing compliance with reasonable requests.

5 Receiving opposite political views.

6 Courtly manners and compromise.

7 Habitual courtesy.

8 Hiding the faults of others.

Americans tend to say, “Hey, pass the gravy!” when at the dining table, or “Hey, buddy, will you get that for me?” An Englishperson would say in each case, “Charles, would you please hand me the gravy?” It is a matter of politeness.

Whereas Americans receive fulfilled favours as if it had not happened and quickly resume their normal business, the English always looks the compliant straight in the eye, smile, and offer a sincere “Thank you.” It is a matter of courtesy.

Americans who are asked to do something they feel either unpleasant or infra dignitatum will grimace and say, “What the … !” or, “Aw, gee! Must I,” or the increasingly popular “No way!” with or without the almost mandatory suffix, “Jose.” The English, in contrast, will accept the commission, whether it is expected or welcome or not, with a nod of assent and a demure “Thank you,” as if a great favour had been granted rather than sought. It is a matter of the soul.

The clumsiest and most thoughtful expression of Americanness is simply letting the door go when entering or exiting a building or room with no thought that someone might be following who would benefit from having the door held open. They just let the doors swing shut after them. This can result in broken noses, massive orthodontist’s bills, and crushed fingers of little children who try to stop the doors closing shut.

The English, or those exposed and nurtured in English culture from a young age, will turn as they pass through the doorway to ascertain whether they need to remain as doorkeeper to allow the safe passage of others. They do this for strangers and foreigners just as readily as they do for their own kith and kin. It is a matter of profound civility.

Whereas an English person will receive a political view to which they do not personally subscribe with an air of attentiveness, and a polite “I see” at the close of the discourse, an American will interrupt the speakers flow of thought and announce, “that’s the biggest load of hogwash I have ever heard!” It is a matter of humanity.

The English are used to bi-partisan and tri-partisan politics, and rub along quite nicely with them for their obvious benefits and proven track record over more than a thousand years, Americans cannot tolerate any political philosophy that runs counter to their own, and will demand that the speaker either “Sit down and shut up or leave the country,” or do all three. It is a matter of educated tolerance.

There is much that is good in America, but it is the fine tuning of courtly manners that establishes the dividing line between a rugged boorishness and a civilised population. If an English person has cause to complain about another, they will convene a meeting and express their dissonant views, and in the mildest of ways reach a modus vivendi - a compromise that allows them to get along - that is opprobrious to neither. Americans, however, tend to reach for a shotgun to settle neighbourly differences. It is a matter of being cool, calm, and collected, all qualities that serve a body well in interpersonal crises.

Americans in certain parts – particularly the West and South - tend to be open and friendly, whereas the good neighbourliness of the English is legendary in the North and more guarded elsewhere, but no English person who is not certifiably insane will speak to anyone in the same brusque and ill-mannered way that native New Yorkers do. It is a matter of human morality.

The final characteristic of the English is that of hiding faults in others rather than, as the Americans do, expose them with obvious insouciance to everyone who happens to be passing by, whereas no English person would ever do such a thing.

Yes, I know I am an Englishman, but do not forget that I have lived in America for almost six years and that culture is contagious!

Copyright © 2006 Ronnie Bray

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