Someone intending to visit the UK for the first time asked me for some tips on British etiquette. This is what I came up with.
Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet once wrote A Man’s a Man for a’ That. My advice to you therefore is – be yourself and you will be fine. However, since you ask, I will jot down some thoughts accumulated over a quarter of a century on this island.
While here, lubricate your sentences with a copious dose of ‘thank you’s and ‘sorry’s’. It is your fault if you bump into someone. It is still your fault if someone bumps into you – say sorry promptly. The only exception is when you are involved in a motoring accident – when you never say sorry because if you do, the other party’s insurance company will take you to the cleaners.
If you plan to drive, forget about the horn. The horn is only blown to rebuke someone’s bad driving. It is equivalent to slapping someone or poking them in the eye. Forget all those ‘Horn OK Please’ signs on the back of those exasperating lorries. The horn is the appendix of British motoring. You can manage quite well without it. Avoid it like the plague except when you want to prevent an accident. Flashing your lights has the opposite meaning to what you are used to. So, don’t use your lights to transmit your intentions to go through, because the other vehicle will come charging at you and then even the loudest horn won’t save you.
If you see a street sign saying ‘No return within 2 hours’, it means you are not allowed to come back and park your car in the same spot within a 2 hour window. It does not mean you are prohibited from returning to your car for two hours. It is very cold here now, so this tip is quite timely for you. I used to read The Guardian cover to cover sitting on an icy park bench, until I figured this one out!
Talking of tips, you will see ‘No tipping’ signs in some remote areas. This has nothing to do with restaurants or taxis or porters. This is not about baksheesh. They are talking about fly-tipping which means don’t dump your old sofa and other unwanted stuff there just because no one is looking. Take them to a skip or better still show some Indian ingenuity and repair them.
If you pass through a door, keep it open for the next person. No harm in holding it open and waiting for someone to catch up. Don’t overdo it or else they will think you have lost it. It’s all about gauging the distance.
Don’t spit on the road. In fact don’t even spit in the sink (wash basin) of a public toilet. Definitely, don’t blow your nose or gargle into the sink. If you must clean out your mouth after a meal, use a toothbrush, but you could be mistaken for a hobo if you are unlucky.
Blowing your nose in to a tissue or handkerchief is acceptable, but not suctioning it back in or sniffling. Throw the tissue in a bin if you can find one. As a general rule, do not litter. Carry your rubbish with you until you find a litter bin. However, don’t deposit your litter in a wheelie bin on the kerb. Don’t ask me why, but people get very upset if you do. You may see litter abandoned around park benches. This is a new phenomenon and I am still trying to get my head round to how this habit has crept in.
You will see some youth in large cities vomiting and urinating on a Friday night after a few too many pints on a night out. Don’t emulate them. By all means, visit pubs while you are here. They are the temples of this country, but again there are pubs and there are pubs. Some you don’t want to be found dead in, others you may not come out alive from. Be guided by the locals.
If you visit an office or library to seek clarification on any point, do not ask the same question of several officials; be discreet if you must. Otherwise, they will be quite upset. Every rule is not interpreted according to one’s religious or political leaning. So, really there is no point in asking more than one person, the same question. You will receive the same answer, more or less. Do not over complicate any scenario. Present your case in logical steps and not in random sequence or in flashback mode. Keeping the nuances and subtleties for another day will go a long way in achieving your objective. Chaos is not dealt with efficiently here.
Do not stare and do not make unnecessary eye contact with people. If you do, either wish them good morning/afternoon/evening or just smile. Most people are friendly and will reciprocate. Elderly/middle aged people are the safest among strangers to ask for directions. If someone advises you to go North, don’t turn around and go South. Have the courtesy to at least go round the block, if you don’t believe them.
Never jump queues and never ask anyone if you can get into the front of a queue. Do not cling to the person ahead of you in a queue; maintaining such physical contact with strangers will mark you out as a perv. Do not show any affection to children other than your own or those known to you. Pat a strange child tenderly and you are a paedo, smack a feral uncontrollable monster and you will be had for assault on a minor.
Shake hands when introduced to people. You may see some people doing a cheek to cheek air kiss with those of the opposite sex – this is only for those who know each other. When you part company with someone don’t shake hands repeatedly and say ‘bye’ several times. Don’t linger, just go.
Do not turn up unannounced at anyone’s residence. If invited to someone’s house for a meal, always carry a bottle of wine and flowers if a woman is involved. Offer to remove your shoes when you enter their house. Your coat will normally be taken by your host, to be returned intact when you depart. This is also common practice in good restaurants; don’t leave wallets and phones in the coat. It is considered rude if you don’t buy a round of drinks at the bar. You need your wallet more than the impoverished waiter who stored your coat.
If you go to a shop, wait for your turn to be served. The shopkeeper and his customer will react as if you have insulted their mothers if you butt in. Shop keepers don’t multi task. If you cannot wait for your turn, say why you are butting in – try, “I am sorry to interrupt, but my train is about to leave and …”.
While on the train, do not ask to borrow newspapers or magazines from fellow passengers. Don’t even think about pulling out the centre page of the newspaper just because its owner may still be reading the front page. Do not join in random conversations just because you know the right answer. Minding one’s own business is up there with cleanliness in its proximity to God.
On the train you will not find palmists or astrologers with prescient parrot assistants, musicians with one string fiddles, illegal insurance agents masquerading as comb and pen salesmen, samosa sellers, pimps, hooch vendors, blind beggars with 20/20 vision, con women with fake pillow bellies requiring money from you for their imminent delivery, card sharks, magicians or quacks selling libido inducing gecko oil. Nothing! In fact your train journey will be uneventful, if you keep yourself to yourself. Don’t look for excitement on the train. One last thing: please don’t offer your lunch to fellow passengers.
Don’t talk over others in meetings; never point at people and refer to them as “he” or “she”, but always take their name. So, don’t say “As he said …”, but say, “as Mike/Mary said …”. If you don’t remember their name say “I am sorry, but I forget your name”. Even if the person is sitting next to you, the use of the third person pronoun is proscribed. Use of first name is not considered rude or over familiar behaviour. As a rule of thumb, except for the very first time, address people by their first name always.
Don’t get carried away when people say ‘Brilliant’, ‘Excellent’, “you are a star” and so on. This is a country of superlatives. However, beware of the “not” prefix; especially the lethal “not brilliant” phrase which basically means “rubbish” and not one grade below brilliant as I discovered to my consternation in my early days as a mature student in Sheffield University.
Beware of the general propensity to indulge in role playing. When someone says, “I wouldn’t do it if I were you”, don’t be perplexed. They just mean, “Don’t do it”. If you ask someone to look after your bag while you go shopping in the airport duty free and she says,’I would take it with me’, she is not telling you that she would run away with your bag the moment you turn your back, but only that in these terror filled days, one should never leave their bags in any one else’s care.
The Glaswegian accent adds a layer of complexity to everything else. When a woman gets into the lift with you and says “Sex please”, she simply wants to go to the sixth floor. She is not the local nympho looking for her daily fix. Similarly, on the plane when they talk about “sex emergency” exits, do not get overly excited and gawk at the doors. The strength of the Glaswegian accent has a strong negative correlation with the level of education of the person concerned.
So, until you pick up the accent, avoid the proletariat of Scotland or as the snobs in England call them, the ‘plebs’. Don’t even stray to places like Fraserborough in Aberdeenshire. They speak Doric there and transfer its particular inflexion into English, sorry Scottish. ‘Tha’ll dee’ they will tell you when they mean ‘That will do’. You have been warned. The Western Isles, Orkeny, Shetland are all exquisite places with scenery from another world, but it is recommended you get to grips with the rest of Scotland before you venture further. Beware of midges and the bad weather. If one doesn’t get you, the other will.
Do not participate in jokes about gays, lesbians, transgenders, transsexuals, Irish, Black and Ethnic minorities, the elderly or any minority group for that matter. As a rule, if you want to tell a joke to a group, work on the inclusivity principle which means the joke should not be at the expense of anyone in the group. Don’t discuss religion or politics with casual acquaintances. ‘I cannae help you’ if you then get in to trouble, as they say in Glasgow.
You will hear many new expressions, half of which you will not understand. Keeping a steady smile on your face can mask your incomprehension. Expressions such as “last but not the least”, “Tom, Dick and Harry”, and “Wild goose chase” are last century speak. Avoid them. Keep your ears open for some very creative and apt expressions. Deliberate distortion of the English grammar is not uncommon. Don’t be tempted to correct these. If someone says ‘I was stood/sat there’ just accept they mean ‘I was standing/sitting there’.
‘Prepone’ is not an English word and “thrice” does not mean three times unless you are Jane Austen. Note the perennial confusion between meantime and meanwhile. In the meantime is correct while in the meanwhile is wrong. Do not refer to your son as ‘my kid’ unless you want them to think you are talking about your pet goat. Watch out for the accents: Cockney, Geordie, Brummie, Yorkshire, Welsh, Scottish and a bewildering array of quaint accents enough to keep a phonologist employed for a lifetime and more. The closest to the Indian accent is the Welsh accent, in my opinion.
What else? Keep your sense of humour about you, always. All transgressions of common etiquette are forgiven if you know how to laugh, even when the joke is on you. Albert Camus said “human beings are the most absurd of God’s creations”. Etiquette is the creation of human beings.
This article was first published in the writer’s blog on blogspot: Gopi’s Blog.
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