Grasshopper, listen up. I’ve spent nearly a decade on these shores watching, learning, overhearing and studying the habits of enough Brits to pretty well successfully masquerade as an English person. I can now hold a vague conversation about the offside rule in football (usually illustrated with salt and pepper shakers), make a damn good cup of builders tea – so strong you can stand a teaspoon up in it, take my fish and chips with mushy peas and vinegar, and have a cupboard full of pint glasses nicked from the pub that both we and the cat use for water (despite perfectly nice tumblers the next row over – just FYI the beast has her own dedicated glass). Classy, I know.
Pinkie raising at Claridges dahling
It is getting to a point where I am mistaken for a tourist in my home of New Zealand (I suppose the camera hung around my neck and frequenting Hobbiton doesn’t help), have been asked to present my passport in a social event as proof of nationality (in lieu I offered by rugby loyalties which seemed to appease them) and even my family tease me mercilessly about my English accent.
Becoming an undercover agent wasn’t ever my plan as much as I wasn’t ever planning to stay in the UK longterm – but sometimes your life takes on a journey all of it’s own accord.
In several areas of the land of the stiff upper lip ‘Alright’ isn’t so much of a question to be answered, but a statement to be met with another ‘alright’ perhaps adding in mate if you like the person. A perky ‘hiya’ seems to be popping up with frequency especially among ladies but defying my induction I’ll still reserve hugs (or the nod) for my besties.
In all this time, the aspect I struggle most with is kissing strangers. Friends are greeted usually with two almost kisses, one on each cheek, some European friends roll with 3 and I’ve heard rumours of a Dutch tribe enthusiastically say hello with 4. A short bit of research indicates that a handshake is sufficient for meeting strangers, but unless it’s in a business setting that seems a little formal to me – on a night out in a club I won’t be sticking my hand out unless to jive a little… (which I definitely apologise for in advance). BUT what happens when they are strange friends – i.e. friends of friends. Do you wave awkwardly like the Queen?
Apologising like, a lot!
Use sorry a lot. If you get banged into, apologise. If you’d like something from a shop, start with ‘oh, sorry, may I please have…’ The English (quite rightly) are sticklers for manners, though their habit of often wearing shoes inside their homes does baffle me to this day.
A cuppa, a brew, an essential thread in the fabric of English society. From the gentle tinkling of fine bone china to office mugs with awkwardly funny slogans, tea is simply essential in all emotional/stressful/rainy/morning situations. If you don’t drink tea it’s not like Brits will immediately brand you a criminal, but they will give you a bit of confused side-eye. For the entirety of the time that they know you – and perhaps blame you for missing stationary…
Allegories and idioms are an essential tool in the expats survival kit. If you need to spend a penny (i.e. answer the call of nature – see what I did there?) in polite company never mention where you are going like a ninja assassin, perhaps allude to visiting the Ladies or the Gents, WC or if you know the person well and they are interested (I’m not sure why they would be) you can warn them you’re nipping to the Loo.
My English husband and I still argue over the names of all kinds of things, reaching a vague truce and agreeing to disagree about warrrrrhta (water), chissick (Chiswick), lollies (sweets), sarnies (sandwiches), crisps (potato chips) and brown sauce (aka a vinegary ketchup with faintly smoky BBQ notes) will all become mainstays in your vocabulary. I even had to learn to re-pronounce my own name after getting sick of “How do you spell that? Ohhhhhh EMMA!”
Try not to litter conversations with awesome, random or calling people legends – you’ll blow your cover in an instant. If you ever need conversational fillers pick a pronunciation of scone (Skhones and Skons – The Great Tea Controversy) and whether you cream then jam or jam then cream, or perhaps chat about the weather.
Big topic, big big topic around the office water cooler and perfect for awkward small talk. Moaning about it is usually quite a bonding experience and when we’ve had a run of sunny days someone will ultimately say that “it’s too nice”. I still haven’t managed to pick up the habit of carrying an umbrella every day, opting to rely on our Cat-o-meter (if her coat is damp it’s probably drizzling, if she’s inside asleep it’s probably raining, if she’s cold and wet it’s snowing, if her fur is warm it’s either sunny or she hasn’t moved from inside for an age and it’s raining). When we visited New Zealand and encountered rain, I knew that my British passport must be on the way as I found myself delighting in the drizzle and wrote a post of 15 rainy day ideas when you’re in a strange city.
Just leave these dialled at 40%. Sometimes I think this is a good thing, it seems to contain life’s little dramas but I also feel that sometimes it gets a little passive aggressive. Here’s looking at you tutters.
It’s an art and one I’ve have adopted with gusto (which is unfortunate when traveling abroad and tourist-itis affects all elbowing sundry). Standing in line in the order that you arrived, not letting people in without good reason (age and disability both excellent reasons, but heavy bags full of shoes isn’t one) and not making eye contact even if a giant pineapple comes walking down the street, which can happen more often that you’d think in London. If someone does break the unwritten code though, there isn’t to be any calling out, but a slight shake of the head and a touch of tutting.
This will be a slight hodge-podge. Older members of society use miles and feet, but kids use centimetres and metres. Baking is done by weight (not good old measuring cups – though *expat tip* these can be found and purchased via the internet). However, everyone knows what a pint is and I feel like it is an institution that will never disappear. Beer, milk, blood (when donating), ice cream – and even prawns sometimes.
*not in any way sponsored, but a good reminder of a community activity
This one I’m still working on. I tend to roll with black dresses and colourful, floaty scarves because
it’s easy to go from day to night they are my iconic ‘look’ but I’ve learned that if someone compliments you on your outfit, they subliminally want to know where you bought it. Even if they don’t, you tell them or go ‘oh, this old thing I have no idea’ because accept a compliment makes you seem a little gauche. It is however not unusual for ladies to pack a suitcase of bikinis when they travel… this may not be just a Brit-abroad trait though.
Going to Paris or Calais for lunch and bringing back fresh baguettes & wine is totes a legit day trip activity for us lot in the South of England, or catching the ferry over to the Netherlands. Whilst on the topic, I still can’t get enough of Brits spending time on the beach with a windbreak, eating local rock candy with words through it and wearing a thick coat overlooking the ocean? Totally normal.
If all else fails, Kiwis, you may still be mistaken for an Australian. Just be nice about it, kay?
P.s. I’m pretty certain I’ve managed to offend just about every one with this post – sorry! Fancy a cuppa around mine to make amends?