Given the general aura of discontent and dissent now pervading our political climate, I thought the first blog post of the new year should be something positive, a paean to our possibilities, rather than a condemnation of our rather obvious flaws. (And for those you who think I’m showing off, I had to look up the spelling of “paean.”)
So I am going to write about the British.
On a recent trip to Great Britain (or the United Kingdom, as it is now optimistically called), I came to the conclusion that in order to understand English culture, you need three key words or phrases. They are: “You all right?” “Sorry,” and “Sorted.”
As an American raised by unabashed anglophiles (our family holiday dinners were Downtown Abbey sans servants), I was drawn to the island that once spawned so many generations of conquerors, a world power in inverse proportion to its size, now reduced to a toothless pet tiger. Because whatever else the British have, they have charm. An adorable dog loving culture – those accents, meats pies, and oh, those hats. What other world monarch would appear at a state function wearing an inverted pink salad bowl on her head?
So I slipped on a pair of zippered boots, waited patiently while airport security X-rayed them for explosives, and boarded a plane for the land of raincoats, Wellies and sticky toffee pudding. On my last trip across “the pond” (as frequent fliers fondly refer to the Atlantic Ocean), I found the English infinitely strange – odd, eccentric, and fussy. They were an entirely foreign race – more remote than the Russians, say, or the Japanese.
But on this trip I sensed a deeper, more appealing aspect of our English cousins. Shortly after my arrival, I forayed to Sainsbury’s, that wonderland where you can buy butternut squash soup and batteries, salmon croquettes and shampoo, tikka masala and thumb tacks. I was taken aback by the greeting I received from a passing sales clerk, who looked at me kindly and inquired, “You all right?” Her concern alarmed me – was I looking peaked? Had jet lag left its mark – dark circles under the eyes, a tremor in my hands? Was one side of my face drooping, droplets of drool dangling from my lips? I muttered a reply and dashed to the bathroom – or toilet, as they vulgarly insist on calling it – to see what had prompted such a solicitous reaction. To my surprise, I looked quite normal – chipper even, the garish fluorescent lighting notwithstanding.
I eventually learned that “Are you all right?” is the English equivalent of “Hello.” The Brits deliver it with such earnestness that it took me a while to realize it was merely a routine, perfunctory greeting. In New York we say “How ya doin’?” – but in such an offhand way that only the most pathetic ponce would mistake it for actual concern over his wellbeing. But the Sainsbury’s lady seemed to really want to know how I was; her brown eyes glistened with sympathy.
I pondered over the correct response – “Doing well, thank you,” or “I’m all right, Jack – how about you?” or even “G’day, mate,” but that seemed more Hulk Hogan than Big Ben. I finally settled on the nondescript “Fine, thanks,” hoping it was appropriate. I trotted it out, searching for raised eyebrows; finding none, I concluded that it was.
It is the delivery of this greeting, more than the words themselves, that says so much about the English – the implication that it is meaningful, a sincere inquiry into your state of well being. It is a hint at the deeply communal, empathetic side of British culture. There were other signs. Everywhere I went I saw charity shops – what we call thrift stores – run by organizations like Cancer Research and Hospice International, as well as organizations familiar to us, like the Salvation Army and Oxfam. But in Britain there are so many of them – the little Surrey town where I stayed had nearly a dozen. British television has a series of ads about living with cancer – not promoting a product, but simply advocating compassion and care for people stricken by the disease. There is a culture of kindness and politeness that we can only scrape the surface of – not just people holding doors for each other, but unlikely strangers going out of their way to help.
This was brought home to me one day while walking the elderly dog I was looking after along a busy suburban street in Surrey. In spite of his advanced age, he suddenly lunged at a squirrel, slipping out of his collar. A boy of about eight was running by, trying to catch up with his father, who had just passed us. Seeing my panicked look, the boy grabbed the dog to prevent him from running into traffic, scooped up the collar and handed it to me before I could speak. As if that wasn’t enough, he proceeded to advise me about mending the collar – all as his father receded further into the distance. Stunned by his considerate behavior, I mumbled my thanks as he sprinted off to catch up with his oblivious parent. I tried in vain to imagine an American child behaving that way. It wasn’t just his helpfulness – it was that a boy of his age would see a stranger’s distress and react so quickly and unselfishly.
This deeply ingrained altruism leads us to the second word of British identity: “Sorry.”
The English apologize continuously and compulsively for everything. I was getting a loaf of bread at Tesco (another delightful temple of food fun), and a gentleman apologized for plucking a loaf out of the same basket – even though he didn’t inconvenience me in any way, or even so much as brush against my sleeve. A lady in line in front of me apologized for ordering a sandwich. I was never sure why – maybe she was afraid it would take too long. The British seem constitutionally fretful about taking up too much space; they are cosmically self-effacing. They seem to share an existential shame at the very fact of their existence, perhaps a vestige of guilt over the power they once wielded over other cultures.
But my favorite incident was when a traffic cop apologized for pulling me over. His entire statement was a masterpiece of English decency: “I’m sorry, Madame, but you cut me off twice.” I cut him off twice, but he was the one who apologized. I dare you to imagine a New York State trooper in his crisp greys, Ray Bans and Smoky the Bear hat apologizing for pulling you over. (I never did get a ticket – he bought my Clueless American Having Trouble with this Whole Left Side of the Road Business. I’m embarrassed to admit it was the truth.)
In another country, this compulsive apologizing might be irritating. But in England, it is adorable. (Note: I speak here only of the English. The Scots are exempt from this trait of incessant apologizing. They don’t apologize much, if at all, for anything.)
Which leads to the final key word of British life: “Sorted.”
In America, you might sort your sock drawer. Or possibly your spice shelf. (In a spasm of desperate procrastination, I once alphabetized my entire kitchen.) In the British Isles, however, everything and anything is a candidate for sorting. A broken leg? No worries. Go to the hospital –they’ll sort it. Political scandal, personal disaster, hurricane damage – all will be sorted. I actually heard a woman tell her husband that the doctors would “sort” his heart condition.
This could be seen as an expression of a devotion to order, but I think it’s something deeper. The notion of “sorting” a broken limb or an embarrassing personal scandal speaks to the famous Stiff Upper Lip, a way of downplaying catastrophe. After all, how bad can something be if you can put it right by “sorting” it? It’s a nifty bit of semantics – asserting linguistic control over what might otherwise be extremely upsetting or terrifying.
Those, then, are the three phrases or words of Britain (“Are you all right” may be several words, but as pronounced, it’s only two syllables: “Yawright?”) To me they are windows into the essential decency, kindness and humility of a country that once ruled the world, the transformation of a culture that once believed the mere fact of being British conferred God’s blessing. Now they don’t seem so righteous, and that insecurity is appealing. As a citizen of a country only too sure of itself, whose latest president is a sexist sociopath wearing an orange chia pet on his head, I take comfort in our self-effacing English cousins. Maybe there’s hope for those of us on this side of the pond.