Despite the UK and US sharing a common language, communication can still be difficult. Over the past four weeks, I have found that one of my challenges in the UK is trying to discern when disapproval is being expressed.
Watching the English was published when cell phone, or as they call it, ‘mobile phone,’ ownership was still relatively new. But the etiquette rules observed then still stand today, especially the one of not talking loudly about personal affairs in public. (Keep in mind that privacy is highly valued in the UK.) While this is a universally accepted rule, the English reaction is very subtle. I was on the bus when a man boarded while speaking loudly on his mobile phone. He was visibly upset with the person he was talking with and kept half-yelling “I’m on the bus, we can talk later!” It took me a while to catch onto the annoyance of my fellow passengers. Some were giving him very slight side-glances with stern disapproval in their eyes. Other smiled indulgently at their friends, displaying the peculiar sense of English humor. Had I not been warned about the British tendency of not confronting uncomfortable situations, I would have thought no one cared about how loud the man was on his phone.
Another instance of English disapproval is in a translation guide we received in our internship packets. Supposedly, “quite good” actually means “a bit disappointing” and “very interesting” can be “that is clearly nonsense.” Since being informed of these hidden meanings, I have been carefully interpreting things my supervisor says, just to be sure I catch all the hints. However, it can be difficult at times and paranoia is definitely real if you are trying to find the secret meaning in conversations that probably don’t have one. All these indirect and subtle ways of expressing disapproval reflect the English tendency to avoid confrontation. Despite appreciating the respect and politeness of such customs, I feel that there are moments when a lot more can be accomplished in far less time if people are tactfully straightforward. Then again, I’m just an oblivious foreigner trying to blend in.