House Talk and Rules Broken

While reading what has to be my favorite chapter of Watching the English so far—“Home Rules,” I realized a few more of the Brits’ unspoken social codes I’ve violated while being here. I thought back to our dinner at Sara’s house at the end of our first week and grimaced as I read each word about “House-talk rules.” In America, especially in the South, while at a dinner party or other gathering, it’s customary to compliment your host or hostess on his home. In England, however, this is not the case. The English find it horribly impolite to be too precise when complimenting someone on his possessions or home. Instead, Brits prefer to stick to broader terms like “lovely,” or “quite nice,” when they wish to compliment each other and their things. While I can’t remember if I used something along the lines of the southern parting phrase, “thank you for having us; you have a beautiful home,” I do know I committed the even larger faux pas of enquiring about a specific possession.

Professor Oliver mentioned to a couple of us that Sara’s father was an art collector. She had a wonderful collection of art in her sitting room, and we were told that one of her pieces was a 14th century Italian oil painting. Eager to learn more, Hayley and I told Sara later on in the evening that we loved art and art history. Sara commented on her father and pointed out which one it was, but didn’t tell us anything about the painting! A bit disappointed, we left not understanding why she didn’t go into any detail on the piece. But now, we finally know why our conversation ended so quickly.

  • Julia,

    I get where you are coming from about complementing the home of your host. My family and I had a similar adjustment when we moved from North Carolina to upstate New York. My mother is a dyed in the wool southern lady who will always complement our hosts on their home and usually will discuss old furniture at length. Even in New York some folks found that a bit strange.

    I’m not sure we did get a great sample size to really test Fox’s assertion on the British. The only other private homes we actually visited were those of the Duke of Marlborough and the Marquess of Bath and those were not exactly normal homes. Fox does talk about how the British love to put a long of work into their homes to make them unique to themselves. She said a lot of people will engage in do-it-yourself activities to this end. I find it hard to understand why so many people would put such effort into their home decorations and then feel awkward when it attracts compliments from their guests. Must just be a British thing.

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