London Internship Program 2016

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Location and Navigation

Just another street in London.
Just another street in London.

In contradiction with Watching the English, I have found the streets here wonderfully easy to navigate. The street names sometimes blend into the wall, but they are never too difficult to find and the numbering of buildings is always present. I have noticed that people in the countryside are more likely to give names to their property, but this appears to be a similar phenomenon in the US. Some English apartments and homes have the name of the occupants next to the door bell. I find this rather peculiar, because we have come to understand the country as a nation who loves privacy with people who rarely introduces themselves by name. London does not have the city grids that many American cities have and conversely, American cities don’t have all the roundabouts (or circuses) that the English do. Despite the presence of the grid system in the US, I have sometimes found it more difficult to locate places. This is probably because English streets are short and change names upon an intersection, but American streets can be very long and the house numbers are much more hidden.

One thing that helps with navigating around London is that we either walk or talk public transportation everywhere. Since we’re travelling at a slower pace and need to know how we’re getting places, we are more aware of out surroundings. Yet in the US, if you’re driving by an area you are unfamiliar with, it is easy to drive past the place you are looking for. Furthermore, the roads and highways in the US have more lanes than the ones here, which also makes it more difficult to slow down and locate yourself.

Subtle Hints of Disapproval

Even the weather expresses stormy disapproval!
Even the weather expresses stormy disapproval!

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.

Funny or Not?

The Play that Goes Wrong
The Play that Goes Wrong

According to Watching the English, English humor tends to be focused on irony, self-depreciation and used in all situations, but it is different to English comedy. While I was a little dubious of the differences and the quirkiness of English humor, experiencing it first hand helped me understand what Kate Fox meant in her book.

I received my dose of English humor on the train from London to Lancaster. Having received my ticket electronically through a QR code on my phone, I had assumed that it would be scanned when the staff asked for my ticket. Yet when I showed the man the QR code, his reply was a muttered “I have a university degree, but I can’t read that.” Eventually, I figured out what he needed to see, but his response threw me for a loop. But then I recalled the section of Watching the English on humor and spent the next half hour of my trip analyzing his statement (nerdy, yes, I know). It really ticks all the boxes for ‘standard’ English humor – satirical, some what modest and self depreciating and also used in an everyday situation. Looking back, I wish I was more prepared to engage in conversation and respond to the witty statement.

English comedy was a more recent experience, when we went to see “The Play that Goes Wrong.” Fortunately, comedy translates better to foreigners. The characteristic of the play that stood out was that the comedy was based upon all the things that did not go according to plan and would have been an embarrassment to any other play. This is supposedly typical of English comedy, where it is all about embarrassment. Fox mentions that the English are harder to amuse, which results in a lot of comedy and some of that definitely came through in the play. There were very few times when a minute would go by without a comedic scene and the audience could observe both comedy on the main stage, but also where the “sound controller” (who is actually another actor) was sitting. Hopefully, I’ll be just as fluent in English humor as English comedy by the end of the trip.

An Office for Everyone

Just a few of the delicacies at Timber Yard.
Just a few of the delicacies at Timber Yard.

In today’s day and age, people always talk about work-life balance and the benefits of working remotely. While I have always been a little doubtful of the working from home concept, I was excited to be able to experience it first first-hand. My internship with a tech start-up consists of corresponding by Skype for three weeks and then working in office for the remaining time. Each week will be different task, meaning it will be an exciting fast-paced, learn on the go type internship.

This week consisted of looking at a combination of advertising opportunities and conferences happening in the tech industry. I thought that my largest challenge would be learning the tech industry and its terms, but it is the work environment that I am struggling with. I have always found it easy to concentrate on a task for long periods at a time, yet I really struggled with doing so in our flat. Hence, I took my work with me to Timber Yard, a café dedicated to providing a productive workspace and catering to lifestyle needs in London. The atmosphere is lovely, with background music and a rustic feel. What struck me the most was that everyone around me was also working on something – one man was studying another language, while another group was discussing business models. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one working!

While I enjoyed my morning at Timber Yard, I must say that I enjoy having an office to go into more. Even though I was surrounded by other people in deep concentration and am emailing my supervisor daily, it is difficult to get a feel for the job without an office. Work-life balance is definitely important, but for me, I do not think working remotely for long periods of time will be something I look for in my future career.

The Wonders of Public Transportation

As strange as this may sound, my first impression of any city always comes from my experiences on its public transportation system. Though this is my first time in London, the amazing infrastructure of public transportation makes me feel like I have returned home. In London, the Underground, the trains in and out of the country and the double decker buses provide much of the independence, freedom and mobility that I missed. My favorite aspect of public transportation is that using it really helps you get to know the city and its landmarks. After all, there are only stops in places that are convenient for everyone.

However, public transportation isn’t just a way to get around – it is also one of the best places to get a glimpse into the local patterns and life of a Londoner. Daily patterns and people watching can tell you a lot about the local culture. For example, even though the Underground can get very busy, people always get on and off in an orderly fashion. The level of organization and neatness is reflected in the relatively clean streets (yet there are few trash cans). Something that I find unique is that there are always people outside the Tube stop handing out free newspapers or magazines such as Time Out.

Having read Watching the English before arriving, I often find myself trying to reconcile what was said in the book with what I see. I definitely agree that the English are more prone to reading a book or the newspaper on the Tube. However, it appears that they wish to avoid awkward eye contact and conversation with others as much as people using public transportation in any other country. It is quite fascinating how people across the world use phones and earphones to deter others from talking with them.

So far, it has been a busy, but exciting week in London and I’m excited to see what the next week brings!

The wonderful views you can enjoy as you walk from one bus stop to another.