Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The English and I Speak the Same Language

By nature I’d say that I’m a cynical person. This is different from having a pessimistic outlook towards life because a healthy dose of cynicism allows me to approach the world critically with cautious humor in a non-threatening manner. It can be dangerous because this is oftentimes misinterpreted by others as negativity instead of the commentary it’s intended as. Either that or I drastically overestimate my ability for effective comic delivery which is entirely within the realm of possibility. For this reason, I feel right at home in Britain.

George Bernard Shaw stated that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”, a claim I agree with, but owing to our different world views rather than America’s strange linguistic mutation of a shared language.

Before arriving in the UK several of my American friends asked how I would cope with English humor, something most Americans don’t understand outside of Monty Python. Generally, the English have a dry, sarcastic, ironic and mostly self-deprecating approach to comedy, but our difference in humor is indicative of a much broader mentality rift between the cynicism of the UK and the positivity bias of the US. Put simply, the Yanks are Pollyannas while the Brits are Debbie-downers.

This phenomenon extends beyond the realm of comedy and permeates the British disposition towards life in general. These different approaches each have their own merits and pitfalls. An obvious and daily example of this is the difference in the way each country presents the news. In America I became accustomed to the dramatic musical openings that accompanied major breaking news stories and the subtle editorial styles imbedded in all the major news networks. Think the sensationalism of Fox News, any of the garbage produced by MSNBC, and more recently and disappointingly, CNN in trying to remain competitive in the era of “infotainment”. In Britain however, basic news reporting is much less spectacular and far less opinionated. American news reporting might be more entertaining, but the British leave the theatrics for the stage. Although Britain admittedly has its fair share of free, trashy tabloid papers in the morning with plenty of celebrity gossip and local interest stories, their television and legitimate newspaper reporting is superior, emphasizing a more global approach to information. I never did think I should derive a feeling of entertainment while watching a program about a natural disaster, violent conflict, or terrorist attack. For this reason I find news in the UK to be much more intelligible and amazingly, informative.

Another key difference in mentality is what I would call the “commonality seeking” tendency of Americans between one another, a warm and friendly approach to strangers which occurs especially on holiday or while traveling on business. You know the scenarios; the pleasant woman next to you on the plane asking where you’re from or where you’re headed, the elderly couple seated at the next table inquiring about your scallops. This is unique among Americans and not something that would be typical among the British, although it can occur rarely and there is some regional variation in this. Generally in Britain, for a stranger to initiate an interaction that involves sharing information about your meal, your purpose for travel, or your destination could oftentimes be misinterpreted as rude, if not outright strange. This is especially true in a city as large and fast-paced as London, so it is even more noticeable here. This isn’t meant to imply that the British are unfriendly people or that Americans are always friendly, but rather that the British simply have an added “barrier to entry” in their interactions with strangers that Americans do not. Because the British have regular contact with Americans, especially in London, they have become accustomed to this (borrowing a term from an English acquaintance) “typical American fashion” and accept it when they do encounter it. However, I would still hesitate to ask the table of English people next to me how the stew is that evening or ask the guy at the pub which team he is rooting for. Again, it’s not that they are unfriendly people; it’s just a different approach. Perhaps if you continue to see the same person at your local pub frequently, the layers can be stripped away and conversation may ensue, but do not force it.

There are plenty more examples I could write about which highlight the fundamental differences between a Yank and a Brit, many of which are better suited for future posts, but I will end on this note. I haven’t had to change my approach too drastically since arriving in the UK. I do speak more quietly than I used to in order to avoid bringing myself unnecessary attention and I do naturally form a queue even in circumstances when it isn’t required, but I haven’t had to alter my dry, if sometimes dark sense of humour. In Britain, finally, I have the liberty to point out life’s absurdities, complain about the mundane, act exaggeratedly melancholy, and make fun of myself without being told to “cheer up” or that “it isn’t that bad”. Of course “it isn’t that bad” and strangely, I am quite “cheerful”, but cynicism sure is funny, at least to me and the Brits!


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