Oct 212009
I’m delighted to welcome a real ‘merican as my very first guest blogger. Sabrina has an ‘opposite’ view to mine–opposite in the sense that she now lives in Europe and puzzles over Brit-speak in much the same way as I puzzle over ‘merican. So without ado, here’s Sabrina’s take on reticent Brits:

This is information every American should read in a little manual while on their flight to England:

The English are complicated when it comes to striking up conversation. And we Americans have to be careful not to talk too much or for too long because it could bother someone. Americans love to ‘shoot the breeze’ with people, whether they are friends or strangers. This is probably an off-shoot from our pioneering days when many new people came to settle in the wilderness. Neighbors could be far away, so conversation was hard to come by. But Europe is different. People take more care to respect each other’s privacy. This is especially so in England.

The English find it embarrassing to end conversations. They think they might accidentally imply that they think their interlocutor is uninteresting or something. It seems that the English don’t have handy phrases like: “It’s been really nice talking to you”; or “Well, catch you later then” to convey that it is time to stop the conversation, and move onto to the next activity.

Studying at an English university, a fellow student and friend from Ghana told me that I was the only white person on campus who talked to him. He thought it was racism and I had to explain, “They don’t talk to each other!”

sabrinaSabrina Gerland Mallon was born in California and has lived in Germany for 25 years, where she is a Business English and intercultural trainer. She kindly allowed me to drag her away from finishing her PhD in intercultural communication to write this piece. Thanks Sabrina!
 Posted by at 12:42 pm

  19 Responses to “Reticent Brits”

  1. Nice blog Vicki – and what a star first guest. Hugs to both. Duncan

  2. Thank you so much, Duncan and great to see you here. Yep, I sure was lucky to ‘book’ her.

  3. She is so right Vicki

  4. I am surprised that we don’t know how to finish a conversation – are you sure you aren’t missing the signals?
    Although just walking away is one, we often use well……….or, actually……………..
    I think the idea is that the pause is YOUR cue to stop.
    There was a great book written – a long time ago -called “How to be an Alien” with advice on how to survive in Britain.
    It includes advice on conversation (the weather) with precise sentences to practice.
    It also offers this advice.

    “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles.”

    You can read it here.


  5. Thank you Chris, I will certainily check that site!

  6. Thanks for commenting Sheila and I agree!
    Lovely link Chris – thank you. I’d forgotten that book.
    And you’ve reminded me of something – Bulge theory. Bit long to describe in a comment – perhaps best for another post…

  7. […] Learning to speak ‘merican Vicki Hollett – author, teacher, presenter Skip to content HomeResearchResearch Q1 resultsThe original research questionWhat’s this site about?Who is Vicki Hollett?PublicationsBusiness Objectives (American English)Business Objectives (British English)Tech Talk (elementary)Tech Talk (pre-intermediate)Tech Talk (intermediate)Quick Work (pre-intermediate)Quick Work (intermediate)Meeting ObjectivesBusiness Opportunities (intermediate)Contact « Reticent Brits […]

  8. I, too, have found it hard to start up conversations with Brits. We Americans will talk about anything, anywhere. At a bar, you’re entering a toilet stall and someone else is coming out of one? You say “hi, how are ya!” My dear British colleague comes out of the restroom at work? We both look in opposite directions as if noone were around. I feel like a 14-year old around Brits, most of the time. Why is that?

  9. Dear Anne,
    We Brits would never speak to someone we met in the toilets ,well certainly adult Brits anyway. It is simply a matter of pretending that any noises we happen to make in the toilet cannot be heard by anyone who is nearby. A matter of keeping face if you like.
    I think a lot of this depends on where the Brits you meet come from.
    I an from the Midlands and I found that when we moved to a more SOuthern part of the UK actually it was Malvern. The only people who spoke were other people from away from the area. In NOrthern England people are quite hapopy to speak to you in the pub etc but well I never tried in the toilet so I don’t know. However I do remember when we were in the states my husband coming out of the Gents saying words to the effect that some crazy guy had tried to talk to him in there.
    Toilet functions are embarrasing and we prefer to not acknowledge we are involved in them.

    Have fun with the Brits.


  10. Anne and Sheila, you crease me up/make me ROFL.
    So the quantity of conversation in toilets/restrooms might vary on each side of the pond? Well I never! But, now you’ve mentioned it, I can see the logic. I’ll start listening and report back.
    Are there any men out there who have noticed differences like Sheila’s husband? I understand that there are unwritten rules like you mustn’t stand next to someone at a urinal unless the place is very busy and you have no alternative. But how would you feel about say, making eye contact, or saying ‘good evening’, or even striking up a conversation with a friend or a stranger?
    And Anne, I’m wondering whether we make you feel like you’re 14 years old again because that’s how we’re behaving. If we’re giving off vibes like we exist in a state of pubescent embarrassment or something – hyper-sensitive to the possible censure of others – perhaps we’ve stumbled on another positive/negative face issue here?
    Suppose we said, ‘Look, we don’t want to impose or intrude with plops, farts, flushes, or whatever, and we don’t want you to feel bad about them, but we have a solution. Let’s all pretend like we’re not here for the time being’. Does that make us sound more rational or more insane?
    Which reminds me of a colleague I worked with in Japan back in the 70s, at a time when teachers chorus drilled by stomping and punching out the stress. As she came in heavily on a downbeat, she inadvertently let rip with a fart that she claimed echoed off the classroom walls. The students never batted an eye lid and everyone ignored it. In Japan they do negative-face with style.

  11. I had the same thing happen in Finland. Many of us thought the Finns wouldn’t speak to us because we were foreigners and were shocked/relieved to realize they didn’t speak to each other either.

  12. Oh thank you for pointing out this connection, Holly. The longer silences when we’re teaching classes with say, Finnish, Japanese or Swiss-German learners can seem strange at first, but when we’re accustomed to them, there’s something deep and peaceful about them. Inspiration for another post on turntaking! Many thanks!

  13. You’ve really hit on something here, Sabrina. I actually think one of the reasons we don’t talk as much as others is that we struggle so much with trying to end conversations, that we avoid getting into them in the first place.

  14. […] here to see another of Sabrina’s takes on the […]

  15. […]  culture, politeness, pragmatics  Add comments Oct 222009   Many thanks to Sabrina and Chris for their lovely observations of how we say goodbye. They have reminded me of something curious. We […]

  16. […] Gerland on our penchant for dressing scampily in chilly weather and how we don't know how to say goodbye.  Posted by Vicki at 7:42 […]

  17. […] here to see another of Sabrina’s takes on the […]

  18. […] list). But the thing was, I could never find a way to cut the callers off. As Sabrina Gerland has commented elsewhere on this blog, it’s like British mothers fail to teach their kids how to say goodbye. But as you can see, […]

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