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Watching the English

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The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
Kate Fox
Awkwardness Rules
As it is, our introductions and greetings tend to be uncomfortable, clumsy and inelegant. Among established friends, there is less awkwardness, although we are often still not quite sure what to do with our hands, or whether to hug or kiss. The French custom of a kiss on each cheek has become popular among the chattering classes and some other middle- and upper-middle-class groups, but is regarded as silly and pretentious by many other sections of society, particularly when it takes the form of the ‘air-kiss’. Women who use this variant (and it is only women; men do not air-kiss, unless they are very camp gays, and even then it is done ‘ironically’) are disparagingly referred to as ‘Mwah-Mwahs’. Even in the social circles where cheek-kissing is acceptable, one can still never be entirely sure whether one kiss or two is required, resulting in much awkward hesitation and bumping as the parties try to second-guess each other.
Handshakes are now the norm in business introductions – or rather, they are the norm when people in business are introduced to each other for the first time. Ironically, the first introduction, where a degree of formality is expected, is the easiest. (Note, though, that the English handshake is always somewhat awkward, very brief, performed ‘at arm’s length’, and without any of the spare-hand involvement – clasping, forearm patting, etc. – found in less inhibited cultures.)
At subsequent meetings, particularly as business contacts get to know each other better, a handshake greeting often starts to seem too formal, but cheek-kisses would be too informal (or too pretentious, depending on the social circle), and in any case not allowed between males, so we revert to the usual embarrassed confusion, with no-one being quite sure what to do. Hands are half-extended and then withdrawn or turned into a sort of vague wave; there may be awkward, hesitant moves towards a cheek-kiss or some other form of physical contact such as an arm-touch – as no contact at all feels a bit unfriendly – but these are also often aborted half-way. This is excruciatingly English: over-formality is embarrassing, but so is an inappropriate degree of informality (that problem with extremes again).
The No-name Rule
In purely social situations, the difficulties are even more acute. There is no universal prescription of handshakes on initial introduction – indeed, they may be regarded as too ‘businesslike’ – and the normal business practice of giving one’s name at this point is also regarded as inappropriate. You do not go up to someone at a party (or in any other social setting where conversation with strangers is permitted, such as a pub bar counter) and say ‘Hello, I’m John Smith,’ or even ‘Hello, I’m John.’ In fact, the only correct way to introduce yourself in such settings is not to introduce yourself at all, but to find some other way of initiating a conversation – such as a remark about the weather.
The ‘brash American’ approach: ‘Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,’ particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and beaming smile, makes the English wince and cringe. The American tourists and visitors I spoke to during my research had been both baffled and hurt by this reaction. ‘I just don’t get it,’ said one woman. ‘You say your name and they sort of wrinkle their noses, like you’ve told them something a bit too personal and embarrassing.’ ‘That’s right,’ her husband added. ‘And then they give you this tight little smile and say “Hello” – kind of pointedly not giving their name, to let you know you’ve made this big social booboo. What the hell is so private about a person’s name, for God’s sake?’
I ended up explaining, as kindly as I could, that the English do not want to know your name, or tell you theirs, until a much greater degree of intimacy has been established – like maybe when you marry their daughter. Rather than giving your name, I suggested, you should strike up a conversation by making a vaguely interrogative comment about the weather (or the party or pub or wherever you happen to be). This must not be done too loudly, and the tone should be light and informal, not earnest or intense. The object is to ‘drift’ casually into conversation, as though by accident. Even if the other person seems happy enough to chat, it is still customary to curb any urges to introduce yourself.
Eventually, there may be an opportunity to exchange names, providing this can be achieved in a casual, unforced manner, although it is always best to wait for the other person to take the initiative. Should you reach the end of a long, friendly evening without having introduced yourself, you may say, on parting, ‘Goodbye, nice to meet you, er, oh – I didn’t catch your name?’ as though you have only just noticed the omission. Your new acquaintance should then divulge his or her name, and you may now, at last, introduce yourself – but in an offhand way, as though it is not a matter of any importance: ‘I’m Bill, by the way.’
One perceptive Dutch tourist, after listening attentively to my explanation of this procedure, commented: ‘Oh, I see. It is like Alice Through the Looking Glass: you do everything the wrong way round.’ I had not thought of recommending Alice as a guide to English etiquette, but on reflection it seems like quite a good idea.

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