I’m tired of people raising their eyebrows at me.

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

In a recent post on Belgian Waffle, Mme Jaywalker mentioned reading Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. In the first 30 pages, this book has explained the difficult, mumbling, awkward moments that I have suffered in a country full of English people. Basically, I'm doing everything wrong.

Now, most of what I have gathered will seem obvious to you. It seems like I used to know these things, too. (Maybe I am getting dumber.)

Discuss the weather.
Even with the changeable weather in NZ, talking about the weather has to be the most boring topic on earth. And I have this conversation every day, at length, whenever I see anyone:

Her: It’s really cold, isn’t it?

Me: Yes. But at least it’s calm.

Her: The southerly is supposed to pick up again tonight.

Me: Oh, not again?

I assumed you would only talk about the weather with someone you don’t know very well. So I was puzzled when friends that I have known for years were talking about the weather.

Well, it seems that this weather-talk is about MORE than the weather. This conversation is actually an ice-breaker, through layers and layers of English reserve.

(I know this doesn't seem that earth-shattering. But there is a lot of weather-talk. A lot.)

And I have been making embarrassing mistakes with this basic social greeting, as in this example:

Her: We haven’t seen the sun for ages, have we?

Me: You know, I like this weather. As long as it’s calm, it’s actually quite nice.

Her: (raised eyebrow)

Agree with people.
You see, it doesn’t matter what people say about the weather. I am supposed to agree with them. It's about agreeing. I can say that I like the rain (as a matter of eccentric personal preference), as long as I make it sound like I’m agreeing. So I should have said, "Yes, it's been a long time since it's been fine, hasn't it?" And then gone on with the rest of my thought.

Here’s another example of me inserting my foot in my mouth:

Her: It’s really raining, isn’t it?

Me: Yes, it’s pouring down.

Her: I can give you a ride home?

Me: No, that’s OK. I’m dressed for the weather. I don’t mind the rain. I used to live in Chicago (where it was really cold and miserable).

Her: (raised eyebrow)

Apparently, it’s gauche to say that I used to live someplace bigger and colder with more miserable weather. It’s perceived as an attempt at one-upmanship.

Private matters are private.
The last thing I've learned is even more cringe-worthy. It seems it’s also a bit coarse to tell everyone about my divorce and my personal business. Private matters are for close friends and family only. A stiff upper lip and reserve are what the culture calls for. It may be OK to mention these personal details in a blog column, but I should never talk about them in person.

Oh, dear. There are another 300 pages of this book. What other faux pas have I been making?


Casey Freeland said...

Maybe a raised eyebrow is a sign of dubious respect? It might say that later in this book of yours. You just never know. From what you've said so far, I'd be in big trouble in English society. Good luck!


jason sidwell said...

every conversation i have ever had with my parents opens with an exchange about the weather. it took me until sometime in my twenties to see this as the "ice-breaker" (i never thought about the idea that it is the ice of ourselves we break with these tactics! how fabulous) that it is, like conversational stretching and calisthetics. the midwest of the us certainly shares english reserve, to a sometimes painful extent (and shares a miserable weather to comment upon, come to think of it). i like the thrust of this book because, naturally, need descends into habit, and we rarely consider the implications of these dances we dance with one another. becoming aware that these positions in conversation exist, and that expectations change from frame to frame about "how to play" those positions, is an awareness sorely lacking back in the homeland, mate:) maybe one's degree of refinement, wherever one ends up, is directly proportional to one's degree of engagement in these word and body language games? thanks for playfully opening this door for me today.

CiCi said...

Trying to fit and still be your own person takes work I guess. Good thing you found that book.

Suzy said...

There's an 89 year old man who lives in my building. Every time he sees me, and I mean EVERY TIME, he says "Are you taking your walks again?" (something I did 4 years ago) I reply that I'm not and then he says EVERY TIME, "Don't use the cane anymore?"

The cane was after my surgery, in 2008. I used it for a month. I haven't used it since.

Sometimes I just pretend I don't see him. I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE.

Happy Frog and I said...

You keep being you, don't change on other people's account, only if you want to. Personally though I love talking about the weather, can't get enough! I do break all the rules by talking about personal stuff with people who aren't mates, but I don't care! :-)

injaynesworld said...

At least there's a rule book to follow. That's pretty funny. I don't think I'd do well over there. I kind of like to make up my own rules.

Bon said...

i'm with Jason, above, in that every bloody conversation i have with my mother opens with a discussion of the weather. by her tone and how long the frigging weather report lasts, i can tell what kinda mood she's in. apparently she's breaking down the ice of her own reserve. :)

betty-NZ said...

I have lived in NZ for four years and I have decided that Americans are simply way too open for the stuffy English-descended ones. We have a saying in our house when things get weird, "Smile and nod" (usually sung to the tune of 'The Stars and Stripes Forever') It seems to have universal effects.

Please be sure to let us know what other wonderful gems you learn!

Elly said...

I actually prefer your honesty to the polite small talk. Surely raised eyebrows are just sign of surprise and delight at not having to endure the boring polite and silly? Perhaps its just me, then . . .

Juli said...

Unfortunately, the raised eyebrow indicates a transgression. Sometimes, if someone likes you, she might try to cover up for your error by qualifying it somehow. Otherwise, big awkward pause in conversation.

utunga said...

Seriously - screw that. Bloody kiwis seriously need an injection of attitude and if its gonna raise a few eyebrows so be it.

As a kiwi that lived in NYC for a few years (OK 5), it was such a huge, huge relief when the fog of 'conformity to unwritten' rules finally lifted, and finally, finally, I realised.. wow.. To heck with that. I can just say whatever the fuck comes into my head if I want. I can talk to strangers if I want. I can shout at people that are annoying as fuck, and and most of all I can just stop mentally internalising the opinions of everybody else the whole time. No! I wanna be free to be who I wanna be.

I admire your attempts to adjust to the local conditions but please, don't let them 'get to you' in this way. It might help you get along a little better but you'll become more stunted as a person.

That's one of the reasons Americans are much more known(and loved) for being outgoing and kinda 'honest' if you know what I mean? Kiwis are often not all that genuine (by comparison) even though they are usually more 'correct'. I say, its far better to be yourself and try to stay that way.

Now, I'll admit having been back in NZ for another few years (OK 4) its really starting to get to me. I'm becoming more and more internalized and I don't like it.

An example.. The other day the ***fucking** trains were canceled again and (even though it hadn't been in their service announcements) i was herded onto a bus. Hardly anyone on the bus, but as I climbed aboard I said out loud, pretty loud yes, Oh man I am so **fucking** sick of these fucking **buses**. So yes, I was cursing, and pissed off. but it was how I felt, and I didn't feel like being a shrinking violet right then. Some other guy on the bus - funnily enough, a young man, dressed in Baseball cap and 'street' clothes says 'we're all on the bus, man' (as in, why you making a fuss) to which i turned around and said again "I know we're all on the fucking bus!" Well I dunno not much was gained and I ended up feeling bad, but I still really, really miss the freedom of expressing how you feel about a thing, that I learnt during my time stateside.

utunga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kori said...

Too cute honey! I say be yourself and don't worry about those people! Thanks for visiting today and your sweet comments! Kori xoxo

Madame DeFarge said...

Stick with what you know, being yourself. Honesty is far more interesting to me.

Ann said...

I "like" this post. Sorry - was looking for the FB type button... ! Just popped in for the first time but I am with you on weather conversations. I have learnt that it's safe ground for conversation - anything else might be too personal... I think Australians (I'm Australian) are a little more relaxed about waffling on to strangers... er like I am now! Anyway, nice blog. Thanks for having me. Hope it's sunny and calm....

lavenderbongo said...

Great interesting post. As an English expat I find Kiwis are far more outgoing than me.
I cope by just smiling at everyone and being as friendly as possible. This probably means they think of me as that nutty grinning Englishwoman! Sometimes however I do revert to my grumpy English persona. I just want to drop my eldest at school in the morning without having to make polite conversation about the weather and go home and climb back into bed!

Ange said...

I am a blogger that follows mostly interior decor blogs but I am going to hit the follow button on your blog today. This post cracked me up (being a Kiwi expat and now able to laugh at our Kiwi quirks).
I think there are so many NZers living in Oz now that the weather quirk is starting to happen over here ...Gold Coast local: it's freezing today.
Me: I'm not finding it too cold.
GC local: raised eyebrow.
Thanks for the laughs:o)

Megan Rose said...

Hilarious! I'm a local and even I make these mistakes, ESPECIALLY the one about private business staying private. I spew forth about being a single mother who was dumped by her philandering husband on boxing day and people back away from me. And I thought we were making conversation!