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?