As I promised, here’s a near-final draft of a chapter I’ll be putting into the second edition of the book – I’d be very interested in feedback. I have no idea when the second edition of the book is coming out – my current thoughts are that it’ll be sometime around Christmas 2010, so there’s no enormous rush for the feedback. This was written in response to a request from a reader who wanted a new chapter entitled “What not to say or do when visiting the U.K.”.
Let’s not beat around the bush here — Americans have a reasonably poor reputation in the rest of the world. They’re broadly regarded as brash, loud, self-obsessed, ethnocentric and uncultured. Why is this? Well, the rest of the world is exposed to Americans in three ways:
- Television and films
- Foreign policy
Because of television, the rest of the world is under the impression that all Americans are fantastically wealthy, and are engaged in a polygamous relationship with a homosexual dwarf whom, they will discover that evening on The Jerry Springer Show, is actually their half brother. Because of films, the world thinks each American has an unusual super-power that he’s been unwilling to use because of an accident that happened in his childhood. Eventually, when the entire world is threatened, he will use this power and save humanity. Afterwards, he will fall in love and unexpectedly die.
Because of foreign policy, the world believes that Americans hate anyone with a political system different to their own, and intend to turn the rest of the world democratic or kill them all trying. For the average American, this is a particularly unfortunate state of affairs as he or she stands very little chance of influencing things. So it goes.
Tourism, however, is another kettle of fish. It’s through tourism that Americans can show the rest of the world that they’re not megalomaniac inbreds and are actually perfectly nice people. The way that Americans can do this is, by and large, by turning a blind eye to certain godforsaken acts of complete lunacy being perpetrated by the local population. Whilst I’ll try to keep this Britain-centric, the truth is that a lot of this advice applies to Europe as a whole and some of it to the rest of the world.
One thing Europeans always like guffawing snootily about is the fact that most Americans do not own a passport. What they don’t realise is that America is so gobsmackingly large that Americans can have seen a vast proportion of the geographic spectrum without leaving the boundaries of their own country. Most Brits only possess a passport so that they can go to Mediterranean islands, get drunk, try to have sex with other Brits, then spend most of the next day looking for bacon and eggs and a pub that serves Carlsberg. Try asking Brits how many of them have been outside Europe, and you’ll get the same sort of proportions as the number of Americans with passports. Still, though, there’s a general feeling in Europe that Americans aren’t familiar with cultures outside their own, so here are some handy cheat notes to help debunk that myth.
Of course, it’s true that most Americans are comparatively poorly-travelled with regard to exposure to other languages, and different accents. When conversing with people in the U.K., bear in mind that these people are having as much trouble understanding your weird accent as you are having with theirs.
When compared to Americans, Brits don’t do a lot of talking, and they tend to do it rather quietly. The most British of Brits simply sit in the corner grunting every so often. It’s also a general rule in the U.K. that one only really talks to one’s friends. Given this, it seems difficult to understand how a person goes about getting friends if they’re not allowed to talk to anyone, but rules are rules. Americans will normally chit-chat to one another when they are in some sort of shared limbo (in the queue at the supermarket; waiting for a store to open; et cetera). In the larger towns and cities, Brits do not do this. They will stand in stoic silence. Let’s say an alien spacecraft were to touch down in the car park at a local home improvement shop. A slimy green alien walks out towards the door of the shop, notices the “closed” sign, utters a strange disembodied sigh, throws a £10 voucher on the ground, and walks back to his spacecraft. The Brits who were standing waiting for the store to open would probably be mute. Perhaps if the alien was unusually tall, someone would mutter “he’s a big ’un” or something.
Europeans tend to believe that Americans are demanding little princesses, always wanting this that or the other some strange way and never being happy to just fit in with what everyone else is doing. This is, of course, because Europeans love to get really, really bad service. This pervades society at a very fundamental level. Sometimes it means standing in a restaurant’s entrance for forty minutes before being told there’s an hour-long wait for a table. Sometimes it means not being let onto the plane because the instructions said clearly to print out the confirmation number, and all you did was write it down. Sometimes it means that no, there is no possible way that this particular dish can be served without the lettuce. Call bullshit on this great tradition and you will end up being the problem, because none of these Brits would know what good service looked like if it came up and bit them on the bum. When the waitress absent-mindedly pours soup in your lap and then claims that it was because you were in her way, just nod and smile. Professional malpractice is just one of those things that happens in restaurants! Get on with your day. Standing up and appealing to the sensibilities of the other restaurant-goers is not going to work. The minute you get up and say “Oh, man, it’s all down my front!” the assembled masses are not going to think “Boy, what a clumsy waitress.” They are going to think “Here we go; another American whining about something.” Changing this system will take many hundreds of years of societal evolution. It is not something that you should even vaguely attempt while on vacation.
In addition to their expectation of appalling service, Brits simply adore waiting for things. There is nothing more exciting to a British person than walking into the supermarket the day before Christmas and discovering that only one checkout is operational and the person serving there has learning difficulties. When faced with a selection of different queues for the cash machine, Brits will inevitably join the longest one. Do not mess with this system either. If there’s a twenty minute wait at the pharmacist’s counter when there also appear to be three would-be pharmacists sitting back there making chains of paper clips, do not dare suggest that they open another counter. Just thank the Lord that there’s someone there at all. If there’s nobody there do not, whatever you do, drum your fingers on the counter. You’ll be that little American princess again. I know, it’s hard. Count to ten.
Many Americans have some British heritage. It’s tempting to try to engage Brits on this topic because, hey, you have something in common. They’ll want to chit-chat about their own heritage and perhaps you’ll find some sort of commonality. Right? Wrong. Brits just take for granted that they come from hundreds of generations of other Brits and they don’t give a flying fuck about their heritage. Most of them couldn’t tell you where their great grand-parents came from. The fact that your family are the McDonalds from Airdrie is going to be about as interesting to the average Brit as the fact that your ex-husband worked in Wal-Mart. In fact, the latter is probably much more interesting. Their eyes will light up as they ask “Hey, is it true they sell guns in Wal-Mart?”
If you wish to be a stealth-tourist, there are two items of clothing which you must not, under any circumstances, wear.
The first of these is traditional clothing from the place you’re visiting. A quick look around Glasgow will reveal few, if any, people in kilts. These items of clothing are to be taken home and worn on special occasions, not to be worn while browsing the fungal itch creams in Boots.
The second item of clothing you must never wear is white socks. I know. Everyone in America wears white socks. In the United Kingdom, only pikeys wear white socks. Take a look around a high street in the U.K. Observe the correlation between colour of socks and fear that the person may kill you.
Comparisons with American Things
Finally, Britain has a large number of tourist attractions. Like all tourist attractions everywhere, they all pride themselves in being the best/oldest/deepest/tallest of something. Because America is a very large country full of ambitious people, the superlatives claimed by British tourist attractions are, by and large, ball-bouncingly shit when compared with their American equivalents. The Brits secretly know this, but are very hurt if you mention it. Your vacation will generally fly by easier if you keep phrases such as “I think there’s one bigger than that in my yard” or “This is IT?” to yourself.
Armed with these handy tips, you should be able to avoid being labelled as the bad variant of American tourist. And, if you get fingered all the same, you can always pretend you’re Canadian.