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The Art

OF BEING BRITISH Kate Harrison enjoys a romantic weekend in Florence at a restored, aesthetic marvel of a hotel where it’s all part of the process to come, see and stay in bed BEING BRITISH is so much more than a nationality. It’s a mindset, a feeling, an outlook on life that it utterly unique. It’s a shared understanding of centuries of rules, codes and conventions that dictate our behviours in ways most of us don’t even realise anymore: dress codes, queues, small talk, hat-wearing, RSVP’s and Faux Pax, afternoon tea... the list is endless. The one trait that is always seen as the most inextricable to us Brits is our unequivocally high ranking of politeness, which is taken to almost pathological levels at times. We join a queue no matter what the circumstances, dating back to a time of rationing in the War; the great Blitz spirit that saw everyone ‘in it together’ forbid any sort of pushing to the front. Many decades later and this remains, leading to order wherever there is a group of people wanting the same thing. While in this queue, however you will also note the accepted use of personal space, something again that we have managed to maintain on all but public transport, where an aversion of eye contact and a pretence that you are not actually touching is crucial. Small talk is another politeness that has trickled into everyday life. ‘How are you?’ should only ever really be answered with ‘Fine thank you, and you?’. To answer ‘Great – life’s wonderful’ is arrogant, but to launch into a diatribe about your various ailments or financial troubles would be viewed in the same way as taking off your trousers and waving them in the air. The weather is a classically safe option and you can never underestimate the Englishman’s ability to be surprised by the month of the year (despite the continuity of this annual pattern) or the weather within it (again, which will often be absolutely as expected). As Samuel Johnson noted, ‘ It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather’. Quite. This compulsive politeness will also lead the British to apologise for almost anything, regardless of circumstance or fault. If someone spills his drink on you, you must immediately apologise for being in the way. He naturally will also apologise and you will both go away marginally vexed but happy that you escaped this awkward exchange without a ‘scene’ (oh how the true Brit hates an attention-drawing ‘scene’!). If something is worthy of a

T H E M AY FA I R M A G A Z I N E

scene, you must simply hold you head high, don the Stiff Upper Lip, and remove yourself from the situation. Ah the Stiff Upper Lip, where would the Empire be without it? This facial quirk is crucial for weathing any storm that may appear, and is often combined with dark gallows humour (also a British essential). Adversity, we are taught, from Grandfather’s, war films and anyone senior to us, should be met with stoicism and poise. Our politeness has led to conventions that would never survive overseas: we don’t discuss money, we wear hats at weddings and Ascot, we hate to complain officially, yet we love to moan (a British person knows this is a contradiction in terms yet manages to walk the line between the two with ease), and all achievements – be they personal, academic, sporting or professional must be shrugged off with a vague witticism exclaiming that you had virtually nothing to do with it the success. British humour, like our bulky three-pronged plugs, does not travel well. Satire, self-deprecation (but never self pity), and April Fool’s Day are all things unthinkable outside this fair isle. An American would never jokingly refer to themselves as an ‘Alcoholic’ and an Asian businessman would never wake up on a specific Spring morning and know that they can go around pulling ridiculous pranks that are totally acceptable, but only until 12pm on the dot. This would be madness. But among our own indigenous madness there is great method, or at least there once was. Happily, another charming British trait is our determination to hold on to tradition, however outdated or borderline absurd, so it seems that the vast array of conventions and contradictions that comprise the average Brit will never truly die out. And thank goodness for that.

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FEATURE

The Art

OF BEING BRITISH What does it mean to be British? ELLE BLAKEMAN investigates the contradictory codes and conventions that make up our collective identity BEING BRITISH is so much more than a nationality. It’s a mindset, a feeling, an outlook on life that it utterly unique. It’s a shared understanding of centuries of rules, codes and conventions that dictate our behviours in ways most of us don’t even realise anymore: dress codes, queues, small talk, hat-wearing, RSVP’s and Faux Pax, afternoon tea... the list is endless. The one trait that is always seen as the most inextricable to us Brits is our unequivocally high ranking of politeness, which is taken to almost pathological levels at times. We join a queue no matter what the circumstances, dating back to a time of rationing in the War; the great Blitz spirit that saw everyone ‘in it together’ forbid any sort of pushing to the front. Many decades later and this remains, leading to order wherever there is a group of people wanting the same thing. While in this queue, however you will also note the accepted use of personal space, something again that we have managed to maintain on all but public transport, where an aversion of eye contact and a pretence that you are not actually touching is crucial. Small talk is another politeness that has trickled into everyday life. ‘How are you?’ should only ever really be answered with ‘Fine thank you, and you?’. To answer ‘Great’ is arrogant, but to launch into a diatribe about your various ailments or financial troubles would be viewed in the same way as taking off your trousers and waving them in the air. The weather is a classically safe option and you can never underestimate the Englishman’s ability to be surprised by the month of the year (despite the continuity of this annual pattern) or the weather within it (again, which will often be absolutely as expected). As Samuel Johnson noted, ‘It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather’. Quite. This compulsive politeness will also lead the British to apologise for almost anything, regardless of circumstance or fault. If someone spills his drink on you, you must immediately apologise for being in the way. He naturally will also apologise and you will both go away marginally vexed but happy that you escaped this awkward exchange without a ‘scene’ (oh how the true Brit hates an attention-drawing ‘scene’!). If something is worthy of

T H E M AY FA I R M A G A Z I N E

a scene, you must simply hold you head high, don the Stiff Upper Lip, and remove yourself from the situation. Ah the Stiff Upper Lip, where would the Empire be without it? This facial quirk is crucial for weathering any storm that may appear, and is often combined with dark gallows humour (also a British essential). Adversity, we are taught, from Grandfather’s, war films and anyone senior to us, should be met with stoicism and poise. Our politeness has led to conventions that would never survive overseas: we don’t discuss money, we wear hats at weddings and Ascot, we hate to complain officially, yet we love to moan (a British person knows this is a contradiction in terms yet manages to walk the line between the two with ease), and all achievements – be they personal, academic, sporting or professional must be shrugged off with a vague witticism exclaiming that you had virtually nothing to do with the success. It seems that British humour, like our bulky three-pronged plugs, does not travel well. Satire, self-deprecation (but never self pity), and April Fool’s Day are all things unthinkable outside this fair isle. An American would never jokingly refer to themselves as an ‘Alcoholic’ and an Asian businessman would never wake up on a specific Spring morning and know that they can go around pulling ridiculous pranks that are totally acceptable, but only until 12pm on the dot. This would be madness. But among our own indigenous madness there is great method, or at least there once was. Happily, another charming British trait is our determination to hold on to tradition, however outdated or borderline absurd, so it seems that the vast array of conventions and contradictions that comprise the average Brit will never truly die out. And thank goodness for that.

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Art of being british  

Art of being british

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