While England and the US share a de facto official language (English, although legally the US has no official language), it’s clear that cultures and customs remain distinct, and occasionally incompatible. Navigating social situations can become tricky, particularly when addressing international politics (Ireland anyone?). Keeping that in mind, I present a few guidelines when speaking with London locals, superiors, or even (if blind chance intercedes) the Queen.
First, be aware of small talk. Britons are more reserved than Americans. Idle discussion with a new coworker can prove uncomfortable. Don’t take it personally if they shrug you off and bury their face in a newspaper or computer. Likely, your positive demeanor and openness for discussion took the individual off-guard. Throw in a couple self-deprecating statements about yourself and you might just open them up as well.
Recognizing the function of humor, sarcasm and wit in British discourse will be your most important tool. And don’t get unnerved if your statements elicits sarcasm; this is a defense mechanism employed when conversation has struck a tender spot for the individual. Don’t take sarcasm or irony personally; offer a bit of your own (without making a fool of yourself) and this impasse may be crossed.
If you’ve struck up a light conversation, it’s best to stick to open questions as opposed to loaded ones (“what do you think about the Queen?”) or personal assertions. Comment on the weather and how it’s destroying your hair, or how you’re getting paler by the minute. Perhaps a general comment on the last football game (but not on who you wanted to win, unless you know what you’re talking about). A compliment on the food is always welcomed as well.
If you’re running out of topics, do not address any of the following: religion, the European Union, the Middle East, or the class system. If you find yourself asking, “so, how ‘bout that Euro?” or “What’s up with classes, ya’ll?” just stop. Politely dismiss yourself and regroup with some less charged topics. And if you can’t think of any, don’t worry. Simply dismiss yourself; it’s not nearly as rude as in America.
While these are only a few suggestions to employ when conversing in London, the best way to learn is through experience. If you get shut out during a conversation, consider what you said and the way you said it. If you think you sounded foolish, regroup. And if all else fails…
It’s better to listen and learn than speak and remove all doubt.