London Myths No.3 – Londoners Are Unfriendly
Americans in London, always friendly, always effusive, make me feel ashamed of our perceived stand-offishness. Once again we have the war to blame for a massive change in social interaction. The class barriers were ironclad before 1939, and if they didn’t exactly disappear after 1945 a new informal friendliness certainly came in. The land-owning gentry found themselves unable to afford a feudal lifestyle, nobody wanted to be a servant anymore and mothers went out to work, where they formed new friendships and gained fresh confidence.
But not all social barriers fell. If we were insular and snobbish before the war, we were only partially rehabilitated after.
While not quite as polite as, say, the people of Tokyo, Londoners are helpful and friendly only if you talk to them first. They have a tendency to get caught up in what they’re doing. I informed a shop assistant that she had served me without once looking at her customer and she was mortified. Londoners consider themselves polite and helpful but are extremely impatient.
As a homeworker (and therefore an outsider), you quickly see how the city’s residents are shaped by their working hours. While they’re in the work-zone you won’t get a word from them. In a pub after work you’ll inevitably end up talking to a stranger. However, a think tank has identified some of the major bugbears of life in the capital, notably pedestrians looking at their smartphones and not where they are supposed to be going, aggressive cycling, lorries blocking junctions and passengers refusing to give up their seats on the tube.
London has this problem through its own making, brought about by the capital’s size and density, and the number of overseas residents and visitors who do not feel confident with English. What’s mistaken for rudeness is often simply shyness, particularly among Chinese and Japanese residents, who are delightfully polite but the least likely people in London to slap you on the back with a shout of ‘Mate!’
Londoners went from the formal handshake to the man-hug+triple backslap very quickly, and it’s common to see straight urban males kiss and hug. But there’s a big semiotic backstory to London behaviour that culminates with the virtual destruction of toxic masculinity, which is now seen as neanderthal to urbanites. The loosening of so-called ‘traditional family values’, the decline of organised religion and the formation of new family groupings has made people more chilled and friendly.
For proof of this I cite personal experience. I know all my neighbours, I have dinner with them and even go on holiday with some. I know the local shopkeepers, and regularly make new friends. The turnover of residents here is the highest in Europe, however, which makes keeping them harder.
But like all things in this city, you have to be proactive and reach out. Londoners love making new friends – they just don’t always look as if they do.