It's Time We Let Americans Teach Us Politeness

Christopher Fowler
politeness Over the last few years it's been hard not to notice a distinct cooling of Britain's perceived 'special relationship' with America. With different parties in power and discomfort over war policies, the gentle ribbing that always existed between the two birth-cousins has taken a sharper new edge; in the press and popular culture Britain and Europe have been blaming America for the world's ills, from obesity to cultural and military interference. I was thinking about this the other evening, first watching a play in which an English audience booed an actor for playing an American businessman, then watching a new movie ('A Most Wanted Man') in which US political duplicity is proven to be the plot's underlying evil. Even the Man Booker Prize has been getting stick for allowing Americans into its competition. When did Americans suddenly take the place of the French? There aren't many countries where an archetype still stands in for its nation's stereotypical traits (although there are an awful lot of British villains in Hollywood movies). Generally, though, we don't look at a German and think of war, so why does the American have to carry the weight of a nation on his/her shoulders? As in all forms of racism, personal experience doesn't bear out the archetype. Having spent years being fascinated by (and living in) the world just across the Atlantic, I've found my friends there to be bright, energising, kind and incredibly polite in a way that we've almost completely forgotten. The Daily Telegraph pointed out that
even when they're rude, Americans take the edge off their rudeness with polite words, directly and clearly delivered. Much is made of English politeness, but much of that comes with a sharpened edge. Who said that the best form of English insult was the one where you walk away thinking you've been complimented? I rarely trim out comments from this site because then it wouldn't be a democracy. Besides, I'm a grown-up; a bit of criticism sharpens ones reply skills and s good for the soul, although I'd hate to be young and lacking confidence again - I'm not sure I'd survive in today's harsh new judgemental all-connectedness. Actually, much of the most positive, thought-provoking and just plain polite comment I get about writing is from readers in the US. I really wish some of their habits would rub off on us. The educated American does not look down with a sneer and nitpick - something many over-entitled English folk are prone to doing. With the prospect of another Tory term looming due to lack of Labour leadership, the arrogance of the privileged grows stronger. Besides, as the wheel turns and empires rise and fall, new villains appear all the time, and there can be no more sweeping generalities. Onward to thoughtful democracy and free speech.


Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 13/10/2014 - 22:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Politeness is more personal than national. Canadians are supposedly excessively polite, apologising when others bump into them for example, but I have met quite a number of rude Canadians and have actually been rude (gasp!) myself.

Mark (not verified) Tue, 14/10/2014 - 08:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I always felt that Europeans tend to value "sincere politeness" and feel that the American version is too superficial and (potentially) false. If everybody is polite all the time, no matter the circumstances and persons involved, politeness ultimately becomes meaningless and cheapened.

I don't necessarily agree with that idea, but I believe it can partly explain the difference.

Helen Martin (not verified) Tue, 14/10/2014 - 19:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That's possible, Mark, although granting the other person the benefit of the doubt before verbally slashing them is not such a bad idea.

Charles (not verified) Tue, 14/10/2014 - 20:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I believe that Canadians are "excessively polite". I'm Canadian, and I don't know why, but most everybody says Thank You even after buying a chocolate bar from the corner store or getting your food at McDonald's (as in, thank you for doing business with me). It's just habit, but I don't believe it's a bad habit, even if sometimes it's not super sincere.

As for the british vs Americans, I don't know a lot of British people, but the Americans I do know aren't exactly polite. Popular culture portrays Britons as polite, tea-drinking, gentlemen who tip their hats when they meet a woman, but how am I to know that that's what they're really like? It's all perception.

Christopher Fowler Wed, 15/10/2014 - 12:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I guess we'd tip our hats if we wore them, Charles!

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 16/10/2014 - 02:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My husband wears a hat most of the time and has just switched to his winter felt. He doesn't tip or touch his hat for ladies. I think that form of gentlemanly behaviour has passed. Women are not something other any more so meeting one is just meeting another person.

Fiona (not verified) Tue, 21/10/2014 - 22:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I lived in New York for 4 years and I travelled around the USA whilst I was there. I think it's like any other country. You get polite people, you get rude people. New York wasn't a good example of manners or positivity from the locals. When I visited Tennessee I did find people friendly and good-natured in shops and restaurants. I don't know if that is a city versus country thing or not. There is a degree of snobbery in New York that you don't find elsewhere. I remember coming back to London after living there for a while and noticing how much friendlier our shop staff were in London! I know there's an East Coast/West Coast divide. I often heard Californians commenting that East Coast attitudes were a certain way and vice versa. Probably a bit like our North/South divide. Although, they have their own North/South divide anyway! It was interesting to see how different parts of the USA were. It's such a vast country you really do feel like each state is like a country of its own. Well, we all know Texas would like to be! Personally, I would say that my friendships with Americans have lasted best with those from California and Tennessee, rather than the New Yorkers. New York always seemed to be about what they could gain from a friendship with you rather than just enjoying someone's company. I know British men who went on dates with New York women and were shocked at how mercenary they were - it was all about the pay packet! I believe LA is very much the same from what friends have commented who lived there.