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.

5 comments on “London Myths No.3 – Londoners Are Unfriendly”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Speak first is a good rule wherever you are. If you comment audibly about something seen from bus or train someone will respond. I commented to my husband about the number of hurdles blocking traffic lanes when you couldn’t see any work in progress. Well, I got an extremely thorough response from a gentleman ahead of us on the bus who wondered why it was possible to get these frames up before work started but no one could ever manage to come back and remove them. An interesting needlework conversation outside a shop in York, a conversation about rental costs with some young people in a rough pub near Victoria station, and a pleasant chat with a woman visiting her husband in hospital in London.

  2. Adam says:

    Bit late to the party, and in the wrong thread, but off the top of my head (in respect of great songs about London):
    Richard Thompson- the sights and sounds of London Town
    Madness – the liberty of Norton Folgate
    The men they couldn’t hang – Ghosts of Cable Street
    Mary Lou Lord – Cold Kilburn Rain
    Robyn Hitchcock- Trams of old London
    Skinny Lister – Down on Depford Highway (sort of counts, I think!)

  3. Mike says:

    What about “If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between”

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    London myths, the murder rate is dropping, in New York there has bee a spike due to gang crime, upto June, 80 in London, 141 New York, but overall crime in NY has been dropping. When you think of the millions of people in both cities the murder rate is low. Manchester and area are a lot less, despite the news, in actual numbers but here there tends to be about 1/3rd of the murders but we are about 1/4rt the size,

    As to the friendliness of Londoners, I once ended up playing charades with a group of strangers on the tube. Happy times. I did once tell someone off for being grumpy on the underground, and a person next to me thanked me for saying so. I’ve met some lovely people in London, especially in the pubs.

    London songs – was Ian Dury mentioned?


  5. Ian Luck says:

    I don’t think Ian Dury was mentioned. His most notorious ‘London’ song has to be ‘Plaistow Patricia’, with the sweariest intro ever, discovered, and beloved by many an eleven year old, to be shouted in playgrounds across the country. All together: “A—oles, Ba–ards, F—king C–ts, and P–cks!”

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