Lost In Translation: Five British Stereotypes That Are True

It’s only fair and honest, having already exploded five myths about the British which people still wish to believe, to hold our hands up and admit the shameful truths which are scratched on the flipside of the coin.

Here are five widely generalized characteristics of the British as a people, which are also broadly true, in my own personal British experience:

Queuing

You might think that standing in line to wait for something is a universal concept, something which applies to every culture across the globe in an equally boring way. Well you’d be wrong. Y’know those zig-zag barriers people put up to make sure that a queue fills the minimum possible space in as efficient and fuss-free manner as possible, well that’s like a map of the British psyche. If two people arrive at the jump-off point at the same time, you can always spot the Brit, they’ll be the one who says “after you.” It might be the legacy of the long, lean rationing years after the war, or something we’ve always displayed a natural aptitude for, but let me tell you this, if you want something badly; something that other people want too, something which requires long hours standing on your own, not talking to anyone, not looking at your cellphone and not reading a newspaper or book that you happen to have brought with you, in the rain; call the experts.

Fancy Book Learning

We don’t really have jocks in Britain. Our educational system – while it does run concurrently with organized team sports, and while the people who are good at those sports do tend to be more popular than the kids who are, say, good at watching science-fiction on TV – doesn’t feel the need to act as if sporting achievement and education are the same thing. You’d never get the plot of High School Musical (boy is torn whether to go to college to study drama or play basketball) in Britain, because it wouldn’t really occur to our Troy Bolton (or as we’d call him, Ian Bradshaw-Smythe) that he couldn’t do both. He’d study at school, and fit sports in wherever he can. There again, Ian’s professional rugby career, should he want one, wouldn’t necessarily be helped by his choice of college, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

The Rapier Wit

David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammar in 'Frasier'

This probably comes from a certain, rather sour world-view (let’s just say End of Empire and leave it there, shall we?), but if you want someone who can undercut a pompous, self-regarding occasion with sharp jibes, call a Brit. It’s no coincidence that the creation of Niles Crane as a character in Frasier, the immaculate fop who lives to out-jab his windbag brother, is played as if he is the living embodiment of the Snippy Brit. Same with Chandler Bing in Friends, and yes, the fact that both characters are hugely insecure, use their wit as a shield and have trouble with the ladies is not lost on us. Oh sure, the wisecracking snoot is useless in a bar brawl, unless you want us to start it for you (our pub fights are much the same as yours), but when it comes to keeping a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue handy at all times, we’re the best.

Note: We can’t take the credit for Oscar Wilde, even though he’s a perfect example. He’s Ireland’s glory, not ours.

The British Reserve

Colin Firth, a reserved Brit, playing a reserved Brit in 'The King's Speech'

True story. I went to cover the Royal Wedding for Anglophenia. My job was to take photographs of the banners and the crowds and all of the accompanying frenzy. I found myself standing with three groups of people, and as is the way of these things, we all got chatting. The first group were two college students from Texas, who’d been vacationing in Europe. Then there was the South African man and his Yorkshire wife, and a gran and her young grandson, both British. The South African man took great pleasure in complaining loudly about people who he felt had pushed in front of him, so that everyone in earshot knew he was fed up, but not fed up enough to complain directly to the people in question. The girls from Texas laughed, and said they were well used to this kind of behavior, as that’s how people back home would react too. The British gran offered round sandwiches and tutted sympathetically. I looked at my shoes. That’s the British reserve.

Obsessed With Class

John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett made fun of the class system on British TV in 1966

What you have to understand about the British class system is the amount of time it has taken to develop. We had the feudal system, we had serfs and lords of the manor and scheming barons and knights of the realm and pageantry and all of that stuff, we beheaded one of our own kings, had a civil war, then put his son on the throne (after seizing most of his legislative power). Women got the vote in 1918, but only if they were over 30 and of decent standing in the community. The social legacy of 1000 years of bubbling resentment (from below) and paranoia (from above) is this sense of social order, and people knowing their place or facing the consequences. Your lower and upper classes can carouse and fight and smash things up as much as they like, safe in the knowledge that the middle classes, acting as a buffer, will clear everything up in the morning, tutting as they do so. It’s an etiquette nightmare, especially as we’re also reserved, waspish and quick to form queues.

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Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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