‘Want the Last Biscuit?’: A Very British Dilemma

A test of politeness or neuroses?: do you always ask if someone else wants the last biscuit? (Photo via Cook It)

There’s a Reddit post going viral at the moment that has touched a nerve with many Brits. Although it’s supposed to be a spoof on the many ridiculous habits of us Brits, I found myself going through the list and mentally agreeing with more than a few of them. My friends on Facebook were openly admitting which ones they had done in the past.

Here’s the original post on Buzzfeed, and I’d like to discuss Number Three, as this has been a bone of contention in my house.

Most Brits will agree that before taking the last of anything, you ask if anyone else would like it. That also goes for draining the last of the milk or orange juice from the container (another “issue” for me) or the last (British style) biscuit from the pantry. The underlying hope, of course, is that anyone is your company is too polite to say “yes” and you’ll get the morsel anyway, but if there is an inkling of interest from the other person, you hand it over.

Not always so in our house, and indeed many others in the States it seems. Seeing my husband drain the last of the orange juice, the conversation goes something like:

Me: “You didn’t ask if anyone wanted any.”

Him: (Looking around the otherwise empty kitchen), “Did you want some? I can go next door to the store and get some more”.

Me: “No, but that’s not the point. You should ask if anyone else wants it before finishing it.”

Him: “And if you do, I have to hand it over?”

Me: “Well, yes, but usually no one says ‘yes’”

Him: “Well, wouldn’t that be a little selfish of the other person?”

Even the post’s author Jack Shepherd told the Independent newspaper, “If we had any biscuits in America, it would essentially be a national motto to always take the last one.”  While I wouldn’t go quite that far, I would advise Brits not to assume that that Americans in their company share the same British neuroses about this. As my husband rationally points out, there’s usually more to be had.

For a glimpse into other British psyche problems, there’s even an FB page that seems to be gathering momentum, and a whole piece plus hilarious reader comments at the Daily Mail web site. One woman says, “My husband (American) is driven nuts by the way my (English) daughter and I always leave a spoonful of food or so in the serving dishes. To take the last just feels far too rude.” While I am guilty of the same offense, perhaps passing the serving dish around the table or picking on an unsuspecting individual to finish the last piece might assuage the husband.

When in the company of friends, do you always ask if someone else wants the last of biscuit/appetizer/slice of pizza?

  • http://twitter.com/ArmyMuseumGeek Brian Rayca

    I wonder how far back this neuroses, as you put it, goes? The annecdote of your husband pointing out that there is more to be had, made me think. Britain had food rationing after World War II well into the 1950s, while at the same time Americans were munching our way through bumper crops. Could it be that this difference stems from a time of scarcity in Britian while American generations have never really had to put up with shortages for very long? I’m not saying this is an explaination, I honestly don’t know if they are linked but I am intrigued.

  • Alexandria

    As an American, I always ask if someone wants the last of something; I hate to take the last on something if I even suspect that someone else would like it. My siblings though would always take the last of something and never ask. My parents though appreciative of my courtesy always tell me that I don’t need to ask if anyone wants the last; just to say what I empty so more can be bought. I would also never take someone’s offer to take the last of something; many (or most) Americans would. I think it’s a point of politeness and courtesy; something that many Americans lack or were never taught. We are taught to be selfish and fight for our things.

  • Mary

    I grew up in the American South, where most parents place a priority on teaching their children courtesy. We were taught to share whatever we had, so you’ll often see people there offering to split whatever the last thing is. However, we were also taught to clean our plates (finish all our food) as there were starving children out in the world who would be grateful for the food being wasted left on the plate. I think that’s true across America.

  • Katie

    I’m American. I will never take the last thing if someone asks. But if I am visitng home and it is just sat there and no one else has claimed it, I will let everyone know I have the last piece. If I am not with immediate family I won’t even ask for the last. Too rude. This probably stems from learning etiquette from my rich grandparents and then being set lose at home as a child.

  • Virginia A Smith

    Yes, it’s very rude to not offer up the last one. Then of course, the person being offered it has to offer it back, and then you say reluctantly, “Are you sure?” Then quickly say, “Mustn’t let it go to waste.”

    I write a blog with a section on the differences between the US and UK. Here’s my take on British rudeness–so polite that Americans don’t know the Brits are actually being rude: http://theyearoflivingenglishly.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/us-vs-uk-how-the-british-do-rude

  • Sharon

    We always ask, at least in Boston(MA). It would be considered strange, and yes, rude, not to. Whether there is more to easily be had next door or at the corner shop is irrelevant. Perhaps there are regional, cultural, familial or even generational differences (I can only attest to 27yrs+) in the USA but I’ve never encountered anyone who doesn’t ask if I want “the last biscuit” before polishing it off.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1478618742 Julie Dick

    Generally I think people ask here too.

  • Iota

    Ah yes. I was brought up to offer the last one around. It was agony, as a child. I seem to remember Mum or Dad would always say “yes” and take the biscuit, and then laugh a few seconds later and hand it over to me. Incidentally, where does the expression “take the biscuit” come from?

    • catrin

      cockney rhyme i think, for “take the mick” :)

  • Clare Taylor

    Oh, I know this one well. My husband is a very ‘correct’ Dutchman, polite to excess in oh so many ways, but when it comes to taking the last of anything, he does it unthinkingly. After 18 years together, this still gets on my very British nerves. Obviously, I never say anything. That would be rude. I just sit on my resentment and let it simmer for a while…

  • Christy

    In any family/home, regardless of nationality and culture, I would say that you have to pick your battles carefully. The “last biscuit dilemma” falls into the category of “majoring on the minors”. If it’s there, and you want it, ask if anyone would like to split it with you.

  • http://twitter.com/AHLondon_Tex AHLondon

    More for the Americans, what you do with the last piece of anything depends on where you were brought up and who you are with. This is probably the American version of the British gossip rules that you can gossip more about someone the less connected you are to them. Less asking is required of family. Asking in a family when taking something out of the fridge or pantry just isn’t necessary. Telling whoever keeps the grocery list that you took the last–that’s a big deal. Mealtimes are a bit different. Around here, whoever wants the last would ask first. But in social situations, what most often happens is that no one wants to be a rude taker, so if it is a close friend, offer to split. If not, then even the asking seems grabby so usually the last bit never gets eaten.

  • Alice

    My family members almost always leave the last of anything. My brother is always complaining and mocking the people who leave a tiny amount of milk or orange juice, etc., in the fridge. I do hate to take the last of anything, and won’t, unless nobody else wants it generally. I’m American.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bella.malka.5 Bella Malka

    It is good manners in the US to ask as well, but if you say yes, expect the item in question to be cut in half not just handed over.

  • Margaret

    We were brought up to be polite and offer the last morsel to others. If nobody accepted, my sister and I would have half each!!!!

  • Jess

    I’m Jewish (and also American) and many times we won’t take the last of “something” because we get “jewish guilt.” I think it depends on who you’re speaking to. Not all Americans take the last of something and not think of anyone else. This is too generalized…

  • Anita

    I don’t think that’s purely a British thing I think it’s a politeness thing. I was raised to always ask.

  • Nancy

    My sisters and I were taught as kids to always ask if anyone else wanted the last – whatever it was. This was particularly painful when it was the last piece of homemade fudge or the last of the ice cream, and we had to end up sharing with the other sister(s). :) And we were born and raised in the U.S. Even as an adult today, it just seems the natural thing to do – never take the last of anything without asking if anyone else wants it.

  • inflytur

    Maybe it is because I come from an old American family but our neuroses is that none of us would EVER take the last biscuit/cookie. Nobody is willing to be the “Old Maid.” Drinking the last of a liquid does not fall into that category.

  • kate

    can i just sit and drool over the picture?

  • Cliff

    I was taught not to take the last one of anything, but it never made sense to me. Someone has to take the last one, right? So why not me?

  • Mona from Minnesota

    We have the same “don’t take the last piece” ethos in Minnesota. It’s very strongly ingrained and the offeree is required to refuse at least twice before accepting, even if they really want it. Please check out the book “How to Talk Minnesotan” for a full description!

  • Jefe’ von Q

    A lot of the time people do ask, if others are around. What I’ve found through the years is that people generally don’t want to be the one to say ‘yes I would like it’ (even though they weren’t making any moves toward the offending object (s). So, when it comes to food, I (sometimes) quickly ask and take it. Speak up or do without. Anyway, waiting for someone else to ask, then saying that YOU want it is just plain rude.