Relax, Brits: It’s OK to Make a Fuss in the U.S.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.” (

Many Brits refrain from requesting something or complaining about something because they don’t want to “make a fuss” or put someone out.  The now viral British People Problems post includes the seemingly ridiculous “I don’t feel well but I don’t want to disturb my doctor” concern. Sadly however, most of us have either thought that at one point or know someone who has said it.

The liberating thing about the health care system in the States is that if you have access to it, you don’t have to feel bad about using it. Indeed, you can demand a lot of medical procedures as long as your health insurance program covers it, and you certainly aren’t seen as “making a fuss.”

Similarly, you can walk into a restaurant, take a look at the menu and walk out again if you decide there’s nothing you want to eat. You don’t even have to feign illness like I did in my first few months of being in the States. (I realized I had “gone American” the following summer in England when I was reading a menu in the foyer of a restaurant and decided I didn’t want to go in. I could literally feel my family members dying of embarrassment behind me.)

Not only can you leave a restaurant if you don’t want to eat there, you can mess around with the menu. The famous scene from Harry Met Sally (no,  – the other one), where Meg Ryan basically changes everything on her menu order, is a common occurrence here.  Indeed, half the stuff that Americans order in restaurants isn’t technically on the menu. Seriously. If you don’t fancy any of the main courses, you can ask if the chef can “fix a simple pasta and sauce,” the theory behind this being – “Heck, the most they can say is no.”

As Kate Fox, social anthropologist and author of Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour points out in that fabulous book, “Most English people, faced with unappetizing or even inedible food, are too embarrassed to complain at all. Complaining would be ‘making a scene’, ‘making a fuss’ or ‘drawing attention to oneself’ in public — all forbidden by unwritten rules.” (I would replace “English” with “British” here.) Unbelievably, in the U.S., not only are you expected to send food back if it’s not really edible, you can do it with food that’s “not to your liking.” It doesn’t even have to be cold or “off” just “not to your liking.” I have actually dined with someone who sent back the breakfast pancakes because they weren’t what she thought they were going to be. And this was OK; it certainly wasn’t seen as “making a fuss” and my friend wasn’t in the least embarrassed. (To say I was speechless is an understatement by the way.)

A little advice however — if you’re going to send food back because you don’t like it, the Table Manners expert at Chow (dot com) advises: “If you decide you dislike a dish, don’t take more than a few bites. Otherwise, you won’t have much credibility when you complain. The general consensus among restaurant staff is that you shouldn’t eat more than a quarter or at most a third before sending a dish back.” It is also suggested that if the restaurant replaces your dish at no extra cost, then you should increase the tip you leave by at least three per cent.

So, go on Brits — make a fuss once in a while. It’s liberating. Okay, just a little fuss. And as long as it doesn’t get anyone else into trouble …



Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • dedalus

    Reminds me of the horrible date I had. Bad enough that they sat us in the middle of the place, with acoustics that funneled all the sound to us, making discussion basically impossible, but near the end of the meal, I found a hair in my mashed potatoes. Doing what I thought was the Canadian thing (not far from the tree) to do, I ate around the problem, totally horrifying my date.

    • Bunny

      I just gagged. Maybe I’m too American but I would have been horrified too!

  • Bunny

    My sister in law will purposely make a fuss in order to get a free meal. She’ll eat a big chunk of her dinner then suddenly “hate” it and scream at the staff until they bring her a new one and don’t charge her for either. I can’t even imagine how much spit she’s consumed by doing this. She’s just a bitch. However, if there’s something genuinely wrong with your meal, politely pointing it out is completely okay. They’d rather fix the problem and keep a costumer than have them walk out thinking the place sucks and never returning.