Manners Maketh Man: If We Could Only Agree on ‘Manners’

(Grow)

“Which fork do I use first, again?” (Grow)

As Brits in the U.S. very quickly discover, not only are there many differences between American and British English, but customs and etiquette “rules” can also deliver a few curve balls.

My most common example of an etiquette difference is when Americans refer to someone as “he” or “she” and that person is standing right in front of them. Although I tell my British guests that this isn’t rude in the U.S., there’s always a frisson of silent outrage or a look of disbelief when the Brit first encounters it.

Ditto with the absence of the word “please”. Where Brits probably say “please” too often, Americans tend to imply it in their tone and smiley expression, rather than with the actual word. I know this will provoke outrage among some Americans, and I’ll be barraged with examples of how they were brought up, yada yada, but after 23 years of unscientific research on this matter, I’m sticking by it. The last time I had a conversation about this, an American woman told me that she would never dream of omitting the “please” and then turned to a complete stranger and said “Do you have the time?” Not only did she miss the irony in the situation, she probably would have denied missing out the word “please” too. Just as Brits aren’t aware of how many times they say “please”  (too many), most Americans don’t realize how little they say it, and Brits need to remember that this isn’t the etiquette bomb that it is in the U.K.

During a recent #MindtheChat twitter session, I discussed the use of the word “kids” versus “children” with an American. She noted that when Brits say “children” it sounds a tad precious, whereas many of my British friends still can’t resist the absolutely hilarious retort, “They’re not little goats” if I’m ever caught saying “kids”. Again, we should accept that “kids” isn’t disrespectful, and “children” isn’t Victorian and stuffy. One word I still have difficulty with however is “brat”. My husband and I once met a guy at a party; after a couple of minutes of ‘Where you from?” and so on, my husband remarked, “Oh, so you’re an army brat?” As I raised my arm to cuff him the “brat” smiled broadly and said “Yup, so was my dad.” Someone called him a brat and he was OK with it? Hmmm….

Although this differs from one social scene to the next, Americans in general tend to start and end their socializing earlier than Brits. House parties will often kick off fairly early in the evening, and it’s not unusual for guests to depart by 10 or 11pm. Again, there are obviously parties that go on into the wee hours, but in many cases don’t be surprised if you’re one of few towards midnight, and make sure you’re not the last guests to leave. (Guests often leave all at once as it gets to the witching hour, so take the hint.) You may think you’re being friendly and not abandoning the party, but the hosts are probably eyeing the clock and will almost certainly have stopped serving drinks.

Table manners also differ on either side of the Pond, the most famous disagreement being about the use of silverware (cutlery). Brits often accuse Americans of eating like babies, cutting up food first, abandoning the knife and then eating the meal with just a fork, held in the right hand. On some occasions knives aren’t even put on the table and food is simply half chopped, half cut with the fork. Brits … this is not wrong, just different. Americans do not consider it bad table manners any more than drinking beer straight out of the bottle is. In some areas, it’s not considered particularly polite to hold onto your knife. I have to say though, watching a person recently trying to cut a tossed lettuce salad with only a fork was a little trying to witness. It took every ounce of willpower not to pass her my knife, or reach across the table and cut the darn salad up!

Have you witnessed a difference in “manners” where you live?  

Join @MindTheGap_BBCA on Twitter today (September 25) at 2 pm/et to discuss British vs. American manners and etiquette. Tweet your comments using the hashtag #MindTheChat.

  • Joe

    Brat, in reference to the military, stands for Born, Raised, and Trained, meaning someone who grew up on military bases because their family moved around a lot.

    • expatmum

      Oh, that makes sense. Thanks.

      • coute

        Yes exactly. Pretty much any other instance unless you’re using it light-heartedly and the person you’re talking to understands that, would be pretty rude.

    • Bree Zee

      I never knew that! Thanks :)

      • Oracle

        My little dog Bree Zee just passed away. I has a sad!

        • Bree Zee

          sounds like you “has” other problems as well

          • Oracle

            Yeah, like snobby people who don’t enjoy I Can Has Cheezburger like I do

    • dp

      Yeah brat in the context of “army brat” =/= brat in the context of “your little brat just spit on me”

  • Susan

    Hardest thing for me as a newbie in the States was the omnipresent ” You’re welcome”. I still forget to say it all the time and have had more than a few judgmental stares.

    • Matt

      Don’t be too hard on yourself, most Americans completely omit it without a second thought.

      • dw

        When I first came to the US, I was constantly greeted with “What’s going on?”, “What’s up”, etc.

        At first, I tried to actually answer the question. After a while, I realized it was just a vacuous greeting, and responded in kind.

        • x

          Oh, is “vacuous” the British word for “friendly”?

          • dw

            Umm no.

            Vacuous means “lacking on content”. In other words, when someone asks “What’s going on?” in the US, it isn’t literally a request for information about what I’m doing. It’s just a greeting.

        • Julia Wilkins

          So you’re not meant to answer? I’ve been here for 20 years and I still struggle with that. I usually just mumble something and then act awkward because I can never think of what to say. So I’m just supposed to reply “What’s up?”???

          • LizEnFrance

            The appropriate response to “What’s up?” is something along the lines of, “Not much, how are you doing?” to which the person should respond, “Pretty good” or similar. Just like “Ça va?”/”Ça va bien, ça va?” in French.

          • Guest

            Born and raised in the US, and I have struggled with that one as it grew in popularity. I’ve learned to just say “Not much. How’s it going?” If the “What’s up?” was offered just in passing don’t be surprised if the person keeps on moving and ignores the “How’s it going?”.

          • Callie Yaeger

            You can answer, “Not much and you?”, or “It’s been busy/crazy/maddening. How about you?” It’s nothing to sweat over. A well done shrug can also be acceptable. :-)

            Our neighbor is British. I’d love to pick his brain and chat about his take on our culture, but I don’t want to be rude or too forward.

          • The Denver Diamond

            I LOATH it when people return the question back at me. I am REQUIRED to ask but I dont want the question directed back at me. Just say good and go about your day.

          • Ian Cook

            You’re supposed to say, “not much” or something like that.

          • Stephen Collingsworth

            I generally reply, “Not much, you?”

          • jadekitty

            Say, “not much”. I can’t explain this, because no matter how much actually is up (so to speak) the answer is always “not much”

          • The Denver Diamond

            People like me are in the habit of asking because our jobs tell us we have to and then we just take that “How are you?” habit home with us. We are just so trained to say it that we do even when we dont actually want an answer. Makes it hard when I legitimately DO want an answer because no one answers ha ha.

            Usually stick to a “not much” or a “Good thanks!” Just in case they actually do want an answer (I know lots of people take offense to you not giving any response at all)

        • BobS

          Equivalent to “wocher?”

        • VeryNot

          That one catches my English boyfriend up as well. But he often greets people with, “are you good?” or “are you OK?” and that trips up my American friends as they think there must be something wrong with them.

        • http://vulvs.tumblr.com/ oofstar

          I’m American and I have a lot of trouble with this and don’t like it. it makes me uncomfortable for a second every time. I always answer, though often with a meaningless ‘not much’. often I give too much of an answer and throw people off.

        • Lisa Jones

          Looking at your responses, I’m wondering if that’s not a regional thing. It doesn’t appear to be a generational thing, as I’ve heard that from kids to septuagenarians.

        • The Denver Diamond

          THANK YOU! I am required to ask how a person is doing/how their day is going for my job but I have work to do and no time to listen to them tell their tail. I appreciate it when people dont answer because it leaves me to go about my business.

        • Laur

          Just think of it as the American equivalent of “Are you alright?”

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          Here in the mid-west (at least where I am) the big one is still “How are you?”. It took me years not to just say “Fine thanks”, as most people will add “And you?”. It now just feels very selfish if I don’t enquire about the other person’s well-being – even though we all know that it’s just a greeting at the end of the day LOL.

  • kb

    For British people call each other ‘stupid’ or ‘daft’, is normal. They will say that’s a stupid idea, etc. For Americans this isn’t very polite. We would never say someone is stupid ( to their face).

    • Hezzann

      Unless we know the other person.

    • The Denver Diamond

      I dont say the words right out, I am more sarcastic.

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum
  • Elaine

    Please and thank you are far more common in the South, increasingly so the deeper South you get.

    • x

      So is “bless your heart” which means “f.u.”

      • MontanaRed

        But not always. It can also carry a nuance of mild condescension without having the in-your-face f.u. meaning. And sometimes — maybe not very often, but sometimes — it can be used in straightforward way.

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          Yup – as a newbie in the south, when a family member said “Bless your Heart” to me, it usually meant I’d put my foot in it big time.

        • VeryNot

          Funny enough, it seems “bless” is used in the same way in the UK. At least that how it seems to be used by my English boyfriend.

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

            Yes, I love that word. You can use it for children when they’ve done something sweet, but it’s way more effective when an adult has done something incredibly stupid. Graham Norton says it all the time and it’s always spot on.

      • FaerieBad

        It also means “you dumb a**”

        • Hezzann

          It can also be a sincere thing for when someone does something nice for you. My 91 year old Southern grandmother uses it in both ways, it almost always depends upon inflection.

          • Cheryl

            As a Canadian I get confused by ‘bless your heart’. I knew it as mean spirited, so when a southern friend of mine, used the phrase about a mutual friend that was going through a terrible time, I stopped talking to her. Months later she approached me and asked why I avoided her. I mentioned the ‘bless her heart’ thing, and said how upset I was that she would say something so awful about this person. She said to me, that sometimes ‘bless your/her/his heart’ actually means bless them and isn’t meant in a cruel way. Eh???

      • Bree Zee

        bless your heart doesn’t always mean FU. It usually means, “it’s really pathetic you think that way but I’m too polite to point our your mistake in public however me and my friends will laugh at you later when we’re alone.”

      • SStory

        Sorry. I am from Alabama. The term “bless your heart” when used by the older generation of Southerners implies a sympathy or empathy to whom the phrase is directed. It also implies the same when used by the younger and the older church-going (Christians) whom were/are raised by the same strict upbringing, mostly say it with sincerity. On the other hand, the younger generation use the term as a more derogatory euphemism, i.e., “bless your heart” is actually usually meant as “you poor thick bitch/bastard.” But in my own regard, I was raised by the older generation, but my “bless your heart” is mostly “you poor thick bitch/bastard.” LOL
        I certainly hope I haven’t confused or offended anyone. :)
        Thank you.

    • SStory

      This is true. We Southerners would think it impolite not to express our
      gratefulness with a “please” or “thank you” when interacting with, well
      anyone. Especially with someone working in public service positions.

  • dw

    US: it’s OK to say hello to people you meet on the street.
    UK: only if you want to be beaten up.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      In the north east (of England) you can’t stand at a bus stop for more than a few minutes before hearing someone’s life story.

      • dw

        Ahhh — I obviously grew up in the wrong part of England :)

      • Bree Zee

        the southern states have the same issue in the grocery check out line

        • Lisa Jones

          Not just the southern states…

          • Bree Zee

            I’ve been in the north the last 5 yrs and can’t say I’ve found many up here that want to talk to more than their cell phones in a public area.

    • http://vulvs.tumblr.com/ oofstar

      next time folks say new yorkers are rude for this I’m gonna tell them it’s just British.

    • jadekitty

      That depends on where you are in the US. New England, nope. NYC nope. South and Midwest absolutely.

      • The Denver Diamond

        I do that here in the west too!

  • Moisés Ánton Bittner

    Brilliant!

  • Anglophile

    Here is a good explanation why Americans use the knife and fork differently: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-09-17/lifestyle/35274339_1_fork-european-method-hand

  • britishamerican

    It is my understanding that “Mind the Gap” is intended to help British expats in their transition whilst living in America. However, too often I find these types of articles pretty one-sided. Rather than primarily focusing on what Brits might find rude that Americans do (which expats have already easily been able to identify), there should also be a focus on what Brits do that Americans might find rude…so that we can all get along! :)

    For example – addressing the elephant in the room – tipping. Having many friends in the service industry over here in the states I hear countless times how Brits and other Europeans forget to tip or don’t tip nearly what’s expected. This is understandable as in the UK expected tips are usually much lower (10% for a meal, practically no expectations for a bar). However, unlike in Britain, many Americans in service jobs are not paid much of a wage at all (or maybe not any at all) besides their tips. So, they usually expect 15-20% for a meal and $1/drink or 15% on a bar tab. The difference is widely known enough that I’ve seen many a disgruntled bartender after a patron (honestly or dishonestly) claimed they didn’t know to leave a tip because they’re British.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      You’re absolutely right, and we had a big discussion about this not so long ago. Brits are notoriously bad tippers and Brits in America tend to learn this very quickly.

    • Pamela Rose Vitale

      hahahahaha brilliant!

    • Laur

      15% is no longer considered an acceptable tip. While my grandpa still takes out his calculator (albeit, on an iPhone these days) to calculate the magical 15 percent, most waiters would feel slighted to get a measly $1.50 on a $10 meal. As was mentioned, waiters get paid hardly anything by their employers and rely primarily on tips to pay their bills. Always aim for 20% (unless you received bad service), and add a bit extra if the service was better than average.

      • Kelly Knapp

        15% is still the correct amount, accept for buffets where 10% is the going$. RARELY, have I seen a $10.00 tab in the US in many a year. I was taught that you use two/three measurements in determining tips. Attitude/competence and length of meal. If the waiter/ess does the minimum, but nothing beyond that…and I am not dragging out my time at the table, 15% is perfectly appropriate. If my service is good, and the waiter/ress makes sure my order comes from the kitchen correctly…20% or more is appropriate. one thing Americans do that really aggravates me is leaving no tip because of bad service or bad kitchen service. If you cannot feel comfortable with 15%, please speak with a manager. They will know if it has been an “off” day for the waiter/ress, or if there is a problem beyond the server’s control. Also, Americans expect servers to refill drinks when glass is down to half, but this often causes waste, when the patron was already done. And really messes around with ratios if you use sweeteners!

    • Matt Rackham

      We no longer leave a tip over 10%, unless the service received deserved it (then we give 15-20%), because the service people receive does not warrant it anymore. Plus, acceptable tipping etiquette states that if your server does not bring your food (runner), you are not required to tip more than 10%. In addition, you are not required to tip the total (with tax) bill, it’s the pre-tax subtotal. I personally worked in many restaurants and the service I gave dictated my tip, but todays servers’ do not deserve an automatic 15-20%, whether they are low paid or not.

      • Kelly Knapp

        You may think a penny sends a message, and it does…the wrong one. Speak to the manager before leaving any 1 penny tip. my friend has been a server for many years and she appreciates having the manager review. Often, the restaurant didn’t plan well and they don’t have enough servers, or someone called in sick and she is asked to do a double shift. You try working 16 hours as a server and see how great your are the last couple hours. Or a cook didn’t show up and the kitchen is in chaos. It is irresponsible to assume the server is at fault, or complete fault. Managers need to know when a problem develops so they can determine which action to take over any single incident!

        • Matt Rackham

          You make a good point related to a staffing shortage and relating things to a manager. Plus, we do not blame a server if the kitchen is slow, or the food is below par.

          However, I’d stated “when the service is absolutely terrible”. This would relate to the individual servers’ attitude and overall quality of service one receives from him/her….no matter if it was a long shift or staffing was an issue.

  • jh

    I’m American and I hold my fork and knife (fork in my right hand, knife in my left) for most of my meal. Though I think I picked that up from my father, whose mother was British. No one’s ever accused me of being rude for doing it.

    • KetchumResident

      It is considered poor etiquette in the U.S. You’re supposed to put your knife down and your knife hand in your lap, while eating with your fork. And no elbows on the table!

      • jh

        Well, I suppose it’s lucky that my friends have more important things to worry about than how I eat my dinner.

      • The Denver Diamond

        Thing about America I guess, is that we are such a big country with each state running its own show that we have a lot of cultural differences between people of other states. At my families table, both elbows had to be off the table and both hands where every one could see them, knife or no knife.

  • Dan

    During the second world war, many US paratroopers shot down over Europe, were captured by the German’s just by the way they used a knife and fork.

  • niamh17

    I live in the mid west and find most people really friendly but the one thing that really makes me cringe, ok one of a few things, is when people order in restaurants and say “I’ll take …” it just seems so rude to me. As someone who was bought up to say ” may I have” it just sounds so Alien. And also referring to someone as he and she is also odd to me too. Cultural oddities. Im sure it works both ways and we often laugh at the differences in our language. Some english, English words just make no sense but we love then anyway!

    • http://vulvs.tumblr.com/ oofstar

      in new york we say ‘can I get’, but I read that was weird. (Americans basically never say ‘may’)

      • Hezzann

        As a Georgian, I had the difference between “may” and “can” pounded into my head along with “please”, “thank you”, “Ma’am” and “Sir”. It depends almost entirely upon where in the US you are. Americans are diverse and to lump them all together, like this article, is a bit silly.

        • The Denver Diamond

          I sometimes find myself unconsciously replying “Yes you may blah blah” to the people who ask “Can I blah blah” I always say “May I……” unless I am saying “Is it ok if…..”

    • X

      But “I’ll take … , please” should be fine.

    • Lar1961

      Speaking as an American, what I find incredibly rude is to hear someone ordering by saying “Gimme a . . . and a. . . “. . .with no please or even a civil tone.

      • The Denver Diamond

        Agreed! I am in guest service and the amount of nice I have to play would crush you but no one else knows how to be nice back. I think it is sad that I find it refreshing when some one says please rather than just demands everything….. People forget that we are people too…. :(

    • Lisa Jones

      Sounds a bit pretentious if someone says “May I have…,” although I do tend to do that more than “I’ll take…” I’ll chalk that up to living in another state for a decade. Now that I’m back home, I find “I’ll take…” slipping right back in there.

      • niamh17

        Pretentious moi? Its just how we were brought up, but I spoke to my mum today and she said in the store where she works now the little oiks barely grunt at her nowadays as they sling their cash cards her way so maybe the times they are a changin all over?

  • inglish

    This is the second time I’ve read this blog and I am just as puzzled this time as I was the first. The writer is
    clearly describing common behaviors witnessed in her own circles of life, and passing if off as what is considered “good manners” here in the US. Sadly, these examples, no doubt common, are merely a testament to just how far down into the cultural gutter we have slid. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that many here in the US recognize rude or somewhat course behavior (such as referring to people in our presence as “he” and “she” and calling children “kids”) for what it
    is.

    • X

      I’m confused as to what is wrong with “kids”. It is a common term with no negative connotations.

      • The Denver Diamond

        I am with you on this one. “Where are the kids?” “Out for a bike ride with the neighbors kids” Or “Do you have kids?” And no not asking about goats….

        I also say he she in front of the person being spoken about in the manner “Hey, she/he asked you a question” or “she/he needs a chair and I dont have one, do you?”

        I never realized other cultures might find that rude….

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          Even if they do, the point is that they (Brits in this case) need to acknowledge the manners of the host country (the USA). They need to realise that, as you have pointed out, it’s not rude here.

          • The Denver Diamond

            *eye roll* You do realize you are replying to my comment which was a reply to some one else’s and NOT the article?

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

            Obviously. It’s called a “reply”. I was actually backing up your comment, but never mind.
            Eye roll and sigh….

          • The Denver Diamond

            The way the initial poster posted they implied that they are american thinking that calling children kids is rude… As another american I thought that was odd….. Though I AM a rude person because I think that censoring my thoughts is silly.

          • Oracle

            Go to your corners, you two!

        • Lorelei

          I go to London often and recently took my 9 & 11 for the first time. We are Canadian. Every site we visited, people freely cut in front of us in line. This was completely foreign to me. Furthermore, the children spoke to their parents in a way that shocked me. “MUM-MY!!! You aren’t listening to me! No mummy, I won’t come and you can’t make me!” I think it’s fair to say there are polite and impolite people everywhere and to generalize by country is a mistake. There is no way for a traveller to instinctively know what is alright socially without spending extensive time somewhere. Surely when a foreigner here makes a mistake, I understand they’re probably unaware of something we do or do not do. My first assumption is not usually that they’re ignorant.

      • Marie Moffitt

        I was taught as a child in Denver, Colorado, that I should not say “kids” and that “Kids are baby goats.”

  • Pamela Rose Vitale

    um I say “please, excuse me, and thank you” all the time, who are you hanging out with in the US.

    • Stephen Collingsworth

      I think I do too, but in the example given, I wouldn’t have said please. I probably would have said “Would you have the time?” and then “thank you” after their response. When asked by a service provider, I always say “Yes please,” or “no thank you.”

      • Lisa Jones

        Exactly. Made me realize the same thing. I don’t say it nearly as often as I probably should, but if you’re from the same general area, the tone and context is usually understood.

        Gets interesting sometimes when you’re a northern Mid-westerner talking to a deep Southerner…

        • SStory

          This is true. We Southerners would think it impolite not to express our gratefulness with a “please” or “thank you” when interacting with, well anyone, especially someone in public service.

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

            And Brits need to understand that if politeness if implied in the tone and words other than “Please”, it’s not the crime of the century.

          • SStory

            So true. In many instances, an implied gesture is just as polite as the spoken word.

  • Pamela Rose Vitale

    oui where did you live in the US?

  • Chris Bush

    I moved from Florida to Iowa and struggle with the differences there. I can’t imagine learning a whole new country’s etiquette.

  • Michael Robins

    I love that when a British person says”Brilliant,” they actually mean it, as opposed to the snarky American way.

  • WebGirlNYC

    Forgive me for asking, but I do not understand the “he or she” etiquette example. Do you mean in a group setting?

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      If it’s more than two people. For example, if you’re having a conversation with me, someone else comes up and you want to recap what we’ve been saying, (while I”m still there) you wouldn’t say “She was just mentioning that…” in reference to me. Even if you couldn’t remember my name, you’d have to find a way not to say “she”. You don’t refer to someone as “she” or “he” when they are still in your presence.

  • mrsexpatriodiot

    I am living in West London, an expat from the US. –
    “Yea, you all right?’ This has been the greeting, if I get a greeting at all, upon entering a store. Such a strange approach to a customer that I am taken off guard every time. What is the appropriate response? “Yes, I am well, thank you.” Is it meant to take the place of “May I help you?”

  • The Denver Diamond

    Now I need some British friends so that we can explore/discuss our cultural differences.

  • Matt Rackham

    If you were thinking this picture represents a correct formal table setup, I’m sorry to say you’re incorrect. There are many errors on this table that require addressing: 1. Bread and butter plate would be to the left of the forks. Plus, the napkin would be placed on top of this plate and under the butter knife. 2. Tea/coffee cup is not generally kept on the table, but if it were the tea spoon would be on the saucer. Plus, the cup would be placed upside-down. 3. What they are calling the “soup spoon’ is the wrong shape/style, it’s actually a desert spoon and should be in the place of the tea spoon. 4. Both knife and fork setups are incorrect. From outside to inside would be: salad, fish, then (main course) meat. Plus, what they are calling the “fish knife” is the wrong shape/style. 5. What they are calling the “seafood fork” is also the wrong style, it’s actually a salad fork (three prongs) but it’s in the correct position. 6. The desert fork should be under the desert spoon (tea spoon in this picture), but the direction of each is correct. The meal would proceed using utensils from outside to inside: Seafood (e.g. prawn cocktail), salad course, fish course, main course, desert, cheese selection and crackers, then tea/coffee and maybe a brandy, port or cognac would end the meal.

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