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If Britain was America’s therapist, we’d have been “let go” after the introductory session. While our two nations see eye-to-eye on many matters of substance, like imperialism and Downton Abbey, we simply can’t agree on how much of our personal lives we should “share” and sob about publicly.
We Brits bury our issues so deep you’d need an archaeologist-come-fracker to retrieve them. Americans, meanwhile, are prone to revealing all without an invitation. This disparity is unsettling for both sides so we need to come to some kind of arrangement. For the sake of your fragile British associates, America, we’d like you to pretend that repression and denial are every bit as therapeutic as talking it out or crying in front of a crowd. In return, we’ll promise to throw our full weight behind any future calls to repatriate Piers Morgan.
For any Brits considering swapping sides, I can attest to the fact that wearing your feelings so close to the surface is a colossal drag, even if you have a rapt American audience. I tried it once shortly after moving here in 2011. For fear of over-sharing and mooting my own point, I will merely say it involved a recently departed family feline, Kleenex and a kindly Hispanic lady on an uptown F train.
Once you’ve opened up about that thing you thought you’d swallowed, I’ll admit there is a feeling of happy release. But that’s not the end of the story. Later, you realize that your heart-felt, tear-soaked revelation has fluttered off into the judgmental ether, and there’s nothing you can do to get it back. Gah! The horror! You’ll want to disappear into the floor. Americans, for some reason, seem to stay in the “happy release” phase and look around for more people to tell.
Confusingly, Brits pair emotional constipation with an alarmingly filthy sense of humor. We love anything… toilety, so are delighted to share unpleasant details of what just happened in the loo. The idea of telling anyone what last made us cry, however, is beyond heinous. Consequently, our fragile, emotionally immature limbic systems easily overload whenever an American bamboozles us with a disclosure about their terrible childhood or their psychiatrist’s phone number.
Sucking it up is an art we’ve perfected over many centuries—and it’s a characteristic that transcends the British class system. You can no more imagine the royals sitting around discussing their feelings than you can a bunch of factory workers from Bolton. And anyone who breaks rank, especially if they do it on telly, turns the nation’s stomach like a horsemeat scandal.
So how do we bury our baggage? We make jokes and go to the pub, then make more jokes in the pub. Remembering the few times we let our emotions spill out—and the toe-curling, fist-chewing embarrassment that ensued—helps us keep the lid jammed tight.
Tell us, expats: is British stoicism something to be proud of? Have you become more emotionally demonstrative in America?
See more posts by Ruth Margolis
Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.