Rule-Bound Brits: Wanna Break Out Just a Little?

Ah nice. A passer-by left us a lovely little letter on our windshield. (Photo: Ildar Sagdejev, Creative Commons  Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ah nice. A passer-by left us a lovely little letter on our windshield. (Photo: Ildar Sagdejev, Creative Commons
Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“I’d rather ask for forgiveness than for permission.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an American say this, I wouldn’t need a pension plan. To be honest, it sometimes makes this rule-bound Brit nervous, brought up to follow rules even when they’re borderline nonsensical. For Brits wanting to break out a little, there’s good news—you’re home! Americans are completely cool with ignoring silly rules especially if the end justifies the means.

Keep off the grass
Probably because of the “parkies” (park keepers) many of us grew up with, who were only slightly less formidable than traffic wardens, we kept off those no-go zones as if our lives depended on it. Unless, of course, we were playing a game of dare.

In my area of the U.S., we have lots of public green space with (polite) notices to “Kindly stay off the grass” and “Please, no dogs.” Every day I see someone blatantly walking on forbidden ground or letting their dogs gambol around the “No dogs” signs. Why? Answers range from “Well, there’s nothing planted at the moment,” to my bête noir, “My dog loves kids. It’ll be fine.” In the U.K. it wouldn’t be unusual for a little old handbag-wielding granny to give them what for, but I rarely see challengers here.

Walk through many public grassy places in the U.S. and you’ll find unofficial routes where walkers have decided that the paved path wasn’t to their liking. One of my regular dog-walking routes has two such paths, but I still walk on the official, paved path. Not sure if I’m trying to set an example, or I’m worried about being caught, but hey—it’s in the blood.

No Parking
And speaking of the formidable, many Brits are raised in fear of the dreaded traffic warden. I am the only person I know in the U.S. who’s never had a parking ticket; it’s not that I wouldn’t love to park illegally from time to time, but I know I’d find a little keepsake flapping under the wipers on my return. In the U.S., while there are traffic cops galore, most people I know will risk a spot of illegal parking if they’re “only going to be 15 minutes or so.” Personally, I’d rather stick a quarter in the meter than get a $60 ticket, but if you’re one for living on the edge, join the queue, so to speak.

Upside down stamps
Hands up Brits if you make sure your stamp with the Queen’s head is always stuck on the right way? Me too. Were you told it was an offense or just that your mail wouldn’t be delivered? The Treason Felony Act of 1848 is often cited as the reason for this practice, but apparently it’s an urban myth, and there is no consequence for an upside down stamp. In contrast, an upside down stamp placement in the U.S. is believed by many to be a message of love.

No filming or flash photography!
A few years ago I saw comedian and talk show host Bill Maher perform. Before the show the audience was asked not to take film footage or flash photos during the performance. Halfway through the set, Maher stopped, bent over and called out “I can see you” to a guy in the third row. Unbelievably, the guy continued recording, even when Maher said, “You are stealing my work, you realize that?” Nothing. Maher finally gave up and continued with his monologue. If there’d been a Brit nearby, the camera would have been forcibly removed and well … let’s not go there.

Last month I went to a performance with a lot of Brits in the audience. Again, we were asked not to take photos or video footage. One lady who had come in after that announcement proceeded to snap away during the first ten minutes, only to be firmly prodded on the shoulder by a women who had left her seat and walked five rows up to ensure the rule was upheld. I was sitting right behind the offender but took the more American approach of a) “What harm is she doing?”, and b) it’s not my job to make sure audience members behave themselves. Besides, she was bigger than me!

And if you think this is a gross generalization of Brits, people in much higher positions agree. Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, recently called the U.K. the “best pupil in class” for obeying edicts from Strasbourg.

Brits, has living in America made you more likely to flout rules? Tell us below:


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.
  • GoldenGirl

    Since I was small I have had a strong sense of fairness. Rules were meant to be followed and it is not fair for nearly everyone to comply and then afford a few people the luxury of breaking them. Without rules where would we be, the Wild, Wild West? Like you Toni I am not a fan of that saying you quoted. It gives people full license to misbehave, like telling a child it is acceptable to hit his friend as long as he apologizes later.

    • Toni Hargis

      Here, we have “special people” who are exempt from all the rules.

    • Irené Colthurst

      The “wildness” of the old West is actually mostly a myth itself. The standoff at the O.K. Corral, for instance, began as a dispute over gun control. Yes, really.

      That said, I have *never* heard an American invoke the reasoning mentioned in this article. Very much the opposite. Asking forgiveness post facto disrupts social solidarity, the maintenance of which underlies American interactions. Basically, “who do you think you are, that the (unspoken) rules for everyone else don’t apply to you?!” Whereas asking permission beforehand respects and maintains that solidarity.

  • gn

    Hmmm: I’d say that, in general, Americans tend to be more rule-following than Brits.

    In some areas, for example traffic and alcohol laws, it may just be that the rules are more strictly enforced — but I do think there’s also something in the culture. Chalk it up to German influence, or to the Protestant work ethic.

    • Toni Hargis

      It must depend on where you live. I live just off a one way street in Chicago, which is next to a busy intersection; you wouldn’t believe how many people will drive half way down the wrong way rather than driving round the block. And double-parking on streets that aren’t wide enough for two cars, taking their groceries into the house while everyone just has to sit and wait? And trucks parking in alleys where it clearly says “No trucks” meaning that no one else can get in or out? Don’t get me started.
      And the drink-driving rules are a joke – and we have easy access to taxis and good public transport. It’s even worse in the suburbs.

    • Toni Hargis
  • Nappyvalleygirl

    I definitely noticed this living in America. I think it’s because there are just so many rules, posted everywhere, that everyone just gives up and ignores them (which I have some sympathy with). Eg no alcohol at the beach. And you’d see everyone sitting there with beers, or at least hiding wine in a thermos. Also, everyone in our town begrudged paying a quarter to park. Whereas I thought it was so cheap compared to London, I’d gladly put four in just to be on the safe side….

    • Toni Hargis

      Ah yes, the ‘drinking on the street’ rules. In Chicago we have outdoor events all the time and people sometimes openly have the wine out.

  • MontanaRed

    Wow! What a hot-button subject eliciting such passionate comments. Toni, you could add fuel to the fire … Say, which town/city/state/country has the worst drivers? 😉

  • rebecca

    Oh this is me t o the core. I actually make a point of cutting across grass and scorning the designated walkways. Guess I consider it asmall way to keep my mind trained to think for itself and not be a sheep. Sort of keeping in touch with the untamed, pioneering spirit of my ancestors!

  • Simon Says

    We have rules? OMG! Eww, I actually have to read those stupid little signs? Now you tell me. Not that I will pay attention, but it’s funny they actually post them and think people will follow them. America was born on striving against the collective, to be individualist. Walk on the grass, I promise, you won’t hurt it, that’s why God put it there.