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As a people, the British don’t do a lot that can be classified as sweet. Still, there are some endearing traits, traditions and mannerisms that we Brits can make claim to.
We talk about the weather.
Most Brits find chatting to people we don’t know very well intensely awkward. But actually ignoring them, even if both parties would prefer this, is unthinkably rude. How do we reconcile these two traits? We embark on a tepid and pointless conversation about precipitation, clouds, wind and temperature. If we can each rattle off a few clichéd lines then both parties are satisfied that politeness was achieved and awkwardness minimized. Everyone leaves happy.
We give people “the bumps.”
My British husband arrived home from a colleague’s leaving do the other night, elated. He’d painstakingly explained “the bumps” to his baffled American workmates and managed to surreptitiously herd them around the guy who was leaving. Everyone had instructions about which limb to grab and what to do with it once they’d got hold. In Britain, the bumps, (throwing a person up in the air repeatedly, usually on their birthday—one bump per year of life), is pretty standard. At school, if you didn’t get the bumps on your birthday then you could be pretty sure no on liked you. To foreigners, the bumps might look like a bizarre form of public torture, but it’s actually one of our more affectionate gestures.
We downplay our achievements.
There’s no triumph so great that it merits a boast, at least according to Brits. Cure cancer, end world hunger or rescue a band of girl scouts trapped down a mine and you’re still expected to act modestly and undersell your success. “Oh, it was nothing really,” is a standard British response to a praise-filled acknowledgement of our feat.
We make tea to comfort people.
There’s no disaster so disastrous that it can’t be soothed with a cuppa. At least, this is what we’ve been brought up to believe. If scientists really want to study the placebo effect, they should start in Britain with cups of tea. Unlikely as it is that the drink itself actually helps mend broken hearts or sooth a person in shock, offering tea in time of crisis is indisputably a delightful thing that we British do a lot.
We bring out a box of chocolates after a meal.
Perhaps because so many of us are terrible cooks, everyone looks forward to this final course of any traditional British dinner party. And it doesn’t have to be anything expensive. Many Brits, myself included, actively prefer mediocre Roses, Quality Street or After Eights to something posh containing more cocoa solids. (Please see point number seven.)
We call people “my love.”
Even if we’re telling someone off, it’s quite possible we’ll refer to the miscreant as “my love” throughout the scolding. We can’t help it. Other variations include, “my sweet”, “darling” or in the West Country the more risqué but in no way literal, “my lover”.
We gladly tolerate the mediocre.
As has been well established in these column inches and over several centuries of Brits existing, we don’t like to make a fuss. To help us stay true to this characteristic, we’ve evolved to actually prefer things that are a bit rubbish. It’s all we deserve, really, and truly nice things or excellent service delivered by fawning staff just make us uncomfortable.
We show respect by staying silent.
As gestures go, it’s not an especially useful one. Still, that’s not really the point. When national tragedy strikes, or on days selected for remembering the dead, train stations, stadiums and sofas around the country temporarily become platforms for mute consideration and mourning. Depending on the event, national silences last anything from one to three minutes.
We buy rounds.
Even though it’d probably work out fairer financially for everyone to buy their own drinks, Brits insist on politely offering to get a round in for the group. Everyone takes a turn and gets to feel good about they’re perceived generosity. It’s a heart-warming ritual; unless of course you’re the person drinking tap water who’s inwardly smarting at having had their not entirely sincere offer to get the drinks in accepted.
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.