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A recent Buzzfeed post (“How to Annoy Brits”) has “Praise Them Publicly” as No. 16. I’ll go one further and say that we Brits don’t do well with public praise in general, so coming to the U.S. is a steep learning curve and a cultural about-face.
Americans are typically generous with praise, and whether you find it endearing or disingenuous, it’s part of life. A Brit’s reaction to any sort of praise or compliment is usually self-deprecating and bashful. “I love your shirt” elicits “Oh this old thing? I’ve had it for years.” In the U.S., a smile and a “Thank you” will suffice; deflecting or ignoring a compliment can come across as weird or rude rather than perhaps just the “modest” you were aiming for.
Self-praise is known as “blowing your own trumpet” in the U.K. and is tantamount to treason. Listen to any sportsman or woman after a win, and they can just about admit that they played well, while Americans have no problem enjoying the win and pointing to their best shots, goals or whatever. On a slightly serious note (heaven forbid) in researching my last book, many British teachers admitted that they and their students found it very hard to fill in applications for American colleges because they were asked for “accomplishments and strengths” as well as academic achievements. As one contributor put it, U.K. teachers “are not very good at waxing lyrical about [their] students other than in academic terms.” I advised both teachers and students to blow those trumpets as hard as they could without, of course, telling porky pies.
When job-hunting, Americans are not shy about listing their talents alongside their experience so it’s a must for Brits to do this too. Similarly, once you land a job, don’t sit back on your laurels; Americans aren’t backward in coming forward, and you could find yourself overlooked for projects and promotions if you don’t keep that spotlight firmly shining on you. According to a 1996 article in the Independent, British women in particular are bad at this. “When a British woman goes to the United States they may be tempted to hover on the fringes of a social gathering expecting to be noticed by someone important. She will find, however, that American colleagues will be in there presenting themselves.” Hopefully female Brits have improved in this area; if not, get out there!
As for praising our own children? A subtle display of trophies around the house is one thing, but it’s quite another for us Brits to actually mention our child’s prowess in gymnastics/football/art/dance. A Facebook status update might say something like, “Jonny managed not to disgrace himself at tennis today,” when the child, in fact, won the tournament; what you won’t see are adjectives like “amazing,” “talented” or “wonderful.” (Don’t worry, Brits, in this area, we are vindicated: recent research suggests that adults who lavish extravagant praise on children may often be doing more harm than good.) When someone else praises our children (“Your kids are so polite”), we’re more likely to say “Can’t be mine then” than “Oh thanks. I’m glad to hear that.” Again, this can come across as weird in the more kid-centric U.S.
So, in summary, when someone praises you, your spouse, your children, your dog or your house, a simple “Thank you” will both suffice and move the conversation swiftly along without too much excruciation on your part.
Oh, and remembering to throw out the odd compliment here and there doesn’t go amiss either.
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