I’m a dual national, born and raised in America but settled in Britain nearly 30 years ago. The little differences in language and culture are endlessly entertaining to me, and I think by now I have a pretty good understanding of both countries, though I’m still learning.
Anyone with an interest should read Kate Fox’s amazing pop sociology book, Watching the English. I read it about 12 years ago, when I had already been here a very long time, but it taught me things I had never fully grasped. For example, she sets out a template for male pub conversation which I swear I have heard repeated practically to the word many times in my life. It’s still irritating, but less so now that I understand the cultural context.
But the thing I think about most often from that book is the different societal concepts of politeness. In England, they mostly practice negative politeness: don’t bother other people, don’t pry, don’t step over invisible boundaries. Of course we have that concept in America too (good fences make good neighbours), but it tends to be outweighed by the imperative for positive politeness: make people feel welcome and included, provide help and support. It’s not that British people are unable or unwilling to provide these things, but they are afraid it would be intrusive to offer. An obvious superficial difference is sales assistants: British people often feel harassed and appalled by the constant “Can I help you?” in American stores, while Americans look around British stores thinking, “Does anyone actually work here?”
So how do people manage to form friendships over here? I must admit I’m still slightly mystified, even though I do have some. Kate Fox recommends joining clubs and interest groups – the guarantee of something in common helps break down the social barriers and allows more substantive conversation. There’s certainly a lot in that; however, I have another option too. I can choose to step over the boundaries, counting on being excused as a foreigner. This worked well for me in the early years: over time I’ve gone native to a distressing extent, so I’m too conscious of the offence I might be giving. But I should practice it more often, because I can probably still get away with it better than I think. Probably most Brits secretly want their space invaded. Or, I might be run out of town on a rail.