An English Conundrum: Polite Or Direct?

I love a cultural stereotype as much as the next person. Where would the Foster’s ads be without them? I love those ads. They make me a little bit homesick. Although I can safely say I have never said hoo-roo to anyone when saying goodbye. And I have never, ever met a girl called Sheila. Come to think of it, do any Aussies drink Foster’s?

We are all like this…

A quirk many people say about the English is they don’t say what they mean. They would rather be polite than direct. I lived here in London for two years in my twenties and I didn’t notice it then. It might have had something to do with working in an investment bank with a stint on their trade floor. There was some serious straight talking there.

…and you are all like that.

But I have noticed it this time around. I haven’t undertaken any kind of anthropological study, so I’m not saying this is proof. It’s just an observation, and one that’s limited to Londoners at that.

My lovely neighbour came around to tell me about a plumbing issue affecting her place and ours. She said she didn’t know if she should call a plumber. I said, “Do you want me to call the plumber?” She said no. We then repeated this exact conversation minutes later. That afternoon she told me she had wanted me to call the plumber. I was confused.

“But I asked you, and you said no?”
“Yes but I was being polite. I said it TWICE!”

Apparently, “I’m not sure if I should call the plumber” means “Can you please call the plumber?” especially if said twice. I didn’t know that.

At playgroup the other day, I was having a chat. The group’s organiser came up and politely checked that I knew I was rostered to wash up. I knew I was, but I thanked her and kept chatting, thinking there was no hurry as playgroup wasn’t finishing for a while. When I went to wash up, the woman who had checked in with me had done it. I felt terrible, but then it clicked. I asked her, “When you reminded me I was washing up today, were you asking me to wash up straight away?” She laughed, looked slightly embarrassed and said she was, actually. Aha! I’m starting to get it!

So… this evening my other neighbours approached me. They asked if their cat was bothering us. Well, I knew exactly what they were trying to say, because I have worked it out! So I said the obvious thing when someone asks if their cat is being a nuisance. I answered their question by asking if we are too loud.

They looked at each other, then looked back at me. They asked me, again, if their cat was bothering us. I told them no, their cat is fine “but are we too noisy?” And so began a rather lengthy series of not at alls! and no, it’s fine when they cracked. At least, I think they cracked.

“It’s wonderful having lively people next door. Before you arrived that house was so quiet.”

I get it. We’ll keep the noise down.

This November, I’m writing one post every day as part of NaBloPoMo.

NaBloPoMo 2011

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