Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A little less conversation

I started this blog in order to record and reflect upon my experiences with American culture, so it may surprise you how much I have been thinking about England. Occasionally people from home will try to fill me in on what public service the Conservatives have most recently done away with, since they personally can afford to go private and it's just tough luck for the rest of us. (We still have the NHS, right?) Or inform me that Prince William is now engaged to his girlfriend of an “ordinary middle-class family” who are worth millions. (I am sad to miss out on the bank holiday though.) As you can probably tell, I am a bit of a sensationalist media junkie, and though America may be in some ways a self-interested bubble, they have yet to block BBC News and the Guardian so I'm still keeping up! I especially enjoyed the news cycle of the Pope's visit – did he borrow George Bush's speechwriter for those comments? Anyway, aside from Have Your Say and Skype conversations, I have been thinking about English culture in general.

I think there is a lot that you can't know about your own country until you have lived elsewhere. Only once you have experienced an alternative culture can you make comparisons and draw (tentative) conclusions about what it means to be “British”. I know that there is a lot that I have picked up on about American culture that locals probably never question; there are also things about me which are strange here but perfectly normal at home. Obviously this is what my blog is all about: different expectations and customs that come from being raised with different values. I'd like to make some comparisons between my home and host countries regarding social attitudes, keeping in mind that a) this is based on personal experience alone and therefore somewhat anecdotal and b) I am really only talking about North Carolina vs. South East England. As Dumbledore would say, sometimes we have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy. He was probably talking about taking down Voldemort, but I think it works for not making generalisations as well.

Along with religion, racism and deep fried food, the South is commonly thought of as having a friendly community spirit. At a glance, people here are more friendly than in England. Cashiers smile and ask you how you're doing, people standing in line (queuing) behind you will ask what you're cooking tonight. Sometimes I can find this overwhelming because I'm not used to be talked to by strangers so much. Other times, it is a nice pick-me-up in my day; for instance, the baristas at my local Caribou know my name and like to ask me questions about England when I go in. So why are we not like this at home? Are English people just grumpy? Well, some of us probably are but I don't think that's the whole truth. I worked at Starbucks for a year, and part of the company's appeal is its customer service; we are instructed to smile, make conversation and generally take an interest in the customers. I know that this is something I have always liked about Starbucks, and part of why I enjoyed working there so much. But some people just do not like to be bothered. English people are incredibly reserved and private in comparison to other cultures I've experienced, and I'd be interested to know how this compares across countries. My quick Googling tells me conflicting information about how culture relates to shyness, so maybe I'll dig into that another time.

We may be reserved, but I don't think Britain is commonly perceived as being an unfriendly place. We just express ourselves differently due to different values. Since we like to respect others' privacy, we won't start badgering people we don't know in public. We will talk in quieter voices on the bus or in restaurants because we don't wish to be overheard by strangers. There is also, I think, an aversion to superficiality. Of course this depends massively on you as an individual, but I personally despise fake behaviour and will avoid dishonest people. As you can imagine, in a culture where it is polite to be friendly to everyone regardless of whether you know or care about them, it is much more difficult to decipher what is genuine and what is not. Of course people are superficial at home, too, but it is not such a way of life, so it tends to be done with more deliberation and even malice. I am definitely an upfront person – in fact, I've often been told I'm blunt. To me, dishonesty breeds dishonesty, and the most comfortable way to form relationships is to at least know that there's something real. I don't put on a show or play games, and I know that this is something those who are close to me appreciate. Unfortunately, it's not such a revered quality here.

I mentioned community spirit, and together with all the friendliness, it stands to reason that another stereotype of people here is that they are always helping each other. Actually, I haven't entirely found that to be the case. Like at home, it's not something you can make a sweeping statement about. Personally, I think I am a helpful person; I like to take care of other people and make them happy. I've always been taught to think of others and I try hard to be a good friend, but admittedly I have been frustrated many times by people who are self-centred. There isn't a great discrepancy that I notice between home and here on that front, it just depends on the person. However, I do find that people at UNC keep to themselves more. People are happy to study by themselves, work out by themselves, eat by themselves – things I considered group activities. Perhaps students here are more independent than at UEA, but I find with that comes a “not my problem” mentality. I see less evidence of people taking the initiative to help one another, which for me, being alone in a foreign country, has been extraordinarily hard.

Another difficulty is simply that I am from somewhere else, which is sometimes intimidating to Americans who have never left the US or even the South. I grew up close to London, am half-Irish, and as far as I am aware always had friends of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I think in England we also tend to be exposed to other cultures more due to the fact that other European countries are so accessible. (So I guess I am also saying that English people have even less of an excuse for being racist morons, but that doesn't stop some.) I have found that some people have no idea about England beyond stereotypes, and aren't keen to have a conversation with me; whether this is due to disinterest or a fear of causing offence I couldn't say. On the other hand, there are people who have travelled or lived elsewhere, or at least have an interest in other places, who are absolutely fine and just want to ask questions. Most people ask if I am enjoying my time at Carolina. There is a tremendous pride in being a “Tar Heel” (which deserves an entry in itself, so I won't talk about the crazy amount of merchandise available just yet), which is obviously fun to be a part of... Except, I'm not really. A community isn't a community without exclusivity, after all, and here, I am definitely an outsider. So whilst that community spirit does exist, you have to be part of the community in order to benefit.

Another aspect of the “community spirit” mentality is popularity. Some highly unscientific poking around on Facebook leads me to believe that most other British people I'm friends with have around 400-500 Facebook friends, whereas the Americans have 800-1000. Again, might be a privacy issue. Since I am unpopular, with only 350 or so friends, we should move swiftly on... Popularity is one of those concepts that we are all endlessly hooked on; you can tell by our TV shows. I like to go against the grain, but I don't particularly believe in having as many friends as possible. Unless I know everyone or have one other person to stick with me, I am uncomfortable in a large group of people. I prefer to socialise in smalls groups, and I'm not friends with anyone I would hate to be alone with. I don't think this is as much of a consideration here. I've met people who hate to go out unless they're with a large group of people looking to get equally crazy, and others who strictly classify themselves as people who don't party. There must be plenty of people who sit, like me, somewhere in the middle, but the dichotomy feels sharper than at home.

So what does it mean to socialise in a “British” way? Many things, of course, but the most noticeable difference to here is the role of conversation. If I had to nail it down, I would say that Americans like to be perceived as fun, whereas British people like to be perceived as clever. We discuss, debate, explain and commiserate. You can engage almost anyone if you pick the right subject (to those who visit the UK, start complaining about the weather and you'll fit right in). Our social activities are geared towards talking to each other, whether it's over a cup of tea at home or clustered together in a pub. Even in large clubs, for instance the Waterfront or Mercy in Norwich, there are places you can sit and talk to each other if you're not dancing or watching a band. In the American bars I've experienced so far, there are some places to sit but that's not exactly the point of going out; you could conceive of going to the pub with someone for a chat but probably not to a bar. I definitely prefer socialisation that centres around talking since I am so well-practiced at it (!), and I know I am unusual for here in that respect. People have pointed out that when I am asked an off-hand question, I will actually think about it and give a proper answer. It's automatic to me, but unusual for here.

Obviously the lack of conversation here has made my chatterbox nature come out in my writing instead... As always, let me know if you have any suggestions for topics I should write about here. I'm intending to conduct a couple of interviews and get some material to discuss the North/South divide, Greek life on campus, and also about the very different attitude to fashion. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I am going to my friend Kristina's for dinner. Sadly I am spending the rest of the holiday preparing for midterms and finals, but the semester is almost over and I'm so glad. It's been a difficult few months, and I will probably refer to this term as “the disaster show” forever after – for reasons I will share in due course! I've got some good things coming up over winter break and some plans to make next semester more enjoyable, so for now it is just waiting it out. And passing my time playing Geography games on Sporcle. Do YOU know where Azerbaijan, Suriname or Swaziland are? I do. Good conversation starter, no?