Playing It Cool: English Lesson 3

From the Imperial War Museum, London, http://www.iwm.org.uk (propaganda poster, WWII)

In my last post I mentioned having learned to “contain myself when possible” within the first few months, probably weeks, of moving to Oxford. The English, I noted, are not a particularly loud bunch. (Kate Fox refers to English mildness as a key social characteristic in her Watching the English.) And I am not a particularly loud person. In fact, I would never characterize myself as loud period. But in England, suddenly my volume rose by 50%. Or maybe the volume around me decreased by 50%. I think the latter.

I would find myself in a circle of new people, begin to introduce myself by extending my hand, saying my name, “nice to meet you”–the customary greeting exchange, so I thought. But in this setting, my words, tone and actions felt abrasive. As if I were yelling at everyone, and they all just wanted to scurry away from the loud girl.

Over time I begin to mimic them more by quieting my voice, hiding my seeming eagerness by omitting the “nice to meet you” and replacing it with a slight nod of the head. It felt unnatural, like I was holding back a part of who I was.

I became quieter in many other situations. My American-white teeth, accent and clothing style said “U.S. TRANSPLANT” in neon lights. Why draw even more attention to it? So at my local sandwich shop I watched how the English would order, pay and say thank you in a delicate manner. I tried to do the same.

At the bus stop, I watched a passenger quietly board without asking the driver any questions as to where he was going and which stop was his. He would then remain quiet on the bus, only speaking to the person directly beside him if they knew each other and even then, only in low murmuring tones.

I often observed in wonder. They were all so chill. I wanted to be that way, and until moving to England, I thought I was. But my calm, cool and collected equated to their energetic, eager and slightly crazy.  

So for a year, I toned it down. Whispered more, smiled less, played it cool. This sounds negative, but as in all of my English Lessons, I would ultimately find beauty in this British characteristic.

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19 thoughts on “Playing It Cool: English Lesson 3

  1. Oh my goodness, I would never fit in there! I know I’m loud and boisterous. I try to tone it down, really I do. But it just slips out. I think I’ll stay in Indiana. LOL

    Loved this post, Andrea!

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  2. Never thought you were loud. You did a very good job of whispering in the Bodleian when you needed to, anyway!

    It’s so fun to read about all the secret changes you had to make. Hope you weren’t trying to be quiet when you were singing in the choir, though!

    Make sure you sell these blogs to the tourist information centre in Oxford. Or perhaps you could hand them out on flights to the UK…

    Have you told everyone about the ‘chav’ test? (And chavs in general)

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    1. Haha, Ben, I think the chav category deserves its own post–it’s already brewing… And selling these at the trouist info center is a great idea! If I email them to you, can you just make copies and drop them off next time you’re in Oxford? 🙂

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      1. I’m happy to be ‘chav correspondent’ for the blog if you need any information about this particular sub-species of bacteria. Don’t know if we ever discussed ‘chavettes’ which are the pram-pushing female version.

        Can’t wait to hear your take on chav culture whenever you do the blog…

        Will stop by at the tourist centre and pitch the idea to them. (Taking my 10% agent’s fee, of course).

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  3. Good thoughts, Andrea. I’ve noticed the same when traveling in the US. My Texas-born volume comes across like a used car salesman in NY or the Northwest.

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  4. Remember when I busted on the top step in Starbucks and my pasty and diet coke went SAILING?? Definitely not my most demure moment whilst in the Ox.

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  5. I think there’s a graciousness about that that I could take a few lessons from 🙂 Sometimes I get so eager to meet people that I can see how I may need to just sit back sometimes. I’d probably scare them.

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  6. Hi, I am an Irish man married to a Yorkshire Lass. I think I should warn your readers that not all English people are quiet and reserved. Travel to Yorkshire, Cumbria or the other Northern counties and you will find a much more interesting culture 🙂

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    1. Alan, thanks for commenting! I didn’t get to do any traveling in the North while abroad but I really hope to someday. I’ve heard the Northern counties can be an exception to this rule 🙂
      For now, all of my English observations will be of the Southern counties. It’s amazing how vastly different cultures can be by just driving a few hours one direction!

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  7. not sure what i am loving more about your blog – the posts, or the conversations on this “comment” section. forgive me if i sound overly excited (that’s the American in me coming out). i’m a new “blogger.” but seriously DRE, i am LOVING these English lessons. i think dad would approve of this sermon series topic, with its cohesive theme and clear messaging:) i can’t wait to read your next post! and i can’t wait to see what the next series will be about. have you thought about podcasting? i would totally download you:)

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    1. Jenna! WHERE IS YOUR BLOG? I just googled you but I guess it’s not up yet?
      Podcasts!? Oh goodness, how about next time we’re together I just read my entire blog to you aloud?
      I’m so glad you’re reading, and yes, I love blog conversations too. Can’t wait to read yours!

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  8. i know exactly what you are talking about. when i first got to Scotland I was 100% myself – which as you know, is never described as “fading into the background”.

    Then as I sat in the Glasgow, Scotland airport 6 months later waiting for my flight back to the States, I found myself COMPLETELY appalled by the way a family of American tourists were handling themselves. I was embarrassed and tried to shrink my “American-ness” out of sight. I did NOT want to be associated with them.

    6 months in the UK will definitely quiet a person.

    Even someone like me…. 🙂

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  9. andrea, i’m a friend of jenna’s and now an english lessons reader. great blog, really. thought this post was so good and just had to comment that my sister has this “keep calm and carry on” poster framed above her toilet.

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    1. Hi Shelley! I’ve heard so much about you from Jenna! I’m so glad you stopped by the blog 🙂 I love that your sister has that poster and especially that it’s above her toilet.

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  10. I stumbled across your blog, and love it! Just wanted to give my perspective coming from a more reserved society, which sounds like the UK you described! I’m from Singapore, and I guess you could say we’re “chill”. We don’t talk to strangers, don’t introduce ourselves to strangers, don’t express any pleasure/delight at meeting someone new..and many times I just wish we were different!

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    1. Hi, Samantha! Well, you’re good at introducing yourself to others via blog 🙂 That’s really interesting about Singapore though. I have a couple of friends from there I met while studying and they’re really friendly but maybe they’re exceptions, or maybe it’s easier once you leave your own reserved society and enter another…hmm, you got me thinkin. Thanks for commenting!

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