There seems to be a lot of stuff going around on the web at the moment about ‘being British’. The latest I’ve spotted is about what British-themed parties look like around the world. Apparently everyone thinks we Brits all sit around eating Union Jack cupcakes, drinking lots of tea and hanging out with the Queen, Doctor Who and Russell Brand. That doesn’t sound like any party I’ve ever been to, but hey, maybe next time.
The other thing everyone thinks about the British is that we’re terribly polite, apologise all the time and would rather sit and seethe in silence when someone annoys us than dream of saying anything. And if that’s true then I’m probably the most British person in the world (or at least in Britain). One of my favourite Twitter accounts is Very British Problems (@SoVeryBritish); the reason I love it is because every single tweet sounds exactly like something I’d do/say/think. For example, the latest tweet: ‘The horror of touching the spoon on the bin when disposing of a tea bag.” Shudder.
Or one from a few days ago: “Catching your polite smile in a reflection and realising it’s actually an odd, pained grimace.” Yep.
Or: “Not knowing anyone at the party so pretending to do something extremely important and complicated on your phone.” Done it. Last week, in fact.
I could go on.
Over the last few days, I’ve caught myself being British several times, including:
– apologising to strangers when they’d just walked into me.
– doing the pavement dance (you know, that awkward situation where you go to move out of someone’s way, and they do the same, and then you both dance back and forth for several minutes trying to get past).
– deciding to miss the train rather than run for it and risk it pulling away without me, in case anyone saw.
– gesturing wildly after someone tried to run me over at a pedestrian crossing, even though they were long gone and there was nobody to see.
– trying to stifle my coughs and sneezes in public despite having a horrible cold, to avoid annoying anyone.
I’ve also realised how much of my time I spend being silently furious with perfect strangers. Obviously, as a commuter I consider it my duty to hate everyone else on the train – especially if they’re chewing gum. Grr. Pretty much every day I find myself pressed up against a window as the person next to me takes up half my seat as well as their own. But I never say anything, of course. I might scowl or grimace a bit, knowing full well they can’t see because they’re next to me, not opposite. If they’re really annoying me, I might attempt a sigh. Occasionally I’ll consider writing an outraged tweet to let the rest of the world know how angry I am, but will usually reject the idea just in case my fellow commuter happens to be on Twitter and somehow realises who I’m talking about. And then if I catch them with my elbow, obviously I’ll apologise, even though the reason it happened is because they’re basically sitting in my lap.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that nobody can tell when I’m angry, even if I think I’ve made it very clear. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve apologised to someone for snapping at them, only for them to tell me they hadn’t noticed anything was wrong. It’s reached the point where I literally have to burst into tears before anyone realises I’m not completely happy. And that’s not a pretty sight.
The same goes for when I have a drink – one of my colleagues swears he’s never seen me drunk (which I’d love to say is true, but sadly it is not). I’ve therefore come to the conclusion that I must just be a very polite, restrained drinker. Which is probably a good thing – particularly since I’m not only extremely British but also highly neurotic, and have been known to spend months (years, sometimes) worrying about something I may have said or done, whether that’s because it was embarrassing for me or because I’m anxious that I might have upset someone else. Also, just so you know, if I’ve ever apologised to you and you didn’t reassure me that it was fine, I’m now convinced that you hate me. So if you haven’t heard from me in a while, that’ll be why.
Of course I’m not saying that worrying about other people’s feelings, or avoiding picking fights with strangers on trains, are bad things. But sometimes I wonder what life would be like if we all just said what we thought instead of keeping quiet. Probably that person sitting next to me would apologise and shuffle over a bit. Then again, I’m almost certainly not going to try it and find out. Just in case.
By the way, there’s now a Very British Problems book. It won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but it will make you laugh a lot in public. Then stifle your laughter and look round to check nobody noticed, because you’re in public and you’re British and we don’t do that sort of thing.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be having a cup of tea with the Queen. Cheerio.