Warming the severe and austere

When recently in England, equal time spent in London and the gorgeous countryside, I was struck by the juxtaposition of textbook perfection manners, and that infamous stiff English upper lip. The right words, but delivered in a ho-hum expression (not quite a scowl, not quite a smile…remember the opening bus scene in “Shaun of the Dead”?).

In Canada in general, and Toronto in particular, I think our version of cordiality is warmer. When we say our pleases and thank you’s, we say them with conviction. When I’d get pleases and thank you’s across the pond, in a charming accent of course, sometimes it felt like due diligence lip service: well-intentioned, but dare I say, insincere?

It became a game for me to see in how many mundane interactions (buying coffee, asking for directions, service at bars and restaurants, etc.) I could crack that austere front, and make someone make eye contact, smile, or raise a bit of intonation in their voice. You know, stir up a bit of life.  The good news is that I was happily surprised. Time and time again my efforts were reciprocated. For sharing the same language and monarchy, it was an interesting social experiment to see just how different our conventions are.  So while that stiff upper lip is a good front, there’s a bit of Canadian tucked inside every English folk that I met (just have to coax it out of them, a bit. Maple syrup, perhaps?).

As an afterthought, maybe if they shared our same tipping conventions , they’d have a bit of love in their service….


  1. Tom C
    September 28, 2009

    As a patriotic Brit myself, I read the article with a little bit of bias, but I have to admit I agree on the most part with what is written especially having spent time in the US and Canada recently. I consider myself a friendly chap, but if a random person introduces themself I am immediately put on the defensive, half expecting them to want something. Our culture is quite regimented and structured, so excessive friendliness can be considered nosey and intrusive, wrong though that may be. Also I’ve often thought in the US that the ‘warmth’ of the average person can be a little fake, so I think there’s something to be said for taking the middle ground i.e. be inquisitive if you’re genuinely interested not because you think you should.

    It’s worth pointing out that the character of British people varies hugely from place to place, and also based on what the social class of the person in question is. For example I would say a working class person from the north of England is a lot friendlier and more open than for example an upper class person from the London area. I’m sure this isn’t exclusive to the UK but in my experience it is more exaggerated here.

    There’s 2 UK stereotypes commonly portrayed in Hollywood 1) the very posh, bumbling, awkward (think Hugh Grant), stiff upper lip type who is very much as described in the article, and 2) the cockney wideboy type that speaks pigeon English and gets in fights (think Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels). Needless to say the vast majority of people are somewhere in between and are quite friendly, but unlikely to come and tell you their life story unless prompted by a lovely Canadian.

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