it's my goal to be diplomatic in my comments about the differences between America and England (or more precisely, London) in my blog.  but i fear that i will not always sound diplomatic.  i'm finding that it's difficult to write observations on differences without sorta favoring one side or the other.  it's hard for me, and it would be hard for just about everyone else too.  this is especially true when one side is something you identify closely with, and the other is not.  there are wonderful things about almost every place, but there are some things i've noticed that simply are not attractive about my new home -- just as there are many things i'd label unattractive in America.

the thing i'm thinking about right now is how strangers act toward each other, and about how retail and cash register employees act toward customers here.

in the five weeks that i've been in London i've probably made a retail transaction of some type every other day -- if not every single day.  sometimes it's a grocery store, sometimes a card shop, pharmacy, post office or high street department store.  and when i'm out and about i'm generally a friendly shopper.  i say please and thank you and excuse me and when i am being served at a counter, i say hello or how are you and i make a point of smiling at the person checking me out.  however, i can count on one hand the number of store employees who have bothered to reply to me in any way (other than to mumble miserably the amount of money i owe for my purchase). 

and frankly, that is fucking lame. 

i know not every person in ANY place is friendly.  far from it.  and i know that not everyone smiles easily or is having a good day, especially if they are at work.  i know this very well because i was raised in a family who owned a retail business, and i've had many jobs where i was required to interact with customers.  and no, i wasn't always in a good mood and i wasn't always Miss Mary Sunshine, but i DID always look at customers, greet them and/or help them -- not to mention exchange pleasantries as i was completing a transaction.

but Londoners are not this way.  not at all.  and before i say more about "Londoners," let me say that oftentimes the people i interact with here are not from London at all -- they live here, but they have very thick foreign accents from France or Pakistan or India or Slavic countries, so it's not that people FROM London are cold and miserable -- it's that London has MADE them cold and miserable.

yesterday i was in the Heyward Gallery gift shop at Southbank Centre and i encountered another of Britain's Most Miserable People.  it was the shop girl who took my money at the register (or "at the till" as people here say).  she wasn't being snobbish -- she was just another cold London bitch.  and this was not a new thing.  everywhere you go around here, when you get to the counter to pay for your stuff, or exchange a fee for service of whatever kind, the person (male or female, regardless of age) is unbelievably cold and hardened.  and despite the fact that i've encountered this kind of person almost every day since i've been in England, it still amazes me each time it happens. 

sometimes my "better half" is with me when it happens, and as we walk away i draw his attention to the person we've just dealt with.  this means that he is also starting to realize just how "not nice" people in London can be.  and actually, i think the reason he notices it is because he recently visited the United States, staying in a small town where everyone says "hello" or "how are you?" or waves as they pass you on the street in their car.  now, he and i both know that that level of courtesy and friendliness was due to being in a quiet town full of helpful locals who enjoy a visitor, but i could also use Los Angeles as a reference point.  i lived in L.A. for over 10 years, and while i was there working in a cut-throat industry full of back stabbers, even then i was surrounded by people who smiled at me and said hi -- or at least responded to me when i said "hey, how are ya" in a social situation.

people might read this and think i'm being too critical or overly sensitive or not "tough" enough in adjusting to life in the large city of London, but why should i be anything different than what i am?  what is wrong with being a thoughtful person who says hello to people in a forced interaction?  what is wrong with cracking a damn smile at someone?  why is it ME who should change to accommodate the less-friendly people in this (or any) city?  after all, New Yorkers are known as rude, aggressive assholes, but living there didn't make me one.

in England there's a TV commercial for Heineken beer in which a British person is about to greet a business man from another nation -- a businessman whose custom it is to give a hug as a greeting.  in this commercial the British man is narrating, saying that he's dreading giving a hug to this jolly man.  the British guy envisions that he is lost at sea and the man who rescues him from a helicopter above is the foreign businessman that is about to hug him.  the image allows the Brit to hug the man warmly.  the joke appears to be that Brits do not like, or want to participate in, "the hug" as a greeting.  this is how i'm learning about English culture.  from beer commercials.  but if it's a fact large enough to be the central joke of a major advertising campaign for Heineken in England, there is obviously some truth there.

having seen that i wonder:  just how much did the British people i met at my wedding despise it when i hugged them hello or goodbye?  how much did they make fun of me when they left my presence?  how much do the few people i've met in England dislike me because of my American "friendly disease?"  and why are they all so amazingly cold when their country's neighbors are Europeans who historically kiss and/or hug every person they greet?  surely this is not an American-in-London problem.  surely this is an English thing.  comment if you'd like.

so, am i supposed to build an invisible wall around myself with a tiny hole in it, through which i MIGHT extend a dainty hand, should i choose to shake hands with a person i've met?  i don't quite get it...  as i write this i'd like to point out that i've met a few English folks who are from towns far outside of London, and they are warm, loving and welcoming people.  they are great.  but as i said, they are not from LONDON.  this is why i have to talk about this as a perceived London problem.

i don't like being in a place where a nice personality is unwanted -- and possibly mocked.  but this is my new home.

the question is, will London make me one of "them?"

i hope not.

for those of you with time on your hands, here's the Heineken "hugging" commercial i was talking about:


Mary Person
06/01/2008 6:02am

When I was in England in 2002, I opted to skip London and travel the countryside. I didn't encounter the "London disease" in the people I encountered during that trip. The next time I go to the UK, I'll be curious to experience this odd behavior.


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