Welcome to our third instalment in our "about Britain" series. For the uninitiated, Britain can appear to be a pretty odd place. We have odd habits, odd food, odd weather, odd taps and an even odder sense of humour. It's nothing that a good bout of cultural training can't sort out, but I'm going to run a series of posts about what makes the Brits so wonderfully weird - or weirdly wonderful - which may help our non-indigenous friends to understand what the heck we are all about.
1. We like to drink. A lot.
The drinking of alcoholic beverages has reached such a prolific level in Britain that it could almost be classed as a national pastime.
We consume a staggering 14,841 pints of beer and 13,923 glasses of wine a minute; 24 bottles of white and 23 bottles of red wine are downed every second; and cocktail lovers drink 353 shots a second (which equates to 279 million litres of spirits a year).
The seed is sown at an early age and pre-weekend conversations can go a little like this:
"Doing anything interesting tonight?"
"Yep, I'm getting pissed." (For any American readers not in the know, that doesn't mean getting annoyed, it means getting very drunk indeed. We say "pissed off" for annoyed.")
I kid you not.
What bothers me is that it's not even that somebody might be going out with their friends, visiting a few pubs, having a few drinks and perhaps getting a little squiffy that is important; it is that the principal aim of the evening is to get so smashed that the following day is spent in bed nursing the mother of all hangovers. Welcome to binge drinking.
No, we don't go out to socialise, we go out to drink. If our friends happen to be there, then so much the better! I remember from my student days, when I spent a year studying in Pisa, the local ladies would watch over a glass of wine and the gentlemen would nurse a bottle of beer for a two hour period, and I couldn't work out what was wrong with them. Looking back, it was I, the Brit, who was wrong, being used to guzzling a pint every twenty minutes; and I wasn't, nor have I ever been, a big drinker by British standards.
I met a big drinker once. In Accrington. Up North. Where some say it is grim.
He was a big drinker in both senses - he drank like there was no tomorrow and he was physically massive - both vertically and horizontally. He reminded me of the bygone professional wrestler known as Giant Haystacks so I sensibly decided not to attempt to match his drinking pace. As we ordered our last drinks of the night, I just looked at mine, thinking I'd had enough and didn't really want to drink it, while the Northern Powerhouse just threw his back in a matter of seconds.
It has been suggested that the amount of alcohol consumed is directly proportional to the climatic temperature. So, as the UK isn't terribly warm, we need to drink plenty of alcohol to keep warm. Either that, or it is to make being British and living in Britain more tolerable...
Indeed, it is ingrained into our psyche. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the UK's chief medical officers have just announced that any amount of alcohol can increase the risk of cancer and that we should consume no more than 14 units a week - which is equivalent to six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine.
Goodness me, we shall go thirsty!
2. We still love tea
Despite the abundance of coffee shops and unstoppable growth in popularity of coffee in Britain, tea still remains the bedrock of society. Drinking tea is an integral part of a Briton's life and will likely form part of a routine. My dear granny, bless her, when asked whether or not she would like a cup of tea, would check the clock before deciding if it was the appropriate time to take tea. Yes, it is all very odd.
The element of routine probably stems from the concept of the "tea break" at work. If anyone uses the term "tea break" in a working environment, this is universally accepted as a break from work, whether or not there is any intention of actually drinking tea. During meetings, conferences, etc., this is being replaced by the term "comfort break" - a clear indication that folk are aware our bladders are about to burst due to the excesses of tea we sponged up during the last break.
We drink an enormous 165 million cups of tea a day. Why so much? Well, it is the first step to solving a crisis:
- What do we do if Dave gets knocked over on his way to work? Wrap him in a blanket and feed him hot, sweet tea until the ambulance arrives.
- What do we do when Tracey's boyfriend dumps her by text? Never mind, dear, I'll put the kettle on.
- How am I ever going to eat all these scones? They'll go nicely with a pot of tea, Jim.
- The photocopier's just blown up. Right, who wants a cuppa?
- My feet are going to drop of from all this shopping. Best put my feet up with a cup of cha.
- Eric the budgie has just died. White, no sugar, please.
Talking of which, I have some biscuits to polish off...
3. Only if you're having one
The Brits really do not like causing trouble for anybody. We're just far too polite to make a fuss or have anyone running around after us unnecessarily. Anyway, we have that stiff upper lip, so we can deal with any adversity that comes our way.
If the medium steak we ordered comes well done, we're probably not going to complain about it. Nobody was hurt, hospitalised or killed, so there is no need to cause anybody any trouble by mentioning it. We'll just eat elsewhere next time, or order something different from the menu.
If we spot somebody reading Horse and Hound in the dentist's waiting room and fancy a little glance at it ourselves, we would say, "If it isn't too much trouble, could you possibly pass me the magazine when you are finished with it?" If it isn't too much trouble? How troublesome could handing a magazine to somebody actually be?
My particular favourite, and you will hear this and variants thereof all the time, when you offer somebody a cup of tea, is, "Only if you're having one."
Let that sink in. It is mind-blowing in its oddity. One either wants a cup of tea or one doesn't. That decision is not dependent upon whether or not somebody else is having a cup of tea at the same time. This phenomenon does not appear anywhere else in British society but it is yet another display of Brits not wanting anyone to go to too much trouble. Don't put the kettle on especially for me, whatever you do. The way around is to say, "I'm not having one but the kettle's just boiled." Even if it hasn't.
Good Lord, we're a considerate lot, aren't we?
4. We don't embrace foreign cultures
Whilst Brits love travelling abroad, your typical Brit isn't going to get all excited about the Kalamata olives or the Iberico ham or the Musee du Louvre or Chichen Itza. No Siree! What Brits are really looking for when travelling abroad is a little bit of home with a little bit more sunshine. Brits do not travel to explore other cultures, they travel for sunshine. That is it. Once the sunny location has been found, it is business as usual.
A number of European holiday destinations have self-styled themselves into little Britains, with rows of bars offering happy hours to entice the drinkers in the evening, whilst serving traditional English cooked breakfasts in the mornings. Lunchtime and dinner menus are littered with British pub food dishes, so the resorts are swarming with fat, sunburned, and uncouth Brits. A few years back I took a holiday to Olu Deniz in Turkey. To be fair, it was a lazy, battery-charging, beach holiday and there wasn't a lot of cultural exploration on the agenda, but I was looking forward to delving into the local cuisine for sure. It turned out to be a great disappointment as most of the local establishments were providing British pub style dishes to people who didn't really give a toss about Turkey other than it was sunny. To think they could have stayed at home and eaten burgers on a sun-bed.
So there we are - rather than enjoy the gems a foreign country can offer, we want to replicate Britain the world over. It's like some pathetic and ignorant reassertion of the British Empire.
We can be embarrassingly uncivilised at times.
5. We don't like guns
Hey dude, what's with the piece? Well, guns make sense to a lot of folk in the US, but to us Brits, we just cannot our head around it. Look at these stats - c. two children under the age of 14 are killed every week in accidental shootings; Americans are 20 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries. And check this out: In 2013, the state of Iowa granted permits to acquire or carry guns in public to people who are legally or completely blind. Now that really is an accident or three waiting to happen.
One has to really question the decision making behind that one - it is truly idiotic. And that is how we view gun ownership. The equation is simple: if you give somebody a gun, people will die. It really is as simple as that. OK, we have a few cases in the UK where people have been shot, but how much worse could that have been if we let everyone bear arms?
Whilst it might be nice thought to shoot somebody in the kneecaps for letting their dog defecate on your lawn, we do like to keep it all very simple over here. We solve disputes the old fashioned way, without the need for a licence or the purchase of any specialist equipment. We simply refer to the Queensbury rules or a glass in the face. See point 1 above.
Tune in next week for part 4!
Image by Christian Kadluba