Welcome to our sixth 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 anybody relocating to understand what the heck we are all about.
One is expected to always follow the unwritten rules
Of course, you all know we are a ridiculously, almost eye-wateringly, polite nation of people. If ever there is an opportunity to say, "please", "thank you", or "sorry", then we are there - whether or not we've had an invitation. So it seems all the more discourteous when some people choose not to follow the "rules". Oh yes, the rules, unwritten as they may be, are as valid as the statutes which form our legal system.
Woe betide anybody who doesn't follow the "rules".
So when I pull over behind a line of parked vehicles to let pass the other road user, who, according to the Highway Code has priority (Rule 163), I expect the "unwritten rules" to be obeyed and for the other road user to acknowledge the immensely noble sacrifice made in pausing my journey. For five or six intensely precious seconds.
Woe betide anybody who doesn't follow the "rules".
And how exactly shall it rise up, this woe? That's right, I'll give them one of my menacing looks. How dare the 22-year old, 22-stone quivering mass, driving the Vauxhall Corsa with the lowered suspension and noisy exhaust dare to not acknowledge my selfless act? Well, the truth be told, there is no daring. Rushing to the McDonald's "drive-thru", Burberry baseball cap strategically placed backwards on a normally-sized head that belies the small IQ contained within, he just couldn't be bothered to say thanks. And though he doesn't have the capacity to understand the meaning of one my deep and menacing looks, I'll give him a good looking at, anyway. So intense is my stare that it nearly cracks his windscreen.
Remember, woe betide anybody who doesn't follow the "rules".
Similarly, it is polite and standard etiquette to hold open a door for the person behind you when passing through. Rather than let it swing in their face, gracefully hold it open in the knowledge that you have done something marvellous for a fellow citizen.
In acknowledgement of yet more of my immense and clearly boundless kindness and consideration, I anticipate the grateful "thank you," or "cheers." Oh wait, what's that? Do my ears deceive me? Do I need to learn sign language now? Disappointed and annoyed, I mutter "thanks" under my breath, just loud enough for me to hear but not too loud that the 22-stone quivering mass hears and subsequently hospitalises me.
Remember, we're not terribly confrontational, us Brits, and that is generally how we deal with it.
It's your round, mate
Following on nicely from the unwritten rules, I find myself pondering another unwritten rule. Quite by accident, I can assure you. More on accidents later, perhaps.
Anyway, how about a few drinks after work with your new, British work colleagues? Sounds like a lovely idea, until you realise exactly what "a few drinks" means in Britain. We're talking drinking until you can barely walk in a straight line and then going for a curry so hot it would bring a tear to even Satan's eye.
Anyway, you are told it's your "round" and to "get them in."
Blank look; Gallic shoulder shrug.
"It's your turn to get the drinks in."
Yes, you are expected to buy drinks for everybody in your party. Sounds ridiculous, but that is how it works. The plus side is that they, in turn, will all buy you one. So, if you are a party of eight, you get to drink eight pints of lager! Nothing could be so more British, apart from shopping at BHS, perhaps. Well, ex-shopping, I suppose. Remember, never go to the bar and just get yourself a drink, as this is seen as bad form.
The rationale behind this in unclear, but I suspect is has something to do with not unnecessarily clogging up the bar area and also maximising valuable drinking time. Why have eight people go to the bar when one nominee can go whilst we all carry on drinking ourselves under the table?
As an aside: talking of rounds, a "round of toast" is a slice of toast. We have a limited understanding of geometry in the UK. Mind you, straight lines are merely a concept after eight pints of beer.
Let's split the bill
We've all been there, either as the victim or the perpetrator, of what is generally seen to be a crime but never knowingly reported other than to one's closest allies.
Out for a birthday lunch with work colleagues, there are so many of you that it just isn't worth the hassle of calculating exactly what everybody owes for what they have consumed. And it would be terribly un-British to inconvenience the waiting staff by requesting ten different bills, one for each customer. The easy solution is to split the bill equally amongst the number of guests present.
Of course, that is only fair if everybody has consumed items of the same monetary value. Needless to say, there have been a couple of bottles of Chardonnay (there's no accounting for taste) and some have had a couple of pints each (what alcohol policy?) but one or two the group haven't had anything to drink; some have had light lunches and some have had steaks. Nobody takes this into account other than those individuals whose bill should be lower than the average.
It all seems terribly unfair, but in reality it is tough shit. If you are bold enough, you can state that you are only going to pay your fair contribution of £7.95 rather than the £11 that has been requested, but this will place a burden upon your colleagues to recalculate the bill. And everyone will think you are a miserable sod.
It may hurt your wallet but don't be that person.
Don't mention it
This is another one of those self-effacing traits so prevalent in British society. Never ones to make a fuss, we carry on as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. So when somebody does something to help you, you may hear this statement, or similar, as an acknowledgement of your gratitude (don't forget to say "thanks").
It's just another ordinary day in the office but you somehow find yourself lying on the office floor with your left leg crushed beneath the photocopier that somehow toppled over as you tried to load more paper into it. You feebly call out for help and are relieved that the office beefcake has heard your cries and rushes over to be your hero. You admire his rippling biceps as he effortlessly lifts the photocopier off your leg, finally freeing you. He asks somebody to call for an ambulance and takes time to comfort you before they whisk you away for some top notch NHS treatment.
"How can I ever thank you?" you say.
"Don't mention it, Marco," he replies.
Don't mention it? Yes, Brits are confusing. So here you are in the land where pleases, thank yous and sorries were practically invented and you run the daily gauntlet of suffering the onset of yet more woe in the event of non-utterance of such at the correct points of a conversation, and you are being told not to say your thanks. How do you respond to that?
There really is no logical response when you are asked not to mention it, other than, "But I already have mentioned it."
Ideally, the phrase should be spoken before the recipient of goodwill has had a chance to say his or her thanks. Though that would seem strange: "Look, I know I'm helping you by lifting this photocopier off your leg - ooh, that does look nasty - but whatever you do, don't thank me for it. It could ruin our relationship."
Brits use a lot of seemingly strange phrases, so do watch out as we don't always say what we mean. You will get used to it - just take everything you hear with a pinch of salt. Or possibly a handful.
Heating on yet?
It's getting to that time of year again. Summer is a long distant memory for most of us and the cloud in the sky is becoming thicker and darker than usual. There's the odd spot of rain in the air and you find yourself dodging umbrella tips once more. I always wonder how many people are admitted to hospital each year due to being stabbed in the eye by an umbrella - accidentally or otherwise.
It's getting darker as your alarm goes off and you struggle to get out of bed. A hot shower wakes you up but you find your towel is still damp from the day before, even though you hung it out to dry. Ah, this is it, the time of year when its not quite cold enough to put the heating back on but just not warm enough for your towels to naturally air dry.
Welcome to autumn.
It's not all doom and gloom as the onset of autumn signals competition time. We all like a competition, especially when there is no prize other than the feeling of self-satisfaction.
Competitors fall into two camps: those who have already put their heating on; and those who refuse to put their heating on until they have to wear a coat indoors to stay warm. Obviously, as Brits, we love talking about the weather, so conversations take place across the country as to when would be the "right" time to put the heating back on. The funny thing is, both sides always seem smugly resolute with their choice, as though it is the only way. Of course, I am always right and it has absolutely nothing to do with how warm or cold I am feeling. It's all about the dry towels.
For those of you who have never visited, Britain is mainly cool and damp. Be prepared. No matter how ferociously you heat your home, the bathroom will almost always be cold as you will have to open the window to combat condensation. Either that or you will spend a small fortune on mildew-removing products. There's probably a clause in your tenancy agreement about ventilation, mould and mildew - be aware, as the landlord is entitled to make deductions from your security deposit because of this.
Do not worry, though, as the autumn/winter seasons only span nine months of the year in Britain - ten if you're north of the line that crosses England between Liverpool and Hull.
No, there was nothing more on accidents. Well spotted.