Category Archives: Etiquette

Interrogation

InterrogationI recently blogged about the tendency of some Americans to monologue and subject those around them to a never-ending stream of information about themselves that the world never needed or wanted to know. Well, I realized the opposite can also be true. In addition to incessant talking, some Americans have the equally annoying habit of incessant questioning.

I went out for dinner with a female acquaintance the other week, looking for nothing more than to get to know each other better and enjoy a nice restaurant meal together. The meal ended up being delicious. And the woman was nice enough. But by the end of the meal I felt exhausted – because she had been asking me non-stop questions the entire time. I barely had a chance to chew my food, or ask her any questions in return, or maybe just enjoy a moment of quiet together over a glass of wine.

Now don’t get me wrong. Asking a person questions is something you do when you have a genuine interest in getting to know that person better, and on the other hand it’s off-putting when you meet self-involved people who never ask you any questions about yourself (I do always wonder how such people are so lacking in curiosity about others). But you don’t just get to know a person by asking them questions about their self, their past, and their preferences; you also get to know a person organically and naturally by spending time together and discussing topics of common interest.

I have noticed in the the US that people tend to ask a lot more personal questions, a lot more directly, and a lot more up front in the getting-to-know-you process. (American people also tend to volunteer a lot more personal information about themselves directly and up front.) I’m comparing this to British people, who tend to be much more private and reserved. The Brits avoid direct personal questions, which could be perceived as nosy or invasive; they tend to stick to “safe” common-territory conversation topics such as the weather, current events, sports, or something that both parties can moan (read: bitch) about together, like the London Underground.

These even plays itself out in the form of introductions. I remember in the UK, I would sometimes talk at length with someone – for example a random person I met at a house party, and spent most of the evening chatting with – without them ever asking my name (or me theirs). Then, at the very end of the night, when you part ways, one person might say, “Oh, by the way, what’s your name?” or even “Oh, by the name, my name is Ritch.” You introduce yourself as an afterthought, as though even asking someone’s name too soon in the conversation might be too pushy.

This is of course exactly the opposite of the American style, which is all about bulldozing right in there, proactively walking up to someone at the party with your hand extended, ready for handshake, and blasting “Hi, my name is Bob, what’s yours?” I appreciate that American forwardness and ease of talking to strangers. But I do wish sometimes that conversation could occur a bit more naturally – and part of that is sometimes silence occurring naturally.

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Filed under Communications, Etiquette

Monologues

Make. It. Stop.

Make. It. Stop.

On one of the many plane journeys I found myself on recently, I sat down next to a woman who could only be described as… audible. Actually, I wasn’t really next to her at all. She was sitting a row or two behind me, and another three seats to the right, with an aisle also between us.

But, judging by the volume of her voice, she might as well have been sitting right next to me. Because I could clearly hear everything she said. Everything. She. Said. Indeed, there was no way not to hear it.

It wasn’t even the volume of her voice that annoyed me. Or her nasal, heavy American accent. It was the fact that she was talking about herself, ad infinitum. I pitied the poor woman in the seat immediately next to her, who she had latched onto as her listener (err, victim). Every few sentences or so, the victim would politely nod or utter brief words of concurrence, and the woman would steam roll on with her monotonous monologue (or is it soliloquy, since she might as well have been talking to herself). Occasionally Ms. Motor Mouth would pause long enough for her victim to edge in a sentence of her own.

I repeatedly tried to block out the conversation (and by “conversation” I mean monologue) and refocus on the novel I was reading. But it was impossible. (They had not yet handed out the earphones, and sadly I had forgotten to pack the noise-cancelling headphones which I have now realized are indispensable for such journeys.)

No matter how hard I tried, my ears and my brain kept on getting drawn back to her riveting story about how she had driven all they way to the Washington airport from Florida so she could fly direct to Addis Ababa, and how she had only gotten permission from her manager to get one week off work, and how she had forgotten to pack her toothbrush, and other mundane minutiae of her life that could not possibly have been of interest to her victim or the dozens of other passengers within earshot of her on the plane.

I’ve encountered a lot of these people since returning to America. Sure, they also exist in Europe and Africa. But, they tend to be on crack or mentally unstable or homeless (or all of the above). In the US, on the other hand, “verbal diarrhea” appears to be an infection that plagues even functioning, drug-free members of society. It’s as though they just have no verbal filter, and narrate their entire stream of consciousness. Out loud. It’s like listening to the radio, but you can’t turn it off. I’ve noticed there are a lot of these “radio people” in America.

It’s especially noticeable when you hear a monologuer talking on the phone, because then you can’t even here the brief interrupting “Uh Huh” noise of the noble listener on the other end of the line; you perceive only the slight pause and inhalation of breath on the part of the speaker, before they barrel into the next repetitive detail of their day. And these monologuers always tend to repeat themselves (“And so yeah, I… [insert variation of point just stated]”). Perhaps because that’s the only way to come up with enough words to fill the air time.

God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.

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Filed under Communications, Etiquette

Public pajamas

She looks like she just rolled out of bed. Quite literally.

She looks like she just rolled out of bed. Quite literally.

One of the many things I have been readjusting to state-side is the American dress code (or lack thereof). I’ve learned it’s okay to wear baggy, ill-fitting clothing comprised of far too much fabric, and conversely to don short-shorts that use about as much fabric as a handkerchief.

Well, another thing that appears to be acceptable in America is wearing your “house clothes” (the comfy sweat-pant/T-shirt combo that you would normally reserve for couch-potato-ing and ass-scratching) out of the house, or even better than that, straight up wearing your pajamas in public.

I remember when I was living in the UK, around 2010, the whole pajamas-in-public thing became an issue. Tesco, a large supermarket chain, had to ban patrons from wearing pajamas while doing their shopping, for fear of them offending other customers. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard that in more fashion-conscious countries like Italy, women get dressed up to the nines just to go to the corner shop and buy salami.

A good friend of mine from New Zealand told me that’s it’s also common down under for people to pop to the store for milk or cigarettes without bothering to change into a proper outdoor outfit. I really hope that one day someone goes to the department store to shop for pajamas while wearing pajamas… deep.

But regardless of whether pajamas are acceptable public attire in the US (debatable), for sure workout clothes are. My neighborhood is crawling with chicks wearing yoga pants and sports bras and guys wearing running shorts, even when they don’t appear to actually have done/be doing any sport. Gym clothes are just something you wear, regardless of whether or not you’re going to the gym. Just like pajamas can be something you wear, regardless of whether you are going to bed or not.

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Filed under Clothing, Etiquette

Mind your manners

Out with the barbarians!

Out with the barbarians!

I have a distinct memory of one of the first meals I ate with my British coworkers shortly after arriving in the UK in January 2005. It was one of those small but embarrassing moments that somehow get imprinted in your brain and, years later, randomly reappear and induce a new flush of shame.

We were at a pub and I had ordered your standard meat and veg fare. When the food arrived, I did what I’d always done – I took my fork in my right hand and my knife in my left hand, stabbed the fork perpendicularly into the middle of my steak, and then proceeded to cut the steak into bite sized pieces with my knife. At which point one of my coworkers, a middle-aged British male with a typically British sense of sarcastic humor, proceeded to thoroughly mock me for my barbaric American manner of eating.

After suffering that embarrassment, I quickly learned to eat the European way (which I still do to this day, so thoroughly ingrained is the habit) – the fork in the left hand, tines facing downward; the knife in the right hand; individual pieces of food are cut as you (slowly) eat them; and the tines of the fork remain facing downward at all times throughout your meal, with the knife being used to push food onto the back of the fork (which always poses a unique challenge when eating peas).

Perhaps my methods were somewhat uncouth even by American standards.  I believe the “proper” way to eat in the US is to start with the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right hand, and once you are done cutting your food, put your knife down and switch your fork from your left to right hand, finally proceeding to eat with the fork “right side up” (tines facing upward). This is the so-called “cut and switch” or “zigzag” method, a clumsy Americanism (even most Canadians eat “continental” style).

I’ve also noticed that many other (most?) American people eat without a knife at all. When I stayed at my brother’s house, I’d have to get up and fetch myself a knife from the drawer every time we ate a meal, because they set the table with a fork only. The strangely-awkward-yet-elegant downward-left-handed-fork etiquette has become such second nature for me that I can no longer eat otherwise (unless, of course, I’m eating with my hands, maybe something like a Frito pie).

Who knows what is right, or what is best. But for sure, if you “cut and switch,” you might as well be waving an American flag at the dinner table. Brits just don’t do that, not even from a young age. Indeed, I have another distinct memory of being in a restaurant in Hove (a town on the south coast of England) and seeing a toddler (yes, a toddler – he was sitting in one of those children’s high chairs that restaurants have) primly eating his kiddie meal with his fork facing downward in his left hand and his knife in his right hand. Gotta love the Brits.

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Filed under Etiquette, Food