We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

I can appreciate that it is important to attract visitors, for the economy and all that. But there is always a balance to be struck between encouragement and grovelling. If Johnny Foreigner wants friendly he should go to America. There the natives are capable of wishing you a nice day without even a hint of irony. Here if someone approaches you with a wide smile and an outstretched hand you feel not warmth but deep suspicion.

- Nigel Farndale

I remember reading Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” a few years ago and laughed out loud at some of her sharp insights about how we natives behave on this small, damp island.

Last October, I went shopping with my wife around San Francisco during a business/recreation trip to the Bay Area. With one exception – where I got treated rather rudely by a shop assistant – I was blown away by the friendliness and helpfulness of people and how it was done without being patronising or somehow false. Yes, California has its problems these days, but I wish I could import some of the attitude there to the UK.

26 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    There’s a bigger difference than surface politeness.

    In America the view that good people do not need to be told what to do is still fairly common. Express such views here and you’ll be shouted down as a madman.

    Go to any Guardian comments section on gun control and I guarantee you you’ll see a highly recommended comment which reads “It’s not about freedom, it’s about common sense” or a close paraphrase thereof.

    Britons, as far as I can tell, do not believe in personal freedom. At all. The idea that everyone needs their lives regulated from on high by the state is taken as a given, or as they put it, “common sense”.

  • Tedd

    Jaded:

    I can’t comment on the UK, never having spent any significant time there, but the sentiment you described is common here in Canada. To be fair to the Brits, though, they pioneered the idea of individual liberty in many ways. A century and half ago, Alexander Herzen said of the British, “They invented personal liberty without having any theories about it. They value liberty because it’s liberty.” Of course, he went on to become a major figure in Russian socialism, so his notion of personal liberty obviously differs from the classical American conception. Maybe it was more of a warning sign than legitimate praise!

  • Lee Moore

    My feeling is slightly different. I find occasional social contact in New York and California to be just as fake and superficial as in Europe (including the UK for these purposes.) I think it’s all part of the metropolitan desperation to appear sophisticated. Never commit yourself too far, lest you be thought a rube. For genuineness and sincere kindness to strangers, go to the other bits of the US. As ever, generalisations are, er, generalisations.

  • Charlie

    Yes, indeed, the “other bits”. I live about 40 miles from NYC. The area I live in has not nearly the brusqueness nor the rudeness of the city proper. But I find that if I travel an additional 30 or 40 miles further from the city, the difference is quite astounding. If I haven’t done so for a while, I am always taken aback by the first cheery “good morning” or the first helpful and friendly service person (the old “what do you want from me that you’re being so nice” sensation). Then it’s “oh yeah, I’m away from the city” hitting me like daybreak. The sensation is somewhat akin to taking a warm shower after falling into a septic tank (you don’t want to know).
    But you’ve spoiled my illusions. I thought Britain was filled with warm friendly people and that it was metropolitan France that was unfailingly rude.

  • RRS

    The difference is that which exists between people who feel vulnerable and those who don’t.

  • Laird

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time in New York City*, even worked there for a while, and thoroughly detest the place. Most of that has to do with its inhabitants. Much of my business involves denizens of Manhattan, but I do my best to deal with them solely by telephone and email; I keep actual trips to Mordor on the Hudson to an absolute minimum.

    But the rest of this country is a pretty nice place (well, excluding Detroit and Chicago, anyway).

    * Note that its residents simply refer to it as “New York”, as if the rest of the state were a mere (and slightly embarrassing) appendage to it. The rest of the country properly includes the word “City” in the name, though, in recognition of the fact that there is a whole state north and west of the five boroughs.

  • In America you must live life with a smile, even before your toothbrush has had time to reach your mouth.
    – Prince William of Sweden

    Joy is a fruit that Americans eat green.
    – Amando Zegri

  • Laird, you might like these, then:

    That frightful cyclone of electricity and machinery called New York.
    – Lafcadio Hearn, letter, 1889

    New York is appalling, fantastically charmless and elaborately dire.
    – Henry James, letter, 1904

    New York looks as ever: stiff, machine-made, and against nature. It is so mechanical there is not the sense of death.
    – D. H. Lawrence, letter, 1924

    I…wonder what it is in the New York air that enables me to sit up till all hours of the night in an atmosphere which in London would make a horse dizzy, but here merely clears the brain.
    – James Agate, _Ego 3_, 9 May 1937

  • I think that Lee Moore and Charlie have it right – it’s the big cities. Still, even though I wouldn’t even consider actually living in NYC, I like it well enough to visit occasionally (which I haven’t done in a very long time, unfortunately). Same with London – and I like London even more than I do NYC.

    Still, back to Lee’s and Charlie’s point: I wonder how different people’s attitudes are in the European countryside, including the UK for the purpose of this discussion?

  • Myno

    Having lived on the Big Island of Hawai’i for many years before, my wife and I moved to Honolulu (on Oahu) for her work several years ago. We noticed immediately the greatly diminished Aloha in the Big City, and were happy to leave it two years later to return to the Big Island, where Aloha still lives, if not thrives. Note that my wife was born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, so we understand and appreciate the above stories about NYC, which clearly put our meager little tale of Big City vs The Countryside into its proper perspective. Still, the effect maintains, big vs little, at all scales, it would seem.

  • RogerC

    Jaded Voluntaryist wrote:

    “Britons, as far as I can tell, do not believe in personal freedom. At all.”

    Unfortunately, that matches my direct experience. Here, you can’t make the argument that freedom’s good because it’s freedom and expect most people to even register it as a valid argument.

    What does often seem to work is waiting for someone to complain about something the statists have done, and then to shoot it down an offer a more “self-governing” solution as an alternative. I find you do get a bit of purchase that way, but have to argue from a consequentialist point of view, not a moral one.

    The language of liberty, one step at a time, I suppose. It’ll be a long road, though.

  • llamas

    The Brits have never grasped the concept of good customer service. Never. ‘Service’ is always confused with ‘servility’. And, when they try, they almost-always hilariously mis-step, and take it entirely over the top, producing a laughable parody of what they imagine US-style customer service consists of.

    I think that this lies rooted in English social stratification – it is simply assumed (by both parties) that the person providing the service is somehow inferior to the person to whom it is provided, and both parties automatically see themselves in that light.

    The difference in the US is that neither party assumes this, because it is as-likely-as-not untrue. The nippy who usually brings me my eggs and toast at the local Leo’s Coney Island, also happens to be a member of the city council. The nice lady behind the counter, with whom I just arranged the refinishing of some motorcycle parts at a local auto-body shop, is also a County Commissioner. And so forth. High-quality customer service, delivered in an entirely-egalitarian way, is one of the most highly-prized assets of any business in the US. And being in a position of service to others most-definitely does not map to any perception of social status.

    The most telling indicator of the truth of what I say is the almost-fetishitic way in which the Brits mock the American way of customer service, as indeed we see in the linked article. What they fear, or fail to comprehend, they fall to mocking.

    Your mileage may vary. But your hunble servant absolutely delights in the American way of service, and one of the things that grates on me more than anything when I am back in the UK is the dreadful ways that people on both sides of a service transaction often treat each other.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Westerlyman

    Last time I was in London I found it very difficult to locate any Brits and that included asian and african Brits. Nearly everyone I had dealings with in shops, restaurant etc was a foreign national of some type. What could be taken for brusqueness could possibly be partly explained by average language skills.

    My wife is from New York and when she first came to live in the UK she was friendly to everyone and habitually asked people a lot of personal questions after only a few minutes acquaintance. After 30 years living and working in London and Dorset she is more reserved than most Brits. Whenever I ask her if she would like to go back and live in the States the answer is an emphatic ‘no way’. It seems that she would rather deal with Brits who, she finds, more genuine.

    I do not think we are unfriendly or rude as a rule. We are just very ‘stiff’ with people we do not know and most of us still shy away from expressing our feelings in a demonstrative fashion. This does not mean we do not feel, it just means that, from an American point of view, the signals a very muted and subtle.

    On the other hand I have found almost every Parisian to be staggeringly rude which is not the case, in my experience outside the capital. Even French people I have met from outside Paris concur.

  • RAB

    He is only talking about the English, the Welsh are completely different. My family owned the local shop in Heath in Cardiff. The Chief Clerk of Cardiff lived across the road, the Head of the South Wales CID lived 5 doors down, and George Thomas MP lived around the corner in the Park. Not only were they our customers, but our good friends, nobody was looking down their noses at us or anyone else.

    Walk into a Welsh pub and I guarantee someone will start a conversation with you almost before you have sat down. You can sit there all night in a Bristol one, where I have lived for 35 years, and no-one will say a word to you. We Welsh are much much more friendly and gregarious than the English.

  • PeterT

    While I enjoy the sarcasm and irony at which we the English excel (modesty too) I don’t find it very healthy. At best we are being very clever and amusing ourselves; at worst we are being dishonest or unforthright.

    And I can see how it would confuse the uninitiated. I was at a meeting once where an Australian investment firm presented to some UK pension fund trustees. Afterwards I spoke to the Australians and they were very happy with their presentation the UK trustees having remarked how ‘interesting’ it was.

    I used to think, not so long ago, that the UK (not just England, given Hume and Smith) was one of the countries on Earth most inclined to liberty and that we had just taken a few wrong steps that if reversed would make this a relatively libertarian place. Lately I have come to think that the English are in fact pretty illiberal, or at least anti-libertarian.

    As has been remarked upon, when discussing some topic, arguments from the point of liberty are often met by a comment such as ‘it won’t work’, which implies a focus on consequences (this retort is very often used by politicians rubbishing the other lot’s policies – I always found this unedifying in the extreme since what one person thinks “works” another won’t).

    It is true that the UK has punched above its weight in terms of contributing to the libertarian body of thought (Adam Smith, Locke, the protestant dissenters) but we have punched above our weight in all kinds of directions so I’m not sure if this tells us anything except perhaps that we are good at ideas.

    The libertarian instinct is I think, not limited to any one culture, but found within a few of us, scattered across the globe. But only in the US is the libertarian meme so entrenched. Unfortunately, while ‘liberty talk’ is used frequently by politician’s of all stripes and met with nods of enthusiasm by the listeners, this does not result in pro-liberty policies.

  • llamas

    RAB wrote:

    ” . . . and George Thomas MP lived around the corner in the Park. ”

    Another ‘takes me back’ moment. I had the pleasure to hear George Thomas speak twice during his tenure as Speaker – what a man, a lion of the Parliament, and with a wicked sense of humor. Of those I heard in person, only Lord Denning was a better speaker.

    Both men had not the slightest hint of ‘side’ about them, probably because both had risen to their high offices from the very humblest of beginnings – sons of a miner and a shopkeeper, respectively.

    The Welsh are different in this regard, so are the Scots and the Irish. Which may explain (in part) why the Americans are, as well.

    llater,

    llamas

  • nemesis

    I have served many nationalities working for the airlines, I found Americans to be open and friendly but ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ rarely feature in their vocabulary. Perhaps it is a British peculiarity that we set such store by these words.

  • Russ in Texas

    You can actually see the English/Not-English split quite clearly in the US. Colin Woodward did a good riff on this recently in “American Nations.” — we call it Greater New England for good reason. Much of the rest of the country operates under what I call “reverse Janteslagen”: if you think you’re spiffy, hey, you probably are. If you think you’ve done something I should care about, tell me about it, and maybe I will! But don’t presuppose you’re better than me; if you’ve already walked that walk, *I* will happily confirm it for you without you needing to bother demonstrating your belief.

  • Julie near Chicago

    A long time ago I read a story (fiction) in which a couple took a train from Point A, England, to Point B, England. I think they were a “he” and a “she.” Anyway, there were two people sitting facing them in the coach for the entire trip, and not a word was spoken between the two sets of people. After they debarked, the girl (American) asked the guy (British) why they hadn’t talked at all to the other folks. And he explained, “But, you see, they might not have wanted to talk.”

  • nemesis:

    “Ma’am, sir, please and thank-you” are still to be found in the American South, which has historically set more stock in formal courtesy than the rest of the country.

  • RAB

    Julie n C, expanding on your comment. Veteran Broadcaster and Welshman Wyford Vaughan-Thomas, was asked in an interview what was the difference between the Welsh and the English; He gave this anecdote…

    He had to go to a funeral of a relative in the South Wales Valley’s. So he got on the train at Paddington London and was a bit early, so he was practically the first on. Gradually the carriage filled up starting at the four corners, until eventually people had to sit in proximity to each other. Then as soon as the train started off up went the newspapers and out came the books, and not a word was spoken. Most of the travellers got off at Reading, Swindon, Bath or Bristol, there were very few left by Cardiff.

    Well he had to catch a branch train to go up the Valleys, and he got on the last of the night. He was the first on again. The very next passenger to aarive came right over and sat next to him and said ” ‘Ello butt, where you goin’ to then?” A conversation instantly ensued, during which he found that his new friend had known his relative and would be at the funeral himself the following day.

    So that, he said is the difference between the Welsh and the English. The Welsh are small town people who are curious and caring about each other, and who really do know each other and their back stories, aunts,uncles, grans and gramps; who love to talk and gossip, and will look out for each other even if they don’t like someone very much. The English don’t. You can live next door to people in England for 20 years and not know their first names or what they do for a living.

  • Paul Marks

    I can confirm that RAB’s comment about the English and our neighbours is correct.

  • So that, he said is the difference between the Welsh and the English. The Welsh are small town people who are curious and caring about each other, and who really do know each other and their back stories, aunts,uncles, grans and gramps; who love to talk and gossip, and will look out for each other even if they don’t like someone very much. The English don’t. You can live next door to people in England for 20 years and not know their first names or what they do for a living.

    Yes true. This is precisely why I like living in England.

  • RAB

    Eee Perry you can be a right cold bugger at times. And yes not knowing or caring who your neighbours are can be a feature not a bug. I almost put that caveat into my comment, but was trying to be concise and convey the feeling of growing up in Wales where a sense of community mattered. And by community I mean a group of people who know and care for each other, not our imposed “Gay”, “Black”,”Muslim” etc Communities, which are nothing of the sort. Just politicised imagined groupings of total strangers who supposedly have something in common, and usually who have leaders and spokespersons imposed on them and to speak for them.

    But I grew up in those old real communities, that were diverse. Where rich and poor lived cheek by jowl, knew each others first names and family histories, but didn’t hate each other for it. Where if you really were the only Gay in the village, your next door neighbour would pop down the shops for a pint of milk for you if you were feeling poorly.

    Once you’ve experienced that, it is a feeling very hard to shake off or feel that it’s irrelevant. Brotherhood of Man and all that.

  • Slartibartfarst

    There are four kinds of people that live in Great Britian.
    First are the Scots, who hold on to their children and anything else they can get their hands on. Next are the Welsh, who pray on their knees and prey on their neighbours. Then there are the Irish, who don’t know what they want, but they’ll fight anyone for it. Last are the English, who consider themselves self-made men, which relieves the Almighty of any responsibility.

  • Julie near Chicago

    RAB and Perry, thanks especially to both of you for your comments. Being a split personality by nature (after all I’m a Gemini :) ) and always longing for two mutually-exclusive things, I agree with you both as to the desirability of the small-town atmosphere vs. the anonymity and being-left-aloneness you get from psychological distance.