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Why I love Americans Part 2


It\’s taken me ages to write this blog – ye gods, it\’s two weeks since I last posted. I have an excuse: I\’m pounding away rewriting my next Elizabethan crime novel and rewriting is the bit that takes the time. I was talking to a fellow-writer a couple of weeks ago and she said that most writers are late with their manuscripts this year because of having to keep up with their blogs and Twitter and so on. There are only so many hours in the day and at the rate the ideas are coming in at the moment, I just can\’t keep up.

So anyway. I\’m responding – at last! – to a really interesting comment on my Facebook fan page (ably organised by my friend Sally Blumenauer). I\’d said in my first \”Why I love Americans\” piece that it doesn\’t matter whether people actually respect me or not, so long as they treat me with courtesy and respect. In other words, I really don\’t mind if nice American check-out guys tell me to have a nice day and are really thinking, hope you have a terrible day, you snotty Brit, so long as I don\’t know about it. I think sincerity is over-rated in any case and as a cynical Euro, I particularly love the wisecrack that goes \”Sincerity! If you can fake that, you\’ve got it made.\”
BUT. Elaine Pontious quite properly called me on this. \”We do respect people,\” she said, \”It\’s not faked.\”
Well at first I went \”Hmph!\” And then I went \”Hm.\” And then all sorts of ideas and arguments started to pop into my head, until I started to worry that I might well end up having to write a book about courtesy. And some of the other old-fashioned ideas about honour and integrity and so on, the things that cynical Brits snigger about – maybe I will write a book about them. It\’ll have to go to the end of a very long queue, though.
One of the first things that occurred to me is that it\’s really quite difficult to be polite in the English language, compared to even a closely related language like Spanish. When I was living in Spain I found myself explaining this all the time to my Spanish friends. Why, they would ask me, are the Brits constantly sayin \”por favor\” and \”gracias\” – are they being sarcastic? \”No, no,\” I told them, \”the problem is that in English we have no \’usted\’ – no polite form of \’you\’ like \’vous\’ (as opposed to \’tu\’) or Sie\’ (as opposed to \’du\’). This means we have to add words to be polite, like \’please\’ and \’thankyou\’, \’sir\’ or \’ma\’am\’. And we don\’t realise that in Spanish \”Da mi café\” already is polite because \’da\’ is the polite way of saying \’give\’ so we add \’por favor\’ because we\’d say \’please\’ in English.\”
Well my Spanish friends were shocked and sympathetic and said it explained a lot of odd things about the English.
Of course, I explained, warming to the subject, it\’s ironic really because originally we had \”thou\” for the casual \”you\” and \”you\” was really the polite form (like usted, vous, sie) – so our problem actually comes from too much politeness with everyone addressing everyone (except God) with the polite form. This happened in the late 17th and early 18th centuries until only eccentric Quakers and mad northerners still used the informal \”thee/thou\” outside Church.
Then the few of my Spanish friends who hadn\’t suddenly realised they had an appointment in another bar, would buy me a café-cognac to calm me down and start talking about the weather.
It takes quite a lot of extra words to be polite in English. We\’ve all done that thing of saying \”thank you\” three times when buying a newspaper: so why is it that Americans do the extra work and we Brits often don\’t bother?
To be continued (when I\’ve worked out why)


  1. Patrice says:

    Er… English-speaking people appear to have the same difficulty in France.
    They arrive here with plenty of “please” and “thank you” but don’t get much response. French people want their children to say “s’il-vous-plaît” and “merci” but don’t say it very often when grown up themselves.
    So English-speaking people living in France have to listen to such sentences as : “Passe-moi le sel !” and be happy with it as everyone around them are 🙂
    Cultural shock…?

  2. Michael N says:

    Ms. Finney:

    I have had this discussion with English friends in the past, who claim that Americans are insincere. What I told them is that I believe going through the motions of politeness in fact foster the emotions of politeness. So, for the most part, when an American smiles and says, “have a good day,” they are not secretly thinking, “have a crap day, I don’t care.” Rather, the action stimulates the corresponding feeling. And habit makes this action/feeling connection even stronger. And, of course, it is self-perpetuating, since the person so spoken to warms and becomes friendly in return, creating a positive feedback. Unless you’re English, however, in which case the responsive thought is typically “he doesn’t know me, and consequently cannot like me, so his wishing me a good day with that wide smile is cloying and insincere.” Example of how different cultures really affect our perception of others behavior.

    I remember having an excellent British history course at university and the professor had us read Jane Austen and in particular pay attention to the moral importance of politeness (i.e., civility) in her novels (e.g., it’s not enough that D’Arcy have a kind heart; he needs to learn to be civil as well). Of course, because she is a great writer, she also explores the converse a lot (i.e., the problem of suave manners hiding moral faults, i.e., Wickham, Willoughby, etc).

    Anyway, there is plenty to write about manners. I look forward to reading your book. And your upcoming novels as well.


  3. William Wilson says:

    I love languages. They are so interesting. All the idioms and different ways to behave in different cultures. And although I hold an American passport, I think most Americans are just poor colonials. lol

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