I arrived in London at approximately 8:45 a.m. local time after a brief delay in the Detroit airport. There were individual screens in coach on the plane which were too neat to allow me to sleep through.
On my first night here, I did like the locals and went out at 7:30 for a drink. Unlike the States, pubs here are on every block, are relatively quiet (no pounding JT in the background) and function more as coffee shop than watering hole. In the residential, vastly middle-aged professional area near Euston Square where we were staying, there were plenty of men and women just enjoying a pint with a book by themselves. And at less than four pounds a pint (20 oz. vs. the average 12 oz. beer can), there’s a lot to be excited about.
A good deal later at night, let’s say at 11:30 p.m., I was at another bar talking to a British man in his 40s or 50s. After five minutes of standard conversation (Where are you from? What do you do? What are you studying?), he told a racist joke. I was surprised. I will be the first to admit that I’m not the most politically correct person in the world — there’s just a charm about the dead baby joke that hasn’t worn off — but I certainly won’t make jokes about all black people working at McDonalds. I genuinely do believe it was a joke; the man was certainly no different to little Asian me than the blondes from the South also on my program. He told me that was something I had to get used to, because everyone in England is pretty politically incorrect and nobody takes it personally.
“It’s not personal” actually has some weight here, and not in a bad way like when your friend says that nobody should ever wear yellow while you’re donning a bright new goldenrod coat.
While everything in America focuses on the personal — just think about the service industry with its silly and rather irrational phrases like “the customer is always right” (which is logically impossible) — it often isn’t that way in England. Not that people are rude; people are much more willing to stop and give directions or advice than in American cities like Chicago or New York. It’s just not personal. It’s being nice because that’s what you’re supposed to do, because it’s the nice thing to do and not because you’re supposed to feel special or someone has taken a special interest.
I was standing, not in line, for a bit while trying to get a SIM card for my cell phone. A man and a woman got in line ahead of me before I figured out where the line was, and I hurried in. The woman was already being helped but when the clerks called “next,” the man gestured for me to go ahead, and it wasn’t because he wanted to get in my pants (I tried to say “thanks” after I was through but he wouldn’t give me the time of day) but because it was fair, or something like that. It’s worth noting that cutting in line (or “queue” as they call it here) is highly frowned upon, but I think it is for similar reasons. It wasn’t personal. It was just what you did.
Of course, interpersonal relationships — friendships are often for life in the U.K. which at least for me has been rare in the U.S. — are still important. But just as important, it seems, are the relationships we have with people with whom we don’t have a personal connection.