Sorry for the long delay between posts to all three of you who are clamouring for my blogging return. The receptionist job lasted through the month of April, and though I was extraordinarily underemployed I never quite got up the nerve to blog from work – I have never had a more visible computer screen. We’ve been busy with two parental visits as well. But I can now bring you a despatch on what the inhabitants of one American workplace think about Britain.
1) It always rains there. I don’t want to dispute the general truth of this one, but it has grated rather since there have been approximately three sunny days in Chicago in the last month, the temperature has rarely risen above 15C, and meanwhile the whole of Britain is getting sunburned at the beach.
2) The class system is very important in Britain, as are elocution lessons. Consequently the country is many years behind America, where anyone can do anything and progress is the informing value of the nation. (Social and economic inequality? Who said that?) To hear many Americans talk, you would think that the British ‘class system’ was something akin to my vague perceptions of the caste system in India: that it’s a complex, rigidly codified structure that is referred to on a daily basis, prevents any social mobility whatsoever, and dictates the minutiae of every Briton’s life. Whereas I struggle to see that things are so very different in America: here too people are judged on the basis of where they come from, how wealthy their family is, where they were educated and how much cultural capital they have. Americans have the concepts of ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’. They definitely have the concept of ‘underclass’. They have ‘elite’. So all that is actually missing is an aristocracy, which brings me onto…
3) All Britons are ardent monarchists and love, love, love the royal wedding. Explaining to my American coworkers that the word ‘republican’ has a different meaning in Britain, and that up to 18% of the population (including me) wants to get rid of the monarchy, was greeted with frank disbelief.
4) Brits are very formal. In fact, I think the reverse is true. In British universities, undergraduates typically call their lecturers, however distinguished, by their first names, whereas many American PhD students still address their advisers as Professor X. When I worked in the civil service, I called the Minister I worked for by her first name too; in this office, the executives often referred to one another as ‘Mr. Y.’ Saying ‘damn’ was considered inappropriate language; and it took me a while to realise that ‘hi’ was thought of as slangy, and people expected ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’.
5) British people live in homes – and frequent restaurants and hotels – that look like a Victorian gentleman’s club and are stuffed with antiques, gilt and plush carpets. The executive floor where I was working was improbably kitted out in French walnut furniture, chandeliers, and the thickest carpet I’ve ever trodden on – which had the unfortunate effect of muffling footsteps so effectively that everyone on the floor constantly made each other jump. Upstairs, there was an executives-only club where a dedicated chef made lunch daily for a maximum of eight executives (all white men) and their guests: it had a kind of hunting lodge/golf club vibe. Maybe. I haven’t really been to many hunting lodges or golf clubs. After a lot of comments about how ‘this probably feels very familiar to you’, I explained impatiently that many British people buy their furniture at IKEA, and that most American furniture looks dark, heavy and old-fashioned to our eyes.
6) No one in Britain drinks coffee.
7) But our accents are truly wonderful. I swear there were people there who deployed underhand tactics to make me talk longer than I really needed to, just to hear the sound of my voice. I feel a little used.