I have been calling it cultural literacy, or fluency… or something otherwise didactic and mildly imperious. It is this innate understanding of other people… that we seem to have – or not.
It is the reason I feel comfortable in Mexico. I get that place. This is not to be construed as loving every element of a place (though in the case of Mexico I admit a bit of adoring veneration) but more like an unspoken comprehension of behavior and mores that prevents the eye roll and attendant expletive when someone does something you simply cannot believe. [The Canto Grannies do this Tsk! thing really loud and almost glottal…]
I don’t know how long you have to be in a place to achieve this, though I imagine it has far more to do with personality/interest/preference than anything else. It certainly has little to do with language. What, you say? How can it not be about language?
Well, let me tell you about two groups of people who technically speak the same language but really do not speak the same language.
Introducing the Americans and the British. Hello.
I hear the words that are coming out of your mouth, but I am really not getting it.
The differences tend to be so subtle they are actually more problematic. Some of the trifles are amusing… fag, fanny, football to name a few. But it is not just about the language. There is something about the pace of banter, the appropriate ‘wait time’ for a response and often the employment of sarcasm, that leads to all sorts of confusion. In my haste to grab a bunch of packages and get off a bus at the correct stop I said to a good British friend, “Hey, grab that bag and hit the bell, will you?” He responded with an offended salute and “Yes Ma’am.” This made me look up with a raised eyebrow, and say, “What is your problem?” To which he went into great detail that I had been rude.
Rude? We had to get off the freaking bus (and for the record had to yell at the driver to stop as it took so damn long to get him to help collect our stuff) and I was being efficient… distracted maybe, and not overly concerned with stroking his ego prior to asking for the favor of pressing the stop button. But this caused a problem and it is a good example of the differences in conduct. No one I know at home would have thought that rude… in fact I think the snippy salute would have gotten noted over the “Hey…”
Surrounded by British ex-pats in Hong Kong, one thing I have definitely misunderstood, and consequently been misunderstood within, is the Pub Culture. Initially, I found this completely perplexing. After all, I love to hang out in cool bars, more than most people I know, I would go so far as to say. But I got nothing on these guys.
The British take this to a whole new level. Most of my foreign friends here say that they drink a lot less when they go home than they do while ex-patting here in Honkers. Most barring my English friends that is. The explanations are diverse and not easy to generalize, though I know in my case when I go home bars are a very secondary or even tertiary spot to congregate. It just seems like there are lots more options. Plus there is the stigma that being a daily barfly brings. Not so for my mates from across the pond.
Per capita drinking across most of Europe has decreased in the past 40 years, but in Britain it has increased. People start younger, drink more and are increasingly likely to binge-drink. Government figures released last year show that British adults on average drink the equivalent of 11.4 litres of pure alcohol a year – translating into 130 bottles of wine or 1,137 pints of beer. The government has estimated that the total cost to society, in medical bills, missed work, clean-up charges and increased policing, is about £20 billion a year.
This subject was explored by author Sarah Lyall, and though she (of course) annoyed a bunch of folks, what I read was, as our former compatriots would say, spot on. I did not read her article as a judgment or an expose, but more like a series of observations that seemed pretty familiar to me. [In fact, I think I must know at least a couple of her test subjects.] And I do subscribe to the old adage about glass houses and as such I realize that I have certainly done my bit of binge drinking… not all so far removed as my college days. The difference is that I am overcome with a self imposed shame following these episodes, which makes my British friends roll with laughter. Their attitude is much more like it’s all part of the cost of doing business.
In some ways, I suppose this is very healthy. I mean no sense crying over something you have already done. But on the other hand the acceptance of this behavior past the age of 20-something seems a little out of place.
Then again, ex-pats are, by literal definition, out of place… so perhaps I should just chill out and grab a pint. Or 1,137.