How to be British

Me Beneath an Insanely Accurate Sign

As part of a summer English course run through a local Czech newspaper, I wrote a series of fictional blog posts in which I assume the identity of a British expatriate. Once you’ve stopped snickering, you can imagine that this was rather challenging. Like any writer worth his salt, I had to know my subject and that meant brushing up on what it means to be British.

First off, I thought about the British in my life. A lot of my entertainment intake is British, for example my preferred crime solvers, Lewis, Morse, and Sherlock. There are times I’ve thought Bernard Black was my spirit animal. After I finally understood the accents, I started laughing my ass off at every episode of Spaced.

As a majority of the ESL course books teach British English, I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it. There’s the horrendous u (as in colour), and the tragedy that is –re (as in centre. disgusting). I changed my prepositions and my collating verbs, so instead of taking a walk on Main Street, I had a walk in the High Street. I already said lifts and flats, but knew I had to be careful with a substantial range of lexicon, like autumn, hob, and bugger.

But being British is more than words and language. I sat down with a cup of coffee and a notebook and pen and brainstormed a list. How to be British. With little to go on, I then looked up an article on The Guardian which offered tips. This put my mind at ease, since it appeared that I was already a bit British. I never accept a compliment without immediately self-deprecating, the very thought of someone jumping a queue makes me want to immolate them, and yet instead of acting on those impulses, I instead glare at their neck and imagine their biscuits snapping off and settling on the bottom of their tea.

However, a How British are You test on The Guardian suggested that I was abjectly American. (Who the hell is Emmeline Pankhurst and what the…bloody hell is Mr. Whipple ice cream?) Still, cultural understanding is more than a recitation of trivia or facts, so I decided to step up my game for a few weeks in cultural understanding.

First of all, this meant immersing myself in the linguistic world of the indirect. When given a chance to reply in a situation, I dallied in subtext rather than the direct approach usually taken by Americans. When my boss asked if I could join some teachers for an evening drink, I replied: “Well, I suppose that’s a possibility.” When pressed a bit further, I suggested that “it was certainly an interesting plan.” By the time she was ready to fire me for annoying evasiveness, I finally requested that she post pictures on Facebook.

Mostly I worked on awkwardness, which the British work in the way other artists use oils or interpretive dance. When a shop keeper in my neighborhood didn’t understand my Czech I decided that I had to move to another part of the city. I saw some students in public one day and waved as I walked into a telephone pole, and of course I knew I had to get a new job and maybe change my name at the embassy. I bumped into a former (British) colleague on the tram and forgetting my new British habits, I slipped into my American way and accidentally made eye contact. She, being British, handled it like a pro, smiled at me and then made a B line for the farthest seat from me. It was there that she buried her face in a book and, I assume, vowed never to take public transport again. Just as I was doing.

At the end of the project, I was confident in my development. I mean, I couldn’t drink tea, but I did hold a teabag for twenty seconds, so I’m counting it. Also, I have no idea how people can find The League of Gentlemen funny, but I see this as a point in my favour. When the contact person at the newspaper said how much she enjoyed the articles, I went red-faced and said, “Well, I suppose we all get lucky now and then.” She reiterated her point, and I thanked her. Then decided to change jobs. Forever.

  1. #1 by carol hedges on June 12, 2017 - 1:22 pm

    Tricky trying to be British. Mainly coz, really, we are all mongrels … in response, I once tried to be Czech, as I have good friends in Pargue. It was MUCH harder….I mastered ‘pivo and ‘bramborak’ but the language!!!!

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