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What Should We Think of the British?

We read some tour guides to find out.
Gavin Haynes
Κείμενο Gavin Haynes

This summer, countless Americans will be turning up on Britain's doorstep to watch 14 days of Olympic glory and MasterCard brand-synergizing. As a country that prides itself on our ignorance of other nation's cultures, most Americans think that smoking a fag is a hate crime and tea time has something to do with Tiger Woods. So when we all cross the Atlantic, we'll be relying on a series of cultural guide books to make up for what our primary and secondary schools failed to teach us. But what's really in these guides? Are they based on fact, or are they culled on the cultural dregs left behind after the releases of a few Austin Powers films, the epidemic of knockoff Burberry scarves, and the fact that Coldplay still gets paid to make music? In search of THE TRUTH, we had real Brits rip open some of these guide books and tell us if we're all getting sold a lie.

Tripadvisor's United Kingdom: Tipping and Etiquette

What they say: Don't discuss the cost of your possessions, how much your holiday cost, etc. In the UK, people will get a bad impression of you and not warm to you at all… When eating in the UK, it is usual to use cutlery (fork, knife, and spoon) in order to get food from plate to mouth. Underlying message: Like a bucket of pasty crabs, Britons are extremely jealous of anyone and everyone higher up than them. If there is a man who has a King Size Mars Bar, and everyone else only has regular size, Britons will rip him limb from limb just to teach him that he's not more special than anyone else, and then eat the Mars Bar with stolen plastic cutlery so as not to appear too "flashy."
Truth rating: Entirely true. A better message: In Britain, unlike every other country in the world, it is necessary to boast about how poor you are—what a hard time you're having, how you're only just getting by. Britons are nuts like that. If you went to a private school, pretend you went to a state school. If your dad had a car, pretend he had a bike with power steering. The more hard-pressed you can make yourself seem, the more Britons will like you. Basically, the most popular people in Britain are vagrant Thalidomide victims. Let's Go's Let's Go Great Britain: The Student Travel Guide

What they say: The English do place weight on proper decorum, including politeness (“thanks” comes in many varieties, including “cheers”), queueing (that is, lining up—never disrupt the queue) and keeping a certain respectful distance. You’ll find, however, that the English sense of humor—dark, wry, explicit, and even raunchy—is somewhat at odds with any notion you may have of English coldness or reserve. Still, no matter how much Monty Python may poke fun at the British, they won’t appreciate “upstart colonials” doing so—they don’t need to be reminded how awful British cuisine is. Underlying message: The English have humor to match their teeth—like looking down an open sewer, it's basically a crude paste of verbal pornography and non-sequiturs that only serve to bring you down to their level. Like bitter mothers carping at their teen daughters' cellulite, they hate and envy all of their former colonies. In fact, the only colony they're not bitter towards is Sierra Leone—they like looking at pictures of land mine victims, this may have something to do with the sense of humor. If, while in England, someone offers you a turd dipped in flour, thank him kindly: it is the best meal you will have all week. Britons will queue for anything up to and including a conga line. Truth rating: Partially true. A better message: Britons love to laugh at you, you silly foreigner. Please don't try and reciprocate, because it's just not wanted. And if you're an upstart colonial, don't even think about trying to get people to loosen up with your rambunctious humor. You're not Crocodile Dundee. Routard's Guide Du Routard Angleterre Pays De Galles

What they say: …The eccentricity will remain a national characteristic. For it is in this country, crowded with small houses lined up and all alike, that the right to difference is really a reality. Whether the extravagant fashions of British youth or the look of those old aristocrats who sit in the House of Lords, the fact is that Britain loves eccentricity… Perfidious Albion has always had the gift of irritating the mainland. Its cool disdain has generated in other peoples a sense of mistrust. To ignore reality to impose its own vision of the world is a pillar of English philosophy. The right to be different, be it individually or as a nation, is part of the cultural heritage of this country. [translated from French] Underlying message: If their welfare state were more generous, all Britons would give up work to spend all of their time involved in underwater morris dancing, helter-skelter cheese-rolling, and the setting of world records for baked bean-bathing. Britons do this entirely in order to refract the rules of reality itself through their own twisted lens, thus allowing them to declare their nation the winners at the game of life without having to do anything particularly special. They do this chiefly to piss off the French. Truth rating: Ninety-two percent true. They also do it to piss off the Germans. A better message: In Britain, it is necessary for you to pretend to marvel at British eccentricity. Pretend to find it liberating. Say that it is “evidence of an independent way of life that has persisted for millennia.” Whenever you see a pearly king eating a pickled onion, clap openly and announce that “This isle contains a people with a capacity for expression that far outstrips my own pale homeland.” It is all being done solely for your benefit, so it would be nice if you could show some fucking appreciation. Frommer's England 2011

What they say: As you tour this England with its 60 million people, you'll encounter "Brit ego." The people have a lot to be proud of, along with some shameful scars in their colonization. They did give the world the Magna Carta, and almost everything viewed as "Western," even law. They spearheaded the Industrial Revolution and won nearly all their foreign wars in spite of their Mickey Mouse size. Underlying message: The English are afflicted by a national disease which makes them think they invented everything. If you walk round a supermarket with an Englishman, he will tell you they invented dental floss, Berocca, Wash-n-Go, and the 3-for-2 offer before you get out of the toiletries aisle. They are egomaniacs: basically like Axl Rose on a lot of cocaine, i.e. like Axl Rose. Truth rating: Frommer's seem to have made the classic US mistake of conflating England and Britain. Therefore, they are idiots, and you would have more luck trying to navigate this country with a Danielle Steele novel than one of their guides. A better message: Everyone now living in England has unbounded rights to claim credit for the work of Sir Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Shakespeare. The mere fact that someone ejaculated in someone's birth canal and the baby landed on English soil makes each Englishman or woman the direct inheritor of the genius of these towering figures, and you should treat all the locals as though you were personally addressing Dickens or Darwin, even if they have trouble with revolving doors.

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes