Prime Minister-in-waiting, Boris Johnson, said this week that he wants immigrants to feel more British. This was swiftly followed up on Twitter by appeals on how this can be achieved. For instance, a French lady called Martha, currently living in York, made this appeal: “If any of my English followers have any tips on how to ‘feel British’, I’d appreciate receiving them.”
As a native Brit, being half-Irish / half-English, university educated in Wales, a previous resident of the Republic of Ireland and having lived in Scotland since 2000, I should have some insights to offer you Martha.
One of the first things that an immigrant needs to learn is stop speaking your mind. If something is rubbish, for God’s sake do not complain openly about it, especially to the person responsible. Simply smile, say ‘It’s fine’ or ‘it happens’ and work around it, even if this is at some personal inconvenience. The time to complain is to your friends and colleagues afterwards, when the possibility for fixing the issue has long passed. Phrases like “Can you believe it?” or “what a jobsworth” can then be freely thrown around to anyone within earshot.
Conversely, if something is really good, never offer praise. It might be the most amazing pleasure one has ever experienced in life but the highest acceptable compliment is to nod and mutter “not bad.” If one must, a slight smile is permitted.
In the workplace, never, ever volunteer or offer constructive criticism. If one can imagine being a sheep, and your place is in the centre of the flock, then just keep that image in mind at times of decision making or crises. Never allow oneself to take on greater responsibility, especially without extra pay. Acceptable answers to requests that should be made someone in a more senior position are “Sorry, I’ll have to speak to my boss” or “Out of my pay scale mate.” The reason for such negativity is that British employers seldom go in for this no-blame culture that is popular across Northern Europe. If something goes wrong, someone must be the cause of it. At best, ownership of a mistake will be a black mark against your record and can lead to something worse. Remember, in the television show The Apprentice, any time a candidate has owned responsibility for a failed task, Lord Sugar has fired their arse.
Someone schooled in American English might have ended the previous sentence with “fired their ass”. This of course is a mistake and someone who has been educated in US English has to make the effort to adjust their language accordingly. Chips are crisps, not French Fries. Biscuits are not cookies. It is trousers and not pants and no, we Brits do not sit around on our fannies, as they are otherwise employed elsewhere on the female body. Make an effort to match one’s language to the local region and do not point out the glaring inconsistencies in a native speaker’s own usage of American English (see examples within this text). The British are seldom well educated in English grammar, making it extremely difficult for us to learn foreign languages as we usually have little idea what is happening with our own. As Tolstoy said, an Englishman in inevitably in the right because everything he says and does is right. This especially goes for spoken English.
On a related topic however, we Brits love word play, especially when linked to cultural references. Such games can be downright silly but reduce the Brits to tears of laughter, much to the bemusement of foreigners in the group. As an immigrant, you might never get the joke. Don’t worry about it. English is the most public language in the world so perhaps it is only natural we have made it incomprehensible for our own amusement. My best advice would be just to relax, be happy to see us happy and when your finally do start getting the references, then your have finally cracked the English language.
Do not take offence to the question “Where are you from?” as it really is a statement which means “You are not from round here, are you.” Owing to never having an East Anglian accent, it was a question that I was constantly asked when growing up in the town where I was born. Except in the largest and most cosmopolitan of cities, Brits has a curious sense of regional identity which is linked very strongly to accents. “Where are you from?” might mean that your accent comes from a town twenty miles away where the local inhabitants tend to have a bit of a funny accent and, therefore they don’t speak proper like we do. Yes, I know it is a pain answering this question and immigrants often feel it is a prequel for something nastier to follow but usually it isn’t. We Brits ask each other that same question all the time. Only when the question is followed up by something like “And when are you going back?” is rudeness or sarcasm justified as a response.
Now, perhaps the hardest thing to achieve for some immigrants is to enter into the British drinking culture. Those who are unable to drink alcohol for religious reasons are at a special disadvantage here. Outside the most formal of evenings, it is socially acceptable for Brits to get so drunk as to be a complete embarrassment to ourselves. Sorry about this but get used to it. Over the decades, many governments have tried to change things through taxation and tighter laws, drink-driving being a good example. Unless they are completely teetotal (a very rare thing for a Brit) or a recovering alcoholic (the only socially acceptable excuse not to drink), at some point you are going to see your British friends pissed - as in the English sense of being drunk and not the American of being angry. One understands that for the younger generation, illicit drugs are a socially acceptable alternative to booze, or even along with it. Either way, once work is done, us Brits love getting off our tits on abusing alcohol, or even several substances at the same time.
There are many things to love about being in Britain. As an immigrant, that is why you are here. This is also the reason why I have not written about our virtues: they are well known, self evident and it is impolite to boast about such things. Instead I have written about the other side of being British: the negative and sometimes the self harming side. No nationality has a monopoly on either virtue or vice. Remember that it is often geography that forms a national personality and that Britain is a group of islands. Some of us Brits still seem to cling to this notion as some kind of comfort when, in today’s global world, being an island nation is a hindrance rather than any help. To understand the British, one has to see us, warts and all. If after doing so, you would prefer to live by your own cultural values instead of ours, I think most people would understand. I certainly will.