Growing up in a country with its culture, quirks, and language embeds a sense of what is “normal” that only goes away when we leave and experience the apparent strangeness of other parts of the world.
Returning home therefore brings with it a sense of returning to normalcy. However, spending long enough abroad and coming to terms with what is normal elsewhere can give us a totally new take on where we grew up.
This has been the case for me. I grew up in the south of England and, despite being half-Egyptian, was a Brit through-and-through until I left.
After more than a decade in Egypt I now feel at home in Egypt as much as the UK. Partly due to my fortunate experiences, and partly due to the questions I get from people outside the UK, I can now begin to see what is so strange about the UK to outsiders.
A couple of years in Italy further consolidated the experience, and the differences and similarities between the UK and elsewhere came to life even more.
The people are friendly… eventually
Aside from the climate and landscape, which fluctuates between temperate greenery and oppressive rain, I am of course talking about cultural differences.
One of the things I hear the most is an observation that Brits are, by and large, cold and standoffish. At first, I could not figure out what people were talking about, but with time it became clearer.
As is so often the case with such observations, I had to admit that it was at least half-right from an outside perspective. When first you meet a Brit, there is a degree of distance that stems from a sense of politeness and personal space.
Britons take their time getting to know people and opening up. The fact that at the core of every one of us is a steadfast friend and jolly companion who loves nothing more than a good laugh is often lost on outsiders because of the long process of becoming acquainted.
What I would add is that Brits are not averse to friendliness, so long as the bounds of politeness are not crossed. The more I contemplated it, the more I found it fascinating just how subtle our ways were to outsiders.
The downside, of course, is that this apparently cold demeanour puts people off, as it can be easy to mistake respectful politeness for deliberate distance.
Our humour is an acquired taste
The next thing relates to another comment I’ve heard a lot, namely that people don’t get (or don’t like) British humour. Many’s the time I’ve found myself roaring with laughter at something only to see the blank expressions on other people’s faces.
This seems to stem from the implicit social contract in the UK that some things just aren’t said. So, naturally, Brits find ways of saying them indirectly to adhere to the rules of propriety.
Subtlety and quick wit may be appreciated anywhere, but nowhere more so than the UK. A seemingly innocent comment can be bemusing to outsiders, whereas a Brit will chuckle heartily at the line that was just narrowly skirted.
Another aspect of British humour that often gets misinterpreted is our love of self-deprecation. I can distinctly remember many times, especially in Italy, where the open and loving Italians felt the need to reassure or dismiss my self-deprecating remarks.
However, they soon realised that it was just for the sake of humour and took it on board.
And while it took me a while to come to terms with the fact, I eventually had to admit that the stereotype about Britons being very polite (when sober) is very true.
The unspoken rules of British politeness, looking at them from the outside, can initially feel like a maze of oddities and contradictions. But I would humbly observe that this stems from British culture’s traditional sense of what is polite and proper.
And like everywhere in the world, knowing these “rules” is not what helps you get along with the locals, but rather knowing how and when to break these rules and get away with it.
Yes, as it turns out we do drink a lot of tea. Our football fans are probably the worst. We have strange rules of politeness and prefer not to speak when we have nothing to say. We wait for invitation before taking a step towards someone, out of respect for their personal space rather than a disinclination for intimacy.
My last comment, however, is in contrast to all of the above. While we love to observe and understand all of the differences between each other, the one thing my time abroad in various places has shown me is that, for all our differences, deep down we really are all the same.