Indian in England

Musings of a student

Friday, July 06, 2007

How to survive the English

I have survived the English for three long winters without – I hope – any permanent damage. I think that makes me something of an expert on them.

This interesting point was brought home when I appeared on an Internet chat for this week (note to my Bournemouth University bosses: I did a good 'plug' and you owe me one). My audience was Indian students looking to study abroad and their deeply concerned parents, all eager to hear about my English experience. Most of their queries were on how to survive here, and I found myself thinking deeply about the various techniques I employed – which was when, rather like Archimedes, I jumped up, struck my forehead, and shouted "Eureka!"

But that alone would not have got me to blog. The deciding factor was the worrisome intelligence that 10 "young, energetic minds of Indian journalism", sponosored by the British Council under the Chevening scholarship programme, were headed for my university. Knowing fully well the peril they would walk once they arrived, not to mention the risks the unwitting English would run by having them around, here are a few tips, lest one harm the other...

IN India it is silly to say 'please'. In England it is silly not to.

No Englishman – or woman – will entertain your request without it; in fact, should you be fool enough to forget the magic word, an Englishman is required by law to put you to painful public death before sundown, or, at the very least, pull himself to maximum height, stare down his nose, and say, with the coldness of an Arctic winter, "I beg your pardon, sir!"

It is common to have five pleases in a four-word sentence. It is expected of you. So, please, start your sentence with a please; end it with another, please.

IF hedging was an Olympic sport, the English would win it every single time.

By 'hedging', I don't mean the act of making hedges (the English are very good at that too), but what is crudely known as 'beating around the bush'. The English are simply marvellous at it. They consider it the height of rudeness to come straight to the point, especially if they have a request of you, and need to prep themselves lavishly with 'hmms', 'hahs', and the weather. As a considerate fellow being, you must entertain this. You must grant them their time. They will make their point – usually within the year.

By the same token, resist the urge to make direct requests. If you want to borrow a pen from someone, it won't do to yell across, "Mind if I use that for a minute?" Start with apologies. Say you are dreadfully sorry for making a nuisance of yourself. Apologise for polluting the air in the same room as the pen-owner. If the mood moves you, inform him you are deeply ashamed of being born, but had no choice in the matter. After five minutes or so in such vain, you may mention the pen in a meandering fashion:

“I was just wondering... um, in normal circumstances I wouldn't even dream of asking you this, but, um, I find myself in a terrible situation today... of course, it is my own fault, and, um, it is really quite silly of me to bother you, I know, but in case you are not using that pen, er, if you can possibly spare it I mean, would you mind terribly if I borrowed it for a minute – only if you don't need it.”

You must look suitably apologetic and embarrassed when you make this request. Also, do note the very last part of that sentence: you must, must leave an honourable exit for the other.

DON'T tell an Englishman to shut up. He will drop dead with shock.

In India ‘Aw, shut up!’, ‘Buzz off’ ‘Drop dead’, ‘Get a life’, etc are considered essentials in any healthy conversation. In England, not.

Trouble with the English is, even in their rudeness they are polite. In India if you want to tell someone their work sucks, you would say (and here I quote my ex-editor-in-chief), “That’s utter crap, you prick. Rewrite it now or I will have your balls for dinner!”

The correct way to put that sentiment across in England, however, is: “Excellent! This is very good work! Very good work indeed! But perhaps you could consider smoothening out the edges a bit? Oh, no, you don’t have to rewrite the whole piece! Just do the lead, and the bit in the middle, and the end, if you can possibly spare the time.”

NEVER jump a queue – and ensure you don’t start one accidentally.

The English are passionate about queuing. They derive immense pleasure from the exercise and are never more content than when they are in a long queue. Nowhere on earth will you see such perfect pieces of art, such warm links of well-spaced personal cubicles with a Daily Mail-reading Englishman or woman in the middle of each (never ‘bunch up’ and crowd the person in front; that’s sacrilege), wonderfully unhurried (never show your impatience; queuing is meant to pleasurable), and gracefully tailing into the wide grey yonder. Seriously, a lot of effort goes into it.

And the English will queue at the drop of the hat. An Englishman will be hurrying home, desperate for his cup of tea and buttered scone, when, lo, he sees you admiring a particularly attractive mannequin. This is where you have to be careful. If perchance you have placed yourself behind some other idiot like yourself, the Englishman will rub his hands gleefully. "Aha," he will say to himself, "there’s a nice little queue there! Let me read the Mail and be happy and content again!”

By the time you turn around and realise your mistake, there will be a solid line all the way to Scotland.

MOST Indians complain about how 'cold' the English are. This isn’t really true. The English aren’t cold, they are just not warm.

It isn’t in the English blood to be overtly friendly. In India five minutes after you meet a stranger it is quite common to invite him home for dinner. In England it will take a few years.

For one, an Englishman considers his house not just his castle, but, as social anthropologist Kate Fox puts it, “the embodiment of his privacy rules … his identity, his main status indicator and his prime obsession”. Naturally he’s careful about who he lets in.

Second, because the English cherish their privacy so much, it doesn’t occur to them you actually look forward to company. In fact, quite often, when you feel they are being ‘standoffish’, they are trying to respect your private space.

When this happens, you must not feel offended and call them 'thanda ferangs’. You must forgive them – remember, they are only English – and show them the correct path by asking them home.

IF an Englishman asks you, “Are you all right?”, do not worry. It’s not because you look sick, or your fly is open (though a discreet check is always advisable). Nor should you take it as an invitation to unburden all your troubles on him. It’s just his way of asking “How are you?”


Should any of you feel compelled to accuse me of intellectual theft from the Hungarian humourist George Mikes, let me say it is not because I am not capable of originality. He just happened to get here first.