This Side of the Pond – March 7

If there were ever a trait to divide our two nations, it’s surely our response to an irritating situation. In general, while the English have perfected the art of hushed tutting, Americans feel more comfortable expressing their annoyance.

These are mutually exclusive methodologies but, having now been exposed to both, I have come to understand that each has its own unique merit. I would also venture to put forth a controversial theory: I believe we are having precisely the same reaction to exasperation, we’re just doing it at different volumes.

Consider the following situation: you’ve been standing in line for over an hour, patiently awaiting access to an official or to buy tickets for an event while wondering why the whole state seems to have had the same idea. As you turn your head back from checking the clock for the fifteenth time, you discover that a fellow form-filler has casually taken up residence in the line – ahead of you.

Your reaction, if I may presume to assume, would likely be something along the lines of, “Excuse me, I believe you have cut in. The end of the line is back there.” Probably, as I have unwavering faith in Wyoming courtesy, with a friendly smile and a firm gesticulation.

My natural reaction would be different: the culprit would hear naught but the click of my tongue. Unless I’d been standing in that line long enough to reach breaking point, of course, when I might be moved to exhale loudly.

The English, you see, are a race dedicated to Not Making A Fuss; Heaven forbid one make a scene, even in a life-or-death situation. Instead, we simmer quietly in a corner and express our distress through meaningful glances.

A tut is the most you will ever get from an unhappy Englishman – you’re supposed to already know what you’ve done wrong and why we’re not amused by it. You will never be told that you’ve upset us by talking in a movie theater unless you happen to turn around and catch the glint of our glare.

This behavior is commonly misinterpreted as passive aggressive, especially among more vocal cultures. And I will admit that lurking behind someone in a line, making barely audible clicking noises, is perhaps not the most effective way to solve a problem.

Except it is… if you’re doing it to another Brit. Ours is a politeness bred through hundreds of years of social niceties, culminating in a nation of individuals each finely attuned to the sound of a gasp and genetically programmed to make amends.

We can detect an exasperated sigh from 100 feet or more. We may not have eyes in the back of our heads, but I’m certain we have glower detectors.

If my memories of biology class serve me, streams of guilt and self-recrimination are released into our bloodstreams the instant such a cue is given, forcing us to both apologise and compensate. And thus, with no more than a tut, a Brit can remove an interloper from a line.

These tactics have the advantage of solving a situation with the minimum of fuss but, if the perpetrator is of any other nationality, the arrangement fails. This might explain why London, one of the great melting pots of Europe, is full of frustrated natives whose indignance has ceased to be effective.

It also explains why the trait failed to make it far from the Pilgrims’ boat. I imagine the colonies to have resounded with the echoes of tutting, fading slowly away as the newly minted Americans came to the realization that it just wasn’t going to work any more.

Perhaps not, but I do enjoy the visual. Almost as much as I now enjoy the calm and honest way that my cousins on this side of the pond share their annoyance.

At first, I couldn’t quite get the hang of it and assumed I must really have ticked people off. Making the transition was one of the more difficult experiences of my personal Americanization.

For example, I once made the novice error of failing to contact someone who really ought to have been included in one of my articles; he went to the trouble of letting me know I had done so.

Reading his words, my experience told me I had made a grievous mistake that would almost certainly have burned a bridge forever, because I assumed that only someone angry enough to be warming the air around them would have contacted me to tell me about it. The English are, after all, renowned for their love of the strongly worded letter of complaint.

It wasn’t until our paths crossed for a second time that I realized how wrong I had been: he was simply pointing out that an error had occurred and setting the stage for a better relationship in the future. Where I would once have expected a conversation rife with resentment, I found no air remaining that needed to be cleared.

Far be it for me to criticize the technique that has served my nation for a millennia, but there is much to be said for tackling an annoyance as it happens and then choosing to move on. As I mentioned earlier, it seems mostly to be a matter of volume – herein perhaps lies the literal meaning of the phrase, “You’ll need to speak up.”

Genetics aside, I promise to embrace this new knowledge wholeheartedly. Best of all, I now understand that, should I accidentally tut at you in an aggravating manner, I can trust you to let me know.