- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

I am being transferred to my company’s London office and am excited that my family will have the opportunity to live in Great Britain for several years. We want to make a good impression with the English people we meet and hope to make some long-lasting friendships during our time there.

A couple of well-traveled acquaintances have mentioned there are certain pitfalls Americans might not anticipate, especially when meeting people for the first time. This is a bit worrisome because it is very likely we will have to interact with top-notch business professionals who are quite social. Can you elucidate?

A: The first thing you need to know (as evidenced by your letter) is that not everyone you meet there is going to be English. Great Britain (or the United Kingdom) includes not only England, but also Scotland (whose people are called Scots not Scotch, by the way), Wales and Northern Ireland. To assume that individuals from the latter three are “English” or even “British” can be a grave mistake, sometimes even an offensive one — depending how nationalistic they might be. (There are, of course, long-standing separatist sentiments in these areas.)

For that matter, even the English can be sensitive about their regional origins and accents, which are quite distinctive. It’s better not to ask where people are from, especially at first. Language also is an indicator of social class — much more than in the United States. Many British people are very class-conscious, and it would take a foreigner several lifetimes to master the speech patterns (to say nothing of the arcane rules and rituals) of the various social sets you may encounter, especially among the aristocracy and gentry.

Certain topics are best avoided on the principle that the chances of making a gaffe are dangerously high — more so for Americans than most. British citizens may tell hilarious stories or jokes about the Windsor clan, for example, but for an “outsider” to do so is “simply not done.”

In general, be wise and avoid all questions of a personal nature — especially upon first meeting — even if they seem perfectly harmless to you. Never, for example, start off by asking someone what he or she does for a living. This may be standard conversational fare in Washington (where one is apt to be jettisoned immediately if one’s line of work is of little interest to the questioner) but it is considered crass in Britain. This often holds true even after a more lengthy acquaintance.

I well remember spending the better part of a month in the south of France along with a “veddy” grand English lady who was a friend of my host’s mother. Toward the end of my stay, I sheepishly ventured to ask about her occupation — only to have my inquiry brushed off as a personal intrusion. (“Why would you want to know that?” she huffed.)

Avoid religion and politics (the same as you would here) and mentioning anyone’s family background, including your own (the class thing again).

Wondering what’s left? I don’t blame you, so here are a few topics to consider: food (finally enjoying a renaissance throughout the land), theater, music, movies, art, travel, animals — especially dogs and horses. Best of all: the weather. Anyone in Britain can talk for hours about the weather.

Address your questions on etiquette and protocol to Kevin Chaffee, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002 or send e-mail to civilities@ washingtontimes.com.

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