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I've been in the UK for a month, but I'm still not comfortable with UK etiquette


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I like to think of myself as a fairly polite person. I’m from southern Indiana, where Midwestern warmth is emphasised as being of paramount importance. I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, I try to respond to text messages and emails in a prompt manner, and I hold the door open for strangers.

But living in London has made me question my etiquette. My natural awkwardness as a person is something I can play off as endearing in the United States, something to laugh about. In London, I can feel myself being annoying.

I’ve gotten better with the tube. I mind my own business and try to be aware of my space. I fumed right along with the native Londoners around me when a blissfully unaware couple stood hand-in-hand on an escalator step at Oval station, not knowing the unspoken but clear rule that commuters walk on the left and stand on the right so as to not block the people around them.

But I’m still not a natural. The other day my tube came to a standstill, parallel to another unmoving tube headed in the opposite direction. Leaning against the glass, I made eye contact with a man in the other tube.

And in my goofy American way, I waved at this 40-year-old man I had never met, mostly out of impulse. He didn’t wave back, and I turned around because I had made the situation so awkward.

Restaurants are still a mystery to me. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down at a restaurant here in the UK and known instantly whether to order and pay at a counter or wait to be served. A friend and I waited nervously while getting dinner near Trafalgar Square – embarrassingly, for about half an hour, out of sheer awkwardness – until finally flagging down a waitress to ask.

General interactions with strangers are still a bit odd. I was riding the tube home with some friends late last week and we noticed the Sainsbury’s bag at the feet of a sleeping drunk man on board had slid out and was making its way down the carriage with each turn. My friend grabbed the bag and put it on the man’s lap, at which point he whipped up, threw the bag at Jordan (my friend), and asked what he was trying to do. To Jordan, this was a normal courtesy – returning a lost bag to a stranger. To the man, Jordan should’ve minded his own business.

All this said, I have been surprised by the pure kindness of Londoners. As a whole, I find the British more reserved than most Americans I know, but that is not to say they are cold. I have been treated with patience and respect here even when I probably didn’t deserve it. And hey, for someone prone to social ineptitude like me, maybe it’s good to embrace a more reserved culture for a bit.

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