Thursday, January 05, 2023

Code Breakers

Some pertinently unpolished generalisations follow...

Travel around continental Europe and in provincial restaurants all over you will tend to come across large family groups enjoying their evening meals. 

Of the youngest members of these gatherings you will often observe how they have been trained - are being trained - in the codes that they will carry with them as unwritten rules for the rest of their lives. e.g. when to get up from the table and when not to, how to use a knife and fork, when to speak, how, if at all, to interact with serving staff, and so on. 

You might also gather that these are not loose groupings of individuals but mini-tribes with their own implicit hierarchies. 

That it not generally how things work on this side of the pond, but many Latin Americans that travel to Europe do appear to grasp the often subtle differences and elect to adapt to the local culture. 

I remember one Boxing Day in the mid-nineties when we had been invited to a formal, largely inter-familial dinner at the home of the parents of one of my closest friends, and we were taking along V's 9-year-old niece CL, then in our care in London. 

V took time to carefully brief CL in advance on the behavioural minefield ahead, for from the first few weeks after her own arrival in the UK she had made it her business to tune into all the hidden signals and to learn how to operate within the system, so as not to cause any major embarrassments, particularly with the older generations. 

This willingness to adapt to local mores is not one of the most noted characteristics of many Americans from more northerly latitudes. Just noticing where things are done differently often seems a bit beyond them.

At Cambridge I dated a girl from Irving NY and when she came to stay at our home in Spain and we all went out for dinner, I would soon be suffering inner cringes on witnessing how her manners (in the broadest sense) in a formal outside setting were causing my parents some serious distress. When she once called a waiter over to order something for herself I thought my mother had just spotted a gorgon. 

On the face of it, this was a fairly trivial clash of cultures, yet it is what I suspect lies at the heart of Meghan's travails as a would-be royal. The Windsors are on many levels one of the best examples — and therefore on others, worst case — of how how British families of a certain disposition tend to function. 

Being myself married to a 'foreigner' I can see how this is not a one-sided problem, how Brits can respond a little more hysterically when their rules are apparently violated by outsiders. It's not naked xenophobia per se, but the unwritten nature of many of our codes tends to mean that we struggle to express the discomfit resulting with any sort of lucidity. 

But, Yanks...

A few months ago I was in a bar-restaurant in Belize, at the time I arrived largely unoccupied, barring a solitary diner and a quiet trio of locals. I sat down to read with a beer. Into this tranquility erupted a largish group of Americans. They began by rearranging the chairs and tables to suit themselves, apparently without seeking prior permission to do so. Then the conversation began, audible not just throughout the extent of this establishment, but probably the one next door as well. 

The first thing you notice about these herds is the apparent disorder. New York is in general a far more cultured place than LA, but for many Brits it is still a bit terrifying how, in social situations where competition is usually suppressed on our island, the inhabitants of the Big Apple appear doggedly determined to signal their relative status to all and sundry to the point of absurdity and frankly, tediousness. 

I can see how Harry might not have anticipated some of the problems with introducing an upwardly mobile celeb from California into his own domestic milieu. Figures in the media, perhaps myself included, have dissed him for apparently not explaining even the most basic ground rules, but upon reflection, it would not have been so straightforward, even for someone a bit more clued up than 'Spare', to articulate that which has remained almost wholly in-articulated since our childhoods. 

To an American, particularly the sort that has always acted as if there ought not to be any limits, a lot of this must seem almost ineffable, uncanny even. 

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive code of all amongst the 'establishment' is the one relating to showing off. Signalling one's status, at least explicitly, in a manner a would-be member of the US elite would understand, is an absolute no-no. 

This is why Joe Biden made a fool of himself the night before the Queen's funeral. He applied his own rules to a situation where almost everyone else invited to the Palace had apparently comprehended a need to work within the native etiquette. 

So Meghan was doomed. ‘Rude…abrasive’ thought William. ‘Media narrative’ retorted Harry, and Meghan herself would have been utterly oblivious to the supposed improprieties. 

For these are attitudes and behaviours which are essentially laid down very early on and no matter how hard we try to free ourselves of them, they persist. 

But, Yanks.

They hardly even try. 

Has anyone ever spotted an American-born Hollywood actor who, no matter how sophisticated the character is supposed to be, appears to know how to operate cutlery with their non-dominant hand?


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