British Reserve

Train entering a station, seen from one of the platforms. What station? No idea. (All photos in this post were taken in 1999, by E. Adams, who is not a train nerd but was documenting his commute.)

Not long after I moved to the UK, I was waiting for a train on some unfamiliar station platform when I realized I was standing under a sign that read “Purple Zone”. I had no clue what the purple zone was for or whether I was supposed to be in it, and a look up and down the platform didn’t reveal any other zones; apparently there was a purple zone and then there was everyplace else. It wasn’t even clear where the purple zone began and ended. What was it?

I went up to another woman waiting there and asked. She was English, but didn’t know anything about platform zones of any color. We turned over some possibilities; she thought maybe it was part of some system that wasn’t used any more, for what purpose she couldn’t say, and the conversation flowed on from there. By the time the we had to break off, I knew all about her family, especially her husband–and her husband’s father, who was coming for a visit, arriving on the train I’d be boarding. She wasn’t his biggest fan. Her last words to me as the train pulled in were “I don’t know what I’m going to do with the old codger for three whole weeks.”

So much for the British being reserved. 

Train platform, Guildford

Ask an American what British people are like and the word reserved is bound to come up: British people aren’t outgoing, you know—they’re reserved, they’re formal. Ask British people about Americans, and you’re likely to get the same thing but in reverse: Americans, you may hear, are too loud, too eager to hug someone they’ve just met, too willing to jump right into conversations as if they’ve known you all their lives.

Stereotypes are inevitably only a partial description of any group of people (at best), though some would say that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But I’ve found the stereotypical British reserve, when I do run into it, is a thin veneer over people as outgoing as anybody else.

Commuters leaving the train, going home

Trains and pubs figure in most of these stories, those being the places I naturally run into strangers in spaces shared long enough that a conversation might start.  Today I was meeting a friend for lunch in a pub and an Englishwoman, also waiting for her friends to show up, started a conversation with me. To be fair, she did remark that my accent didn’t sound local, and it may be that people will speak to me, thinking I’m a visitor, when they wouldn’t speak to another Brit, so I might be getting a skewed view.  At any rate, my oldest friend here in Surrey is someone I met on a train; there were no seats left, and we ended up talking in the aisle all the way to London.  (She told me later that you meet the nicest people on trains; that’s where she met her husband.)

A couple of weeks ago I met some people in the pub and got to talking: an Englishman close to my age, his American wife, and his mother. I asked the couple how they’d met and, somehow, rather than either the husband or the wife answering, the mother decided to tell the story. According to her, it started back the during the Vietnam war when there was a brain-drain from Britain to the US; with American engineers and technicians called up for service, American firms came over to the UK on hiring drives.

Platform at Waterloo Station, London

Now, I wasn’t entirely sure why I was getting quite so much of the family history, starting years before the woman’s son and daughter-in-law–the ones I’d asked about–were even born. Pretty soon I was hearing about how the mother’s marriage had broken up because her husband had an affair, and how he broke her heart. I heard all about the divorce arrangements, and how hard she’d worked trying to be both mother and father to her kids, not to mention (but she did mention) nurse and this and that and the other. And it further broke her heart that they had to move from their nice house to something smaller and humbler, and the children had to leave their private school to go to a state school.  

She wasn’t going to take that lying down—but she interrupted the story for the next round of drinks. Phase two of the family history came later, and involved her marching into the office of the headmaster of another private school, saying “My son is bored. What are you going to do about it?” I was thinking the right answer might have been “nothing, because he’s not one of my pupils”, but the headmaster, presumably no stranger to the better part of valor, had agreed to give her son the entrance tests.

She then told everyone in listening distance her son’s IQ score from those tests, causing him to put a restraining hand on her knee.  She took no notice, deciding instead that we would benefit from knowing just how unusual it is to have that high an IQ, what grade he ended up skipping, and what financial arrangements she’d made with his father in order to pay his tuition, as a result of which she’d had to work full time in addition to all her mothering, fathering, nursing, and other duties.  And so the evening, with a decidedly unreserved British conversationalist, went on…

One of the old slam-door trains stands in the station. (These aren't used any more.)

I never did find out about the purple zone, by the way. Googling this afternoon suggests that there used to be purple, gold, and blue zones, parts of a color-coded system meant to alert passengers holding reserved (as it were) seat tickets as to what part of the platform would be nearest the coach where their seats should be. If that’s correct, then my new friend on the platform wherever it was—Reading? Birmingham?—was right: it was the last vestige of an out-of-date system.

That conversation and the one with the proud mother in the pub are two of many in the last eleven years that, taken altogether, suggest the British aren’t nearly as reserved as Americans think they are.

In fact, if you speak first, some of them will tell you absolutely anything.



Filed under Culture, My Life & Stuff That Happened

2 responses to “British Reserve

  1. My couple of spells as a guerilla poet (wondering up to people and engaging them in conversation before hitting them with a poem) has been educational on this topic. some people were decidedly uncomfortable at being accosted by a stranger – and some of them were very rude about it – but the great majority were delighted at the opportunity for a chat.

    It was a standing joke that my Greek girlfriend would speak to anyone (even English!) and, within minutes, would know everything there was to know about them, down to their grandmother’s name. It was extraordinary to watch – and bloody irritating if you were trying to get somewhere by a certain time!

  2. Candida

    I suspect the speaking first is important: that’s the bit we tend not be a little uncomfortable with. I said “Isn’t it great to have a properly sunny bank holiday weekend” at the start of breakfast in a B&B once, and by the end of breakfast I knew that the woman’s great grandfather was the subject of the legal case that made the career of a young David Lloyd George.
    But both the conversations you recount here have something in common: I suspect, and wonder how you see it as an American, that we do love to have a grumble. We like nothing more than to complain for a while at some friend or total stranger and then say, inexplicably, “Still, mustn’t grumble!” I’m guessing your best friend from the train is an exception, but d’you reckon you get a higher proportion of grumblers here than you would back home, or am I imagining it?

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