A key cultural test of expat acclimatization has been whether I can seamlessly navigate everyday social situations. Should I shake hands, hug or kiss when meeting someone. Can I ask what people do, of do I have to guess from clues in their conversation? When speaking about the weather, can I complain about it? Is “Are you Okay?” different from “Are you Alright?” And what do I do when I give someone a choice and they answer “I don’t mind”?
I think that I (usually) know the answers to all of these questions (and their Dutch equivalents). But there have been some good articles written recently that can give the newly-perplexed a push in the right direction.
‘And a few weekend photos around Sandbanks where I stroll whilst thinking about such things...
Closings: I tend to sign off casual correspondence with ‘best wishes’: it warms a business letter and reassures a casual friend. I would never, ever use it with anyone close to me (British friends say that it’s a very pointed insult if used with anyone you’ve ever known well). Sarah Britten wrote a guide to the varieties of closings: I have to admit that I’ve switched to ‘Best Regards’ after reading it.
Greetings: I struggle with the variations on greetings: three pecks in the Netherlands, two in the UK,sometimes with a colleague, never with a boss. Lucy Kellaway wrote about the need for a single Universal Greeting that business people could use with confidence across cultures. I still vote for the simple handshake, one hand over-clasp if it’s a warm friend (but never reach up to their elbow). Beyond that…I’m just not the huggy sort whenI’m in business attire, sorry.
Apologizing: I am convinced that the British have two ways to say “I’m sorry”. One is an actual apology, which tends to be remorseful, single-syllable, sincere. David Mitchell suggests that Life goes much more smoothly when everyone's saying sorry. Perhaps. For I also hear a rising, two-syllable, ironic “sor-ree” when I accidently turn in front of someone at the grocery. It’s a honked horn: politely, definitely critical.
Criticizing: In a word, don’t. I may not like the condition of the trains, accept the scarcity of snack crackers, nor enjoy the crowds at half-term holidays, but I am a guest on someone else’s home turf. Toni Hargis gets it exactly right: I can be self-deprecating about your homeland, but it’s best to be accepting of my residential country. I came, after all, in search of the differences,not to change everyone else.