Musings on British Reserve

My post about male fashion and reluctance to express oneself has made me think.

There is a joke about a group of strangers from various nationalities marooned on a desert island. After a month most of them have buddied-up … but the British are still waiting to be introduced to each other.

I’m not a fan of cultural stereotypes but this one does have ring of truth about it, though maybe it should just be English rather than British as the Scots and Northern Irish I know are nothing like as uptight as the English (I don’t know many Welsh people so can’t comment).

Being an introvert and quite shy I rarely make the first approach to anyone. And even if introduced by a third party there is always that tentative dance around whilst I work out if I have anything in common with them before I start to let them in. This can last years, especially as I don’t want to seem nosy or creepy by asking questions! Decades of this have taught me that it is easier to simply not ask questions – but this is silly as it makes me seem disinterested. Asking questions helps form bonds as people like to talk about themselves to someone interested enough to ask. Or at least I do.

Each morning I share a bus stop with two ladies. We have done this for ten years but have never exchanged a word. Even when I met one of them elsewhere (she was working in our polling station at elections) and we smiled and acknowledged each other and had a brief chat – it was back to silence in the bus stop the next day. This really messes with my head. The two ladies stand together at the opposite end of the stop to me but they don’t talk to each other either – sorry ladies but it reminds me of sheep clinging together in the presence of a predator and really gives me the impression that they are prejudiced against me due to my sex.

In case you are wondering – they don’t get the same bus as me in the evening so can’t remember the ‘Bus Papers’ experiments…

It makes me a bit paranoid. I know I send out ‘go away’ vibes – even my wife says so – but TEN YEARS! One of these days I’m going to crack and introduce myself as this is SO silly.

OK – I know I’m being daft. They have that British reserve themselves, or don’t do mornings, or have had bad experiences with men. Chances are we’d have nothing in common anyway.

By contrast:

Earlier this year we had a Dutch MSc student working in our lab, though not with me. I was aware she was about to start that week but had never met her. I had heard she was going to share an office with my colleagues Hayley and Sarah. Anyway – I was in there chatting with Hayley when the student came in.  To my absolute shock she marched straight over to me, looked me in the eye, gave me a big smile, held out her hand and introduced herself. My defences dropped immediately and we always stopped for a chat whenever we met. She later told a colleague that my goodbye hug when she left a month later made her cry.

This instant bond has happened to me just a few times in my adult life, with both women and men. The one thing they have in common was that, with only one exception, they have all been from overseas and introduced themselves in a direct and friendly way that disarmed me. Sometimes I think that it actually helps to bond with me when someone has English as their second language because my social awkwardness is perhaps less obvious to them. BUT – that doesn’t explain the friendly self-introduction that we British people seem so crap at unless trying to sell you something.

Their directness was a big help. British people are also often bad at being direct – unless they are being rude; which, sadly, many seem to excel at. I’m an introvert with under-developed social skills. I can’t cope with social subtlety. If someone likes me and wants to spend time with me I want them to say so or I’m going to expect the worst and distance myself before I get hurt.

In order to make a small effort to combat this – two nights last week I made a point of introducing myself to a new member at the gym. It went OK, though they did seem a bit surprised!

(Last night one of the ladies I am friendly with at the gym actually clapped her hands with delight when she found out she would be working with me – I blushed! )



  1. Hello Darren!
    I am always really excited to learn about how cultural practices different between nationalities! During my internship abroad, I did notice that British folks tend to be more reserved, but as a result you guys seem more sophisticated and intelligent!
    In Canada, it is an expectation that we introduce ourselves when we enter a new workplace or another environment where we are expected to interact with others. If we don’t, it would be considered rude!
    In situations where we are not expected to interact (ie. bus stop, elevator) it is acceptable to be quiet, but sometimes we end up chatting to strangers. For example, in my building it is customary when someone joins you in the elevator that you ask which floor they are going to and press the button for them, which is silly because people can press their own buttons haha! But it feels nice to interact with my neighbours although I don’t know much else about them. I consider myself an introvert but I introduce myself to strangers often and often have friendly chats. Maybe it is a cultural effect 🙂

    Love this post! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It doesn’t seem like sophistication or intelligence to me Sophie, or maybe I just do not see it that way being a brit myself. I hope I am not a typical brit.
      I like learning about different cultures too.
      My wife is good at chatting to strangers on buses etc but I think she is less scary than me.
      Thank you for your lovely comment as always Sophie!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Most of my friends are in agreement that anything that is spoken with the British accent sounds sophisticated- so I think it is a common perception of the British! It makes me wonder how Canadians/Americans sound like to the other English-speaking folks…

        I think that some people do invite conversation more than others haha. My fiancé always have strangers starting conversation with him, while people only talk to me if I talk to them first. Interesting because I thought he looks scarier than me?! Lol I don’t know how it works :’)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I guess it depends on the accent. I can usually tell apart accents from say, New York and Texas because they are extremes to me but most Americans and Canadians sound similar otherwise. But I find it hard to accept that certain British regional accents could sound sophisticated to anyone, and that includes my own!

          Liked by 2 people

            1. Me too. I used to think that the age of wide communication would mean accents disappeared but there is not really much sign of it thankfully. I’d be the same with American accents. I can distinguish New York, Texas snd California but beyond that I am stuck!


    2. I grew up in Latin America where at parties someone might say ” Do you know that person over there?” (Perhaps standing alone) “Let’s go introduce ourselves.” That was so ingrained in me that I was offended as a young adult when it didn’t happen when I moved to the States (USA)! But I know to accept cultural differences – and even enjoy them.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. So, as an American I found this really interesting….I am not at all what one would call an extrovert, hate parties where I don’t know anyone, but it is always a disappointment if I come back from the grocery store without having had a friendly exchange with a total stranger. My husband usually teases me when I get back and asks if I “made any friends at the store?” To me that’s the most fun….I just can’t imagine otherwise!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It does seem to be a maddening part of the British mindset Jen. I don’t k ow if it reflects reality but I see on American TV shows and movies that, at least in some neighbourhoods, new people are greeted with gifts of food by their neighbours. New folks here are greeted with suspicion instead. My wife tried to be friendly with the new people next door when they moved in but they just gave her a look and practically ran indoors.
      I have had occasional nice conversations with complete strangers but can count them on my fingers. Weird isn’t it?
      The bit at the beginning of American Werewolf in London where they walk into the pub and try to be friendly but it all goes silent and hostile is actually quite normal here.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. wow, I can’t imagine that! When I was a teen I dreamed of living in England, no idea why, it just seemed a fascinating place. Ironically, I traveled and lived in Europe for a while, but still have never been to England, so it’s nice to hear what it is like from people who live there. In America, if really depends on what part of the country you live in. Down south, they are friendly beyond belief, the further north you go, like New England, it gets a little “cooler.” In my mothers day, greeting new neighbors with food was typical but when we did it for new neighbors they actually asked us what they could do for us…so except for probably down south, I think that was more typical of a different era, at least in my experience. In my area, and the midwest, people are usually friendly, and I am usually too friendly for my own good, and my husband even more so, but I enjoy people…thanks for the insight! This is one of the things I love about blogging…armchair traveling!!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Thank you so much for that Jen. I did wonder if it was a generational thing that was dying out a bit. I also kind of had the impression that turning up on a neighbours property in Texas was a good way to get yourself shot. Thats the movies for you!
          I am usually reserved until I feel safe with someone but that has completely reversed recently. Some of the people at the gym cannot believe I am the same guy who was so quiet a year ago. I just got back from a massage so am nice and warm and fuzzy and relaxed. I had a different therapist to usual and I have not seen this girl since she got back from maternity leave months ago. We had a good old chat which I really enjoyed. Maybe I am more extroverted than I thought?
          I am undergoing some sort of massive personality shift, as you will know from my blog. It is nice but the unknown is always scary as well as exciting.
          See, I’m chatting away to you now!
          My wife is more complex, like most women, and is very chatty but with strong boundaries. Our home is a safe space for her, and for me to some extent, so we almost never invite visitors.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. My husband would say the same about me…I don’t do Facebook because of the lack of privacy, and yet here I am blogging for the world to see…we are complex creatures, lol!! I can relate to your wife…boundaries are a good thing, and a home should be your castle and safe space for sure:) Nice chatting with you…and a hello to your wife!


          2. And actually, that bit about Texas may be true, lol, but I love the Texas spirit and pride….I’d rather have a Texan standing with me than some from many other states I could name!

            Liked by 1 person

  3. OH MY GOODNESS DARREN DO I COMPLETELY RELATE. I am honest, straight up and friendly and it freaks people out! All my life I have been called “weird” I don’t like the British way of not communicating and standing in polite silence!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It always amazes me in London when even in a packed tube carriage everybody manages to avoid making any eye contact when it should not even be physically possible to avoid someone’s eyeline.

      I want people to be direct, unless they are being rude!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I talk to people at the bus stop all the time. Something to do with the fact that buses are always late and it’s always so blooming cold. People love to moan about British weather and how the bus should have been here ten minutes ago. However, one day an old Asian lady started telling my shy daughter that her hair was dry and that I should saturate it with oil. I gave her a hard look and refused to respond as I felt it was so rude, especially as my daughter is extremely self-conscious and not Asian so her hair is never gonna shine like black satin thread like her daughters. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I guess it would take something like the bus being late to break the ice in my situation. I also think that women generally are more likely to chat to each other. However – your example of rudeness does nicely illustrate WHY people sometimes avoid conversation 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes I think that misery does bring people together lol! I think it is different cultures engage with another different x I’m sure your daughter is lovely x

        Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a great post Makes me sad for the British as I think there is so much reserve in the national character But when I lived there I made lovely friends who were quiet warm and giving and I still miss them years later

    Maybe we long for what we need to learn to give but its hard if we give off the wring impression shy can come across as aloof

    Liked by 2 people

  5. So I didn’t expect it this much from the English 😂.. I’m Scots, and whenever I visit England I notice sometimes that people are a bit reserved. But I didnt realise the extent, if it is how you say it to be. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe the American Werewolf analogy was a little harsh. Two things also to bear in mind – we are degree educated scientists living in a very working class UKIP voting area where we are regarded with suspicion by our neighbours (they rightly suspect we are those liberal types the Daily Mail has indoctrinated them against). Also I don’t appear friendly at first glance due to social anxiety.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. hahaha yes, you’re right about this stereotype- it does fit us English folk a little too well. hahaha I’ve been told I send out “go away” vibes on occasion too- but at the same time I’m an ambivert and think it’s so worthwhile just introducing yourself on occasion- so go you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There was a small group of us who socialized in university and I complained about this guy who always “pretended” that he didn’t know me – after a year. I thought he was a snob because he was a graduate student and I was the wife of a graduate student. A friend explained that he was English and we had never been formally introduced!;) (I love this post!)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You are right that your situation is so crazy – ten years? Do they stand staring into their phones? Do they give any eye contact at all? There is however one nationality of people who are much worse than us – the Swedish. Not even the elderly speak to each other at bus stops and they avoid eye contact so much it is as if it is considered rude to smile at someone. The only things in common with these two countries is the cold. Maybe some folk are too freezing to use their tongue muscles.

    Liked by 1 person

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