Talking the Yanks Under the Table

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Dec 11 19:03:47 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,  December 10, 2006
Well Done!

Talking the Yanks Under the Table


NO sooner had her words been reported in the British newspapers then she
frantically took them back, saying that she had been misunderstood and
misquoted. But the question remains: was Gwyneth Paltrow on to something
when she noted (or didnt) that the British are much more intelligent and
civilized than the Americans, and that people here dont talk about work
and money; they talk about interesting things at dinner? Whether Britons
are objectively cleverer and more amusing than Americans, or whether they
just sound that way, is one of the deep mysteries of British life for
expatriates like Ms. Paltrow, who lives in London with her husband, the
British rock star Chris Martin, and their children, Apple and Moses.

Britons seem to have the advantage of accent: their exotic pronunciation
can make even dubious observation sound like unimpeachable truth. They are
also experts at the art of speaking coherently and with authority on
topics they know little or nothing about. Every Englishman can talk for 15
minutes on any subject without a note, Norman Mailer has been quoted as
saying. This somehow makes them seem more persuasive. When Tony Blair put
the case for the Iraq war to Congress in 2003, his elegant fluency made
him appear not only more articulate and intelligent, but also more
credible, than President Bush. If silky-tongued Mr. Blair supports the
war, some Americans felt at the time, then there must be something to it.

As for the dinner parties alluded to in Ms. Paltrows reputed quotes, they
are indeed different here. For one thing, said Amelia Mendoza, a
transplanted New Yorker, London dinner conversation is enhanced by the
alcohol that Britons like to swig between remarks. At the end of dinner
which can be later than midnight, even during the week it is considered a
hospitality failure if there arent at least as many empty bottles of wine
left on the table as there were guests. People are more relaxed and theyre
not thinking, Ive got to get home because Ive got to get up to work, Mrs.
Mendoza said. Its looser here;  there isnt that grind.

Unlike Americans, Britons think it is rude to ask a stranger what he does,
in case the answer is nothing. They think it is rude to talk about the
price of ones possessions, the cost of ones house or the angst one feels
on account of ones shrinks incompetence, not that anyone would admit to
having a shrink. But curiously, they dont think it is rude to be rude,
said Mary Killen, who writes the Your Problems Solved column in The
Spectator magazine. People who are good value do tend to be outrageous and
indiscreet and fairly childish, Ms. Killen said. In this country, were
still quite happy behind closed doors to be as offensive as we want.

That can lead to violent shouting matches over the table, with guests
readily contradicting and insulting each other. A similar robustness of
exchange a delight in the quality and originality of the insult
characterizes proceedings in the House of Commons, where debates are as
quick and sharp as fencing moves, thrust-lunge-recover, so nimble that
Congress seems worthy and dull by comparison. In Britain, prime ministers
careers can rise and fall on their ability to slash their opponents with
the perfect verbal put-down. The Brits, as far as I can tell, dont take
themselves as seriously as Americans do, said Stephen Miller, an American
essayist who is the author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art
(Yale University Press). But they are serious about conversation itself,
treating it as an art form.

The U.S. hasn't historically had a strong respect for conversation,
something both de Tocqueville and Mrs. Trollope mention in their writing,
he continued in an interview. The Puritans looked down on conversation as
an idle waste of time. But the British writer and editor Sir Harold Evans,
who has lived in the United States for 20 years, made the case for
American conversation, saying that those of us who grew up speaking the
Queens English get more credit than we deserve. London parties, he said
via e-mail, tend to be more eclectic because people from different spheres
are all based here.  But U.S. politics, very much personality based, gives
U.S. dinner tables plenty to talk about, he said. At the same time, with
their layers of veiled signals, bluffs and counterbluffs, Britons are
skilled at using willful buffoonery in conversation, as a way to appear
modest. This can prove confusing to the American observer.

Called to the White House in the first season of The West Wing to advise
the president on how to defuse an escalating conflict between India and
Pakistan, the fictional British diplomat Lord John Marbury arrives drunk,
insults the chief of staff and leers salaciously at every woman in sight.
But then his idiocy melts away, as he delivers a brilliant off-the-cuff
analysis of relations in the Indian subcontinent, alluding among other
things to the religious wars of the 16th century and quoting, accurately,
from the Book of Revelation. Americans would rather describe great
transcendent truths than do anything else; Brits would rather carry off
challenging polemic than do anything else, Andrew Solomon, the American
writer and self-described Anglophile, said via e-mail. American speech is
inflected with the patois of multiculturalism and its expressive
imprecision; good debating skills are taught in England to excellent

Ms. Paltrow should recognize the virtues of each culture, Mr. Solomon
said. Each offers its particular pleasures.


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