Friday, February 20, 2009

No Awkwardness, Please; We're British

At the "Spectator" in London, Mary Killen, in her "Ask Mary" column, helps readers escape awkward situations without giving offense, an English cultural imperative. Several years ago, an Anglican from the north of England wrote in complaining that when she went to church in London, the liturgy included the opportunity to greet those sitting nearby between the ministry of the Word and Holy Eucharist. Churches call this passing the peace. She said that since she greeted people before and after the service, she saw no reason to do so in the middle. In the U.S., we'd smile or grimace, shake our heads, and say no thank you. Mary advised the reader to go to church with her right arm in a sling and gesture at it apologetically to escape being grasped or hugged.

Here's a more recent example:
Q. My 12-year-old son and I braved the snow last week to keep an appointment for him to look at a school. On the much delayed journey back to Paddington I was walking through to the buffet car when I saw two friends of a friend who kindly suggested I fetch my son and come and join them. Having said I would, I immediately regretted it because it meant my son (who boards) and I would not be able to chat together alone. I could not think of a way to backtrack and dragged him through to both of our regrets. How could I have explained that I had changed my mind without causing offense, Mary?

J.N., London W12

A. You could have made a show of going to your son’s carriage and then returning to announce that since he had fallen asleep you had better not leave him to wake up and wonder where on earth you were.

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