The Eighth Deadly Sin is Queue-Jumping

Laura Stiers is a third year English major studying abroad in London this quarter. In Dispatches from London, she blogs about books, curious Anglicisms, and literary culture in one of Europe’s most literary cities.

I can’t shake the feeling that I have “foreigner” tattooed somewhere prominent on my body. Riding the Tube (far superior in cleanliness and speed to the CTA, you will not be surprised to learn!), walking down the street, sitting in a pub . . . it seems they must know that I’m an impostor. My American-ness feels like it’s wafting off of me in every direction.

(This unnerving sensation was violently contradicted by the fact that two different people asked me for directions on my way home from the Tube stop. “Wow,” I said to the second person, “I must look really non-threatening.” “No,” she said. “You look like you belong here.”

Huh, I thought. It must be the smooth and confident way in which I almost get hit by a car every time I try to cross the street. They drive on the other side of the street here. I know this. Everyone knows this. Sadly, the knowledge doesn’t seem to be doing me any good.)

In literary news: bookstores have the exact same smell here that they do in the States. Waterstones could practically be Borders, except that their shelves are curved and arranged in lovely concentric circles. Secondhand books also smell the same, as confirmed by my visit to the wonderfully-named Skoob Books.

Also at Skoob, I found a book entitled “Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior.” It was written by an Oxford anthropologist, and I suspect it will help to sponge away this curséd invisible tattoo sometime before I leave.

English behavior, it seems, is mostly defined by the things you don’t do or say. Take, for example, this excerpt concerning the complicated process of getting the attention of a bartender at a pub, described as the Pantomime Rule:

There is, however, a strict etiquette involved in attracting the attention of bar staff: this must be done without speaking, without making any noise, and without resorting to the vulgarity of obvious gesticulation.

The prescribed approach is best described as a sort of subtle pantomime – not the kind of pantomime we see on stage at Christmas, but more like an Ingmar Bergman film in which the twitch of an eyebrow speaks volumes. The object is to make contact with the barman. But calling out to him is not permitted, and almost all other obvious means of attracting attention, such as tapping coins on the counter, snapping fingers or waving are equally frowned upon.

The book further suggests to “tilt the empty glass, or perhaps turn it slowly in a circular motion,” as well as “the adoption of an expectant, hopeful, even slightly anxious expression.”

Obviously, the entire thing is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also quite academic and serious about the things it has to say. Other subjects include Television Rules, Breakfast Rules – and Tea Beliefs, and the Invisible-queue Rule, which I’m fairly certain I have already broken numerous times in my 48 hours here. I expect this book will deliver both a great deal of humor and some surprisingly valuable bits of information towards my eventual goal of blending in.