Elsa Court is a French woman who has lived in the UK for more than a decade. In this monthly column she discusses contemporary issues raised by living in a foreign country today, such as origin, identity and belonging.
British people spend a lot of time playing down their achievements and saying unflattering things about themselves — but as a joke. In popular culture, pretty much every character played by Hugh Grant in the 1990s illustrates this trait.
If you are British, you will think, “Well, of course, this is what we do in social situations.” If you are not, but have lived in Britain, I suspect you will agree this self-deprecation is exhausting.
I struggled to know how to respond appropriately until I read social anthropologist Kate Fox’s book Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. She describes it as a two-way interaction: the trick is to know that the only polite way to respond is to vigorously contradict the Brit until they relax in the knowledge that you appreciate them. Do this successfully and an even more miraculous social phenomenon may occur: bonding.
Does a friend play down their academic achievements by saying they went to, say, University College London (UCL) rather than the University of Oxford because they were too undisciplined to take their studies seriously? Tell them it was UCL’s gain. Does a colleague confess that her new dress is from H&M rather than APC? Tell her it looks like a designer dress on her.
It may seem trivial, but I cannot stress enough how much practice this requires to the non-British. Not challenging your friend or colleague’s self-deprecatory comments could make you appear rude, and the vehemence or skill with which you do challenge can make or break a friendship.
Then there is the issue of timing your answer. I have always found this hard work. The French are badly equipped for a mutual appreciation tango, because if they do engage in anything similar, it is usually for the opposite reason: to brag (not humbly). They will half expect you to take them down sarcastically (and that is OK — it is just sport).
If the UK has changed one aspect of my personality since I moved here 12 years ago, it is that I have learnt never to brag; the embarrassment of not being challenged by anyone when I do is more than this French person can take.
Meanwhile, I have had to become more adept at catching the self-deprecation ball before it lands in my lap. It requires quick, perceptive thinking, because if you catch it a second too late it can become very awkward; it makes you sound slightly insincere.
Last month, as I exchanged some polite questions with an English professor about our respective summer holiday plans, he told me he would see me in September — unless his plane back from eastern Europe crashed and he perished in the accident.
I was not quick enough to catch that very dark supposition. I muttered a matter-of-fact “Yeah, right”, not so much to validate the possibility of catastrophe but because it is, for better or worse, a phrase I fall back on when I am gathering my thoughts. I was going to follow up with a disclaimer, but it was too late.
“Yeah, right?’” said the professor with a bewildered smile. “You’re saying I am going to die in a plane crash before term starts?”
By that point I was shaking my head, trying to tell him that was not what I had meant, but to no avail. “Well, thank you, Elsa, that’s very encouraging of you. I will think of you as our plane goes down. I’ll think, ‘It’s all because of Elsa!’”
That is how life goes for a continental expat who has chosen to live on this island: everyday conversation is full of danger. I was close to mortified, but I was also laughing. On a good day, I try to make my errors of judgment sound deliberate and claim to have become an unlikely expert in British humour.
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here