Coffee House

Why Britain is, still, the world capital of decency

16 February 2013

In the Wall Street Journal today there is a wonderful piece by an American tourist struck by the level of friendliness and civility he found amongst the British people. He starts with our tube etiquette:

‘Three times in the space of 24 hours young men offered their subway seats to my wife, who is neither elderly nor pregnant. They seemed to do this out of a sense that giving up one’s seat to a person at least one generation older was the sort of thing gentlemen did, even though not one of them fit the narrow technical definition of a gentleman. One guy looked like a gangster.’

And then again…

‘At the Kensington High Street tube station, we had trouble figuring out the Oyster Card transit payment system. A very young Underground employee, noticing our confusion, offered to insert the coins for us. This sort of thing never happens in New York, where being perplexed is viewed as a sign of mental impairment.’

Then outside of London on the train…

‘When my wife asked a young man on the train to turn down his MP3 device because the noise coming through his dirt-cheap earphones was so loud and annoying, he did not disfigure her with a machete. Instead, he apologized for his insensitivity. So did the woman who had her cellphone on speaker. The train employees were both cordial and informative. Met anybody like that on Amtrak lately?’

And finally, post office in Stroud:

In the market town of Stroud, a clerk walked about a quarter-mile across a supermarket to show me where the sparkling water was. But the real capper was when I visited the post office In my suburban New York town there is a post-office employee so belligerent that people drive to the next town to ship their packages. That town is 5 miles away. And the employees there aren’t all that much nicer. But at the post office in beautiful downtown Stroud, the helpful staff didn’t act like I was brain-damaged because I did not know how much postage to put on a postcard to Canada. Nor did they act like the world owed them a living.

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Now, is this the rose-tinted view of an Anglophile yank that would not be repeated by anyone who actually lives here? I’ll add one final observation: from our own Charles Moore in The Spectator a fortnight ago:-

On a crowded train from the frozen north to the even more frozen south at the weekend, a party of teenage boys with a great many cans of beer sat opposite us. My heart sank as their laughs got louder and their conversation more obscene. I was trying very hard to understand a book about exchange rate policy in the 1980s, but my wife was wearing our only pair of earplugs, and concentration was impossible. The boys were all candidates for university, and sour thoughts filled my head that they could do no better than burp and make jokes about sleeping with one another’s sisters.

But then a strange thing happened. Along came a man with Down’s Syndrome. The teenagers didn’t know him, but he saw a football match playing on their computer screen, and he stayed to watch, cheer, and insult whichever side it was he didn’t like. He swore quite often himself, and then said, rather sweetly, in his indistinct voice, ‘Pardon my French.’ The yobbish boys treated him with charming courtesy. They shook hands with him, exchanged football talk, expressed polite interest when he said he had a girlfriend, and laughed at his jokes.

When, after what seemed like an hour, they came to the tacit view that he had perhaps been with them long enough, they moved him on with an ‘It’s been great to meet you’ manoeuvre that members of the royal family would have envied. Their manners to the handicapped were right in a way that those of my generation at that age certainly were not.

I’m in Stockholm right now, a beautiful city – but one where people are certainly more reserved than the Brits. I think both Charles, and our American tourist, shine a light on Britain’s most distinctive characteristic: the decency and warm-heartedness of the British people. It seldom makes the newspapers. But look around, and you can see it all the time.

It is said that, in New York, the definition of a microsecond is the time between a streetlight turning green and the car behind you tooting its horn. In London, I’d define it as the time between a woman trying to pick up a heavy bag on the underground staircase and her being offered help by a man.

God knows we have our problems in this country. But Britain’s basic levels of civility — which were famous in wartime — are still making visitors gawp. It’s a reminder why, as Andrew Marr put it, to be born in Britain is an extraordinary stroke of good luck.

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Show comments
  • robheggie1

    What a lovely article, has cheered me right up, which I realise is kinda said, but I don’t care. The British are very decent people and they ought to be more aware of this and stop allowing themselves to think they’re not good enough and that all of the world’s problems are they’re fault.

  • Curnonsky

    The American tourist was lucky he didn’t fall into the clutches of the NHS – his story might have taken a different tone.

  • Asif Baul

    I can’t be the only reader shuddering to imagine what Charles Moore was like as a young man….. But while accepting the premise of this piece, (that there’s plenty of decency around and US customer service is not always better). I do have to point out that Joe Queenan is not some random American tourist,but a fine humorist and very much the PJ O Rourke of film critics. (Who also happens to be Anglophile enough to have written for the Guardian in the past and married a Brit.)

  • Peter Jackson

    Fraser, I do hope you haven’t fallen into the trap of thinking that Andew Marr might have has an original thought.

    “To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life.”Cecil Rhodes.

  • AndrewMelville

    British tolerance shouldn’t be wasted on foreigners!

    Seriously, it’s a wonderful country with terrific people, but it’s small & overcrowded. We welcome visitors ,but 3 weeks is plenty, then have a good trip home. See you next time.

  • Jules

    ‘downtown Stroud’ lol!!

    Sadly our warm heartedness and tolerance has been abused and our patience pushed to the limit with the largest wave of immigration, in the shortest period of time this Country has ever seen.

  • thelonghaul

    That American tourist doesn’t say whether it was a lovely sunny day or not.
    In my experience the English temperament is inversely proportional to the weather:
    Cold and rainy — foul tempered.
    Sunny and warm — smiles all round.

  • Walter Ellis

    I agree with Fraser (though let’s not go overboard … there are still some dreadful young people around). But what are we to make of the almost perpetually abusive online mob who dominate the comment section of Telegraph Blogs? I’m told most of them are middle-aged or elderly. They are certainly extraordinarily rude. Is it because they don’t have to give their names, or is it just that the anti-EU/anti-immigrant lobby tends naturally to excess? I note that the Spectator crowd have, in general, much better manners even though, for the most part, they share their counterparts’ political outlook.

    • Boudicca_Icenii

      If you think the Telegraph comment pages are rude, you should try reading CIF.
      They are far, far worse. Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically a bigot regardless of the topic or the decency with which the alternative view is put forward.

    • Gary Wintle

      Ah yes, bashing young people. Some of the biggest assholes I have encountered have been pensioners, and the Baby Boomers are undoubtedly the nastiest generation of all; truly self-absorbed and vile. Most of today’s young people are considerably friendlier than the two failed generations (X and Boomers) that proceeded them.

      • Walter Ellis

        A bit harsh, Gary. I wasn’t suggesting young peope can’t be nice, merely pointing out that they aren’t uniformly pleasant. You, on the other hand, say directly that the over-sixties are “undoubtedly the nastiest generation … self-absorbed and vile”. I am 64, and therefore vile. What about you?

  • Robert Taggart

    Some of us are doing our bit – to dispel such ‘civility’ !

  • Boudicca_Icenii

    I like the part about the young lad with Downs Syndrome. This is similar: A few years ago when my son was in his mid-teens he went about with a sizeable group of mates (male and female) and one of the lads was very obviously gay. He was just part of the group – there was absolutely no animosity, no teasing, no nastiness. He joined in with the girls in the group sometimes when they were doing ‘girly things’ and he joined in with the lads when they were playing football, computer games etc etc. He was a really pleasant, polite young man – who happened to be gay and very camp.
    If he had ever needed ‘protection’ I know that the youngsters in that group would have stood up for him. At the time I couldn’t help comparing my son/friends acceptance of this young gay lad with the way things were back in the 60s and 70s.
    All youngsters these days swear – it seems to be a badge of honour to be abusive to each other – and not take offence. But underneath the obscenities most of them are very decent people.

  • HooksLaw

    I have found Americans polite in my time there. Everyone can be polite or rude. I certainly like to think we do better than most. However selecting one country over another is a bit facile. We might compare ourselves with the USA and vice versa because of a common language.

    We are capable of producing people like Shipman, Fred West and Philpott. We have the same feet of clay as everyone else.

    • Daniel Maris

      All Shipman’s patients spoke well of him – so caring, nothing too much trouble, wonderful bedside manner, so polite!

      • Robert Taggart

        Some folk – in Hyde – still cannot believe he was bad !

  • Pincer22

    Having travelled to various parts of the world, I have come accross kindness, meanness, pettyness, andy every other kind of ‘ness in all those parts

  • Mycroft

    ‘Three times in the space of 24 hours young men offered their subway seats to my wife, who is neither elderly nor pregnant.’ I’d be more impressed by that if I didn’t recently have to ask someone in the tube to give up his seat to my 90 year old mother when she was in obvious distress.

  • Framer

    I find the politeness of Americans their most attractive feature although it may be more of a southern thing.
    In the UK one is frightened of servants.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I don’t meet servnts. Alas, I am not rich enough for a butler.

      • Framer

        You do have servants Fergus. Those who serve you in shops, nurses, waiters, taxi drivers, etc, and none of them frighten you?
        That is why one feels obliged to phrase requests in these obsequious ways like ‘would you ever be so kind, when you have a moment, just this once to…’

        • Fergus Pickering

          Is a teacher a servant? Is a lawyer a servant? I don’t follow you at all. High-handed bastards like you exist in Britain too, alas. A swift kick in the balls would do you no end of good.

  • kyalami

    We stopped off in the UK on our way to America 20 years ago. We knew English people were reserved and unfriendly so it was a shock to find after a year we had more close friends than in the country where we were born. We never got to America: we liked it too much here: great colleagues at work, the parents of our sons’ friends, people met playing sport or doing hobbies.

    While we’re about it, I never cease to be amazed at how many people unobtrusively do charitable and voluntary work in the UK. A great country indeed.

    • Robert Taggart

      You need to get out more !

  • Terry Field

    Reserve and politeness are different things; I do not experience high levels of politeness when visiting England (the rest are strangers to me) when compared to other states, but reserve is there in spades.

    The English are, in general, sensitive, and are very probably little changed (the indigenous ones at least) from the generous tribute paid by Julius Caeser when he noted their kindness to animals, which impresses me more than any virtues that may spring intermittently from the intense socio-economic stewpot that is the modern, in general much-to-be avoided, island state.

    • Robert Taggart

      Animals are innocent. People are not !

  • Roy

    It just depends who you have carrying the banners and celebrating what occasion. You could just as easily say, ‘were has all the decency disappeared to’!

  • dude03

    I have to agree with all things said in this article. I spent lat year’s summer holidays in Britain and as we travelled from Birmingham to Glasgow we had to take a detour via Newcastle and Edinburgh due to floods in the northwest of England. Train from Carlisle to Newcastle was really overcrowded, so we had to stay in the aisle either standing or sitting on our bags. With so many people in the train the air wasn’t the best in the world, so my girlfriend started to feel dizzy. A woman sitting next to us offered my girl water and even giving up her seat. Although she declined the offer, it was really good feeling to be in the country, where problems of other people seems to interest even a complete stranger. It wouldn’t probably happen here in the Czech republic so often…

    • Robert Taggart

      Aah – you ‘continentals’ !

  • dba_vagabond_trader

    Yes, do tell, sounds like our P.O. One fella has quite the attitude.

  • Austin Barry

    I understand that politeness, sobriety and modesty are also being enforced on the streets of Tower Hamlets by one of our religious communities.

    In other areas of London those noisome people who insist on renting the air with their mobile phone banalities are being liberated of these devil devices by concerned, noise abatement, local youth.

    Surely, we are a beacon of decency in a chaotic world.

  • sarahsmith232

    very unlikely that this person had to do battle with the violent thronging masses of Oxford St then, def’ would NOT have come away from that experience describing London as civilised.

    would he have thought the place all rather quaintly sweet if his trip had of took place in Aug 2011? very unlikely.

    i’m guessing he didn’t have much call for eventing walks around East London either, where i believe his wife may have had a few different tales to tell if asking someone to turn down their music.
    he’s an affluent American having affluent American experiences in affluent peoples environments. back in the real world Labour turned London into, actually, an American made this comment on a comments section of the Global Public Square website in response to David Blunkett writing about immigration tehre. the commentator couldn’t beleive that someone from the UK was trying to give advice to America about immigration and wrote ‘you’re kidding right? have you seen London, it’s a 3rd world refugee camp’ . Ha! great comment.

    BTW – check the David Blunkett piece, i don’t think i’ve ever read a more led by the nose, cliched piece of writing on immigration by Labour yet.

  • justejudexultionis

    Politeness is often a form of hypocrisy. The negative side of all this politeness and apologising is that you never really know what anybody thinks and spend your life guessing.

    • perdix

      “Politeness is a form of hypocrisy”. True, but a traditional Englishman won’t bore you or embarrass you with his thoughts and feelings until he has known you for some time.

      • HooksLaw

        You obviously do not watch ‘Casualty’.

        • Smithersjones2013

          Well if anyone knows about boring and being an embarrassment it would be Coffee Houses resident expert!

          PS Does anyone watch Casualty?

          • Makroon

            “Boring and embarrassing, Coffee House’s resident expert” ?
            I take it you are referring to that weird Lindsay bloke ?

    • Fergus Pickering

      That’s just silly. Of course you know what people think. Possibly not a lot of you.

    • Smithersjones2013

      But this article is not about politeness it is about common decency which is by enlarge something very different.

    • Daniel Maris

      I was thinking that today. I’ve rarely heard anyone in the UK say anything positive about Americans – but I am fairly certain that 99% of Brits would never say any of those things to an American’s face.

      • Mycroft

        Not my experience at all, I’ve found that people mostly seem to like Americans.

        • Robert Taggart


      • Robert Taggart

        Agreed, ‘cowboys’ – the lot of them !

  • Fergus Pickering

    An Englishman has won first prize in the lottery of life.

    • justejudexultionis

      And the lottery prize is an American passport.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Sorry, that’s too deep for me. Why would I want an American passport?

        • Don Reed

          Resolve identity crisis.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Why should you suppose I desire to be American? Because I said Texans were friendly? Don’t be so childish.

    • Boudicca_Icenii

      Which is why half the world seems to want to come and live here (most of them at our expense).

    • Mycroft

      Socrates used to say that there is nothing easier than praising Athens to the Athenians.

    • Gary Wintle

      Then why are so many of them Neckbeards?

      • Fergus Pickering

        Ahy, you’ve lost me there. What is a neckbeard? Should I know?

  • Russell

    What a shame that despite the decency reported in the article, this isn’t repeated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where many cheats, liars, fraudsters, thieves and indecent human beings spend most of their time

    • Pincer22

      Well we to keep them, somewhere.

  • Dave Poole 

    Fraser, I often disagree with you on many levels, all I can say about this article is “well said”. As one who spent many years travelling the globe it is unusual to see someone note about Britain what is actually obvious to an outsider.

    • Gary Wintle

      People in the UK are only nice to you if you are the same as them. Anyone who is shy, or different, is shunned and isolated.
      Britain is a hive of bullying (a trait the British admire) and scheming.

  • Seasurfer1

    Perhaps the Vatican could do the decent thing and give us a VOTING Cardinal for England and Wales.

    • AndrewMelville

      Oh no, the less Cardinals the better say. Princes of the Church indeed – I’m not sure which church requires princes – none associated with Jesus in any meaningful way to be sure.

      • Seasurfer1

        On August 24th 2012 the current English Cardinal was 80, which is the age when they are not allowed to vote in the Sistine Chapel for a new Pope. England and Wales as the focal point of the English Speaking People of the World, will unless a new Cardinal is appointed, not have a say or a vote in the process of electing the new Pope when the doors of the Chapel are sealed on March 15th 2013.

        • AndrewMelville

          I’m afraid you miss my point: to wit – the less we have to do with the Roman Church and its Pontiff – the better.

          The Royal Association of Paedophiles does not have a voting Cardinal position either – arguably with a better claim to one.

          • Seasurfer1

            In your view. 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world have a different view. Have you read the Parable of the Sower!

            • AndrewMelville

              I haven’t met all 1.2 billion RCs, but I’ve met and liked a fair number of them. Nice folk who deserve better from their Church & its vile priests.

  • Daniel Maris

    Depends where you are. In some parts of London a woman won’t say sorry to you if she bumps into you for fear of being accused of speaking to a man other than one of her guardians.

    Many Brits I know have talked about the wonderful service they receive in the States.

    There are more than a few estates in our country where the N. American couple would not be received with civility.

    • huktra

      And if they come to Glasgow they might be welcomed with a bottle in their face!

      • Maidmarrion

        Why did you write that sentence?
        There is nowhere “safe” from violence ,every big city has an underbelly.
        Glasow is my adopted city and I have found over many years a cheerful,humerous and kind population .

        • huktra

          You should have been at one of last years old firm events.

          • AndrewMelville

            I was and it was brilliant. You are a cad.

      • Patrick

        What a dumb remark. A Swiss colleague worked at the university and said that once he could understand what was being said, Glaswegians were the friendliest and most welcoming people he had met. He felt far happier being there than in Geneva, his home town

        • telemachus

          My experience of Glasgow is of an oppressed working population thrown out of work in the 80’s as Thatcher closed down the Shipyards and other industry
          Through all these travails they maintained their equanimity and friendliness

  • Fergus Pickering

    I was in Texas a couple of years ago. The people were open and friendly and fat. And the chaps on immigration were nicer than our and MUCH nicer than the French lot.

    • telemachus

      I am sure they welcome your back handed compliment about Texan Obesity

  • DoomsdayPicnic

    Under the circumstances, quoting Andrew Marr with the phrase “stroke of good luck” might not be in the tip-top best of taste.

    • Daniel Maris

      Dearie me, yes – how did that one get by.

      • Left is not Right

        Hehe, good spot.

    • huktra

      How is he?
      It is like a Sunday when the Sunday Times was closed.

  • Tom Tom

    In Stockholm ? could you pop over to Malmo ?

  • Paddy

    Yes, what happened in the post office Fraser?

  • Petra Thompson

    I had a day out in Romford yesterday. People were very friendly, polite and helpful. In the park people smiled and said “hello” as they walked by! I thought Essex was supposedly full of ruffians.

    These Americans were mostly basing their experience on Londoners (where I lived for 25 years), and the people outside London are far more polite and friendly. Yet even in London, when my chinese partner was attacked by a group of racist black men last year, 4 different vehicles (all containing white men) stopped and went to his rescue.

    • The Sage

      Shurely, shome mishtake. There are no racists blacks in this country, just ask the BBC, the Labour Party of the Police. Only white people are racist.

      • Gary Wintle

        In my experience black men are more friendly and sociable than white men. I greatly admire their conversation skills and humour. After all, you don’t see many black neckbeards, do you? Yet the despised neck-beards are increasingly common white males.

      • telemachus

        I would ask the BBC but they are all on strike
        Because their Tory Chairman is driving down wages

        • The Sage

          Yes, and how much better and less biased the output has been this morning – and, what’s more, the news is actually coming from London and not from the set of Coronation Street! Yippee.
          Overmanning at the BBC clearly needs to be dealt with, as do the payment of excessive salaries and pensions.
          I thought Fat Pang was a Liberal Democrat. Isn’t he, then? Surely, he can’t be a Tory.

  • barnehurst Bob

    What happened in the post office?

    • Petra Thompson

      Exactly. We need to know!

      • Radford_NG

        Obviously they gave him 87p in stamps without being upperty about it.

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