In an attempt to ward off boredom, I found myself watching a Netflix series titled Very British Problems where noted citizens of England explore all of their national social conventions that end up making them ultimately feel socially awkward and out of sorts on a regular basis. Although the British have been voted as some of the most polite people in the world, the social niceties that they are known for end up causing them immeasurable amounts of internal embarrassment when exchanges with others are fumbled. After watching the three-part show, I’m fairly certain that I may have been snatched at birth away from a lovely British family that is naturally pre-disposed to feeling uncomfortable in practically every situation where interactions with near-strangers are necessary. The things they described as being “very British problems” seem to also caption my day to day life as a social awkward American.
When coming in contact with other people, it’s normal to say, “Hi. How are you?” The worst thing in the world is when someone launches into an actual explanation of how they are doing. I don’t really care! Just say “fine” and move on. That’s what I do. I could be dying inside as a dark cloud has come over my life and the abyss I am living in is creating a descent into madness. But I will say “I’m good” because no one is TRULY asking. This strict adherence to bottling all emotions is for casual acquaintances. My real friends know when I am a complete wreck. Boundaries, people. Recently when a nurse came into my doctor’s appointment to take my blood pressure, we shared the normal, “How are you today?” and “I’m good, and you?” I had no idea she would actually tell me she wasn’t doing great because her daughter was getting a divorce and the guy was a real jerk and making life hell for her daughter and there was going to be a nasty custody battle over her grandchild. I hadn’t realized that taking my blood pressure and knowing my weight had crossed us into a level of full disclosure. I do admit that my weight is indeed deeply personal information, but that knowledge didn’t just make us friends. I wasn’t ready for the new found intimacy in this relationship. Please stop talking. I am uncomfortable, and you’ve made me feel like a monster because I don’t know how to comfort you as you are a complete stranger.
My aversion to people actually answering how they are is probably rooted in the fact that I loathe small talk. Once someone launches into small talk against my will, I feel stuck and obligated to participate though I want nothing more than to run out into the street screaming just to end the conversation. Comedian, Susan Calman and I clearly have kindred spirits as she noted on the show how she has been going to her hair dresser for 8 years merely because the service provider understands to NEVER speak to her. Dentists, doctors, nail technicians and others must feel that it makes people more comfortable to involve their patrons and patients in conversation. Please for the love of all things holy, do not chit-chat and expect me to chit-chat back when your hands are in my mouth or my legs are in stirrups or I’m trying to just relax and enjoy my pedicure. I have on several occasions put earbuds in my ears when I sit down on a plane or when I walk down the street while listening to absolutely nothing, just to avoid being spoken to. We are not buddies because we are locked onto this plane for the next 4 hours with only this little armrest separating us. If someone smiles at me before taking a seat next to me, I open a book directly in front of my face for added security against their possible friendliness. I am a horrible person.
Another social problem that I share with the British, is my disdain for the rules of holding doors for others. It’s a door. It isn’t hard work. Unless someone has an arm full of packages or a stroller to navigate, we can all open the doors for ourselves. Holding doors for people only causes stress. There’s an awkwardness when someone tries to hold a door for me and now thanks to that person, I have to break out in an uneasy half jog to the door because if I keep strolling along, they are stuck standing there wishing I would hurry up so they can stop looking like a buffoon standing there holding the door for someone too far away. Its ri-frickin-diculous! Just go! I can open it on my own! I too have been stuck trying to be polite and holding a door for someone when I have misjudged how far they really are from the door. Just to be a nice person I have to also be a master of depth-perception and estimating time and distance? I once had to call a friend with a truck to rescue from Toys R Us because I thought I could fit a massive Power Wheels Escalade in the back seat of a Honda. Clearly this isn’t my strong suit, so unless you are close enough for me to see the whites of your eyes from the shock of me letting the door slam in your face, be prepared to get the friggin door yourself.
Who secretly hates the Happy Birthday song? Apparently, me and lots of British people. I hate singing it. I hate when it’s sung to me. Its protocol so I participate, but believe me I’m not happy about it. Something about being serenaded with ANY song is the strangest thing in the world to me and the idea makes me uncomfortable. One of my biggest fears in life is being serenaded to in public. What the crap am I supposed to do with myself while someone finished their damn song? Do I dance? Do I clap to give them a beat? Do I have to smile through the whole thing like a maniac? It gets old after about 15 seconds and I’d rather the singer suddenly choke on their own spit than to continue to sing to me in public. It’s embarrassing. I have a friend to was proposed to while someone popped out from nowhere and began to sing. They loved it but I tell you if that happened to be I would decline to marry the person just based on that proposal. That sounds absolutely awkward and mortifying for a person to pop out at you in a park at night and sing while your significant other suddenly takes a knee. I’d panic! What’s happening? Are we being robbed by John Legend? This makes no sense! Make it stop!
Worst of all is gift giving. How do you react when receiving an unwanted or unprepared for gift? It fills me with anger that I obviously can’t express. Someone is giving me a present for fucks sake and I am annoyed?! What is wrong with me and apparently many British people? Here’s the problem… What if I have nothing for you in return? Now I feel like crap and I am in your debt until I find a way to do something equally as nice for you. I also have to be careful to not overdo it because then the gift giver will think we have now established some sort of tradition of giving each other presents all the time. I have children and a husband and parents. I don’t want to be stuck buying presents all over town because people insist on giving me things and now I have to reciprocate! A gift represents a new obligation to me. Thanks. Also what if I hate the present? I have to pretend I love it so I don’t hurt your feelings and then forevermore fear the day you ask why I have never worn or used the doo-dad and now you’ve turned me into a liar as I say, “No, really I just used it last night. I love it so much! I use it all the time!”
In a society of TRULY nice people, I often end up unintentionally offending people and my awkwardness is perceived as distaste for someone or something in particular. I swear it’s nothing personal, but don’t make me feel like crap by being so good at being genuinely nice. It could be comforting to be surrounded by people who’d rather not talk to me either. I suppose if I am ever considering moving abroad, living among Brits is a good route for me. At least while we are all trying to be awkwardly polite and hating it, there will be a camaraderie in knowing that I am hating most moments of our interactions just as much as they are.