Be quiet, avoid eye contact, don’t speak American

By Jason Offutt

The accent sounded familiar. It should be. I’ve heard it enough in the United Kingdom; it was American. Living in London for a month, I’ve gotten so used to the British way of behaving in public, I’m a little worried how I’m going to react when I get home.
Walking down a British pavement (sidewalk), people are expected to 1) avoid eye contact; 2) leave a spot on the left for people who walk faster than you do; and 3) be quiet. Riding British public transportation, people are expected to 1) avoid eye contact; 2) give up your seat whenever a woman boards; and 3) be quiet. Standing in a British queue (line), people are expected to 1) avoid eye contact; 2) never jump queue; and 3) be quiet.
The British simply like to keep to themselves, leaving any excess noise to drunken German football (soccer) fans, emergency vehicles and Americans. Even British car horns are so soft I occasionally mistake them for someone passing by listening to an iPod.
Which brings us back to the American accent.
In the ticket queue at the Earls Court Tube (subway) station, seven people stood in front of me: a middle-aged woman, two girls in their mid-20s who appeared to be sisters, a middle-aged man and the three college girls.
“Oh, my gawd,” one of the girls said as the three stood in a circle. Well, I guess that would be a triangle, wouldn’t it? “I am so totally excited to be here.”
“Me, too,” a second girl said. “I am super excited, but I am soooo tired.”
The third girl touched the second’s forearm. “You can’t go to sleep, Megan,” she said. “You might get sick.”
I wish I were making this up, but I’m not.
While I’ve been here, I’ve felt a kinship with every American accent I’ve heard, and talked with quite a few people.
“Where are you from?” I asked the girls in my plain Midwest accent, an accent tempered over years of living in the most accent-neutral place in North America.
One girl, whose tan was as natural as a box of Cheez-Its, turned toward me and smiled. “America,” she said.
I frowned. “Yes,” I said. “I kinda guessed that.”
“Oh,” she said, my own Americaness apparently sinking in. “We’re from Minnesota. We just got here.”
Over the past month I’ve overheard plenty of Americans shouting (at least by British standards) about how drunk they got the night before, or complaining about the food (the food is amazing), or whining about all the walking (the British walk everywhere. Driving’s too expensive).
I’ve not once heard another accent louder than a personal conversation I shouldn’t have been listening to anyway, and there are plenty of accents from all over the world here in London. They simply don’t advertise it. Maybe that’s why foreign people complain about Americans. We’re just so damned loud.
The girls eventually purchased their tube tickets and it was my turn.
“I just need enough to get to Heathrow in the morning,” I told the clerk.
“That’ll be one pound 50,” she said.
That was my last purchase as a Londoner. By this time tomorrow I’ll be somewhere over Illinois on my way to Kansas City International Airport.
Well, maybe that isn’t my last purchase. There’s still time for one more pint at the Warwick Arms Public House down the street. I’ll probably talk with whoever’s there; I just won’t be obvious about it.
Follow Jason on Twitter @TheJasonOffutt.

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