It’s raining. My first commute in the rain. I put my tall black Italian leather boots on over my jeggings with a navy blue crop anthropologie rain jacket that I felt pretty silly for buying in LA and am so grateful I did. I put my mini umbrella in my Mike and Chris messenger bag. I check for the iPhone and I’m off to walk the 1/2 mile to Parsons Green. I had heard people don’t use umbrellas, or brollies here, but I see tons of them and am relieved I won’t stand out like a tourist. There are cute ones with polka dots, bright ones, clear ones, black ones, tattered ones, and there are little girls in their wellies stomping in puddles. Gone are the scooters and sundresses. The men pull up their collars and hold their newspapers above their head as we all rush to the tube.
It’s not even cold yet but I can feel the damp to come and I’m worried. Everybody keeps saying, “It doesn’t really get that cold here” and it’s the “that” part that scares me because “that” means it does get cold and to a Los Angelean any kind of cold is a new experience. I ask, “Have you ever been to Los Angeles?” to which they reply, “no, but I really want to go”…and they go on and on….”Hollywood what’s it like? Do you see Tom Cruise walking around all the time?”(at which point I’m sorry I brought it up) and to which I reply “this right now” (pointing outside at the drizzly 60 degree weather) “is our winter”, to which they do the now classic British reply that only lasts a second and if you’re not paying attention will miss it of raised eyebrows, head tilt back as if they are looking at me through spectacles – you’re an idiot for coming here – kind of stare. Which passes almost instantly and they throw a hand in the air and brush it away saying, “ehhh, you’ll be a’right”. Not a bit concerned about whether or not I will actually be alright.
I know this because they use this phrase all the time. If someone calls me on the phone at work they immediately say, “you alright?”. If I see someone in the hall they say, “you alright?” If I see someone in the kitchen who has followed me in there from the hall, the same person will say again, “you alright?”. The first time I heard this, or shall I say read this, was when Boy would text me when I still in LA. He would always text me and say, “you alright?”. I thought he was just concerned about my move to England and if I was handling everything okay. It wasn’t until I got here that I realize it was the equivalent of American for, “hey, what’s up?”
What really threw me though is when people do this at work. At first I thought, of course I’m alright, should I not be alright, why shouldn’t I be alright, do I need to know something? Have I been fired but haven’t been told but it’s traveled through the grapevine already? I rack my brain for reasons, double check my to do list, think about recent current events, do the medical check of family members in my head, check my body for any bodily harm, perhaps I am not aware of an oozing wound or injury of some kind? They have successfully with the matter of two words set Hollywood me into total panic. Once I realize it is only a simple hello I am so relieved I want to scream, “Yes! Yes I’m fine!” but normally reply with “yes, how are you?” ……..I still have a lot to learn about the British.
The problem is I took this as a sincere question. My sincere answer “yes, thank you, how are you?” resulted always, no matter the person, in a blank stare of complete disbelief that I was asking them this. This stumped me for awhile. I would usually get a grunt or a grumbled “hmmm well, fine” followed by a sideways glance, head down, chin tucked, and a quick shuffling away with coffee or whatever we had encountered each other over. At first I couldn’t figure it out and spent many a morning with people running away from me with their morning tea or coffee. A few more times and I realized it was a look of disapproval about possible intrusion into one’s personal state of being in a way that was overly familiar. That’s when I realized it means “what’s up” and not “how are you?”.
I have yet to be able to mutter back the appropriate response of “yes, you alright?” It just sounds so silly so I usually bumble a “good” and then without being able to stop it, “how are you?” just keeps coming out of my mouth and is as natural a response as “you alright?” is to them. It has been a very hard habit to break. I have shortened it now to, “yeah, you?” and have had great success of smiles and eyes that glitter with approval and happiness at a dodged intrusion into one’s true state of being. The truth of your well being is not what they are after. They don’t want to know if you are truly alright, if you’re sick, if you missed your train, if you are homesick or what not. They just want to have a pleasantry as I call it and what’s wrong with that?
It carries on into other areas too, this uber-politeness, and sometimes I fear to extremes. We have an online forum at work and everyone posts questions and topics. I posted something about my iPhone and needed to delete it but the button didn’t work. So I called the programmers and said it doesn’t work, please make it work, I’d very much like to move this to the appropriate category, etc. They say okay and call me back later that afternoon to say it’s been fixed. Then Ravi, the programmer, goes on to say, “Do you know you are the first person to call me to change something?” I said, “Seriously? Like, ever?”, to which he says, “Yes, ever”. Nobody had ever called him to tell him the delete button didn’t work, or that they put something in the wrong section or perhaps posted something they didn’t mean to. Ravi was so excited that someone was actually willing to give critical feedback that he asked me to go through the entire site and let him know what worked and didn’t work. I pictured him sitting in the basement with nothing to fix or do for months, maybe years, like the red stapler guy in the movie OFFICE SPACE.
Everything is polite in the office. There is no bell on the email to alert you to a new email. It is just assumed you will check it on occasion and perhaps reply at some point. Also when I inquired about setting up voice mail it was responded with, “eh, you’ll be alright” to which I replied, “soo”, wondering what that mean this time, “no voice mail then?” Yeah, no voice mail. It is so different from the business I came from where my boss once asked me to call blackberry to see if they could deliver his emails faster and then made me time them from when he sent them to when I received them, which was about 3 minutes by the way, and way too slow for him. That was a fun day. I knew executives who’s mail alerts were so loud it was as if Notre Dame was in their office.
I still have yet to say, “you alright” but I will get there. There is one thing for sure. I like their uber-ploliteness whether meant to be sincere or not. I like pleasantries. I like tea in meetings with tea pots and biscuits I’m allergic to. I like that I have no voice mail and that I still have yet to sync my work email to my iPhone and nobody expects me to. I like that nobody is in a rush. That time is of a normal pace and I am not asked to change it or speed it up. That nobody says things like “don’t you just hate 3 day weekends” like a boss of mine used to say. I like that people ask me if I will travel while I am here. I like that people ask when I will take my holiday instead of telling me not to worry about my vacation days and that I can cash them in. I like that my new boss always asks multiple times a day with a huge smile and happy eyes, “you alright?” and that I smile back and say sincerely, “yeah, I am, you?”