An American in England

Etiquette Advice from Miss J Fine

A tongue-in-cheek yet very important etiquette column

downton abbey dining room

Dear Miss J.Fine,

I’m an American new to England. I know the stereotype of the loud, ugly American – but what are the lesser-known (but just as serious) faux pas that I should avoid? Does it really matter which way I pass the port?

Signed,
Scared of Posh English People Judging Me

Dear Scared,

The English are delightfully self-effacing, refined, and complex, but due to the class system which is engrained in the psyche of their culture, if you don’t play by the rules of their game, you can feel ostracized very quickly.

And I’m not going to lie. Compared to other Londoners, most Americans are loud and badly dressed. But if you make a small effort, you can quickly overcome these negative American stereotypes and prove everyone wrong – especially those posh people that might be ready to judge you.

My first tip is to lower the volume of your voice. Then lower it again. (In England, speaking loudly is a sure sign of ill breeding and in fact, the best compliment you can possibly receive from a Brit is that you “seem quiet for an American.”) I cannot overemphasize the importance the English place on language – not only on what you say, but how you say it and with what accent – the topic is a minefield, so for more in depth info, I suggest you pick up The Regal Rules for Girls and study chapter 2.

When it comes to UK table etiquette, I used to tell myself that it really didn’t matter which way I passed the port or which fork I used for which course as long as I made an effort to make the people I spoke to at dinner feel valued. But I soon learned that this is nothing but American silliness. In reality, if the Brits see you do something incorrectly, they wouldn’t dream of saying anything but rest assured they will make a quiet mental note against your character. So please learn the art of continental dining – otherwise not only will the Brits judge you, but they are guaranteed to view you as some kind of swamp creature.

edith downton abbey

Lady Edith is probably silently judging you

Sitting on the tube, I can always tell who the American tourists are because they dress for a day in London as if they are going on a hiking expedition through the Rocky Mountains – sneakers, fanny packs, baseball caps, windbreakers, etc. Half the time I’m surprised they don’t have walking sticks. Don’t be one of these people! You need to accept that European cities have much stricter sartorial standards than American cities. You don’t have to dress up every day, just, for the love of god – don’t dress down.

Despite all the airs and graces, deep down, Brits are quite vulnerable (which is often why they rely so much on giant hats to protect them). So don’t worry too much. Have fun and be yourself – just make an effort to assimilate a bit – partly out of respect for your host country and partly for your own self-preservation.

Kindest regards,

Miss J Fine

P.S. For the record, port must always be passed clockwise.

Jerramy Fine is the author of Someday My Prince Will ComeThe Regal Rules for Girls and Bright Young Royals. The Dear Miss Fine advice column will run twice a month — send your questions regarding English etiquette, life in England, and royal encounters to graduatesinwonderland at gmail dot com and we’ll forward your questions on to her.