The British pretty much embody those “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters which have become oddly ubiquitous. Oddly, because the Nazis never invaded England, and the poster is otherwise a superfluous statement to the English. The slogan isn’t a command, but a succinct summary of a way of life. English people never make a fuss. This is extremely important, because if you make a fuss, then other people might get bothered and then things would get Awkward. Things must never, ever get awkward.
Americans are obviously different. We like to give ’em hell, and ’em could really mean anyone. People fly off the handle all the time, and it’s almost a badge of honor because you get what you want. I’m not saying it’s right, but Americans are not half as concerned as being awkward. Take reality tv as the extreme example. No one in England would ever, ever flip a table over and scream that someone was a prostitution whore, but that very act vaulted Teresa Giudice to D List celebrity in America. Lest you say that we stared in horror, I counter with the fact that I don’t think British people would even appreciate it for Teresa’s lack of knowledge regarding synonyms. Their skin would crawl. Sidenote: one could theorize this is why their scripted comedies are full of cringe-inducing embarrassment (see: the Office, UK version). We laugh at those who we feel superior to, and in British comedy, the average watcher feels vastly superior to those who make scenes.
I’m quite an emotional person. I don’t really give ’em hell, as it were, but there have definitely been times when I have let my emotions show in public. Like when I sobbed on the subway unreservedly. I did think that as I matured, though, I was getting better at not making scenes. That is until I got to England. MR has a couple of times accused me of being very American. He had really bad tooth problems, and we went to the dentist, but they basically told him to say ‘aaah’ and then gave him some antibiotics. I was livid, because he was in such pain and they weren’t doing anything to help him, and I expressed this as we were making our way to reception, and he promptly shushed me. Later he told me that’s just not what British people do.
To underscore this, my mother-in-law told me a story of when she was in Vegas, and she and my father-in-law went to the Hard Rock Cafe. His meal was apparently unpalatable, and when the waitress came round to ask how the food was, he told her so. If you say this nicely, in America no one thinks twice. Even if you say it rudely, it’s not a breach of etiquette except that everyone thinks you’re kind of a dick to wait staff. But as my mother-in-law told me this story she said “I just wanted to sink through the floor. I was willing him not to make a scene.” He got the result he wanted–the food was carried back to the kitchen and the item taken off his bill. But by forcing the waitress to carry it back in, to explain to the chef and the manager…to a British person, this is just all too awkward for words, and goes on the top 5 embarrassing moments list.
Which brings me to last Wednesday.
My husband and I, in an effort to do everything in a relationship as quickly as possible, are buying a house. A year ago we had barely started dating, which is very weird to think.
In order to affect the purchase of this house, we went down to the bank to get a mortgage. Because I am as yet unemployed due to visa reasons, the mortgage was only going to be in his name. Nevertheless, I didn’t worry about this because he already has a mortgage, so it really seemed like a formality than anything else.
Until my husband recounted his job history. He’s had three positions in the past two years, but each has been for a good reason. He as gone to a better paying job, and then from a contract job to a permanent job (with an amazing boss). All good reasons to switch, yet upon hearing this, the mortgage adviser got nervous. Which in turn made me nervous.
Anyone who has failed a credit check ever will understand why I hate credit checks. That disapproval of your whole life, the reduction of you to a number–a *bad* number. And the pity in people’s faces when they tell you you’re declined. It is heart stoppingly awful, and I didn’t think for one second my husband, with his no debt and his mortgage and his good paying job would ever be in that position.
And then I started thinking–what would I do if we were declined? What if we couldn’t get a mortgage? I was panicking inwardly, or not so inwardly as my husband said aloud “You’re nervous about the credit check, aren’t you?”
While we waited for all the data entry, his observation got me thinking. A couple of days before we were talking about what we would do if I was still in NY during Hurricane Sandy and he was here in England. He teased me that I would be panicking and falling apart, and I thought–no, I would hold it together. But then I realized that I hadn’t shown him the more resilient side of me. I do tend to fall to pieces around him because he picks them up, and I like the novelty of feeling so protected, as well as the protection itself.
I thought then that I needed to show him I would not be American in all things, and I wasn’t going to fall apart at the first hint of trouble. This was happening to both of us, dammit, and I wasn’t going to hog the spotlight with my histrionics and make him feel worse, and like he had a partner he couldn’t rely on. I was going to be a good wife, and I was going to do it by being as British as I could in this situation, and I would keep calm and carry on and keep the side up and all of that. Tally-ho!
Before the answer came back, I had already determined that we would still try to find a mortgage, and if not, well then we would have to rent. And while owning would certainly be preferable, we could still have a nice house if we rented, and we were going to make the best of it. So when the mortgage adviser turned the screen around and CASE DECLINED was on the screen in big red letters, I was prepared. I did not cry, or get upset. When my husband expressed some of his frustration, I let some of mine go, but only *some.* All in all, I was very proud of myself.
Apparently I still have some way to go–once we got that, and the adviser said it was an irreversible decision, I wanted to cut off the conversation with “Okay. Thank you for your help.” But apparently that’s not the done thing either. And of course, my face was all too expressive–I feel like I have a wide range of facial expressions of which I am largely unaware.
Still, the important thing here is that I did not make a huge scene, and I did not make it because I knew that wouldn’t be the done thing. That is acclimating.
But the moment I really knew this culture was seeping into my bones was when I got home. I was alone, because MR was back at work for the afternoon. I could have let loose and had a good cry and gotten in all out, something I’ve often found exceedingly cathartic. But I didn’t shed a tear.
Instead, I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea.
PS – All’s well that ends well. The decision was so puzzling that my husband took it to Twitter, saying he’d been with the bank all his life and didn’t see why they would suddenly reject his business. They responded to his tweet and called him, and after some discussion, the reason came to light: it wasn’t because of the jobs, it was because according to their records he had missed a payment, but their records were incorrect. He had the information to prove it, and they very reasonably said they were happy to give us a mortgage. Which is a huge relief, although it does make the adviser kind of an idiot. We have to meet with him again to process the paperwork, unfortunately. My husband has ordered me to be nothing but polite. Because we don’t want things to get Awkward. I suppose the change isn’t that apparent.