Looking for fun things to do around London? Here’s an idea: Find a Brit on a first date with an expat from New York. Your task could be challenging — Americans don’t know this but British people don’t go out on dates until they’re in a relationship — but there’s every chance some hapless Brit has been cajoled into taking an exotic American girl out to dinner per her native custom. Just make sure the Brit under observation has never done this before and doesn’t know what to expect.
Watch as the New Yorker issues major alterations to the menu. “I’ll have the salmon, but can you do it poached instead of grilled? And instead of risotto, can you do a salad? Also I’m allergic to tarragon, so definitely no tarragon. Is the bread gluten free?”
Look past the polite smile, and you’ll see all the blood has drained from your Brit’s face.
When the salmon arrives, it will certainly be grilled and propped on a bed of risotto, surrounded by a flourishing thicket of tarragon. This is when the fun starts — you’ll witness at least three bounce backs to the kitchen, a tide increasingly loud, performative complaining meant to elicit sympathy from nearby diners (“Can you believe this place?”), and when the time comes to settle up, a heated exchange about removing the offending item from the bill.
Don’t take your eyes off the Brit, because you’re in for a treat. A man is about to rip off his own face.
Welcome to “mustn’t grumble” culture. Anthropologists have long dissected this aspect of British culture, none better than Kate Fox in her book Watching the English. This is the instruction manual kind-hearted Brits will press into your hand the moment you set foot in their country, mainly to help you avoid the restaurant scenario. “Mustn’t grumble” is one of the principles on which British civilization was founded, deriving from “keep a stiff upper lip,” one of the ten commandments drilled into a stone tablet during the Crimean war. If you think I’ve just taken it a little too far with the Bible reference, check out this sermon in which a British clergyman claims it was originally said by Jesus. Whatever book you use, it takes a couple of years for a non-Brit to come to grips with “mustn’t grumble.” As a concept, its true meaning is completely untranslatable. Especially to a New Yorker.
But it’s important to keep trying. “Mustn’t grumble” culture explains a vast range of England’s unfortunate idiosyncrasies, from the fact that you can’t get a decent chicken salad sandwich in this country to the appalling state of drafty British houses to the world-famous “customer service gap”. But it’s equally possible that the Brits have stumbled on the secret to a happy life.
In any discussion of grumbling, it’s crucial to first disambiguate it from moaning. The two appear synonymous, but they’re not. Brits moan about the weather and the trains to each other, but not with the goal of changing anything. A good moan about the weather is a deeply entrenched cultural tradition, and it behooves the foreigner to learn how to do it properly (Incorrect response to a Brit moaning about the weather: “You call this bad weather? It’s like negative 10 in Minnesota!” Correct response to a Brit moaning about the weather: “Well, I suppose at least it’s not raining yet.”)
Grumbling isn’t commiserating, it’s directly expressing your displeasure with the goal of changing the situation. And it’s not done. A 2006 Turkish study of hotel tourists found that Brits are more likely than Dutch, Israeli and Turkish folk to agree that “I am embarrassed to complain no matter how bad the product/service was“. If they had to complain, Brits were most likely to prefer to do it by writing a letter. A Brit would rather eat a tampon in a sandwich than confront a member of staff about the fact that there’s something wrong with the meal.
What is the result of all this not-complaining? This may sound a bit silly, but for me it’s all encapsulated in the story of my first UK chicken salad sandwich. A healthy bite of which revealed a composition of roughly 75 per cent mayonnaise, 5 per cent chicken shreds, and — in an extraordinary turn — 20 per cent corn. What happened there? As with many things in this country, there seemed to be a bit of a surplus of things being “a bit shit.”
In 2010, the UK came in a lousy 14th in international customer service rankings, according to the Nation Brand Index. In the BBC’s coverage, retail expert Mary Portas said, “we’re probably one of the worst countries in the world for customer service now“. There are always exceptions, of course, but Brits themselves agree that service is not their nation’s strong suit.
And why not? If no one ever explains to you than corn does not belong in chicken salad — but spring onions would be nice — why would you assume your establishment’s chicken salad is anything less than perfect? If no one complains about a three-month delay on a dishwasher delivery, or about the fact that the broadband keeps cutting out, then why would anything improve? “The British have a little bit of a hang up about complaining and probably don’t know how to complain,” Michel Roux Jr told the BBC. In the wake of the Nation Brand Index mini-scandal, the BBC concluded, it is the Brits’ duty to push standards up by demanding better service.
You know who’s good at demanding things? New Yorkers. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that we complain about everything. Aggressively. For a New Yorker, finding corn kernels in chicken salad would justify getting out the nuclear launch codes.
A quick search on google scholar confirms that complaining gets results. Anecdata also supports the notion that the aggressive “customer is always right” attitude leads to excellence (there’s a lot of good chicken salad in New York). But better stuff isn’t the only purported benefit of complaining. Vocal complaining is supposed to lead to catharsis. Complaining increases customer satisfaction. Good chicken salad, good service, emotional catharsis — New Yorkers should be the happiest people on Earth!
Except you know that’s not true. “As long as the terms “neurotic,” or “high strung,” or “nervous breakdown” have been around,” reported the New York Observer, “they have been inextricably linked with New York.”
In 2008, a Cambridge University study showed that New York was home to “the most neurotic and unfriendly people” in the United States. The study went on to say that people living in eastern states along the “Stress Belt”—especially New Yorkers—are likely to be anxious, stressed, impulsive and prone to heart disease and cancer.
Could it be the expectation of perfection that leads to the miasma of misery and neurosis that permeates Manhattan? If you expect everything to go your way at all times, you’re in for a lifetime of disappointment. And on the off chance that everything is so perfect that you never encounter disappointment? That would be even worse: now every minor annoyance is amplified to the point where it can ruin your life. I was waiting on the subway platform for the 6 once, headphones plugged in, subtly bouncing up and down on my heels to the beat, kind of grooving. A woman marched up to me, aggressively motioned for me to take the earbuds out, and barked, “Could you just STOP MOVING? You are really bothering me.”
Compare that to “mustn’t grumble” culture, which, while it may leave you dissatisfied, imparts a far more Zen perspective on the world. Sometimes things are simply a bit shit. No sense stressing yourself out about it.
Given the recent research on the benefits of pessimism, maybe the Brits have it right — maybe the rest of the world should take a page out of the “mustn’t grumble” manifesto. Perhaps cultivating, as Kate Fox puts it in Watching the English, “a sense of passive, resigned acceptance, an acknowledgement that things are bound to go wrong, that life is full of little irritations and difficulties and that one must simply put up with it,” does wonders for your mental health. After all,
Nothing ever works properly, something always goes wrong, and on top of that it’s bound to rain. To the English, these are established, incontrovertible facts; they are on par with the laws of physics.
Expect the salmon to suck, New York expat girl. And spend some time getting to know your new friend.
Woody Allen statue: Noemy García García
The Scream, Wikipedia. This painting by Edvard Munch is in the public domain in the United States because it was first published more than 95 years ago.