The society wedding I am attending in London takes place at 5 p.m. in a little church on a tree-lined street in posh Chelsea. Stepping out of a cab and into the crowd of impeccably dressed guests, I'm delighted to be part of the festivities. Until I notice the morning coats. They are everywhere. Although the groom suggested in advance that tails were optional, it's now embarrassingly clear that they're standard at a wedding of this kind. My black Comme des Garçons suit, so perfectly understated for all black-tie occasions in New York, feels like a skimpy pair of pajamas. Then I commit the worst possible bungle. The groom's father, a handsome white-haired gentleman, is standing in the archway at the entrance to the church. I walk up to him, extending my hand. "Hello," I chirp. "I'm Bob from New York." He greets me cordially, but awkwardly, and I can tell I've blown it.
In proper English society, you see, you never introduce yourself. Why?Because there's a tacit understanding that strangers don't really want to know your name until a degree of mutual interest has been established. Speaking to someone without first being introduced by a mutual acquaintance is one of dozens of unspoken breaches of etiquette you can commit while in England. And make no mistake, the English (like the Japanese, who gasp audibly if you forget to take off your shoes before entering their homes) believe the rules still matter. The most class-conscious of cultures, they are all eyes when it comes to how a knife is held (never like a pen), and how the language is used. "Sorry," for instance, is right and "Pardon" wrong, and if you call a living room anything other than a drawing room, you're "non-U," meaning not upper-class. Talking about yourself or about America too much, as I did at the wedding reception, is simply not done. Self-involvement of any sort, along with ambition, is considered vulgar.
So what is it about the English that cows us—and not just the upper class, with the particular accent and entrée into society they acquire in boarding school, but the hairdressers and waiters, too?Is it merely their reserve that makes them so intimidating, leaving people like me (and the American movie producer played by Bob Balaban in Gosford Park) to sound silly just for trying to be friendly or for using the word okay?
Call them Victorian or even mean-spirited, but the English continue to define propriety. You can't argue manners with a nation that has given us Jane Austen and Mary Poppins. And you can't quibble with the fact that, for all the foibles of her children, Queen Elizabeth is an anchor for a world that has lost its moral moorings. Yes, British expatriate Ozzy Osbourne is leading viewers of MTV's The Osbournes to new frontiers of rudeness, and hooliganism is a headline-making concern of Parliament and Tony Blair's. But somehow England remains the "green and pleasant land" of William Blake, adhering to the "wise and kindly way of life" that Winston Churchill referred to toward the end of his tenure. It's enough to make even the most polite American neurotic. "I usually feel like a total idiot here," says a Harvard graduate I know who's working in London. "It's completely humiliating."