What makes the British so very British? Bob Morris heads to London and gets a proper education

By Bob Morris
September 17, 2013

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."

For this kind of traveler, there is hope. Americans can now sign up for a three-to eight-day program called the English Manner, which includes a weekend at home with aristocrats, a tour with members of Parliament, and tea with royal advisers, as well as visits with esteemed artists, architects, and even florists. The goal?To give visitors a taste of the cultural and social skills that make the English so English, and to help people get ahead with these skills back in the States.

"Those who know how to behave can command a much greater presence," says Alexandra Messervy, the entrepreneur behind the program, who has worked for the queen and who helped plan the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York. "Even for people who aren't that well-mannered, having some English reserve can often come off as gentility." Ms. Messervy is a slim redhead whose training was as a secretary. She is not an aristocrat. But you wouldn't know that from the way she drinks her coffee. "Coffee cups in a drawing room are always held over the lap," she is telling me in the lobby of the Berkeley (pronounce it "bark-ley," please!) hotel in Knightsbridge, where I'm getting a preview of her program. "Teacups are always held away from the saucer, which is left on the table." Her legs, I can't help but notice, remain uncrossed (never cross legs while sitting).

Formal?Stuffy?Perhaps. Catnip to Americans?Absolutely. That's why Messervy has lectured on the art of English dining at the Smithsonian and recently presented similar courses at the Four Seasons in London. She can tell you about everything from table-setting minutiae ("nursery style," with utensils above the plate, is acceptable when space is limited) to conversing with royals. "Never introduce a topic, because it might create an awkward situation if a member of the royal family does not want to discuss it," she says. "Years ago, for instance, when Mia Farrow was introduced to the Queen Mother, she asked what advice Her Royal Highness had for the children of America." The Queen Mother's reply?To be sure they learned manners.

"These days, a lot of people have money but lack breeding," Messervy says, "and those are the travelers I would like to educate." Staying in a country house with the lord of the manor, guests can learn to shoot properly, talk to the help politely, and see how the other half really lives as opposed to how they're portrayed on TV.

"It's grandeur in a relaxed atmosphere," says Lord Normanton, whose 7,000-acre estate, Somerley, in Hampshire, has been in his family for almost 200 years, and is on the English Manner itinerary. "When my guests arrive, I insist they call me Shaun, and we cater to whatever they want to do." For years, the aristocracy of England have opened their homes to to guests to help pay estate taxes. But Messervy, who has several estates (with owners in residence) to offer travelers, may be the first to package them so aggressively. "I wanted to do something different from straightforward etiquette classes," she explains.

Of course, having worked as an insider in what she feels is "arguably the most polite society in the world," she has no trouble giving advice (though gently and only when asked) to others. So, tea or milk in first?"Regardless of what people say," she tells me, "one should always pour milk in first." There are more things I'd like to ask her about manners—my own, specifically— but we're due at Parliament, where I am to have a private tour with Jonathan Sayeed, a senior member of the House of Commons.

Sayeed is fastidiously groomed, and the kind of superbly well-mannered, self-assured Englishman who inspires me to be careful to say "Sorry" and not "Pardon." He points out historical and architectural details as we move from the private chapel to Westminster Hall, where the kings of England lived until Henry VIII moved to his new palace, in Whitehall. He slips me into the House of Commons, a small, wood-paneled room with Tony Blair present, where opposing party members are sitting across from one another, heckling and cheering each speaker with witty and good-natured contentiousness. Sayeed has lots to tell me, but it isn't the information that's intriguing. It's the access. The members' dining room overlooking the Thames, where we have lunch, is so exclusive that it makes me nervous. Should I be eating my vegetables from my side plate?Am I leaving my fork and knife at the right angle when I'm done?How do I remove the two big blobs of chocolate syrup from my face with absolute propriety?

Maybe I worry too much. "If you do anything with panache," Sayeed says, "it's going to be all right." Perhaps that explains why he had his elbows on the table during lunch. I was far too polite to ask about it. I guess my visit to England actually taught me a little English reserve after all.

The English Manner offers a three- to eight-day crash course in British society (800/747-8401; www.mccabebremer.com). Once you've brushed up on your etiquette, test your skills at the incomparably proper Berkeley hotel (800/637-2869 or 44-207/235-6000; www.savoygroup.com; doubles from $583, high tea for two $66). Lady Somerset's Concierge London (44-207/849-3855; www.conciergelondon.co.uk; from $775) arranges custom itineraries and can help you gain entrée to private country estates and exclusive social events. Quintessentially (www.quintessentially.com; one-year membership $780) provides access to fashion shows, soirées, sold-out soccer matches, and West End sensations. The VIP membership is made up of celebrities, royalty, and aristos. For another experience among the elite, join the hunt on a Holland & Holland sporting trip (www.hollandandholland.com; 44-207/499-4411). Countess Sondes hosts hunting parties in Kent; guests stay at Eastwell Manor. —Hillary Geronemus