How are British people taught to expect failure and disappointment?
November 30, 2011 3:47 PM   Subscribe

Is it true, what Ricky Gervais says, about how in contrast to Americans and their high hopes, British people are taught to expect disappointment? British people: What life advice along these lines are British people given, that might differ from such U.S. ideas as Back to the Future's "you can do anything if you put your mind to it?"
posted by steinsaltz to Society & Culture (56 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Keep calm and carry on.
posted by three blind mice at 3:48 PM on November 30, 2011 [11 favorites]

Eddie Izzard agrees that the British do not encourage the "you can do anything" mindset.
posted by brainmouse at 3:50 PM on November 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

I am not British, but I think the notion of "stiff upper lip" is a popular sentiment. My British grandparents seemed to take a particular pride in how they weathered difficult circumstances. The impression I got from them was that there was the expectation that adversity would come their way, and being British it was there duty to face it proudly.
posted by Nightman at 4:00 PM on November 30, 2011

I was raised English in America, so what I have to say shouldn't be taken as "social philosophies of British County X".

>Don't freak out during an actual emergency is a big one. I think having fake/sarcastic/hilariously Monty Python-esque freak outs at little things or non-issues helps.

>Be realistic. Expecting disappointment is something I do, within reason. At some point, pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, up until that point it just keeps you from taking moderately silly to outright foolish risks.

>Be aware socially, i.e. don't be a CHAV/red neck/hick/yokel/snob/Hipster. Its better to slowly gain traction at a party, to be inherently interesting than outwardly flashy with the subsequent theres-nothing-really-to-this-person burn out.

>Be centered, know who you are. Don't try to be something that you aren't (introvert acting like an extrovert for example) and enjoy yourself as you see fit. The bloody snobs in the papers are only prattling on to get money from the gullible.

That's about all I can think of right now.
posted by Slackermagee at 4:01 PM on November 30, 2011 [13 favorites]

My husband likes to say that British people would rather their team lose than win because they don't know how to deal with being the winner. Maybe it's retroactive guilt for the empire or the pathological need to be the "underdog."

It's interesting question right now, especially to see how people view the Emma West racist rant situation in light of what it means to "be British." She was the only one on the tram who thought of being "British" as being white. The things with which my husband, who lived in the UK for 30 years, self-identifies are: being realistic (as opposed to starry-eyed optimism), having a duty of care for others who are less fortunate (NHS/welfare state/etc.), being a nation made up of so many different groups with a wide range of opinions and POVs. Failure and disappointment is just part of life, and the way the world is. You just DEAL.

In America we would rather see the optimistic view, and we are much more "rugged individualists" that we expect people to make it off of their own backs rather than get a handout. The American Dream and all that.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:03 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't think the British are pessimists--but I'd also note the "mustn't grumble" notion. Stiff upper lip, what. In America, the land of opportunity and Manifest Destiny, the world is your oyster--you just need the gumption to go get it (and/or kill/usurp whoever has it when you find it). In Britain, there isn't that cultural freedom and social mobility. You'll get what you're given, and like it; it's fine really.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:03 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I like the old saw that, "In Britain, a hundred miles is a long distance, and in America, a hundred years is a long time."

Having a long history encourages one to see more futility in things, I think. Having wide-open spaces everywhere encourages the idea that anything is possible. Moreover, Britain has the advantage of having seen actual consequences in its history which the US hasn't really. Britain got blitzed in the war. America "won" the war while suffering only Pearl Harbor on home soil. Vietnam aside, American History paints a very optimistic picture, while an older nation's culture will see history through a guarded lens at best.

Just my 2¢.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:04 PM on November 30, 2011 [31 favorites]

I think there's something about the vastness of the U.S and the fact that there are more people there makes more things plausible (and less popular things that wouldn't get any shrift in England more legitimate), that lends to that 'anything is possible!' feeling. Really, options are more limited here.

Plus, there's a pretty ingrained class culture that makes things like accents, what paper your parents read, what kind of house you grew up in, what education you received count A LOT. Not saying elitist and snotty attitudes don't abound in the US, but there seems to be more room for 'untraditional' routes and lifestyles, which is in fact what the American Dream is all about. There just seems to be a lot working against you in the UK, and if you're poor there's lots of ways to let you know your 'place'.

If you grew up in a small town not near London, nothing about your life or anything that touches it will be represented in national media. This will add to the feeling that you don't matter and nothing is important or noteworthy.

Just me, but growing up under Thatcher in the 80s certainly didn't help with my optimism.
posted by everydayanewday at 4:08 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes, I think the previous British class system was pretty entrenched so mobility wasn't expected or looked for- unlike in America. I have British parents and spent some time there and there's a lot of 'and that's just how it is' ....not so much enthusiasm and gung-ho-ness as in the US. One mustn't embarass oneself, as one knows. (Also the streaming in schools and subequent job opportunities also seem(ed) to play a big role).
posted by bquarters at 4:10 PM on November 30, 2011

As a Canadian I can kind of see both cultures from the middle distance. A couple of things occur to me:

In the U.K., within living memory, war was made on their territory, and arguably the last 65 years have been spent getting over this. It must have had a wide psychological impact on the country and its inhabitants.

In the U.K., your class or regional accent can mean you're "branded on the tongue" and make it harder to be socially mobile. In North America, there are a few accents you need to shake if you want to rise socially, but the average English-speaking accent is much flatter and more uniform and less likely to act as a barrier to advancement.

The U.K. is more crowded and the accent thing and other markers can make it more difficult to shake a sense of "who you are."

But more than anything, the U.S. promises you the pursuit of happiness. The UK does not. Americans are spending gazillions on drugs promising to make them happier. I'm sure the British spend some amount on prozac et al., but I'm willing to bet it isn't in the same zone, per capita.
posted by zadcat at 4:21 PM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think there's a big difference in attitudes taught at school. I'm English but did a semester at high school in the states. I was amazed to discover that I got full credit for an assignment just by turning it in on time, regardless of how many questions I got right; and that even if I was rubbish at something I could just do "make up" work to win more points and still pass with flying colours. There were competitions for everything, from Shakespeare to autoshop, designed to let as many people as possible come away with prizes. It felt like the whole system was much more oriented to making people feel like a success. The British system felt much more geared to testing people's abilities in different areas and telling them what they appeared to be good at. You could call the British way negative as it closes down so many possibilities for people so early, or you could say it's more realistic than telling everyone "Yay, you can succeed at anything" regardless of whether they appear to have any aptitude for it. I'm still not sure which I think. That was just my take, too - no idea how typical either of my schools were.
posted by penguin pie at 4:28 PM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

I was amazed to discover that I got full credit for an assignment just by turning it in on time, regardless of how many questions I got right

This is not normal. Please do not judge us based on this.
posted by downing street memo at 4:37 PM on November 30, 2011 [16 favorites]

Born and raised in Southern California, but my parents and grandparents were Irish immigrants, right off the boat (or, plane, as it were).

And not cute leprechaun Irish, or artistic U2 Irish. Shanty Irish. White trash Irish. The Fenian horde.

The thing I have trouble expressing to people is (in my humble perception) that, in Irish families, there is no sense of individualism. Whatever happens to you is happening to everyone at the same time. If you're sad, then everyone is sad. If you achieve, then everyone has achieved.

Which sounds great, but the Irish spin on it is, it's parasitic. Your achievement is their achievement. You don't own it. We all do. You don't get praise. We all did it. Therefore, no one did.

Moreover, your attempts to stretch, to separate, to explore, only result in desperate attempts to pull you back in. What, you think you're going to go out there and achieve on your own? Fuck that. Stay here in the house where you belong. With us.

So, it's not really "expect failure and disappointment." It's more like, "don't expect anything to change."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:38 PM on November 30, 2011 [19 favorites]

One I remember from starting work as a sixteen-year old apprentice was grizzly old workmates dismissing any youthful enthusiasm with, "You'll learn." What you were going to learn was that life is indeed likely to be a bit of a disappointment. On the other hand, it was a bit tongue in cheek.
Not exactly failure and disappointment, but was also told as a kid that if you're not sleeping on the street, in hospital or prison, you're doing all right.
posted by Abiezer at 4:51 PM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't say we expect disappointment, so much as we are realistic about our chances of success.

We do not whoop and holler nearly as often. Whilst we might be proud of someone/thing we don't brag about it, because that would be blowing our own trumpet. We may also sometimes enjoy understatement. It's possible that these two things do not encourage us to expect to succeed at anything we put our minds to. Although, I think British people do often succeed at things anyway.

I would say that one of the biggest lessons I was taught as a child was that it's more important to play the game fairly than to win. Also, no one like a show-off.

I agree with others that stiff upper lip, stoicism, and 'keep calm and carry on' are still things we are taught to aspire to.

Whilst social mobility is a lot better than it was 100 years ago, it's still true that you're unlikely to end up far from the social position you were born to. For all I know, this could easily be true in the States as well, but I think in Britain we more readily admit/accept it.

(Sometimes I find Americans' stereotypical boundless enthusiasm endearing, other times, slightly wearing. Sorry.)
posted by plonkee at 4:52 PM on November 30, 2011 [7 favorites]

Musically, I think much of the Jam's music reflects this, with a particular Thatcher-era, working-class flavor. Check out the lyrics to songs like "Running on the Spot," "Saturday's Kids," "When You're Young," "Smithers-Jones," "Private Hell," "Just Who Is the Five O'Clock Hero" and "A Town Called Malice" -- one of their biggest hits, with these cheerful sentiments as its opening verse:

You better stop dreaming of the quiet life
'Cos it's the one we'll never know
And quit running for that runaway bus
'Cos those rosey days are few
And stop apologising for the things you've never done,
'Cos time is short and life is cruel,
But it's up to us to change
This town called malice.

posted by scody at 4:56 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is not normal. Please do not judge us based on this.

Fair enough :) My memory may be flawed too, this was (eek!) nearly 20 years ago. But the difference in ethos and levels of unabashed encouragement were noticeable. Anecdata only, obviously.
posted by penguin pie at 5:00 PM on November 30, 2011

Like slackermagee, I was raised English in America (that's a good phrase--I shall have to remember it). Really I echo all of their comment.

I suppose Americans aren't taught to just get on with it or aren't taught to value just getting on with it. I suppose the thing that sticks out to me is how much attention is paid to events where things just didn't go well. It feels like US history is presented as an endless procession of triumphs and everything else gets swept under the rug. (Note that we 'won' the Vietnam War in the eyes of history in school.) My mother felt it was important that my brother and I see Brassed Off and the Full Monty. Both as a way to say 'This is where I come from' and because, well, they're films about carrying on in a seemingly hopeless situation.

We went to an exhibition at the fishing museum in Grimsby once, that was about using the fishing fleet as minesweepers during the Second World War. It wouldn't shock me if something similar was done in the US, if there were mines in the sea, but I would also expect there to have been money for actual minesweepers. But I can't imagine it being presented in the US as a triumph of, I don't know, resourcefulness and practical resoluteness. It'd be a triumph of patriotism or something.

On the other hand, I grew up a Cubs fan. My entire American sporting culture is built around acceptance, if not the expectation, of failure.
posted by hoyland at 5:16 PM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Instead of "you can do anything if you set your mind to it", the philosophy in the places I've lived (Holland, Canada, UK) seems to be more along the lines of "Okay, so maybe you can't do this thing, but here's what YOU are good at". So emphasising the skills/things you have, rather than what you don't have. ("We may not have a big house, but we live in a great neighbourhood." "Timmy is not so good at spelling, but he's very good at maths." "We didn't have much growing up, but we were happy." etc.)

And there's also a good amount of "You think YOU have it bad, listen to THIS". See for example the Monty Python Yorkshiremen skit:
posted by easternblot at 5:32 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Okay, so maybe I am not so good at making links clickable on Metafilter, but I am really good at searching for Monty Python skits on YouTube. See?)
posted by easternblot at 5:34 PM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think it's more that Americans are taught that "Happiness" is the base state of being and spend their whole lives feeling bad because they are not happy enough. Where as the Brits are taught that happiness is a rarity and are pleasantly surprised when it happens, but being British don't like to make a fuss about it when it does.

At the beginning of last century (or so) the British had an empire, the last century has bought 2 world wars to their shores and the deprivation and emotional toll such things do. Those guys were really ground down (not to say other European countries weren't) from basically the King of the World to rations and poverty for years as they recovered from the wars. The beginning of this century the US is "King of the World" but that is slowly changing though more from economic forces (though the various wars might not be helping).

This is simply the POV and opinion of an Aussie (so sort of half way between a Brit and a Yank - we'd like to be happy but if we're not we go what the hell and go to the beach or drink beer until we are) born to 2 British parents who lived in the UK for a while and now lives in the US.
posted by wwax at 5:39 PM on November 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

Some memories of things my grandparents said:
• If it's for you, it won't go by you.
• "I want" never gets.
• See you next week, if I'm spared.
• Don't get above yourself.
• Just thole (= endure) it.

Scottish. Presbyterian. But you guessed that.

Biggest thing that amuses ms scruss (American) about my upbringing is that, even in the 1970s, we were taught the most lugubrious 19th C children's hymns. “Jesus Bids Us Shine” cracks her up every time: ‘... In this world is darkness / So let us shine-- / You in your small corner, / And I in mine.’. Contrast that with her “Look All The World Over, There's No-one Like Me” ...
posted by scruss at 5:46 PM on November 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

This may also be a relfection onfthe differences between countries where most of the population has an immigrant background, and countries which don't.

America, and many other immigrant countries such as Australia, Canada, some South American countries, and New Zealand, have populations who largely came from elsewhere.

Those who had a choice about deciding to emigrate (so not convicts or slaves) were most probably motivated by the idea of opportunity. Those who stayed behind would be people who were either content with things being the way they were, or who felt they had no scope to change their own destiny.

In short: it takes optimism and self-belief to leave behind everything you've ever known and to never see your hometown again. It takes stoicism and cynicism to stay behind. Over time, these mindsets would be reflected in the respective societies.
posted by girlgenius at 5:48 PM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

Jane Walmsley put it well*: Americans think that death is optional.

* The cultural references are 30 years old but this book is still very good on the subject.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:56 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers! The Gervais quote really made me wonder how delusional I am as an American.
posted by steinsaltz at 6:08 PM on November 30, 2011

I don't think English people are taught to expect failure and disappointment, so much as given realistic expectations. It is better to know that things aren't always easy or possible, rather than a false sense of opportunity. For most folk in the world "you can do anything if you put your mind to it" is untrue, even in the US.
posted by Jehan at 6:36 PM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

In the Sopranos episode The Strong Silent Type, Uncle Junior's Russian caretaker tells Tony: "The differences between Americans' and others' world outlooks: Americans don't expect anything bad to happen and are surprised when it does, while the rest of the world expects the worst and are not disappointed"
posted by GilloD at 6:57 PM on November 30, 2011

Which sounds great, but the Irish spin on it is, it's parasitic. Your achievement is their achievement. You don't own it. We all do. You don't get praise. We all did it. Therefore, no one did.

Ireland's a crab bucket.

As for Britain....despite listening to a ton of Smiths albums, it did take me quite a long time to grasp what the phrase "jumped up" meant. We don't have anything quite like in in American English. But it seemed to me after a time that in England to be a celebrity is to be jumped up, and this explains a bit about the difference between their tabs an ours, why they're crueler and funnier about celebrity and celebrity culture. To seek fame is to visibly desire to exceed your proper allotment, and that is always worthy of contempt. Americans don't hate on the rich and famous nearly as much because there's a sense that you too, could attain these things. Not that there's not as many reality shows and gossip colmns and so forth. But the English definitely turn on their celebrity quicker.

Of course, maybe I've just been reading too much of the Guardian live blog of the News of the World hearings today...
posted by Diablevert at 6:58 PM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

This may also be a relfection on the differences between countries where most of the population has an immigrant background, and countries which don't.

Perhaps, but Britain, especially industrial/urban Britain, has no less of an immigrant background.

Jane Walmsley put it well*: Americans think that death is optional.

Which, I think, informs Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death.

The British attitude seems to be summed up by "cheer up, it might never happen", where American optimism is viewed as naive, albeit with a certain amount of wistfulness, as one views a child's sense of ambition and wonder. But I think it's worth contextualising: my parents grew up under post-war rationing; their older siblings were alive when bombs were dropping around their home; there's a strong cultural overlay of making do with what you've got on an individual basis, but channelling the desire for betterment into wide-reaching social programmes like the NHS.

(Personally, I think that the downside of the American myth of betterment is that it's politically crippling: the widely-noted 60 Minutes report last Sunday on child homelessness ended on that note, and I considered it a platitudinous cop-out; a British report would have ended with a demand for answers from those in positions of power.)

Musically, I think much of the Jam's music reflects this, with a particular Thatcher-era, working-class flavor.

Well, you would say that, wouldn't you? And you'd be right. But you missed out my favourite, subtle one, in 'That's Entertainment', where the sheer polysyllabic poetry of 'Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude' peeks out from under a fuckload of irony, before retreating again.
posted by holgate at 7:02 PM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

the phrase "jumped up" meant. We don't have anything quite like in in American English

Sure we do. "Sell out." "Forgot where he came from." Not "keeping it real." "Thinks he's better than us now."

As someone from a working class American city, believe me, I am QUITE familiar with the idea of people being criticized and even hated for wanting to better themselves. I think the difference is that, in the US, escape is possible. Your class of birth can be transcended, and you won't be forever held back by your accent or your name or whatever. I'm not saying it's easy or possible for everyone, but our lower and working classes (mostly) lack the idea that even attempting to better yourself is somehow treasonous.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:04 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Many American kids are told that they might grow up to be the President.

No English kid is told that he might grow up to be King.
posted by goethean at 7:13 PM on November 30, 2011 [10 favorites]

As someone from a working class American city, believe me, I am QUITE familiar with the idea of people being criticized and even hated for wanting to better themselves.

I totally see what you're saying --- I don't think I explained what I think "jumped up" means very well. Obviously it's not unrelated to a term like "nouveau riche," for example. And jealousy of success is pretty universal. But there's a subtle difference, I think, in that you can be considered "jumped up" from any angle, from any side --- it's an insult you could and would use toward someone from above or below or at the same level as you, class-wise. A servant and a master might share a bond of agreement in judging the same person jumped up.

Madonna gets stick in the states for her nouveau British accent --- that's considered inauthentic, a mild betrayal of her "true" self, her roots. But she doesn't get stick here for having money, for being famous. Her having attained success is admirable, not a betrayal. If an American were to say of her, "She's from Detroit, you know" I think it would be more likely to be in the context of admiration, of "look how far she's come" then of presumed derision --- "she's not really posh." When Jay-Z has a block party in the Marcy projects that's considered admirable, but it's not, like required. If one was to say, grow up poor and then get out of the neighborhood and become a doctor or something, there are definitely enclaves which would consider it a betrayal if you were not mention you roots or seem to be hiding them. But from the other side, I don't necessarily think people regard you as in some way "passing" if they can't tell where you're from or how you grew up from the way you talk, they way they do in Britain.
posted by Diablevert at 7:34 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

No English kid is told that he might grow up to be King.

That's a pithy formulation, which is why it has staying power among Americans, but I don't think it has any sting on the British side, given all the constitutional monarchy stuff that has happened since 1776.

More pertinent to this question, perhaps: young British boys who love playing football know that they'll not be good enough to be like the people they watch on the telly by about the age of six. It's that clear, that young. (British girls in the same position know that they'll basically need a soccer scholarship in the US to have a chance of making a career out of their passion.)

In similar terms, the American education system is built around the notion of making room for recovery or redemption, with its long-standing emphasis on incremental, continuous assessment, rather than life-or-death examinations. The British system, traditionally, has asked children to take tests and choose specialisations at an early age that will define their futures: my parents sat the 11-plus; I had to narrow down my subject interests at the age of 14. It's very much 'get it right first time", not 'get it right eventually.'
posted by holgate at 8:01 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a Brit, I wasn't ingrained with pessimism, so much as the idea that everything is limited and rationed, whether it be success or energy or money to be made. So the fact that someone does well has a knock-on negative effect on someone else. One rich person causes many others to become poorer, etc.

Now I'm in the US, the basic assumption is that everyone could be a billionaire if they just tried.

And we were actually taught at school in England that the US view was naive...
posted by blue_wardrobe at 8:06 PM on November 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

My next door neighbour got made head boy of his school. His grandparents gave him a congratulations card in which all they'd written was "Don't let it go to your head". I think that is fairly representative of the generation who grew up during the war, which is where a lot, though not all of this attitude comes from.
posted by greycap at 10:20 PM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

On the whole 'anyone can be president' thing. It's certainly not a trope in the UK that 'anyone can be prime minister'. But, that's realistic, I mean, sure there have been prime ministers who went to state school and grew up in say Brixton, on the whole most of them went to public schools (as in the very posh private schools like Eton) and then to Oxbridge. Yes in theory, anyone can be prime minister, but in practice it's not going to be you.

And, I guess that's an illustration of the difference between the British and American outlooks, because I don't suppose many US presidents have been from non-priviledged backgrounds either.
posted by plonkee at 12:39 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder how much the decline of the British empire has affected the British mindset. When the Empire was on the up, I imagine people felt Britain was great and they felt positive too. However, I remember reading a guidebook on Portugal which mentioned that the Portuguese were a people slightly characterised by a depressive nature because their once great empire had faded. So it may be that the British mindset is shaped by the loss of empire, and the resulting reduction in their power and influence in the world - essentially it’s the realisation that our delusions of grandeur are just that. It’s a depressing thought!

Major one is the class glass ceiling though. If you are working class but earn lots of moneyvand become rich you alienate yourself from your class peers, and as a vulgar nouveau rich, no other section of society will accept you. Solution - move to the Spainsh Costa. The Upper class can fall too, but with a "posh accent" you just can't hide..

UK = Pull yourself together man!
US = Go talk it over with your therapist

Overly simplistic, I know… but there really isn’t a major therapy culture in the UK and I think people can’t really understand why US-ians can’t work out their problems with friends and family. I haven’t lived in the UK for over a decade but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ever-creeping cultural influence of the US has spawned a UK therapy industry to accompany the ambulance-chasing legal industry we now have.
posted by guy72277 at 12:48 AM on December 1, 2011

“It’s not winning or losing, but how you play the game.” I was taught that living with grace, honour and compassion are more important than my own ‘success’. We admire the ‘plucky underdog’ who shows ‘grit’ even in the face of defeat. If you watch the end of a UK rugby game, both teams will line up to applaud each other, winner and loser.
posted by sleepy boy at 2:31 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I disagree with Gervais here - there's an lazy shorthand that Britain is Eeyore and the US is Tigger; it has an element of truth but isn't the whole story.
I think the difference is actually how we celebrate or discuss success. As Brits we don't, or are very uncomfortable with it - boasting is a very British criticism. Earnestness is uncomfortable too. So saying out loud "you can do anything" would be bizarre. But this doesn't mean we don't believe it or think we are incredibly capable. And we're certainly taught it. Just not in such a blatant way.
I spent 5 years in the US education system and the rest in Britain. The biggest difference was not the amount of ambition but how you talked about it. In America you do, in Britain you don't.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 3:02 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hi. American in England for four years, English husband & family.

Agree with all of those who said that you're sort of put into something and that's where you stay. I hear the word "posh" being said a lot here. People are eager to put you into a social group where you'll stay forever.

My husband tends to think on the pessimistic side. He thinks "We currently do not have enough money to do X, Y, Z" and to him that means "we'll never have enough money to do Z, Y, Z." For me I think "We don't have enough money yet but soon / in the future we will do X, Y, Z."

On the good side he doesn't seem overall pessimistic about our current situation, it's as though whatever is is and that's how it'll be.

Older people (60s and up) seem to be a lot more cheerful than younger people I know, but it could be something to do with the economy?
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 3:20 AM on December 1, 2011

This is not normal. Please do not judge us based on this. This in a thread full of foreigners making ill-informed, semi-negative judgements about the British. Oh well, musn't grumble.
posted by epo at 5:18 AM on December 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'd describe it as a combination of realism, pessimism, modesty and (perceived) good manners.

Obviously I am in generalisation/stereotyping mode here but we have this sense that excessive ambition is vulgar, and that excessive display is conceited. We don't like arrogance.
We recognise that statements such as "You can do anything if you put your mind to it" are simply lies and delusions, and we regard those who take them seriously as naive at best and stupid at worst. In either case we think they're annoying.

I speak as a fifty-plus Englishman. The above is broadly true for my generation and those who came shortly after. We supported Borg over McEnroe because we regarded McEnroe as an uncouth lout, a poor sport, a gobshite and a spoilt brat. We don't like those things. We were raised - at home and school - to regard putting yourself forward too much as "showing off", over-reaching as not taking the valuable time to gain a sober, honest appreciation of one's limitations as well as one's abilities. Major displays of emotion - especially public ones - were held to be signs of weakness and a source of embarrassment. An Englishman of my upbringing may find himself responding to the sight of another man crying with anger rather than compassion. And frankly we feel pretty much the same way when we see women do it too.

I'm not offering any opinion about this state of affairs, merely reporting it.

I suspect things started to change some time in the eighties. I will now start making grumbling noises regarding the apparent loudness, sense of entitlement and public prickery of modern British youth; and the revoltingly unbritish displays of unbridled wetness emotion revealed at Princess Di's funeral.
posted by Decani at 5:35 AM on December 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think eyeofthetiger and Decani say it well. Historically, the British were supposed to know their place and upward mobility was very limited, possible mainly through commerce and even then you were not nearly as respectable as those with inherited wealth (i.e. those whose ancestors had been successful criminals).

The fact is that upward mobility is very limited on both sides of the pond; sport, crime, the National Lottery, and increasingly TV talent shows being the main vehicles by which those from a poor background think they can "better themselves". You get the hand you were dealt at birth, if you were born poor the chances are you will stay that way, on both sides of the pond.

As such the British attitude of "it would be nice but will probably never happen" seems to me (a Brit) realistic and centred, the American view of "anything is possible" seems to me delusional and a true opium of the masses. In practice it is the difference between those who live within their means and those who max out their credit cards because they feel entitled to the trappings of wealth. And don't get me started on the credit crunch ...
posted by epo at 5:56 AM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Many American kids are told that they might grow up to be the President.

No English kid is told that he might grow up to be King.

So who is being lied to?
posted by biffa at 6:22 AM on December 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

And surely someone let the cat out the bag to young Charles at some point? (Even if his mum is doing her best to prove predictions wrong by longevity)
posted by Abiezer at 6:43 AM on December 1, 2011

Growing up in the upper Midwest [Minnesota] and then visiting England, I found similarities between the two mindsets: hope for the best but plan for the worst; play down all compliments; work hard; work hard but know that you don't really deserve success solely for trying; remember you live among other so be ready to wait in line without complaint; and, counterintuitively to the aforementioned, feel free to bitch about other people and all your self-imposed suffering over endless cups of coffee/tea.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:01 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

"The thing I have trouble expressing to people is (in my humble perception) that, in Irish families, there is no sense of individualism. Whatever happens to you is happening to everyone at the same time. If you're sad, then everyone is sad. If you achieve, then everyone has achieved."

Is that not more of an immigrant thing though? No matter what country you come from, if you immigrate then you have no one else apart from your family and so every one else is competition & "the enemy"?

As an Irish person I have never had that suffocating family experience. And I don't think anyone I know has.
posted by Fence at 7:15 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

British culture values the sub-text, American culture values wholeheartedness. It's important to Brits' self-esteem to be sharp enough to 'see through' things: this explains the love of irony and sly mockery, but it also produces a reflexive cynicism which may come across as pessimism (realism if you approve of it).
posted by Segundus at 7:26 AM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

So who is being lied to?
posted by biffa at 8:22 AM on December 1 [1 favorite +] [!]

posted by goethean at 8:21 AM on December 1, 2011

if you immigrate then you have no one else apart from your family and so every one else is competition & "the enemy"?

It doesn't seem to be all cultures, though. Contrast it with the stereotypes of the Asian or European Jewish immigrant -- "study hard, go to college and be a doctor." There may be an element of "after you do all that, come back to us." But at least there was a path up and out.

My Irish stereotype is, "No one's going to ever encourage you or help you separate from us."

That's the thing -- no separation. I remember one Christmas day, after the presents and after the dinner and after everything had died down, I got up to leave. Going on a ski trip tomorrow, see ya. Horror and shock! What about the family? How could you do this to us on Christmas!?

And I'm like, Christmas is over, right ...? It wasn't Christmas. It was the separation. I'm leaving, and you're staying here. That's what they couldn't seem to handle.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:56 AM on December 1, 2011

Product of an English private school here (ie posher than a state school, much less posh than Eton), and even there it's not an over-optimistic 'can do' attitude. It's what you're expected to do, and god help you if you don't live up to it. And expectations were graded - everyone knew who was going to Oxbridge and who wasn't even before you got to university applications. Every year at the start of term the headmistress would read out the previous year's exam results, and inform the school that they would be at least as good the next year. High achievement was pushed not by the rewards of success by the fear of failure.
posted by Coobeastie at 9:04 AM on December 1, 2011

Lots of generalizations here (In many ways, British culture is less homogeneous than American culture), so let me make another: British humor, and to a larger extent, British culture is *extremely* self-deprecating.

To quote Bill Bailey, "I'm English, and as such I crave disappointment."
posted by schmod at 9:22 AM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Richard Hoggart has a great analysis of this in The Uses of Literacy, where he relates it to the working-class culture of stoicism and fatalism that he experienced as a boy growing up in Yorkshire in the 1920s and 1930s, a culture of 'making do' and 'putting up with things':

At the lowest is the acceptance of life as hard, with nothing to be done about it: put up with it and don't aggravate the situation: 'what is to be, will be'; 'if y' don't like it, y' mun lump it'; 'that's just the way things are'; 'it's no good kicking against the pricks'; 'what can't be mended must be made do with'; 'y've got to tek life as it cums -- day in, day out'.

In many of these is a note of dull fatalism; life is always like that for people like us. But the really flat ones are a minority among the phrases of roughly cognate type: in most the note is of a cheerful patience: 'y've got to tek life as it cums', yes; but also 'y've got to get on wi' it best way y' can'; 'grin and bear it'; 'ah well, least said, soonest mended'; 'oh, it'll all be the same in a hundred years' time'; 'all such things are sent to try us'; 'it isn't always dark at six'; 'we're short o' nowt we've got'; 'worse things 'appen at sea'; 'ah well, we live in 'opes'. It's all bound to be ups-and-downs, the rough with the smooth, roundabouts and swings: 'it's no good moaning'; 'mek the best of it .. stick it .. soldier on ..'; 'don't meet trouble 'alf-way'. You may sort-of-hope for a windfall or a sudden, wonderful surprise, but not really; you've got to go on and 'mek yer own life'; 'keep yer end up'; 'life is what y' mek it'. 'Mek shift and fadge' and you'll be 'alright' -- as private soldiers were when they knocked up something like a living-space out of the most unpromising conditions.

I think Hoggart is spot-on here. Pre-war Yorkshire may seem a long way from contemporary Britain (and yes, in many ways it's a vanished world), but many, many Britons, even in the affluent middle classes, are only a generation or two away from the working class, and have unconsciously absorbed these attitudes and assumptions from their parents and grandparents. (This working-class stoicism is not to be confused, by the way, with the upper-class stereotype of 'stiff upper lip', which is always quoted in these discussions, usually with a sort of affectionate mockery, but is totally foreign to most people's experience.) Many of the clichés that Hoggart quotes ('take things as they come', 'don't meet trouble halfway', etc) are still in everyday use.

Fun fact: as well as being one of the best books ever written about English culture, Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy also provided the name of the indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie.
posted by verstegan at 11:11 AM on December 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

There is a book called Watching the English, which purports to be an anthropologist's account of the English and their peculiarities. I didn't actually like it all that much myself - I thought that it just told me what we English think we think about the English, without that much close observation about the things that really are quite odd about us, and I think it confused 'from South East England' with 'English'. But it is a big long meditation on what 'Englishness' means and how the English behave and you might find it enlightening.

There is one observation from the book that has stuck with me though because I think it's dead on: if you had to summarise the English attitude with one word, that word would be 'typical'. You are supposed to imagine an English person saying 'Cuh. Typical' and rolling their eyes. It's raining when you get out of the office and you've left your umbrella at home and you've waited at a bus stop for 10 minutes and been splashed six times by passing cars? Typical. You've stopped to buy a bottle of wine on your way to a friends for dinner that you're already 10 minutes late for and the queues for the tills are 20 people deep? Typical. This small-scale pessimism - it's sod's law innit, I suppose it's Buggins' turn again, it's always the bleeding same - is I think a national characteristic. I am a bit wary of all the class-based reasons for this that are often given. I really don't think people in Britain spend as much time thinking about class as we are supposed to. My own (half-serious) theory is that our weather is constantly letting us down - a good English spring or summer is a beautiful thing, but much more often awaited than received. Flippin typical, innit?
posted by calico at 12:12 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hey, I know most of the Dutch words to the "You in your small corner, / And I in mine." kids hymn that scruss mentions. (And I never even attended church - it's just that well-known!) Holland and Scotland are very similar...
posted by easternblot at 4:52 AM on December 2, 2011

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