Posted by / Category London /

After the best part of eight years in London, I pride myself in the fact that I have some British friends. Don’t smile, it is not that easy, it took me a long time, and I just have a few!
London is an international city with plenty of different nationalities and initially my friends were everything but British. I don’t really know why. The only reason that I can think of is that, as we have no family here, we tend to befriend people in the same situation.
Anyway, along the road I managed to gain a few British friends. The funny thing is that I found them a bit distant initially. Every time I was trying to get to know them better it felt as if they were shutting down. Not nice.
I remember asking a good friend of mine whether she has found a new boyfriend only to be told quite coldly that she wasn’t discussing these things. I was slightly taken aback and later found out that she was going out with a work colleague. We eventually discussed the relationship, some 5 years after its start (it became difficult to hide when they had a baby together).
But who said that the Brits never open up? You never know when, you never know why, but, from time to time, they tell you slightly more than you expect. It happened with a friend of mine, who, after a glass of wine, explained to me that she had bought new undies -bright red ones- and that “it might finally spice up her nights with her husband, as they haven’t done anything for 2 weeks”. Right. A bit too much, even according to French standards.
The Brits also have a convoluted way to talk about what matters to them. I remember a work colleague who had just had a baby. He told me once that he and his wife had not had any time at night to read a book…”let alone do anything else”.
That’s it, I thought, I am now an agony aunt ( Please leave your issues in the comments and I will answer…just kidding). I just muttered  “give it some time” and hoped that the matter would be closed. It was. Phew!
Is it because I am French? Is it because they finally trust me? I will never know. As a result, I can’t completely chill out with my British friends because I never know what is “too much” for them and they don’t seem to assess what is “too much” for me. Any advice for me?
Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London
  • I don’t think it has to do with nationality in any universal way. In every culture (just guessing) I imagine there are those to whom we want you yell “TMI” (too much information – just as there are others we wish would open up more. Sometimes they do, sometimes not. There are probably specific topics that are more or less likely to be discussed in different cultures.

  • My ex-bf is British. We’re still good friends after 10 yrs and I still can’t tell when his sense of propriety (as a Brit) will kick in and when it’s perfectly okay to say just anything. I’ve pretty much learnt that it’s best to just go with his rhythm because when I go with mine and become bolder, I find myself feeling like an idiot most times (even when he says it’s okay). As to making friends, I’m happy for you, Muriel! I have yet to make REAL friends here…and I’m with Americans…self-professed friendly ppl. But I remember what one of my mentors told me before…(she is exposed to both Americans and Europeans)….She said, in America, it’s easier to make ‘friends’ than in Europe. But you’re more likely to make REAL friends with Europeans than Americans. 🙂

  • Strange…I don’t see what’s shocking about your friend who bought the red underwear. I wouldn’t want to talk about her sex life myself, but, well, I suppose she has one (or hasn’t in this case) so I don’t see where the SHOCK lies. I do think English people have a tendency to be mealy mouthed though!

  • Having made an alliance with the French (at least one French lady!) myself, I simply put it out there: “Too much information!” That way I am letting them know in a light and humourous way that they really ARE sharing too much information for me.

  • Muriel, I can relate to your situation. At 19, when I returned to England after a nine-year absence, I thought I’d fit in easily. What a shock to discover how distant and uninterested most Londoners were. I was relegated to that limbo reserved for the “not in” or foreigners for a year or so until my English accent returned and I was “accepted”. Even so, in my years there, many friends were foreign.

    I found that Brits not only opened up in the way you describe, but could be warm, emotional, emotive, fun people. However, I never really belonged. I hadn’t been brought up there (after 10) and with one notable exception, I lacked the kind of contacts that count – the ones made in school, university or through family.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with you being French despite the love-hate thing between the two countries. (What about being English or American in Paris? It’s the same.) You tend to view the Brits with a foreigner’s objective eye. And for them, you will always be a foreigner, albeit a “British” foreigner. What is too much? I have no idea. Like you, I watch what I say when I’m with Brits, particularly Londoners, until I know them better.

  • @ Thom – Well, having lived in different countries, the Brits are, in my view, the trickiest lot. I don’t know why.

  • @ Joy -What you describe sounds familiar – yep, here you just have to let them define the rhythm. But it is sometimes a risky strategy!

  • I don’t know what to tell you on that, except that I can relate… it seems when we moved to Texas all our friends (and still, most) are not from here. I guess we relate to the situation. Who knows…
    🙂

  • @ Jenny – It was not the sort of topics we were usually talking about. Actually, it was too much for me. I might be French but maybe I am a prude?

  • @ Elizabeth – I wish it was that simple…But, after months of having the “cold shower” treatment I didn’t want to discourage them with a TMI comment. I might be wrong here…

  • I can’t help you much – I don’t have any British friends 😐 A few acquaintances borderlining on friends, but it IS much easier to hang out with expats 🙂

  • @ Penelope – I am glad I am not the only one. But it really makes life more complicated, doesn’t it? I hope I will get used to it.

  • @ Stacey – poor you! Maybe we need to learn some secret signs / words to be accepted?

  • I think I tend to be a “too much” person, Muriel – even for Americans – but not about sex. (There are things I know about my friends’ sex lives – and parts – I wish I’d never been told.) 🙂 I’m just pretty open and honest. But, not everyone likes that. I think some fear they’ll be obligated to share in a similar way, making themselves vulnerable or uncomfortable. I guess you just really have to “feel” each person’s boundaries out – or give them a little more or less wine. 😉

  • Muriel, I had to chuckle at this post because I feel exactly the same way with the French. As often as we travel to Dijon for my husband’s work, I haven’t figured out a way to make friends there. This summer I encountered an American at the street market and asked her to join me for tea, and we talked for a week. We’re friends with my husband’s research colleague and his family, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to find French people who share my interests — or seen much of an expat society (although next year I guess I’ll have to hang out at the Irish pub more even if I don’t drink beer or trying to join a walking club). Yet ex-pats I know living in small villages seem able to make gobs of friends. My only real French friend I met in London. Do you know anyone in Dijon who needs more friends? LOL

  • Sometimes the British guy at my work shares too much information (or tmi for short). I’m not sure if its his way of trying to fit in at a place where he is new and the rest of us have worked here for years or he just likes to share.

  • I’ve been married to a Brit for nearly 15 years (I’m American), lived in the UK for a year, moved back to the States, and now we’re back in Blighty. And I completely understand what you mean–I was miserable that year we lived here; I even had a job and nice-ish work colleagues who were allegedly sympathetic to my new status in the country but were too reserved to actually say anything to me about it! We lived in a tiny commuter village where the residents were mostly elderly and they hated the commuters, ie, me, and would bump into me with their shopping trolleys and glare.

    I never know what I can and can’t say here, so I tend to not say much, which makes me either appear to be a snob or just not interested. I kinda feel like I can’t win.

  • @ Mrs B – I am not surprised – it is easier to hang out with expats…

  • @ Kenya – I am also a “too much” sort of person. It’s not nice to be that way with Brits. They have this amazing capacity to make you feel ill-at-ease when you chill out…

  • @ Julie – I feel for you. I don’t know anyone in Dijon. It’s a question of time. Oh, and try wine instead of beer. Just a thought…

  • @Jennifer – a Brit who overshares. Odd. Maybe he is trying to blend in? It confirms one thing: I will never understand them…

  • @Virginia – I have felt exactly the same lots of time!!! Just contact me when u r in town…

  • I spent a summer in London in 2004, and in all honesty: I never met a ruder bunch of people in the street. Bars were different, but you had to watch out for when someone had too much to drink.

    Never felt warm and cuddly there. Wales: completely different story. I felt like I was everyone’s long lost friend.

    Now, let me tell you about the last time I had… 😉

  • Haha! What a complicated situation! I would have been completely surprised that I shouldn’t ask about someone’s boyfriend situation. =P I’m so glad that I don’t have to deal with this in Peru because everyone is more than open or at least avoid having to answer the question, so nothing is ever my fault. =P

  • Hmmm…

    I tend to be very open and straightforward, and have a slightly skewed sense of humor. Overshare? You read my password protected blogs? (At least one, right? About seeing dead people? I mean, that’s rather TMI, isn’t it?) But I have boundaries: I don’t discuss my marital relations. I don’t discuss others’ sex lives, either. SEX, in a general sense, fine – I’m a mother, and as such, have had to learn to be completely uninhibited in terms of discussing “birds and bees.” But the intimate details of my own – or anyone else’s – love life? Really, why would anyone else care? Like basketball, such things are participatory sports. (It’s a metaphor that works for me, as I don’t like to watch basketball, either – I realize it stretches things a bit thin for sports enthusiasts who lack odd fetishes.)

    In all seriousness, I think it depends on the length and depth and nature of the friendship, too.

  • I just found your blog. I grew up in Croissy-sur-Seine, moved to boarding school in Felixstowe and now live in California with an American husband and 3 sons. I think if I moved back to Paris or the UK, I’d have to relearn the European ways. Very strange for me to feel this way.

  • @Stuart – so you are Welsh by heart. Interesting. Am sorry you had such a bad experience in England!

  • @Sam – I suppose that the social rules are completely different in Peru…must be tough for you!

  • @ Holly – I agree with you. That said, I sometimes feel more of a counsellor than a friend and, frankly, I hate it. Maybe I should start charging?

  • Good thought provoking post Muriel. And here is my two cents worth.

    I have close friends, and find it has always been fairly easy to make friends. I am not sure why, but I think it is more a fit of personality than culture. My friendships have crossed many cultures. I have found that online friendships have been easy, albeit a little tricky because there is no body language. I have friends online that I have talked to, and visited with in real life, for over ten years. And I have friends in real life who I am close to. I have been snubbed once or twice, and for years thought it was because I was not from the south, but I have come to believe, after being a psych nurse for years, that personality was more the issue.

    As for subject, I gear what I talk about to who I am with. I have friends who love to be bawdy and joke, and I can jump right in there among them. I have friends who are reserved, and talk about things less intimate, and I am comfortable there too. I learned long ago to gear my discussions to what the other person’s comfort zone is, and to be sensitive to that.

    As far as talking about sex, I am just as comfortable with that as anyone (my kids will tell you I am too comfortable, but I will respond that because of my openness about sex, there were no teen pregnancies in our house). I am not talking about discussing my sex life (although when we needed a break, I have driven the kids out and to their homes by telling them their dad and I need some time to do it).

    I guess I am just comfortable discussing anything. And I have found over the years that I must wear an invisible sign that says that, because I could write a book about some of the questions I have been asked. I guess I was meant to be a nurse before I was a nurse. That puts a whole new “ok to say anything” stamp on what people decide to tell me.

    So there is my 2 cents, for what it is worth. 😀
    ~cath xo

  • @Sonia – hubby is from Croissy – there is a superb pizzeria there. I think I am hungry. Each country has different social rules, but I have to say that I am struggling with the Brits!

  • There are things I’d prefer not to hear about, but generally, not TMI too often.

    I’m in LA, and we have a lot of people from different culture here – but no Brits in my current circle (although I have online UK friends, it’s not the same.) So I’m not sure if it’s really the Londoners, or just these people being a bit *too* open.

  • This was funny and thought provoking at the same time. Because I’m what is known as a “mixed salad” I’ve always found it difficult to fit in. My other half is a Brit, lived there all his life. I was born in one country and raised in at least five others. Some Brits tend to look at me funny and others are too “welcoming” to the point of sharing too much information. But most, keep a distance. Still learning and I can relate when you say it’s not easy to make friends. Thankfully I’m travelling for a long while, with book promos and some other assignments so it’ll be a while yet before I get back, still not sure if I miss London or not.

  • Hey Muriel,

    I have been placed in a new team at work and I now have 3 Britishers as my team members; and I am enjoying the whole experience. More than a culture thing, I think it is a personality trait. Like for us Indians, some foreigners tell us that we are way too frank and get friendly very easily; not true for many of us, but that’s certain connotations held with people. But then you know the Britishers more than me..so I can’t give my views…let’s see how it goes with 3 oh-so-English team members and I will get back!

  • @Cath – You seem like a pretty open-minded Mum. Again, all the comments seem to confirm that I am a prude…Life is tough. Maybe being able to talk about anything is part of being a nurse. Maybe I am in denial!

  • @ Beverly – Maybe it is not the Brits after all. It can just happen anywhere…

  • @ Dora – Well, have a nice trip then. I am sorry that you don’t have many British friends (I can relate to this.). But that said, your other half is British! Impressive! You manage to crack them!

  • @ Hajra – Well, keep us posted (and between you and me good luck!). But you have 3 Brits who have willingly decided to leave the UK then. I would say that they got an edge!

  • Being a Brit who is regularly amused by your blog, but not a Brit living in London…I suggest it may be more to do with large cities than with the country itself. I always feel slightly less at ease with the conversations that happen in bigger cities, people seem smewhat de-sensitised to the norms of ‘acceptable’ conversation, especially around people they don’t know well. But with reality TV taking over the world, being obnoxious and offering up TMI may be the only way such people feel they can justify their otherwise hum drum existence…just my thoughts…

  • @Lucylastica2 – You might well be right. maybe it has something to do with London. Maybe it’s something to do with education. I jus don’t know, but sometimes it’s tough…