A New York State of Mind

It has been said that The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.[1] This may be true, but my experiences in West Sussex (England) imply that our cultural differences go far deeper.

It was my first trip to the far side of the Atlantic, and after an overnight flight, an abbreviated day at work, and a brief nap in my hotel room, I awoke at 6PM local time hungry.  Not merely for supper, which was a secondary concern, but for knowledge.  Here I was in a new town, a new country, a new continent.  I had to get a feel for the place I would be living for the next few months.cigarette

This led me out the front door of the George Hotel in Crawley and down the High Street.  I passed a pub and a movie theater, and ran into my first local.

“Sorry, got a fag?” he asked, and I was sure I was about to be attacked.

For those who only speak American English, a “fag” is a cigarrette.  I already knew this.  I also knew, and gave, the correct response:  “Sorry, I don’t smoke.”[2]  What I didn’t realize at the time was the friendly reality of British culture. Apparently, even at a time when the IRA was actively bombing buildings in London, it was perfectly normal to bum a cigarette from a total stranger in downtown Crawley.

If you are ever in New York, and a stranger says anything to you on the street, be prepared to hand over your wallet.  We don’t talk to unknown people over here unless we want to transact business with them, and on an empty street, that business transaction is most likely a mugging.  The friendly people ignore you; it’s a completely different state of mind.

This wasn’t a unique experience for me, either. I have been chatted up[3] in restaurants, shared Sunday dinner with people I had just met, and been invited by young couples to join them for coffee and to watch Red Dwarf.  I’m an extreme extrovert myself, so I was able to take the whole thing in stride.

Still, I hope they weren’t expecting something more than conversation, because if they were, I left them disappointed.

Photograph © 2005 by Tomasz Sienicki [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.
[1] Possibly said first by George Bernard Shaw, unless he didn’t.
[2] The British, when being polite, will say “sorry.”  Americans don’t do this; I think we avoid anything that implies culpability.  Americans say “excuse me,” presumably because it’s what we want you to do.
[3] I have only ever heard the term “chatting up” on PBS or overseas, so I assume it’s UK English. Language aside, the practice of making small talk with a stranger you’re not trying to date is certainly foreign to my experience.

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