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Ask Me No Questions
August 16th, 2012

There are plenty of reasons I often wish I were British.  The accent is certainly foremost among them.  The ability to travel throughout Europe without having to pose as Canadian is a close second.  But working its way up the rankings is a trait that I’d long been aware of, but only recently really come to appreciate: tact.

I’m currently about halfway through The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (yes, I realize I’m a bit late to this party) and as I’ve read it, I’ve been struck by the tact and restraint of the characters.  The book is filled with people getting to know each other in post-WWII Guernsey and, as you would expect immediately following a war, their lives are mired in fresh and painful memories.  One must not run roughshod amongst the thoughts and experiences of the recently occupied.  And so, as they tiptoe into new friendships they are admirably respectful of each other’s boundaries.

Making my way through the pages I’ve thought back on previous British novels I’ve read and realized that this courtesy seems to hold true.  The earlier reads that sprang to mind were also of a WWII era, so I’m unsure if this trait is a function of the time or the culture, but either way I find it refreshing.

As Americans we tend to believe that everything is best discussed in full.  We tend to believe that our curiosities should always be explored.  We tend to believe that any question is within our rights to pose.  The British play it closer to the vest.  Of course, at times they are mocked for this – for lack of emotion, for lack of intimacy, for lack of candor.  But I suspect that just as most Americans are not as brash as our international reputation would purport, neither are most Brits as repressed.  So, assuming that the reality of it is more moderate than the stereotype, I’m inspired.

I was inspired by the character who admonished her lifelong best friend for asking straight out whether she were in love with a suitor.  In her admonition the same character recalled posing a series of more benign (but still telling) questions when said friend was being courted by her future husband.  She wants to know what is in the tattered box carried everywhere by a little orphan girl, but confesses to a friend, “But I couldn’t possibly ask.”  She wonders about the stoic nature of her strong, silent male friend.  But she dares not ask a string of probing questions to further her understanding of him.  She lets him come around in his own time.

Americans would never be so reserved or so patient.  We are a cut-to-the-chase people.  I suppose this has its benefits as well.  Perhaps we are quicker to confess our own needs in times of crisis.  Or perhaps our relationships are more easily deepened when we are fully transparent to other people.  I can’t know for certain.

What I can do is take this admiration to heart and emulate it in my own life.  I cannot speak with a British accent.  I cannot sign my e-mails “Cheers.”  I cannot drink a cup of hot tea and actually like it.  But I can meter my own curiosities instead of satisfying them.  I can respect people’s privacy and boundaries.  I can let my relationships evolve over time, rather than rushing to kindred spirithood on first meetings.  I can shepherd my inner Brit in a way that is ultimately far more meaningful than accents or salutations or national beverages.

And with that, I will try.

4 Responses to “Ask Me No Questions”

  1. Ana Says:

    I always assumed it was more about the time than the place, but you may well be right. I definitely think in this culture of over-sharing, tact has gone out the window. Etiquette and social graces help our communities run smoothly—things can be taken too far, and lives lived solely to “keep up appearances”, but the other extreme—where nothing is private or off-limits is just as disturbing. Also, I loved that book!!

  2. Gale Says:

    Ana – You’re so right. I was thinking mostly about the British culture, but today’s fascination with over-sharing is certainly another component. There’s nothing wrong with privacy; your own, or anyone else’s.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Tact and restraint.

    Do you think we have a prayer in this country?

  4. anne Says:

    Eeek! I’ve been slacking on reading!

    Anyway, as someone who’s spent a big chunk of life wishing she were British, I can relate to this somewhat. I think you said most of it very well, but I’ll throw in an additional wrinkle. You’re already way more on the British end of the spectrum than you realize. Have you ever hung out with someone who’s NOT AT ALL restrained, and attributes it to their cultural background? I have, and it’s really interesting. It’s fascinating when I meet someone who sees me as waspy and tactful and comments on it. As much as I love all things British, I also adore being American. But remember your roots, sis. You’re more Kate than you realize. I just hope to take the best of both cultures with me as I go.