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Monday, November 18, 2013

As Russians say, manners maketh the British late | The Sunday Times

As Russians say, manners maketh the British late | The Sunday Times:
As Russians say, manners maketh the British late
Published: 3 March 2013

Time. It’s now so precious that we will happily spend an absolute fortune making all the things we do faster, simply so we have time to do more things.

A decade or more ago, if you were suddenly consumed with a need to watch some online footage of a cat falling over, it took about a minute for your internet to load the film. This was a minute none of us could spare. Then we got the idea of watching it on the go. Luckily a conglomerate of international mobile phone companies had paid the British government £22bn for something called 3G. This meant people had to wait only five seconds to see a cat falling over, and for a while we were all very happy.

But then we all realised that in the modern world five seconds is far too long. So now phone companies have paid a further £2.3bn for 4G, a service that delivers hilarious animal-related accidents almost instantaneously.

We see the same thing going on in lifts. We need a button that closes the doors when we’re ready to go because we simply cannot wait four seconds for them to close by themselves. Rightly so. Two lift journeys a day could waste eight seconds. Which in a working week is 40 seconds. In a time frame that vast we could have watched six cats falling over. And an amusing helicopter crash.

It’s the same at our favourite supermarket. If the queues are too long, we will go elsewhere. Even if we know the next shop fills its burgers with horses, toenails and bits of mashed bat.

I know I’m more pathological than most about wasting time, but surely you too must froth at the mouth when you sit down to watch a DVD and you are electronically prevented from fast- forwarding through the legal disclaimers that precede it. This is lawyers stealing our lives. And we hate it.

It’s strange, though. We fume in traffic jams and curse when people on pavements walk too slowly, yet we are prepared to waste hours and hours of every day gurning and engaging in idle chitchat with people we don’t know.

The British middle-class obsession with good manners means we feel obliged to discuss the weather with our postman and our holidays with our hairdresser. We write ridiculously long thank-you letters to people we’ve already thanked verbally. In business emails we use words that aren’t necessary simply because we feel the need to be polite, and if we want directions we always start out by saying, “Excuse me. I hate to be a bother but . . .”

Been on a flight recently? The obsequiousness is now so rampant that it takes half an hour to make every announcement. “Any bread items for yourself at all today, sir?”

I bring all of this up because I’ve just spent a week in Russia where manners don’t seem to have been invented. When a hotel receptionist needs your passport, she doesn’t say, “Would it be possible to see your passport for a moment, sir, if it isn’t too much trouble?” She says, “Passport”. And if you can’t find it within three seconds, she says, “Now!”

When you order a dish from a menu that isn’t available, there’s no tiresome hand-wringing explanation from the waiter. He just says, “It’s off”. And if you are struggling to get your luggage through a revolving door, no one waits patiently until you’ve sorted the problem out. They repeatedly shove the handles until everything in your suitcase is smashed and your fingers have been severed.

When a British Top Gear fan wants my photograph, they spend hours explaining how their son watches the show on Dave and how he can impersonate me and how it’s a religion in their house. Whereas in Russia they just say, “Photo”. And if they don’t happen to have a camera, you are told to stay where you are until they have been back to their house and got one.

Ever been stuck behind two British people while waiting for a ski lift? “After you.” “No, you were here first.” “No, really. I’m sure you were.” “Oh, it’s OK. I don’t mind waiting. It’s such a lovely day.” “Much warmer than last year.” After a while you are consumed with an urgent need to stab both of them with your poles.

Queuing is much easier in Russia — because no one bothers. You just walk to the front and if anyone objects — this actually happened — you pull out your wallet and show the complainant your credit cards. This is Russian for, “I am richer than you, sunshine, so shut up.”

It’s the same in what we call polite discussion. You don’t dress up counter-arguments with subtle innuendo. Russians just say, “You’re wrong” and move on. Here’s one conversation I had:

“Jews are running the world.”

“I hear what you say, but I don’t think that’s the case.”

“You’re wrong.”

“But there are plenty of examples . . .”

“I said, ‘You’re wrong.’”

Being British, it’s all very upsetting. But after a while I started to realise that being impolite saves an awful lot of time and costs you nothing. When someone is wasting your evening with their harebrained nonsense, just tell them they are wrong and walk away. When you are in a butcher’s shop, don’t bother with small talk. Just say, “Two chops” and wait to be told the price. When someone is dawdling on the pavement, push them out of the way. And in a bar, don’t try to catch the barman’s eye. Just shout what you want from the back of the queue.

It certainly works on Aeroflot. Planes set off before everyone is seated, and when you are coming in to land, you don’t get any rubbish from the pilot about the weather and he doesn’t wish you a safe onward journey. You are told to sit up straight and to remain seated until the plane has stopped. Which no one does.

Back at Heathrow, the immigration official was very chummy. “Been away long?” he asked politely. I saved two seconds by not bothering with an answer.

I felt terrible. Guilty as hell. But that’s the curse of being British. That’s why we need 4G and buttons that close the lift doors, and high-speed rail links. Because they free up more time for writing very long thank-you letters and making small talk with the milkman.
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