Comedian Joanne Lau knows good manners are the backbone of British society. She also knows it’s impossible to go through life without offending people. That won’t stop her trying.
Illustration by Louise Boultler.
The British make tea, not a fuss. Thankfully, we’re no longer a nation of curtsies and formal introductions, but navigating the modern rules of British etiquette can still be tricky. There are more people to offend, faster ways to offend them, and new platforms to offend them on. If you spend minutes of your life each day wracked with dread, worry, and guilt over every subtle interaction you make, you are not alone. You are not neurotic. You are British. This is not a day. This is every day.
7.38am You’re late for work, but have just heard your neighbour’s door close so can’t leave for another minute or you’ll have to say ‘hello’.
8.02am The person opposite you on the train offers their seat to a pregnant lady first. You now look like a terrible person and spend the rest of the journey hoping for the arrival of an elderly person on crutches who is both with child and carrying a child so you can offer your seat and prove to the rest of the carriage just what a great and chivalrous person you actually are.
9.01am Your boss sends an email starting with ‘Dear ____’ instead of ‘Hi ______’ or ‘Hello ________’. You don’t know what you did wrong.
12.01pm Your colleague complains about the weather, and you accidentally say it ‘isn’t that bad’. They now think you have no understanding of British etiquette and should be exiled.
1.05pm Buying lunch, you absentmindedly put your wallet on the bagging area while you scan your items. Now the self check-out is announcing to you and anyone in the Greater London area who will listen that you are a dirty thief.
1.35pm At the post office, you zone out at the front of the queue and don’t realise counter number 5 is free until the person behind you taps you on the shoulder. YOU’VE LET EVERYONE DOWN.
1.55pm You really want to cross the street on a ‘do not walk’ signal, but there’s a mother with small child next to you and you’re worried that witnessing the next five seconds of you breaking the law will warp the child’s ideas of right and wrong so badly it will take years of therapy to undo the damage.
2.39pm You send an email signed ‘Kind regards’ and hit send. You spend the next five minutes worrying the recipient will interpret your entire email as passive aggressive.
4.47pm There’s a leaving card and collection envelope going around for Brenda. You don’t know who Brenda is, so sign ‘Best of luck!’ confident that you can’t offend anyone with that.
4.49pm It was a wedding card.
5.38pm You really want to leave, but nobody else has moved yet even though you’ve all completed your contractual hours for the day. You will check Facebook with your fingers hovered over the minimize command keys just in case you hear your supervisor come up behind you.
5.39pm According to Facebook messenger, everyone else in the office is on Facebook right now too. You bravely take the plunge and leave. Everyone judges you.
6.13pm You send a quick text to a friend, but accidentally put ‘xxx’ at the end. Perv.
7.00pm At dinner with friends, you order bottled still water at a restaurant because even though you know tap water is perfectly potable, you can’t bear seeing the glaze that goes over a server’s eyes when you order it.
8.15pm The restaurant hasn’t automatically added a service charge to the bill. Your levels of confusion, panic, and anxiety are so great over the decision you must now make that you consider consulting a psychic for the first time in your life.
9.18pm At the pub, it’s your round and a friend’s asked for a pint of Guinness. You now have to make awkward small talk with the barman while it’s settling.
9.45pm You’ve been queuing at the bar for a while, but a new person approaches, and leans on the bar with their elbows. They have a wallet in their hands and flash a smile at the barman. You worry this subterfuge will be enough to make the barman forget the fundamental rules of British queuing and betray the foundations of their country.
10.15pm You accidentally order a drink that’s run out and the barman has to change the barrel. You are now indebted to him and the next three generations of his bloodline for this inconvenience.
11.43pm You’ve engaged your cab driver in conversation. After jokingly complaining about your day, you ask him about himself only to find out he’s escaped to the UK from a war torn country and is driving the cab as a second job to support his lovely family. You really hope your self -deprecating humour didn’t come across as ungrateful and overprivileged – then you realise you’re a drunk person in the back of a cab on a Tuesday night. You never had the moral high ground.
12.18am You arrive home certain you can’t feel any lower. You run into your neighbour. You’ve forgotten her name and try to cover it up with overly friendly banter.
12.19am She knows. She knows you’ve forgotten her name. You contemplate moving. You’re pretty sure you’d get most of your deposit back…
12.30am You mercifully drift off to sleep.
3.47am You wake up with a start and go through every awkward moment of your day over and over in great detail.
7.00am It starts again…
Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.