“Err … excuse me, sorry, but … um, I’m afraid you’re standing on my foot.”
The British have politeness written into their DNA. Nowhere else in the world will you find people so ready to put up with discomfort rather than be considered pushy or rude.
How it started is a mystery. The British, as we all know, are a pretty pugnacious lot. We value forthright leaders such as Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher and count the ruthless King Henry VIII and buccaneering sailor Sir Francis Drake amongst the nation’s favourite historical figures. Nowadays the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, JK Rowling, Boris Johnson and Lily Allen are celebrated for their outspoken views, and yet we average Brits are apparently so fearful of causing offence that we remain tight-lipped even when we are subjected to discomfort or inconvenience. If someone is thoughtlessly blocking our way, we say “excuse me” as if it were our fault, and if we receive grudging service in a restaurant, we’ll not only say “thank you”, we’ll probably even leave a tip.
Another classic British trait is our talent for understatement. Our tendency to underplay everything was famously demonstrated during the Korean War, when embattled British soldier Brigadier Tom Brodie of the Gloucester Regiment reported to an American superior officer, General Robert H Soule, with the fatal words: “Things are a bit sticky, sir.” He meant that his men were facing an imminent and terrible defeat, but the General’s interpretation was that despite some difficulties, the Gloucesters were successfully holding the line. Unsurprisingly, this miscommunication resulted in huge numbers of British soldiers being killed, wounded and captured.
Media personality Stephen Fry, dubbed ‘the most polite man in Britain’, admitted to BBC presenter Mark Lawson: “Being over-polite is not attractive … I can’t watch someone not saying thank you, and I can’t not say it myself. If I noticed I hadn’t said it, I’d have to come back in the room and say ‘thank you’. It’s feeble!” If Stephen Fry – an icon of good manners – dislikes over-politeness, what will become of the rest of us? Will we eventually ditch this quintessentially British behaviour in favour of a more direct (some would say more honest) approach?
It doesn’t seem as though this will happen any time soon. A report published by research company Childwise looked at the way children interact with the artificial intelligence bots in devices such as phones and tablets. Researchers found that children were barking commands at their robotic helpers without using “please” and “thank you” and concluded that this behaviour might encourage them to become aggressive in later life. In response to Childwise’s findings, Amazon has now included a politeness feature (known as ‘Magic Word’) in its Echo Dot software and it’s likely that other tech companies will follow Amazon’s lead.
With robots getting in on the act, it’s unlikely that we’ll forget our “pleases” and “thank yous” in future. In fact, as the technology develops, it may even become easier to tell a stranger that he’s standing on your foot: simply get your unfailingly polite robot to speak to him for you.