We had a team from Watford on placement at our agency.
James was English, Mike was from America.
Mike and his wife were enjoying exploring London, seeing the things they’d read about.
I was explaining that London, west of Tower Bridge, was the tourist part, east of Tower Bridge was the really interesting part.
On the north side of the river are the pubs where ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries hanged his victims while three tides passed over them, just to make sure they were dead.
On the south side of the river is a church partially made from the timbers of the Mayflower, and the captain is buried in the grounds.
Mike asked me if there were any good restaurants.
I said my favourite was The Wapping Project.
A disused pumping-station with all the machinery left in place and the tables and chairs placed amongst it.
I love that place.
On Saturday evening I got a text from Mike saying he was showing his wife around the area, he asked what the name of that restaurant was again.
So I texted back “Wapping Project” then I thought, as a student he may not be able to afford a cab.
So I texted “Get off at Wapping underground, turn right and it’s about 200 yds on the left”.
Then I thought, as a student he may not be able to afford the prices.
So I texted again “Opposite is The Prospect of Whitby, the oldest pub in London”.
On Monday, I asked Mike if he went to the restaurant.
What he next said made me think.
He said he was surprised at the detail of my reply.
He said, for an American the correct answer to the question was the name of the restaurant, nothing more.
He showed his wife my text as an example of the way the English answer questions.
Mike’s wife said “Yeah, it’s almost kinda creepy.”
And I realised I’d given more information than was asked for, or wanted.
What to me had seemed like good manners, had come across as unctuous, even obsequious.
And I remembered, when I was in New York as a youngster I had to get used to that.
The two cities had completely different concepts of good manners.
In London good manners meant being as helpful as possible.
In New York it was simply answering a question.
New Yorkers were happier with a one word answer.
That’s why they never said please or thank you.
It was seen as unnecessary.
I was talking to Ed McCabe about this at lunch.
Peter Mead told Ed off for not saying thank you to the waiter.
Ed said “Why would I do that, the guy’s just doing the job he’s paid to do?”
I explained to Ed that was exactly why we did it.
Other countries, like Germany and Japan for instance, have what we call a ‘kiss up, piss down’ culture.
You kiss the arse of the person above you and piss on the person below.
Whereas we consider it the sign of a civilised society that the strong should take care of the weak.
Which is why you are always polite to the people below you.
The people you don’t want anything from.
I learned a lot from the difference between London and New York’s attitudes.
I learned how important it is to be able to see things from other people’s point of view.
And, if we’re in the communication business, other people’s POV should be our default setting.
We need to be in a state of constant enquiry.
Because we can’t communicate unless we start from where they are.
In this case, it isn’t that they’re being rude.
They think they’re being polite by not wasting your time.