don't ask me for £5

Now, you could say that the following doesn't fit here because it's not about language, but I'd say it could be covered under the realm of pragmatics or interactional sociolinguistics...and anyway, it's just too interesting to pass up.

Via Boing Boing, quoting this source:

A price comparison website, ran a experiment on the streets of London and Manchester:

[Representatives] wandered the streets this morning wearing sandwich boards offering a free £5 note to anyone who asked. Despite encountering over 1800 people, only 28 passers by bothered to take advantage of the offer.
Americans, please imagine someone wearing this sign in your town, except it says $10 bill instead of £5 note. Don't you think that more than 1.5% of the passers-by would stop to claim some free money? (If any one of you is rich enough to carry out this experiment in/on the streets of New York or your nearest city, please do so and report back to us!)

From the source press release, we get the British reasoning for not asking for the money:
Why do Brits believe they would fail to take up the offer?
• Six in ten people say they their cynicism would prevent them from asking for free cash as they would suspect a catch or trick.
• Twenty per cent of people would simply not believe the offer was real – a trend which increased with age. Almost a third of over 60s claimed they wouldn’t believe the sandwich board wearer.
• Just over one in ten people said they would feel too embarrassed and three per cent of people said that £5 wasn’t worth the effort.
Now, I can sympathi{s/z}e with the cynicism and embarrassment, but I still can't believe so few people stopped, and can't believe that the cynicism and embarrassment would be so widely felt in the US. In fact, I think the natural optimism of the American character might lead some people to ask for the money even if they thought there was a catch, as they might feel confident in the belief that they wouldn't be caught by the catch.

Comparing a couple of anthropological works about the English and Americans offers some support for my suspicions. (I must admit, I'm making a point of citing sources because it's always dangerous to make generali{s/z}ations like this on a blog with an open commenting facility, so I need to do the "it's not just me who thinks this!" thing. I will check my e-mail tomorrow morning with some trepidation!)

Among the traits that Kate Fox (Watching the English) describes as being at the 'core' of Englishness are social dis-ease (making it difficult to approach a stranger), Eeyorishness (chronic pessimism--'it is in the nature of things to go wrong and be disappointing') and a sense of fair play (including a feeling that there is only so much to go around, so if you have more, someone else has less). I think that the reasons respondents gave for not taking the money could be brought together as "Even if it were a good idea for me to take money from you (and I can't imagine that it is), it's not worth £5 for me to veer out of my comfort zone to ask for it." (I just showed Better Half the photo of the man with the sandwich board and he said: "Don't take the money--he'll want to talk to you about Jesus!")

Stewart and Bennett (in their American Cultural Patterns) note that Americans are very action-orient(at)ed (approaching new situations with an eye to what needs to be done about them) and a belief that "the achievements of the individual are not gained at the expense of others"--which makes it easier to have an "I deserve it" attitude when faced with good fortune. And Americans (although I'm the exception that may prove the rule) are notoriously good at approaching strangers. (Better Half quips: "An American would go up, ask for the £5, then say, 'And let me tell you about Jesus!'")

So, who's got a few hundred dollars to spare and the wherewithal to make a sandwich board?


  1. All those possibilities would cross my mind. And, well, ten bucks might not be enough on a hectic day for me to deal with talking with a guy on the street. (Less than a half hour's pay.) If I were short of cash and hungry and not in a hurry, or if it were $20, I probably would.

    When I was a poor student, no question, I'd have kept going round the block, changing my hat and coat to see if I could double dip.

  2. a belief that "the achievements of the individual are not gained at the expense of others"--

    I read that "are" at "should not be," at first, and thought, 'Americans are greedier than that!'

    Then I realized that if I changed it to "were not," it fit the point (and my perception of American character).

    Not a commentary on your point at all--mostly a commentary on how the word "are" can serve so many purposes.

    That difference is why, my friend explained, J.K. Rowling sent her character Ron Weasley into his brothers' joke shop instead of having him go on to become a pro Quidditch keeper or something. His *dream* is to stand out from his brothers, to do something very different, to gain recognition they don't have. But his creator makes his *choice* be to sink back into the family cause.

    I'm an American (natch), but I think I wouldn't stop either--pessimism, and the belief that I'm not needy, and the belief that to ask for money you didn't earn is greedy.

    I think this is a fascinating experiment.

  3. Oh, one other point--he's dressed very non-corporately; his sign is very non corporate. I wonder if that would have an influence.

  4. I don't know why, but I'm reminded of the story of an American who put an ad in the NY Times: "Send your dollar now," and was reportedly well rewarded, without promising (or providing) anything. Maybe it's only an urban legend, but if so, it is precisely because it rings true, I wonder if it does to Englander sensibilities.

    Another thing it reminds me of is the experiment wherein an individual stands on a corner and starts staring at a point in the sky. Eventually people start trying to see what he's looking at, and the crowd attracts more people, looking at nothing. Perhaps if people saw actual £5 notes being given out, more would avail themselves. Was a version of this experiment done in the UK?

  5. I'm a little short this month so if anyone's going to do this experiment could you do it here in Lafayette?

  6. JHM...??? It was done in the UK!

  7. It's maybe some way off-topic , perhaps , but oddly coincidental that the Telegraph carried this obit a couple of days ago , referring to a similar (but less obviously "odd") venture some years ago [how many Brits recall "Candid Camera"?].

    I suggest that some stunt like this on the streets of the 2 largest cities will be but an echo of what passers-by there have seen a million times before (= a scam of some kind). If it was done on the streets of – say Evesham , Bedford or Hexham [US : think Peoria , North Platte or Akron] the response may well be quite different . I think .

  8. I think JHM was referring to *his* version of the experiment:

    Have accomplishes who *do* come up, ask for and *get* a fiver and see if that's enough to induce strangers to try their luck too.

  9. It's not the first time its been done :) Although last time I think it was the Sun, or some such tabloid doing it. They know what is going to happen before hand and save them up for "no news" days in the summer *shrug*

    If I had seen him would I have gone for the £5? Probably not. If I was in Central London, I would be there for a purpose, not just strolling along chilling out and killing time. My time would already be allocated :)

    However, if I saw him while I was strolling along the Lee-on-the-Solent sea front, I might well ask him for the fiver just to see what happens.

    (JohnB = BrE)

  10. johnb makes a good point about location. I don't imagine that New Yorkers or Chicagoans would be any readier than Londoners or Mancunians to stop for what might be a con job. But it might be a different story in villages/flyover country.

  11. Another thought that just struck me - when I was working in London , I probably wouldn't even have read the bill board properly. He would just have been an obstruction in the street to be negotiate along with the guy holding up a placard to the Tattoo Parlor and the woman with a sign that says 'The End is Nigh'.

    In some respects it is a comment on the effectiveness of street advertising as much as anything else.

  12. It does sound a bit like phishing. I would not ask for a free $10 bill.

    (I don't recall the last time I asked for anything advertised as "free".)

    Recently my spouse got a mysterious $50,000 check in the mail that looked like a legitimate check. She asked the bank and they traced it to a know phishing scheme.

  13. Now isn't that an interesting one?!?!

    Since reading this post, I've been sitting here pondering what I would have done if faced with this situation. Had it happened in the US -- especially in NYC -- I would have most certainly walked up to see what was going on...if nothing else, just to satisfy my curiosity (not JUST for the money). BUT, had this happened in London, I suspect I would have just kept walking.

    Perhaps I've been living in the UK too long?

    Thanks for a really thought-provoking post!


  14. I'm not sure what the distinction is between the first two reasons given. Surely if you're cynical that there might be a trick, then you don't think the offer is real.

    I've always wanted somebody to do an analysis of those ads, which are pretty much the reverse of this sign, in the back of Private Eye. They always ask for large amounts cash, sometimes with a somewhat worthy reason but often with a really lame one or none at all. Some of them must work or nobody would place them, surely. But who on earth would send money to a random stranger for no good reason?

  15. Rule number one of avoiding confidence games is, "If it seems too good to be true, it's probably a scam." This seems too good to be true. I would walk right on by, and probably avoid eye contact.

    (American, FWIW.)

  16. I think that the Internet and other scams have creted a new skepticism about things.

    That guy on the street looks not much different than the e-mails I get promising a free X-Box. I think we have all tried that one at least once (and for those who haven't, you get led through something like 50 surveys, then you have to apply for 3 or 4 special offers...but you DO get an X-Box in the end I am told.)

    I would expect to walk up to that guy and he would then ask me for my address where he would send a check for 5 pounds/10 bucks...which would be accompanied by reams of junk mail.

    I would walk on by too...stupid interweb, making me skeptical of free moneys.

  17. I'm wondering if there is perhaps a more subtle dynamic going on here, involving (a) the Brits' love of eccentrics and (b) the Brits' feeling that eccentrics should not be taken advantage of. Thus: "Bloke offering to give me a fiver for nothing? Must be a nutter. Musn't take advantage of a nutter. Best pass him by."

  18. Howard, I think you have a very 'quaint' impression of the British. :)

    Blokes giving away a fiver aren't eccentric :) just wierd.

  19. Mmm. I wonder where the dividing line between 'eccentric' and 'weird' is, John? :-)

  20. While he might be eccentric in your American eyes - he isn't eccentric in my British eyes :)

    But isn't what that blog is all about - discovering the differences in interpretation of language :)

    I am sorry - I can't help it, but it irritates me to see wonderful old fashioned stereotypes pushed out again and again. Along with being called a 'Brit' (which to me is a minor insult about the equivalent to me calling all Americans 'Yanks') tends to irritate me :)

  21. I hear the phrase "If it sounds/looks to good to be true, it probably is" much more in the States than in England. One thing I suspect is that here in Chicago, people would approach him bearing this motto in mind. One thing I know for sure though - Americans are far more comfortable extricating themselves from situations they don't like. Brits (sorry!) usually feel the need to explain why they aren't buying it, or are worried about offending feelings. I still do that after 18 years in the States.

  22. > While he might be eccentric in your American eyes - he isn't eccentric in my British eyes :)

    But John, I am British! And I am not the only Brit in the world to call Brits, 'Brits'! And if I wish to stereotype my fellow Brits, why shouldn't I?

    As for 'Yank', why should it not be used, since they themselves appear to use it of themselves (think of the gungho WW1 song "Over there" with is refrain of "The Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming ...")?

  23. I am British and I would definitely have asked him - but then I like the eccentricity of it and I would have been intrigued. Having said that, I don't live in a big city so maybe I'm not as world-weary as some!

  24. I would think that the guy was a crank/nut/scammer/ TV pranker and wouldn't go near him. I also live in a US suburb which has a low tolerance for eccentricity, so this guy might be stopped by the police and asked about his business.

    As to why not to call Americans Yanks, it goes back to the Civil War(1861-1865) when the Yankees of the Northern states defeated the Confederacy of the South. There was a time in the South when damnyankee was a single word. These feelings lasted much longer than the use of "Yanks" in a WWI song, sorry to say.

  25. The Chaser's War on Everything tried this in Australia. It was someone actively offering the money, not a sign, but up to $50 was on offer and no one took it!

  26. I've studied enough psychology that I think I would recognise the situation for what it is.

    Having said that, and despite being chronically short of cash, I probably wouldn't approach him out of fear that it was a TV setup.

  27. The first thing I'd expect if I saw this in the street would be the old timeshare-seminar bait-and-switch. Sure, you get the free fiver - but now I've been so generous as to give you a free fiver, surely it's only fair that you stay for a brief chat about Scientology?

  28. I am an American and likely would not ask for the $10 for all the reasons listed. If it weren't a scam, it would be some sort of weird, embarrassing psychology experiment that wouldn't be worth the time and the puncture of my social bubble to partake in.

    I don't know that Americans in general are more willing to approach strangers. We just have no cultural mores beating our extraverts into quietude, allowing them to talk so loud and so much that they appear to be the majority.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)