introducing yourself

Here is a favo(u)rite passage of mine from Kate Fox's Passport to the Pub: The Tourist's Guide to Pub Etiquette:
Don’'t ever introduce yourself. The “Hi, I’m Chuck from Alabama” approach does not go down well in British pubs. Natives will cringe and squirm with embarrassment at such brashness. If your introduction is accompanied by a beaming smile and outstretched hand, they will probably find an excuse to get away from you as quickly as possible. Sorry, but that'’s how it is. The British quite frankly do not want to know your name, or shake your hand – or at least not until a proper degree of mutual interest has been well established (like maybe when you marry their daughter). You will have to adopt a more subtle, less demonstrative approach.
In her book Watching the English (which I don't have with me at the moment--so this is from memory), Fox quotes the reaction of an American couple who were clearly upset and puzzled by this British behavio(u)r. They felt that it was some kind of cruel game for the British to withhold that basic information about themselves. The thing to understand here is this: the British sense of personal privacy is very different from the American one. Asking someone's name, even implicitly by offering yours, is a premature violation of that privacy until some goodwill has already been established between you.

I observe this all the time on the playground. The British parents strike up conversations, and may ask about each other's children's names (which they can then use to encourage their children to play together), but they don't introduce themselves. If you've got(ten) along very well, then maybe--but probably not the first time you've met--you might say 'By the way, I'm [your name here]' before you part company. Maybe.

I saw Better Half speak on two occasions with the mother of a little girl who is close to Grover's age. After the first time, he said "I think she might be someone I worked with years ago." Only at the end of the second (long) conversation did they do the "By the way, I'm..." thing, at which point they discovered that they had worked together and both had recogni{z/s}ed each other, but were afraid to approach the topic in case they were wrong. Contrast this to me meeting another American at a party--within five minutes we've established our names, where we're from, who we work for, and several points of common experience--places we've both been and people we've met who the other might have met. And I am an awkward American. I hate small talk. But establishing these similarities is de rigueur for American conversation (recall our previous discussion of compliments). Because I am awkward, and hyper-aware of certain interactional markers of foreignness in British conversations, I am completely tongue-tied on the playground. I know how not to start a conversation in a British context, but I consider the most common acceptable ways to start a conversation (commenting on the weather or the busyness of the playground) too boring/obvious to start with, so I get stuck.*

It was reassuring, then, to see some quantitative research backing up my own impressions and Fox's observations in Klaus Schneider's new (in-press) paper 'Appropriate behaviour across varieties of English' in the Journal of Pragmatics. Schneider compared the openings of small-talk conversations between teens at parties in Ireland, the US, and England. The majority of English teens (56.7%) start with a greeting only (e.g. Hi), while Americans prefer greeting + identifying themselves (60%) and sometimes explicitly asking for the other person's name. The Irish teens prefer greeting + what Schneider calls an 'approach' (73.3%), in which they refer to the context and evaluate it (almost always in a positive way). His example of an approach is Great party, isn't it?**

Looking at the elements of an opening separately, Americans are more likely to introduce themselves than to greet you with a hi or hello.  In the graph below DISC-ID means 'disclose identity'--i.e. introduce yourself.

(The figure is about a subset of the data, so the numbers don't match the more general analysis of the data in my earlier paragraph. The numbers don't add up to 100% because there are other things you might do besides these three--but these are the most frequent.)

While the data is from teens, it feels pretty representative of what adults do.

So, please, go to some parties and experiment with this and report back here. Just don't do your experiments on me. I'll be standing in the corner, pretending to notice something remarkable in my drink, trying to avoid all the pitfalls of small talk.

And in other news: 
  • I've been pathetic about blogging here, haven't I? So I completely didn't deserve to be in the Lexiophiles/ Top 25 Language Bloggers this year, and I wasn't. (For the first time. I feel duly punished!) But have a look at the link for the good ones.
  • The voters and the judges were kind to my Twitter account (even though they didn't identify me by my Twitter handle in the voting--it was strange). I made it to #9 there. Here's the full list.
  • But I haven't been completely neglecting my writing-about-AmE/BrE vocation. Since the last blog, I've talked at TedXSussexUniversity on American/British politeness norms and at Horsham Skeptics in the Pub. I'll link to the TedX talk when it's on-line. The SitP talk is reviewed here. But don't read the review if you want to see me give the talk (too many spoilers!). I'm doing it again at the Brighton Skeptics in the Pub in October. A few other things are in the pipeline...

*In a cross-cultural communication course I used to teach, one of the readings was about Finnish culture, and the point that really stuck with me was that Finns are often puzzled (or maybe annoyed) by English speakers' need to state the obvious. Why say Nice weather!, for instance, when everyone can see what the weather's like? It made Finland sound like some kind of anti-small-talk Nirvana that I'd want to live in, but it's also made me super-critical of myself when I interact with Finns. There is no hope for me--I am awkward in every culture.

** Schneider also notes the predictability of the Great party! line:
Great is clearly preferred by speakers of IrE, but speakers of AmE make use of a wider range of lexical items. These include great, good, nice, especially cool and also fun, as, Fun party, huh?


  1. I too am socially awkward American, for what it's worth, but I often don't trade names until the end of a conversation, especially at the playground when there are plenty of other things to talk about. I'm about to go to a social gathering where people will mostly talk shop, and I doubt if I'll exchange any names unless someone buttonholes me. Then again, New York City is a pretty un-American place.

  2. At my local dog park in Bakersfield, CA, I am often left thinking I have been too socially reticent. Here is the all-to-common scenario: There is a large loop that runs the perimeter of the park, so one often finds oneself passing the same person twice per lap or so. I'll say "hi" or "morning". The other person says "how are you?" or "how's it going?", but we've already passed each other and I can't bring myself to shout my answer back to them or turn to start a conversation based on what seems like ought to be a minimal pair. Why aren't these people obeying the rule of completing the pair? Are Americans freer with their pair-breaking, or just willing to have me shout my answer or "how are you?" back at them?

    I guess I should lead with a "how are you?", but that feels to familiar for this BrEng speaker. Maybe an experiment is in order.

  3. I've noticed this, too- I don't know the names of several neighbors I've interacted with many times! I have, however, developed an astounding ability to make weather-discussion last for an entire conversation. When I go back to the States everyone's going to think I'm thick-headed... you just can't win!
    Similarly, though, I've noticed that when I am greeted with a "Are you all right" it's more of a statement and doesn't require a response.

  4. @Peter: As far as I can tell, dog-owners have their own sets of rules. Though I know my English sister-in-law spends a while referring to other dog owners as "Fido's mum" and "Skamp's dad" for a long while before she mentions their names to me. Nevertheless, she's met lots of people (including her husband) this way.

    @Gesci: 'Alright?' deserves its own blog post at some point...

  5. @Peter: I don't know anything about dog parks, but I have experienced (as an American in America) the people who say "How are you?" in passing and don't wait for an answer. I find it puzzling, but I do appreciate the freedom to not answer. :)

    And, looking at those statistics, I'm thinking, no wonder I found the Irish (in two trips to Ireland) so easy to get along with.

  6. "alright?" definitely deserves its own post at some point. Recently a flummoxed Canadian friend asked me to coach her as to how to respond to this question. I had to explain the the appropriate response is simply repeating "alright" and it acts as a form of greeting, in place of "hello" rather then enquiring after somebody's health.

  7. Oh, yes, absolutely well observed. I've been living in Alaska for 1.5 years now after 5.5 years in the UK preceded by 12 years in France, and it happens literally every few weeks that either

    a) My partner comes home and tells me of someone she met for the first time (at a store checkout, cafe, or even while out fishing) and proceeds to tell me where this person is from, what their parents do professionally, what brought them to Alaska, and some general bits and pieces on their general outlook on life OR
    b) I come home, saying something like "there's a new guy at the bike store - he's really nice and knowledgeable" and she asks back, "where is he from?" Which leaves me stammering "No idea -- we talked about handlebar bags!" and feeling I must have made a faux-pas because it didn't even occur to me to talk about personal things.

    And my partner, too, is a nerdy, socially awkward American (and Canadian) with a disinclination towards small talk. Well, for Americans!

  8. Speaking as a Brit -- and an ageing one at that -- I'm most comfortable with the most obvious; even better than 'Great party' is something like 'Noisy, isn't it?'

    Before establishing who somebody is, I prefer to see how they fit in the gathering. 'How do you know [name of host?' 'What's your connection with [reason for gathering]?'

    If a stranger proves to be interesting, I may well ask personal questions such as 'Really? What part of Americaa'? but their name is literally the last thing I'd want to know. In fact, I'd probably wait until i was talking to somebody else and ask them 'Do you know the name of that man/woman I was taking to?'

  9. I lived in Estonia for 9 months, they are similar to the Finns... I taught English to business adults and there is always a section on "small talk". The Estonians never saw the purpose at small talk and goodness, even when they were incredibly fluent at the English language, their ability to continue small talk longer than 2 minutes was painful.

  10. Having been an American living in the UK for over a year now, this is the one thing that frustrates me more than anything else.

    I knew early on not to do the "Hi, I'm Moe from California" bit. I knew not to ask for anyone's name unless they asked first or if we've gotten to the point where one of us will ask if they want to go out to coffee sometime (which is rarely). What ends up happening is at the Children's Centre that my son and I attend, I have to identify everyone as, "Molly's mum" or "Daniel's dad". It drives me crazy really since I see these people at least twice a week.

    I've even been at a pub where I ended up in an hour long conversation with some guy - I ended up knowing where he worked, where he went to school, what his relationship status was, where he'd like to travel one day - but never ONCE did he tell me his name and he never asked for mine. Bizarre.

  11. As a south east Brit who grew up in the States and now lives in the north of England, I acknowledge that most British people are taken aback by the "Hi! I'm so and so" approach to conversation. That is because we don't want to open ourselves up to possible rejection. Americans and some Canadians introduce themselves with such gusto this way and we are expected to care that their name is Mike and they are from Alabama.

    However, I do think this inability to get a name out of someone despite a full conversation, or several, might be a geographical issue, perhaps centred on London and the southeast and a certain social set.... I have no trouble getting the names of other mums at our local children's centre - it usually comes a few exchanges in with a, by the way, I am .... Are Northerners more friendly? I would say so.

  12. As a finn, I can tell the person commeting about estonians being like us... They are open and adept at small talk compared to finns.

    We finns can easily understand the need of not knowing the people around us by name. A function, like "moe's mom", is all we need to put a person in his or her own little locker in our thinking. If you exchange names, you get personal and are kind of obliged to be really interested.

    About 15 years ago I met a girl. We saw in certain hobby events few times a year, went drinking together, even spent nights together, babysat her brother together... I asked her name about 3 years later and even then I just got a nickname. Now, I would kind of like to know her real name to track her down, but other than that, I never really had the use for it...

  13. The north of England is definitely different from the south in terms of interacting with strangers. But naming yourself early in the conversation still isn't part of my experience here, and my Liverpudlian friends also report discomfort with the earliness and forcefulness of American introductions--and I think I've heard the same from Scots, too and notice how little the Irish introduced themselves in the data--not saying that ROI Irish are British, mind! Just that the American style of introduction is particularly American.

    (I'm writing this from my week in Huddersfield. Yes, I'm taking a week to spend in Huddersfield.)

  14. Behind our hesitation to share names is the knowledge that we're unlikely to use them. OK the situation has changed and continued to change, but we in Britain are a generation or so behind you.

    Yes, I regular use 'Hi [first name]' in emails to people I've never met and/or barely know, but it's still a conscious decision and still feels slightly odd.

    There's still a progression from Mr Bloggs the stranger to Fred the well-known acquaintance. Not so longer ago, we saved Fred for actual friends. When i was a boy, it was still common to hear (among men) the bare surname (Good morning Bloggs) for all acquaintances who were not really close friends. I remember the broadcaster Richard Dimbleby bemoaning the fact that this practice was no longer universal.

    Dimbleby, father of well-known broadcasters David and Jonathan, was a giant of a broadcaster — still remembered by my generation. He could do solemn (as in his famous commentary during the television of the Coronation). But he wasn't pompous or noticeably old-fashioned in other ways. In a lighter mood he producedthis classic report.

  15. As an American living ~6 years in the UK, I still laugh whenever I get an email addressed "Dear Michelle (if I may)" It never occurred to me that you weren't supposed to email someone by name.

  16. On "breaking pairs"--the ritual pairs are different in different places. "Hi" in my part of the US has the ritual pair "How are ya?" which expects no answer (though, passing in opposite directions, a nod of the head or a reminder to one's dog to heel is enough.) "Hi" answered with "Hi" leads to expectation of more ("Hi--did you know your dog's carrying a dead squirrel" or "Hi--don't you live two houses down from me?" Other places I've lived had "Good morning" or "Morning" (or another time-marker) as the ritual pair for "Hi." Asymmetry, but still a pair.

  17. Perhaps it's because of the superstition that names have power, and to tell someone your name is to give them power over you!

    I take my grandson to a playgroup once a week, and I'm not sure how many people there know me as other than "James's Gran". It occurs to me that I don't much mind whether I know the others' names or not as long as I know their relationship to their charges: Is that woman Suzie's Mum, her aunt, or some other carer? Is that Polly's Dad, or her grandfather?

  18. This reminded me of an essay that I read years ago that's included in the anthology "Language and social context: selected readings" edited by Pier Paolo Giglioli (Penguin, 1972). The essay is "To Give up on Words": Silence in Western Apache Culture" by Keith H. Basso, published in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology [26:3 (Autumn, 1970) 213-230].
    Basso describes the slow development of social intercourse normal to Apache society. "Strangers who are quick to launch into conversation are frequently eyed with undisguised suspicion. A typical reaction to such individuals is that they 'want something' … Another common reaction to talkative strangers is that they are drunk"

  19. I think I agree with the Apaches.

    One thing I find really disconcerting - it makes me feel very uncomfortable - is people who must project their emotions at you. It makes me feel that they are insisting that you agree with them and like them, before you know enough about them to know whether you want to.

    Arms length conversation gives both people space to work this out first.

    I'm English, by the way.

  20. The example used here is parents on a school playground. I (from the north of England) can very well see why nobody would exchange names in that situation. The conversation in those situations tends to be fairly practical - everyone is there to perform a common task, and you say something if you have something relevant to say. (This doesn't have to be much, or intelligent - recently I had a very brief conversation with two people at a pedestrian crossing when a decrepit truck stood in front of us and made sighs and groans a bit like the quacking of a duck. I often have conversations with people at bus stops when the bus is late - and this *will* often extend from "grumble grumble, the bus is late" to "I'm catching the bus to see my son who is doing this and that at the moment...". But always relevant stuff.)

    If none of this is the case, then, well, what are you talking for? That's not a snide remark - I'm often genuinely baffled, particularly when the conversation turns into a long one about their or my family / hometown, particularly when I'm not going to see them again. That rubbish can't be interesting to either party - it just seems like empty interaction. (Even griping about the weather is something more of a common experience - I can empathise with "I hate this snow, it's really inconvenient" or "this is the most miserable summer we've had in a while", but I can't with "hi, I'm Bob from London"). Starting off with your name feels very much like the wrong order to me - I'm unlikely to be annoyed or embarrassed by this, but I will often find it strange.

    Of course, at a social gathering, particularly if you expect to see the same people again or if the gathering is small and you're likely to have to talk to people for a while, names are fine - maybe even expected. Moe's comment about the man in the pub is an interesting one - presumably he didn't expect to see Moe again? I like to think of this (and my conversations at bus stops) as a case of how friendly strangers can be.

    As for the "alright?" / "how are you?" thing - it irritates me to the core when people ask questions they don't mean. But this could well just be me. :)

  21. @Billy,

    If none of this is the case, then, well, what are you talking for? That's not a snide remark - I'm often genuinely baffled, particularly when the conversation turns into a long one about their or my family / hometown, particularly when I'm not going to see them again. That rubbish can't be interesting to either party - it just seems like empty interaction.

    Don't forget that many people read agony aunt and personal advice columns in the newspapers. (In fact I do so myself!).

  22. Can it be, Lynne, that you've been so long in the soft South that you've picked up the habit of making a joke out of Northern towns, or have I misunderstood your reference to Huddersfield?

    As you no doubt know if you're there for a week, Huddersfield is a very fine town indeed and its inhabitants have on the whole what seems to a Londoner to be the typically warm, open approach of Yorkshire folk (but, yes, not quite on American lines!)

  23. Australians must be somewhere in between the British and American ways of greeting. We're a bit uncomfortable with the up-front, arm-extended American approach of "Hi, I'm [name], and you are...?" but we don't agonise over revealing our names and personal details as much as the British. Certainly we'd exchange names before the end of the conversation, and if not, then absolutely as we're parting ("Oh, by the way, I'm...")

  24. @Picky: I didn't see a joke there about Huddersfield, certainly not about the north in general. I was just remarking on the fact that I'm spending a week in a hotel in a town that is not known as a place people would visit. Substitute 'Manchester', 'York', 'Newcastle' there and the implication of surprise doesn't work.

    I am here for a monastic working experience (and a statistics course that starts today--but that's only 2 days. The rest is monastic working. Hence I found a little time to blog!)

  25. Thinking about this overnight, what conversational or social techniques do US people use to keep strangers at arms length, to hold the interpersonal space one needs to decide how to relate to newcomers to ones experience?

    Are corresponding things that we English do, that come over to you as intrusive because we are operating to a different code from you?

  26. @vp: That seems a different issue to me. I dislike 'small talk', basically - especially when it's forced upon me. If the person has something interesting to say (as an agony aunt column might), they can talk to me any time, but my experience of these interactions is that they end up telling me personal anecdotes about things I don't know or places I've never been to that they find fascinating but I couldn't find duller if I tried...!

  27. Sorry, Lynne, and I don't want to be too earnest about this, but I suspect by "a town that's not known as a place people would visit" you're referring to people from the London/Brighton continuum. You're referring to the town that boasts (if I remember aright) three orchestras, one of England's most prominent poets, and a distinguished university; perhaps Europe's foremost contemporary music festival and Britain's premier choral society; and one of the densest collections of listed buildings in the country. I'm just sorry to see a hint, just a hint, I hope, that the prejudices of us Southerners have infected you.

  28. No, as I would say the same thing about staying in, say, Croydon.

  29. And note that I'm not saying anything bad about Huddersfield. I'm saying that I am acting in contrast to *people's expectations* of Huddersfield. Yes, indeed I have chosen to spend my week in Huddersfield! (And I'm having a good time, but not for the reasons that people usually travel for.)

  30. For further cross-cultural comparison, I asked my Russian-born wife what she said at parties. She replied:

    • Back in the USSR it simply didn't happen. Social gatherings were restricted to people who knew and trusted each other.

    • Soon after leaving Russia, Lena discovered small talk among English speaking --but not necessarily English-speaker -- partygoers in Cairo. Her coping strategy was to say nothing.

    • Forty years on — largely but not all spent in Britain — Lena now feels it normal to introduce herself at parties. She didn't realise it was unBritish.

  31. Great to hear that Skeptics in the Pub has discovered linguistics. Far too much peevery and prescriptivism in 'skeptics' circles.

  32. Time I shut up. Enjoy your week!

  33. As others have said, brilliantly observed. Speaking as a twenty-something Brit, I can offer a few notes of possible interest:

    First, this is less of a thing for the young, and may fade out with the generation that is currently in its late teens. These kids are completely comfortable with name terms early on, and it's totally normal - indeed, expected - to add near-strangers as friends on facebook.

    But back with people from 25 up - the second thing is that British people aren't just shy about asking names - they're terrified of seeming rude when they don't know them, making it ever-more-unlikely that our poor, neurotic islander will ever finally ask the question with each subsequent nameless interaction.

    As a result, it's worth noting that it's become incredibly common to use technology to circumvent the awkward business of exchanging names. I know from my travels that Americans will often do this subtly to gather a name that they've forgotten - hand your phone over and let them type their own number and put in their own name - but in the UK, we'll often do this FIRST.

  34. “One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious.”
    ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

  35. I'm American and I find the idea of starting a conversation by introducing oneself odd. I might if it's a friend of a friend and our mutual friend hasn't yet introduced us. Or with someone I've hired to do something.

    But a perfect stranger who's at the same bar, or party, or playground as me? I wouldn't start a conversation unless I had something to say, and I'd start with whatever I had to say. And introduction would come later in the conversation.

    Also, what to the English do as far as introducing people to each other. If say, one person gets together with two friends who haven't met each other, are the two friends introduced? Or do they just all start talking with no introduction between the two that don't know each other?

  36. Most English ppl would introduce a friend to another if they met in a two-on-one situation--e.g. you're with one friend and see another and start a conversation. At a party, not immediately.

    I had opportunity to observe a lot of this at a professional workshop today and the social things associated with it (lunch, pub, dinner). In a few cases people introduced themselves as the conversation wound up, after they'd found they had something in common. In two cases, I saw people shaking hands with the introduction after having talked for a while.

    People asked 'where do you work?' or 'what do you work on?' but never offered or asked a name at the start of a conversation.

    What I also found interesting was the way that people sneaked the information into a conversation--e.g. by telling a story in which they mentioned their name or mentioning the name of someone else in the small group, e.g. "George here was just telling me about that". Then you *might* be able to say "Oh, you're George from Arctic University? I've read a paper of yours." (though I didn't observe any such follow-ups, just the name-dropping).

    Writing this post made me very conscious of my own and others' small-talk today. Formed some hypotheses...thinking about testing them some time!

  37. The other problem is that if the two aren't friends but just acquaintances they may not actually have exchanged names over their - possibly quite long - acquaintanceship. This makes the need to perform introductions excruciatingly uncomfortable.

  38. My problem is that I am TERRIBLE at remembering names, so if I don't get the name early, I won't get it at all. I do, though, have great conversations with people, which I will retell at great length, and my wife will say, "What was his name?" Haven't a clue.

  39. re: "Strangers who are quick to launch into conversation are frequently eyed with undisguised suspicion. A typical reaction to such individuals is that they 'want something' … Another common reaction to talkative strangers is that they are drunk"

    No need to invoke the Apaches, that perfecly describes the reactions of the English on their first visit to Glasgow :-)

  40. @Dru "what conversational or social techniques do US people use to keep strangers at arms length, to hold the interpersonal space one needs to decide how to relate to newcomers to ones experience?"

    I'm a not particularly social resident of the U.S. Rocky Mountain west. I don't feel a need for a technique to keep strangers at arm's length. They're strangers. We probably won't meet again, let alone become friends. Making converstion is simply being polite and commits me to absolutely nothing.

    For me, the question would be, what techniques would I use if I wanted to become friends?

  41. @Peter, in my experience as an AmE speaker, there seem to be a fair number of people who use "How are you?" or "What's up?" as a greeting, at least in my age bracket (low 20s). It is usually in response to a "Hi", and it is frequent enough, but not so frequent, that I find it very difficult to decide whether to respond to the question or not. I suppose the choice is more obvious when one is running, and there isn't really opportunity to stop and have a conversation. However, you can usually tell pretty immediately when you have made the wrong choice, either in the hesitation made when the person decides whether to continue to pursue the conversation you bypassed, or in the awkwardness in being sucked into a conversation they didn't intend.

  42. :: Before establishing who somebody is, I prefer to see how they fit in the gathering. 'How do you know [name of host?' 'What's your connection with [reason for gathering]?' ::

    David: As an opening gambit, I'd find this off-putting to the point of rudeness. I'd interpret the question as being asked to provide my bona fides to be in attendance.

    If it arose 'naturally' during a conversation, then maybe fine, but too close to impolite.

  43. John Burgess

    My usual mindset is that nobody has any bona fides to be in attendance — least of all me.

  44. I vividly remember attending a small conference in London a few years ago and being mildly annoyed that no one was wearing name tags. I suspect this is part of the same phenomenon.

    What's particularly sad is that I found out later there were people there I would love to have met -- but because no one was wearing name tags, I didn't know at the time who they were.

    I have to admit, I spent six months abroad as a teenager: at the beginning we all tried really hard NOT to be the rude, brash American, and I think we succeeded pretty well, but it taught us just HOW American we really were.

  45. There are regional variations in the USA, too. New Englanders (particularly Vermont, New Hampshire & Maine) are not as prone to glad hand strangers and force an introduction. Part of its the culture of a cold climate: we respect space and boundaries more.

    That said, there are historical reasons for the more dominant American pattern: the cultural importance of the Quaker culture of Pennsylvania* in modulating the culture of Middle America, and the cultural inheritance of rough Ulstermen and Scots in settling Appalachia and regions heavily influenced by their descendants. Then you need to mix in the role of indigenous and African peoples, too, creating a more heterogenous society that made identifying yourself and others more necessary.

    * For example, William Penn referred to James, Duke of York (later, James II) by his Christian name, and Charles II once removed his own hat when William Penn refused to do so (because of Quaker rejection of hat etiquette) in order to honor the convention that only one person remain hatted while in conversation.

  46. At various times in my life I've spent up to 5 hours per day commuting (by train) from the Midlands to London. The camaradarie engendered by this long-distance commute was generally not punctuated by exchange of names. We knew fairly intimate details of one another's lives and quite often we did not know each other's names.

    It is interesting that at some point in each of my periods of commuting the log-jam of anonymousness was at some point broken by a single, more gregarious individual breaking down the barriers and simply forcing us to introduce ourselves by pointing out the ridiculousness of continued anonymity.

    So to Roger, Jerry and Moira (three such individuals at different times) I offer my thanks for bringing us out of our shells. (I'm still reaping the benefit of acquaintceships made with the train-workers at these times.)

    It's a strange when you find yourself in this situation, you have extended conversations and I think the problem is that the longer it goes on the more it becomes embarrassing (at some level) to admit that you aren't aware of each other's names. Though in my case it's as much to do with that fact that I'm frightened that I may have been told it at some point and simply forgotten it.

  47. It occurs to me that the British method is somewhat more pragmatic. After all, the last thing you need to know to discover whether you have anything in common with someone, or whether you ever want to speak to them again is their name or where they're from.

    Do they have kids? do they like the song that's playing? Did they see the Match last weekend? They're wearing blue, do they like blue? Do they work somewhere you're familiar with (and might have other acquaintances)?

    These things are important to discovering whether you like someone, while their name, up until such time that you might wish to stay in contact, is pretty much irrelevant.

    Plus. to me (Brit in America ~10 years) having someone's name requires certain things of you, such as remembering it through the rest of the prattle. Get a name at the end and you're much more likely to remember, and much more likely to know that you *want to remember it.

    That said it did make meeting girls terribly difficult when I was younger, because I could never think of anything to say to start a conversation that didn't make me look like a geek or an idiot :)

  48. It seems that the British attach more significance to names and smalltalk than Americans do (I'm Midwestern American). Smalltalk with strangers doesn't obligate me to be friends with them, I probably will forget whatever they told me within 10 minutes of leaving the conversation unless it is relevant or striking, it's just a way to be polite and friendly while passing time. In fact if I met the same stranger again in a day or so, and they remembered everything I said including my name, I would find it weird.

  49. Terry Collmann22 June, 2012 16:42

    I (British, aged 60) am part of a group that interacts widely through blogs, Twitter and the like but meets face-to-face in large numbers only very rarely, and at specially planned events. If I see someone I know I've communicated with via email or whatever, and I recognise them, but feel sure they won't recognise me, then I will go up to them and say: "Hi - I'm ...". That, I feel, is likely to happen with greater frequency and may break down British dislike of the "Hi, I'm ..." approach.

    One place where British people DO say hello to complete strangers, incidentally: if out walking along a country footpath, in field, on moor or mountain, ar through wood, and someone else is coming the other way.

  50. Terry Collmann

    One place where British people DO say hello to complete strangers, incidentally: if out walking ... and someone else is coming the other way.

    True, but we don't introduce ourselves.

  51. I'd given up hope on ever seeing new posts! Dru, about keeping strangers at arm's length, I'll second what PW said (I'm from the midwest) - there's no reason to, usually. If the person trying to talk to you is off somehow (mentally unstable, coming on too strong, trying to sell you something) then you say ok and unh-huh a lot, or give the barest minimum of reply to their questions, until they go away.

  52. Worcester Pomain13 July, 2012 00:49

    just passing thru... (from Worcestershire way) and thinking this deserves a contrasting comment.

    The descriptions of awkwardness over names doesn't resonate with me. The last time I was at a social gathering among people that I didn't know (today after lunch), there was a general round of introductions at the outset, and a couple of points at which one or more of us (me included) asked for a repetition of someone's name. There was also a bit of banter about different people's names. All very good-humoured.

    Similarly, the last time I was at a semi-formal (community group) meeting (yesterday evening), we went through the usual round of 'who are you and what do you do', which a couple of people extended somewhat with personal biography. Strictly speaking, the health matter that led to someone's involvement in the group is a bit of incidental information. But it's well-received so long as it pertains directly.

    Then there are the examples of people being considerably more inquisitive on first meeting - possibly because there's a common milieu, like being a dog-walker, beachcomber, or so on.

    So my impression is that people are curious, forthright, forthcoming, and good-humoured. Not always, but generally so.

    I'm going to guess that there are some other manneristic/stylistic differences that rub some of us up the wrong way; limits to how open we expect others to be. I'm going to take a blind stab at it and guess that the line between friendliness and nosiness is set by how genuine the interest seems.

    Sometimes a mutual interest is obvious, and a conversation ensues. (Today's conversation centred on heritage apples.) But I'd be offended if Chuck from Maryland announced himself and his interest in apples before having a bit more courtly interaction - including body language.

    Isn't it that way everywhere?

  53. Fascinating! I never realised there was a different norm for whether or not to introduce oneself between Britain and America.

    As someone who can never remember names, now I wish I lived in Britain! haha.

  54. Of course, it does mean that you are known by some tag or other - Lynne, I am sure, is "Grover's Mummy" to a certain section of the population of Brighton, and will know her peers in the school playground as "Arthur's Mummy" or "Phoebe's Gran".

    That's how I got my blog name, incidentally - when I started learning to ice skate I bought red boot-covers both to protect my skates and also so that people would think of me as "The woman with the red boot covers" rather than "That fat woman who can't skate".

  55. Interesting post! I think the Irish word would be "grand", as in "grand party". Also appreciate your footnote on the disinclination of Finns to state the obvious (yes, very anti-conversationalist) but would have been keen on more side-views onto other European cultures/languages - German would have been particularly salient in this context,in my opinion.

  56. As an American it would feel strange to have a conversation with someone without knowing what to call them.....Does this imply that we OVER use someones name when talking to them?

  57. I have to admit that I am nosy. I usually know (or try to find out) everyones name and/or who they are, in my vicinity, even if I never have any interaction with them.

  58. Massachusetts age 25-

    Let me first suggest a difference in terminology. It's not that Finns are anti-conversationalists, it's conversive people who are anti-silence!

    It frustrates me to no end to hear so many people describe so many silences as awkward! I consider silence the default, to be interrupted only bu necessity.

    I second HarelquiNQB in the pragmatics of non introductions. I don't find names to be too personal, in fact I find them so impersonal as to be irrelevant. I feel no need to use a person's name in conversation with that person. It is only afterwards, in conversing with someone else, that I might wish for a name to refer to the previous person.

    It doesn't help that modern names tend to be poor descriptors. Very few Smiths actually work with metal, and it may be centuries since any of Mr. Scot's ancestors actually lived in Scotland.

    Perhaps I've been spoiled by books. Not once has Mr. Twain or Dr. Seusss ever asked me for my name, and I hear tell they were not quite open with theirs either.

  59. If Brits are always like this, would it means that they don't have any self-introduction periods like we do in Malaysia (and other countries in the world)?

    # What I meant by "self-introduction periods" is the period of time when every students and teachers or staffs are introducing themselves (especially names) in class, usually on the first class of the year/semester but sometimes repeated in different classes, regardless primary, secondary or tertiary education level. Some others do not do it on every year/semester, but only do it on new students' orientation day where all students, teachers and staffs are gathered together which is of course on the first year/semester.

    The Japanese have this kind of thing too, they call it "jikoshoukai" (自己紹介) though they will usually (or mostly) introduce themselves in Japanese. (I'm learning Japanese, so I know a little bit about them)

  60. There is nothing so formal in the UK. On the first day of a class at university, the teacher would usually introduce themselves and they may (if it is a small class) ask for everyone to go around the room and say their names. But not necessarily. There will be ways of introducing at school, too, (my 7-year-old had to bring a box of three things that are important to her so that she could introduce herself with them).

    But formal settings like this are very different from everyday interaction. In these everyone has a role. Name tags might be used. In meetings, we often go round and introduce our names and our roles (if there is anyone in the meeting who wouldn't already know everyone). In everyday interactions, when we are strangers, we don't have assigned roles, and so there is where the two countries go different ways.

  61. Wow this explains why now and then I've been getting some bizarre stares whenever I mention my name and ask their names in return! I am an international student living in the UK but I never noticed such thing until recently, how clueless.. Thanks for the post!

  62. Recently I (English) shared a cabin on the overnight ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen with a very talkative Shetland lady. She told me quite a lot of her life story, but never mentioned her name or asked mine!

  63. I would like to add a BrE twist from my experience. For years I have attended the same dentist. At the outset he naturally called me 'Mister Donovan', and I called him nothing. Everybody around him, and the rest of my family, call him by his first name. Many years later, I still call him nothing because the disparity between first and last name is too great, and it's far too late for me to be comfortable saying 'Call me Keith'. However his new hygienist and receptionist both called me 'Keith' the first time they spoke to me - 'Hi Keith. My name's Fran' - as though I'd started the interaction.

  64. I bought a Starbucks coffee yesterday for the first time in many, many years - ever since I discovered that Costa make coffee that tastes like coffee (I was at a motorway service station and had no choice). I was asked "Name for the cup?" and replied "No," which was duly written on my cup. This reminded me both of Dad's Army's "Vat iss your name?" "Don't tell him, Pike!" and of this post. How thoroughly American of Starbucks to so casually invade my privacy and expect me to give my name to any stranger who asks! Maybe next time (if there ever is one) I will reply "Chuck from Alabama". Someone in Starbucks' management should be directed to this post or Kate Fox's book.

  65. BrE (Scot, 60+). Interesting comment further up about men referring to each other as “Bloggs” for most of their lives unless they were close acquaintances. In my culture, ‘‘tis would be regarded as rude to the point of being deliberately provocative it sounds too much like the way his lordship talks to the servants. Where professional hierarchies require a degree of formality, I would expect “Mr Bloggs” to use my first name.
    In professional circles, “networking” has become a corporate must, to the point where people now seem to collect names the way small boys used to collect car registration numbers. Does simply knowing someone’s name (and remembering it) really constitute building a professionally EFFECTIVE network. I’m afraid I’m an “awkward” Scot, and tend to extend this “only effective networks” approach into my social interactions. Despite this, believe it or not, I’ve never really been sort of friends (or girlfriends for that matter, when I was young and single).


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