THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF BRITISH CULTURE
1. Not news, but bears repeating: the British communication default tends to be dry wit. When in doubt, presume irony. Beset by this indirectness that’s compared to the teakettle – always on, whistling inconspicuously in the corner and tough to switch off – it is invariably met with perplexity by Americans.
2. There is no real purpose for the ‘polite procrastination’ phase of the conversation preceding ‘the real conversation’ that’s about to occur (if ever). This displacement activity is small talk – mainly about the weather – to avoid intimacy, and maintains restraint.
3. I cannot stress the importance of not being earnest enough. No Englishman would be caught dead feigning sincerity. Self-importance is strictly forbidden, so prepare to have them ‘take the Mick out of you’(be teased).
4. Brits are unreservedly reserved. While they do not display emotion, my experience with the depth and breadth of their humanity is inestimable. Nonetheless, their emotional unresponsiveness hovers somewhere around underwhelming. Pomposity is just plain mortifying. Perhaps all this attention deflection compensates for all that, uh-hem, empire-building and an unnerving pecking order (see side bar).
5. London may be one of the most expensive cities in the world, but you may not find obvious signs of recognizable wealth, much less royalty. That international reputation for dressing badly in dowdy tweeds – Saville Row tailors, monarchical costumes, and theatrical costumes notwithstanding – is nothing but a clever decoy for their entry in Burke’s Peerage, because class and status matter very much.
6. While it can be said that the British practically invented polite manners, it’s confusing. Direct questions get evasive responses and conversation is fraught with ambiguity. Inured by this Kabuki dance, the befuddled must learn to read between lines or ‘listen loudly’ to understand what is being said from what is meant, by subtle facial expressions and tone of voice.
7. Brits are without a doubt competitive; they’re just not in your face about it. Don’t mistake their tendency of fairness for weakness. Britannia was an empire on which the sun never set for 500 years.
8. Being an island, Britain is nothing if not nationalistic, producing a certain breed of xenophobes thanks to its ‘island mentality,’ not unlike those of, say, New Yorkers.
9. A recent phenomenon is the new schizophrenic Brit: The Reluctant Modernizer or The Frantic Modernizer, of which the Ladies Of London will most likely, and unerringly fall.
10. The U.K. means the United Kingdom of England, (Northern) Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Being English and British is not the same thing. English means people from only England. People from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are British. The Scots and Scottish are from Scotland. People from Northern Ireland are also called Irish. Anyone from Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are likely to be offended if you call them English.
MEET THE LADIES
Born into a wealth aristocratic family, Annabelle grew up in South London. Now a fixture in international party and fashion circuits, the model and London socialite was a muse and best friend to the late designer, Alexander McQueen, for over 20 years. Friends with the likes of Kate Moss, Jude Law, Naomi Campbell and Richard Branson, Annabelle is the author of a children’s book and is currently writing a novel about her friendship with McQueen.
Born into the Vestey dynasty, Caroline is a long-time fixture in London’s high society, often rubbing shoulders with royals and celebrities. After making a name for herself dressing London’s most glamorous socialites as a top personal stylist, Caroline launched Gift Library of Caroline Stanbury in 2008. The successful luxury gifting and personal shopping service has grown extensively in less than five years and Caroline recently acquired The Wedding Shop of Caroline Stanbury, currently the leading independent wedding list service in the U.K. and Ireland. Married to financier Cem Habib, Caroline lives outside of London with her husband and their three children.
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Juliet moved to London in 2010 after running with Hollywood’s A-list in Los Angeles. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in Journalism from the University of Southern California (USC) and worked in television production in New York before returning to Los Angeles to consult for top international fashion brands. Now in London, Juliet continues to work with top fashion designers and celebrities. In addition to running her own personal styling business, Juliet is in the process of launching a London-based styling studio. Married to media executive Gregor Angus, Juliet lives in Battersea, South London, with her husband and their two children.
Originally from Hacienda Heights, California, Caprice moved to London in her early 20s to purse modeling. Since then she has become one of the world’s most photographed women and she has graced more than 300 magazine covers worldwide. Voted as GQ’s “Woman of the Year” and Maxim’s“International Woman of the Year” three years in a row, Caprice has also appeared in more than 150 films and television shows, as well as theatrical productions in London’s West End theatre district. She currently runs her own company, By Caprice, which includes a lingerie line, swimwear, nightwear and bedding. Caprice has two children with her partner Ty Comfort.
Born in Laguna Beach and raised in Newport Beach, California, Marissa moved to London to start a public relations career after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont. She subsequently moved to New York to work for fashion luxury powerhouse Nadine Johnson. While in New York, Marissa reconnected with London nightclub owner and restaurateur Matt Hermer. She moved back to London in 2008 and married Matt in 2010. Using her luxury public relations background to help grow the family business, Ignite Group, Marissa and Matt currently live in London with their two sons.
Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Noelle started modeling internationally at the age of 14. When she was 20, she moved to London to pursue her fashion and media career and she holds a Bachelors of Arts in Communication from the British American College of London (Regents Park). As the co-founder of cashmere fashion brand, Degrees of Freedom, Noelle has made her way in British society as an entrepreneur, television correspondent and socialite. In addition, she partnered with designer Zandra Rhodes to found the clothing line, Z by Zandra Rhodes. She has been dating property entrepreneur Scot Young since 2009.
MIND THE GAP
Chicago native Juliet Angus is determined to maul her way into a seat at the table with the Ladies of London aristocracy. No, she shouldn’t stand like a fishmonger’s wife in the middle of the street and air her dirty laundry. But she does. And she shouldn’t perpetuate the ugly American stereotype with ‘ruder’ conduct to Annabelle. But she does.
Take it from a former expat like me, also from California like Ladies of London cast member Marissa Hermer; I feel your pain, but I survived the ‘royal treatment’ and the Yank mockery. Yes, a lot goes on behind closed doors of British society; an archaic and impenetrable social hierarchy (not unlike the French) precisely stratified so that everyone is inferior to someone and superior to someone else.
Outsiders, particularly us Americans, will never really understand the extent to which the in-group dynamic and ascribed social hierarchy influences the British mindset. But we try.
Originally appeared Global Living – Issue 13 | July/August 2014
While watching BravoTV’s new reality show, Ladies of London, former expat Lisa La Valle-Finan, an American culture-shock preventionist at Globalista Gal, Inc., felt inspired to share what she learned about the unwritten rules of British Culture from her time abroad.
ABOUT THE SHOW
Ladies of London is a docu-series set in the class-conscious city of London. The show focuses on a group of elite British socialites, Annabelle Neilson and Caroline Stanbury, along with American expats, Juliet Angus, Caprice Bourret, Marissa Hermer and Noelle Reno. In a town where reputation is everything, the women adhere to culturally specific unwritten rules of engagement in their overlapping social circles.
Ladies of London was created by Bravo, an American basic cable and satellite television channel that is owned by NBC Universal.