“Oh, you’re never supposed to give your name in early conversations,” my fellow American-living-in-London friend said. “I was given a copy of Watching the English, which explains what’s behind it. Mainly a class thing, I think.”
She’d lived in the UK for fewer years than I, but she had stumbled onto an area where I’d been making cultural faux pas for ages. I never could understand why the English didn’t seem to tell me their names in polite conversation. The starkest memory I had was when I was newly off the boat and meeting a group of spouses of ordinands (US: those studying for ordination in the Church of England) at my husband’s theological college (US: seminary). Sitting in a circle, we formed a cheery bunch, but after they introduced me as the latest arrival, I expected the others to say their names so I might get to know them too. Nope.
Watching the English has helped me understand what’s behind this to-me peculiar behavio(u)r. Kate Fox is an anthropologist who turns the lens on her own people. She explains the “No-Name Rule” of social situations “where conversation with strangers is permitted, such as a pub bar counter,” and how you’d never say, “‘Hello, I’m John Smith,’ or even ‘Hello, I’m John.’” She continues:
In fact, the only correct way to introduce yourself in such settings is not to introduce yourself at all, but to find some other way of initiating a conversation – such as a remark about the weather.
The ‘brash American’ approach: ‘Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,’ particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and beaming smile, makes the English wince and cringe…. The American tourists and visitors I spoke to during my research had been both baffled and hurt by this reaction. ‘I just don’t get it,’ said one woman. ‘You say your name and they sort of wrinkle their noses, like you’ve told them something a bit too personal and embarrassing.’ ‘That’s right,’ her husband added. ‘And then they give you this tight little smile and say “hello” – kind of pointedly not giving their name, to let you know you’ve made this big social booboo…’
I ended up explaining, as kindly as I could, that the English do not want to know your name, or tell you theirs, until a much greater degree of intimacy has been established – like maybe when you marry their daughter. (p. 39)
When I read her explanation, I felt an immediate sense of relief. Yes, I had made many a gaffe over the years of being too forward and friendly, but I no longer needed to feel a sense of personal rebuff or rejection. I could still be friendly, and maybe even introduce myself (the shock! the horror!), but I could now try to gauge how my British conversational partner was feeling and whether I dared to break social convention.
What has been your experience? Do you introduce yourself in an informal social setting, or does it make you feel terribly uncomfortable to do so?