Life in the UK – The No-Name Rule

“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.”

booksShe’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?

9 Responses

  1. Amy, I definitely ran across that type of response when I came from Australia to live in England.However, because we came to lead a church, we had a built in ‘in’ for people’s names.

    However, what I did find in the following few years (!) was that it was not the done thing to bring me to events with their pre-existing friends outside of the church because they were their ‘outside of the church’ friends (coffee group, mum’s group, used to live in the same street group, etc.) and I didn’t belong to that group. It was so confusing.

  2. Julie Jowett

    When cold callers ring me & use my first name I cringe thinking I don’t know you, you don’t have permission to use my name.
    Maybe we english subliminally need to feel a connection first and maybe in control.

  3. Bev, I guess that it goes back to a sense of privacy, or maybe having different friends in different groups (compartments)? Julie, I actually cringe at that too – not if it’s someone who has been given my number by a mutual friend, but someone trying to sell me something; yuck. But when I call the phone company up for help and they address me as “Mrs Pye” that feels odd too, and I quickly say, “Please call me Amy.”

  4. Ase Johannessen

    Maybe this is part of the reason why it’s so difficult to make friends here. People will say hello if you say it first, well, most of them will, but you may have chatted with them in the street for weeks or months and they certainly do not want to come in for a cuppa! Keep your distance, please! Why don’t people want friends, I thought that was a universal need! I’m from Norway and have no family, it does make me feel isolated.

    1. Ah, it is a universal need, but maybe those you’ve met have ‘enough’ friends (I don’t know if we can have enough friends?)? When my husband was a curate in the Home Counties, I found it soooo isolating, and made it a prayer project for a friend. Even just one friend! God answered wonderfully, giving me three friends! One Scot, one South African, one Irish woman! Praying your cup will similarly run over.

  5. I’m sure it’s a hang-over from days when you couldn’t start a conversation at all unless you had been introduced (think ‘Pride and Prejudice’). If you’re in a, on a train or meeting at the school gates, these days you can break the ice by making some comment about the weather, but that is a sign of 2 people stuck in awkwardly-close proximity, not 2 people who want to be friends, so introducing yourself does seem a bit forward.

    That said, I think it is getting better/more relaxed these days, and it does depend on the situation (so it ought to be better in church – if you’re hanging around for a cuppa after the service, that is already a signal that you are seeking social interaction), but I understand that higher up the social scale it is still considered terribly forward to volunteer your name before having been formally introduced.

    We’re just still a bit weird and repressed. But hey, vive la difference, eh?! 😉

  6. That’s helpful, Jennie. I wonder if the social anthropologist was outlining more the upper class or upper middle with her book… So when you lived Stateside, did you notice a difference?

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