During my US-UK cross-cultural experiences (I’m a dual citizen these days, though I was originally British) I’m sometimes asked by Americans why Brits are ‘reserved’ or even ‘frosty’.
First of all, to be clear, that’s not just the way we deal with folks from overseas, it’s also how Brits relate to each other, too.
We first build our relationships on idle chit-chat and then eventually, maybe, we graduate to meaningful conversations and actual friendship.
There’s value to this approach; we can quickly form working relationships without cringey, soul-searching team building exercises as in many American office environments.
But on the other hand, Brits sometimes take too long or altogether fail to evolve these functional relationships into meaningful friendships.
Why do Brits take so long to reveal our true selves to the people around us? Are we frosty?
Forming a working relationship
When forging relationships, Brits default to moaning about a common enemy, often the state of the weather or the standard of coffee.
This is a way to determine whether we have shared values with you. What you are *against* might serve as a minimally controversial method of scoping out what you are *for*. This is the importance of small talk to the British.
Put simply, agreeing that the coffee tastes like sugary mud-water is a fail-safe way to create common ground. It’s not that Brits are trying to treat you frostily, we’re dipping our toes into the (sugary, muddy) friendship waters.
With a base-line relationship created in opposition to something manifestly unimportant, Brits figure they can then slowly decide if there’s enough shared ground for a deeper connection.
To me, that’s a sensible approach, but unfortunately, the next step towards friendship is hard for Brits.
Fear of showing vulnerability
Once we’ve established a relationship based on uncontroversial issues, revealing more of ourselves to move towards true friendship is where Brits struggle:
- ‘What if I come across badly?’
- ‘What if people don’t like the “real” me?’
- ‘What if I’m wrong and we don’t actually have more in common?’
We’re a socially risk-averse people. Instead of expressing our true feelings, we’ll think: ‘I won’t reveal my true self because why take the risk of showing vulnerability? If it doesn’t work out, I don’t want to risk the awkwardness for either of us.’
But the truth is that relationships can only grow when vulnerability is acknowledged and reciprocated. That’s a truth that, sadly, many Brits struggle with.
(Side note: This is why the American tendency to immediately overshare gets odd or panicked looks from many Brits. It’s too much, too soon and that’s excruciatingly awkward for us.)
Valuing the status quo
This hesitation over developing friendships is also about fear of what might be lost. Staying ‘frosty’ is often not a judgement against you.
Brits value cordial relationships as they are uncontroversial and unproblematic. They allow you to spend time with people and get stuff done.
Going through the day making banal statements including, ‘Raining again!’, ‘the boss is ridiculous again!’, ‘did you see that TV show?’ is easy and comfortable.
This being so, if Brits decide to try and progress a friendship, they worry that they might misjudge, overstep, and therefore lose a comfortable – and comforting – cordial relationship.
Even though the logic is clear – not wanting to sacrifice a functioning relationship – it’s a stifling trait that surely prevents many friendships from blossoming. We get stuck in a safe zone.
What’s wrong with the British approach to friendship?
This post might seem like a bit of an unnecessary downer to British readers. Is how Brits approach friendship worth worrying about? To state the obvious: Brits *do* make friends!
But the American in me wonders about what we lose by walking around with bottled up thoughts and feelings that we don’t share with people close to us and who could be closer still.
How can Brits take that scary step towards friendship?: Comment on something other than the weather; ask a question unrelated to hot drinks; discuss something you dearly care about.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of the functional relationships that are vital to getting through daily life. In fact, the Brit part of me is proud of our ability to form these type of relationships quickly and easily.
And true, not everyone is a lifelong friend-in-waiting, but it doesn’t seem like a huge ask that Brits could be a little more open with the people they think they might like, as hard as that might seem.
Brits aren’t frosty. Rather, we’re often scared of overstepping an invisible boundary because we already have a relationship with you and don’t want to risk losing it.
This hesitancy is understandable, but I can’t help but think of the friendships that don’t develop because of this risk-averse attitude. That makes the American side of me a little sad.
… so I guess I should take my own medicine and start a meaningful conversation with a few people I know.