British culture has its own peculiar flavour, even for a colonial like me. So much is familiar, yet I am oddly struck from time-to-time by dissonances between British culture and my own.
Canada, as one of the Old Dominions, slowly evolved in becoming its own country. I’m writing this blog post from my home office built in the 1840s before Canada became a country in 1867. The original deeds to the house, which we discovered after we moved in, state that the property transaction occurred in the Crown Colony of New Brunswick under Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. (This still amazes me.) While Canadians fought under UK command in the Great War, by WWII and 75 years ago this month, Canadians fought under their own command and captured Juno Beach – one of the five beaches at Normandy on D-Day. While we adopted our own flag and anthem in the 1960s, I still have vivid memories starting kindergarten in 1969 and singing God Save the Queen with the Union Jack draped in the corner. Elizabeth II continues to be Queen of Canada even today. While this slow evolution often surprises Americans used to revolutionary change, I see it as coming from the British cultural propensity to not confront and just muddle through. This is a cultural value the Brits have shared with their Canadian cousins who were Loyalists, not Revolutionaries.
Benedict Anderson reflects on the development of nationalism, saying that it will take more than a common language, monarch, and chronological time to unify people around a shared identity today. In his ground-breaking work, Imagined Communities, he develops an argument that asserts it is shared culture and common story that unifies a people. So, despite the common bond between Canada and Britain, there are still cultural differences, many of them pointed out in Orin Hargraves’ Culture Shock! London.
One British cultural value is that of propriety. Everything must be done in order, respecting traditional mores and values, a concept that is rooted in the class system and defined roles for all members of society. (See Downton Abbey, for example, right, Colleen?) Hargraves cites these examples:
“The imperative of public behaviour is that decorum shall be maintained, and awkwardness of any kind shall be avoided. The stiff upper lip of the British is no cliché; it’s a genetically programmed part of the anatomy. Whether in a boardroom meeting, at a train station ticket window, or in the audience of an emotion-packed film, the rule is to avoid displays of strong emotion … When someone does actually make a scene in public, it is viewed as something quite unfortunate, even disgraceful (unless, of course, the perpetrator is a foreigner, in which case it is charitably assumed that the poor thing can’t help it.)”
This quote instantly put me in Sevenoaks, Kent, in the summer of 1996. My wife and I had recently left our Latin American mission agency, and had been recruited to work with OMF, the former China Inland Mission, and founded by British missionary, Hudson Taylor, in the 19th century. Though it had spread to multiple sending countries, there was still a definite British flavour to the agency, and we had been asked to attend the two-week candidate orientation in the UK. We were the only non-Brits in attendance.
From our perspective, the two weeks went smoothly, though there some cultural adjustments to be made along the way. (We stayed in a castle with mildewed broadloom, there were also lumpy mattresses, and very bad instant coffee.) We made friends with the other candidates, we attended all sessions; we felt we contributed well, voicing opinions and sharing our stories. The directors of the program, a lovely couple, even unexpectedly invited us on an excursion to Bath, just the two of us, for tea and a walk along the cliffs and down High Street.
A month later, back in Canada, our Canadian director pulled us into his office with a concerned look. “What happened with you guys in England?” he exclaimed. He had just received an email from the British director that listed multiple negative incidents and areas of concern they had with us. We had been rude and disrespectful – by bringing coffee into the conference room, rather than drinking it during the break. We had laughed too loud, told too many stories, and been the centre of attention, rather than fitting in. We fell asleep during sessions (we were extremely jet lagged, as we had been living in BC at the time). We were part of a cult (the Vineyard, sorry Jason! – see last week’s post for more detail), and found that the reason we went to Bath with the director couple was for them to probe and explore our theology as they had a very low opinion of that unconventional denomination. (And we thought they were just being nice.) The email ended with a weak affirmation that God would lead the Canadian director in his decision, and that he was closer to us and so could make a better decision.
In his wisdom and having considerable cultural intelligence, our director told us: “When the Brits send me emails, I interpret with their cultural lens. They will start with all the negative things, and end with one positive. If they end with a positive, then they are good with it. So, you’re in.”
So, caution ahead. Same language, similar values. But cultural differences abound.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2016), 36.
 Orin Hargraves, Culture Shock! London (Tarrytown NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2010), Kindle loc. 934.