When Hibernian and Albion obliquity meet American directness

January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Many years ago I was using a public telephone in Newport, Rhode Island. I was making a call to a woman who did not know me to ask her if she could put me and my friend up for the night. It was then late in the evening, half past ten or so. My connection with the unknown woman was this: an Irish girl I knew had been a paid boarder with her the summer before.

I am not sure what part of the call I had reached when an American man, waiting to use the phone, asked me: ‘Will you be long?’

I had been on American soil for only a few days but I knew the man’s question was to be taken literally. If my phone call were to be a short one, he would wait; otherwise, he would find another phone.

If an Irishman had asked, ‘Will you be long?’ I would have understood that I was to get off the phone at once and not keep him waiting. Had an Englishman asked the same question, I would have been uncertain what he meant: but I would have known better than to take the question at face value.

Americans may run into a little difficulty in England, if they take things too literally. Some years ago, a young American student was working temporarily in an architects’ London office. One morning, a superior of his asked him a question, along the lines of ‘Would it be convenient for you to prepare the room for lunch?’ The young American indicated that it would not be convenient. He was in the middle of some other work.

The Englishman regarded the American’s response as a piece of cheek. What the Englishman had meant, and what every other Englishman would have understood, was: ‘Please get the room ready for lunch immediately.’ The mention of convenience was just, as Henry James would say, “the mere twaddle of graciousness”*.

The American student would probably have been appalled if he had understood how his answer had been interpreted. He had not refused to get the room ready (as the Englishman thought) but was only postponing doing so, until he had finished the work in hand.

The English and the Irish are not always to be taken at their word.

* pg 234, Selected Letters of Henry James edited by Leon Edel (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956)

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