Last Monday, 1.49 million people in the UK tuned in to a new BBC documentary called Posh People: Inside Tatler. Tatler is a magazine with a 300-year history that documents (and dictates) the social calendar of Britain’s ruling classes. It’s a fun and frivolous read for the rest of us, and (while it claims the wealthiest readership of any publication in the UK) one has to assume that most of its readers are not part of its target demographic. Probably a good number of them are non-natives like me, who see it as a primary source as much as a form of entertainment.
By far the most popular feature in the magazine (unless you’re looking for a guide to the best plastic surgeons or top girls’ schools in the country) is its party pages: photos of posh people at posh parties doing posh things. Or, better yet, doing things that are entirely un-posh. If you hope to see the rich and famous being mildly wayward in one another’s company (think: silly costumes, too much Champagne, dancing on tables) Tatler delivers.
Unfortunately for the documentary makers, the people who produce the magazine—editor Kate Reardon and her staff—seem determined to be impeccable in all things. They come across as thoughtful and witty, as you might expect, but also enthusiastic (which is rare for the English). Many, though not all, of them are members of the class about which they write and they are more clear-eyed and articulate about matters of class than would be quite polite in any other context.
One of the funniest moments in the first show was when Tatler editors read aloud their favorite passages from Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners—which Reardon has required everyone to read. One pointed out that the “posh way” to eat a pear is with a spoon. And apparently the way for a true aficionado to eat caviar is from the pad of flesh between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. (Yuck! I suppose those cute little mother-of-pearl spoons are infra dig?) But the lines that caught my attention were about the appropriate way to give a compliment: While it is no longer considered “in bad taste” to make compliments in conversation, Debrett’s warns that “any compliment should be delicately given. Any attempts to be overly gushy can appear sycophantic and embarrassing to the recipient, and creepy to others.”
I have long observed that it is nearly impossible to compliment many English people. They are rubber, and you’re glue. This is a tricky problem for an American, whose instinct in conversation—especially with new acquaintances—is to look for common ground through compliments. Americans give and receive compliments very easily, though I wouldn’t exactly say “delicately.” Often a sincere compliment given to an American will open a new topic of conversation. Compliment someone on how well behaved her children are and you might end up talking about funny rules each of your parents imposed on you. Compliment a pair of shoes or a dress and you might end up talking about fashion. Etc.
Attempts to compliment an English person—no matter how sincere—will be rebuffed about 90% of the time. This cuts across classes in my experience, but the most difficult people to compliment, by far, are middle and upper class women. They will either look at you like you are slightly off your rocker, or flatly disagree with you. Last Friday night, a good friend showed up at a party looking particularly radiant. When I told her so, she insisted she’d dressed in the dark. I’ll never get used to this aspect of life in England. Old habits die hard. Maybe the best I can hope for is that my friends don’t find my sincere compliments sycophantic, or worse—creepy. I’ve noticed that the better way to find common ground with new acquaintances here is not to compliment them, but to insult yourself by talking about how messy your house is, how rude your children, how haphazard your dress sense… By doing this, you offer them the opportunity to commiserate, and most people seem more comfortable with this dynamic. I find it slightly depressing, though.