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Very British Problem: More crumpets, anyone? The very best of British manners

Published 08/08/2015

Queuing etiquette is very British, as James Corden explains
Queuing etiquette is very British, as James Corden explains
Queuing etiquette is very British, as James Corden explains

As a new series highlights the foibles we are renowned for, Susan Griffin takes a look at some of the agonising situations and struggles we face on a daily basis.

We're a curious bunch, but evidently revel in our wonderful eccentricity, given the popularity of the Twitter account, Very British Problems (@SoVeryBritish). So beloved is the feed, which includes a host of famous faces among its million-plus followers, that it's now been turned into a three-part TV series.

Julie Walters provides the voice-over, while the likes of James Corden and Stephen Mangan pop up to share their experiences of being brilliantly bumbly and awkward while attempting to navigate a host of social situations and day-to-day scenarios.

To celebrate this landmark series, we take a look at some of the awkward, puzzling and cringe-inducing situations we often find ourselves in.

For the love of queuing

We pride ourselves on our ability to queue without complaint. This is what we do and we do it in a relatively content manner (even with pride during Wimbledon). If a fire alarm goes off, the chances are people will return to the pre-evacuation formation.

So woe betide anyone who deems it acceptable to queue-jump. If this is ever attempted, we rely on someone else in the line to step-up and - politely, but firmly - alert the wrongdoer to their actions. Failing that, we'll all just shake our heads and tut a little.

The tut rut

Ah, yes, the tut. Is any other nation more adept at this tiny, but significant gesture? This is usually employed in reaction to a person who is entirely oblivious to the world around them.

Take the cashpoint situation, when there's a line of busy people waiting to make a swift withdrawal and the person at the front is seemingly catching up with their banking correspondence. Card after card is produced and buttons furiously tapped.

Your inner monologue becomes ever more irate, accompanied by some fierce nostril flaring. "What are you doing?"; "That's it, take the cash and go"; "Don't you dare insert another card!"; "You are being utterly selfish", and so on, until the inevitable outburst - the (barely audible) tut.

Sorry, not sorry

Apart from queuing, another area we excel at is apologising. We love saying sorry so much that we'll apologise to inanimate objects. Chairs, tables, lamp-posts and doors are among the most common items to receive out sincerest regrets.

We also apologise to other humans, particularly if they've bumped into you. There is another occasion to use the word - to get someone to repeat themselves.

"I'm sorry?" you'll ask, with a tilt of the head. Of course, you can only use this three times, and then you've just got to go with your gut instinct and guess what they've said, nod and agree - or manically laugh. Just never admit to not knowing what on earth they've just said.

Too close for comfort

There was a time when greetings and farewells didn't have to constitute cringe-inducing moments - a firm handshake would do the trick. But times have changed, and so have the actions that accompany our hellos and goodbyes.

Unfortunately, there's now a myriad of options - including cheek kissing inspired by our friends in mainland Europe. But are we supposed to do one, two - or even, gulp, three?

Are we aiming for the left or right cheek first? Is it appropriate to make the inevitable "mwah" noise? Unsurprisingly, things can go wrong very quickly.

Puckered up, but deserted mid-air, while the intended target has moved onto someone else is one example. And as for accidentally making lip contact, well...

Two teas, s'il vous plait

As a nation, we're often berated for our arrogance in assuming everyone should speak English. There are occasions when it feels only right and proper to give a foreign language a whirl, but the result is never pretty and, frankly, it's uncomfortable.

Take ordering at a fancy Italian restaurant. "Pizza Quattro Formaggi" you'll order with pride. Until it's met with a blank stare.

Confidence soon dwindles. "Pizza Quattro Formaggi?" you mumble, before the waiter, with an irritated voice, asks: "You'd like a four-cheese pizza?" You can only nod, eyes cast down and hope the shame dissipates before dessert arrives.

Mixed messages

We find it impossible to say exactly what we're thinking, and prefer to channel Hugh Grant in Four Weddings And A Funeral. For instance, you've just endured a painful conversation with someone you bumped into and they ask if you want to catch up properly over coffee. You're thinking, "I can't think of anything more torturous", but the knee-jerk reaction is to smile widely and say, "Sure, great idea".

Or someone's hogging an extra seat with their bag on the bus/train, but instead of telling them to move it, you politely ask, "Is someone sitting here?" And on it goes.

How much time would we save if we were a little more on point?

  • Very British Problems, Channel 4, Thursday, 9pm

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