How to start a conversation with a British girl

The other Friday after work, I was waiting for my friend (outside the National Gallery, since you ask) when something happened which as a British person I found very disturbing indeed…

What was this violation of social norms?  Was it queue-jumping?  Going more than five minutes without saying ‘sorry’?  No, on not one but two occasions someone spoke to me directly when I was just happily minding my own business.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m someone who enjoys communicating with all kinds of people – it’s my job after all.  It’s just that it’s not ‘the done thing’ to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know – especially when that person is minding their own business.

The first time, two guys sat next to me and told me that they liked the colour of my hair (at the time I was a bit offended as I thought they might have been joking but a couple of days later a good female friend said the same thing, so perhaps they were just trying to start a conversation by saying something nice).  Disturbed by this intrusion I simply stood up and sat somewhere else.  The second time, this bloke sat next to me and asked who I was waiting for.  Now, this annoyed me and I told him that I didn’t feel like talking.  Clearly offended, he stood up and said ‘you’ll never make new friends that way.’  Now, I know what you’re thinking: these guys were just trying to chat me up; why should I put up with that kind of intrusion?  Well, I guess they might have been, but then again they might not. Anyway, the second guy’s comment got me thinking that perhaps I’d been too unfriendly and that I could have given him the benefit of the doubt and just had a conversation with him.  Then, if he had been trying to chat me up I could have told him I wasn’t interested but that it had been nice talking to him anyway.  You know, something sociable like that.  Then it made me think of all the times I’d had this exchange with my students:

Keen students:  We want to practise speaking to British people.  How can we speak to them?

Me:  Hmm, well it’s difficult because we don’t usually talk to strangers, especially not in London.  If you just go up to people and start talking they might think you’re crazy!

Keen students:  So how can we practise our English?

Me:  Erm, well… you can talk to me…

Keen students:  But what about after school and at the weekends?

Me:  Er…

Now, when I finally met up with my friend I spent the first couple of hours silently mulling this over before finally opening up and explaining how disturbed I’d felt.  I wanted to put forward my theory that we Brits really don’t like it when people speak to us directly just to make conversation.  My friend weighed this up for a while and agreed with me.  ‘I think you’re right.  If you’re waiting in a toilet queue you wouldn’t just ask ‘how long have you been waiting’ – it might annoy people.  Instead, you’d say ‘It’s a long queue, isn’t it?’

Thus, my friend hit the nail on the head.  This was the very formula I’d devised as I pondered my students' question ‘how can we speak to British people?’ My golden rule is twofold: it’s ok to speak to them if

1) you don’t speak directly to them 

2) you don’t speak about them. 

The first rule is good because it gives the other person an opt-out clause – that is, if they don’t feel like speaking to you they can just ignore you and neither you nor they needs feel offended.  The second one is good because well, Brits don’t really like making personal comments (i.e. about appearance) until we know someone pretty well.  We also don’t take compliments very well, so even if you say something nice like ‘I like your hair colour’, a Brit will tend to think you’re making fun of them.  A partial exception to this is making a positive comment about someone’s clothes.  This works especially well when a girl is speaking to another girl.  This also explains why we’re often happy to help – because you’ve spoken to us directly but in an impersonal way so it gives us chance to be friendly without giving too much of ourselves away.

So, let’s look at some useful expressions:

In a cool new bar

Don’t say: Do you like it here?

Do say:  I love it here!

Watching squirrels

Don’t say:  Do you like squirrels?

Do say:  They’re cute, aren’t they?

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Waiting ages for the bus

Don’t say: Have you been waiting long?

Do say:  I can’t believe the buses sometimes!

So, from now on I’ll be giving my students these suggestions and I’d also like to put out a plea to any British people reading this – if someone follows these rules can we try to be a little more communicative towards them?  London needs a more positive attitude right now.  Let me know how you get on!  Oh, and if you have any more suggestions for good conversation-starters I’d love to hear them.

By Laura


norms (pl.n.) - socially acceptable actions, 'normal' behaviour

to queue-jump (v.) - to attempt to push in to a queue

to mind your own business - to do whatever you're doing without communicating with/worrying about people around you

the done thing (exp.) - something which is socially acceptable

to strike up (a conversation) (phr.v.) - to start (a conversation)

bloke (n.) - man (inf. BrE)

to chat someone up (phr.v.) - to start a conversation with someone because you find them attractive

to give someone the benefit of the doubt (exp.) - to interpret someone's actions in the most positive way

to mull stg over (phr.v.) - to consider something for a long time

to weigh stg up (phr.v.) - to consider the different sides of an argument before making a decision

to hit the nail on the head (exp.) - to correctly get the point of something

to ponder (v.) - to consider/wonder

an opt-out clause (n.) - something which enables you to choose to withdraw from a situation or contract

to give stg of yourself away (exp.) - to let someone know some personal information about yourself

a plea (n.) - a strong request

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