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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Getting Ready for Lambeth: Four Cornerstones of British Conversation

I’ve finally started preparing in earnest to attend the Lambeth Conference July 16-August 3 in Canterbury, England. I will be there representing the Episcopal Women’s Caucus.

I fear it will all be a huge YAWN, up until the last three days.

The schedule of daily themes reveals that the last three things being discussed by the bishops and primates will be, in this order: Interpreting Scripture, Human Sexuality and the Anglican Covenant.

I confess that my “hermeneutic of suspicion” is in hyper-overdrive.

Why? Well, for starters, please remember that these are the same folks who helped to bring us B033 at the eleventh hour of General Convention 2006.

Some of us are not amused, but we have been trying to amuse ourselves. What’s the end of that old Victorian saying, “ . . .just close your eyes and think of England . . .”

As I consider the “listening process” we’re all supposed to be deeply committed to (without the presence of LGBT people, however, whose voices - in the person of Bishop Gene Robinson - have not been invited), I remembered what I learned about how the British ‘listen’ when I was at the last Lambeth Conference in 1998.

I spent a great deal of time on public transportation, and found that conversation is helped enormously by keeping in mind the Four Cornerstones of British Conversation.

There are the only four responses one has to keep in mind when engaging in conversation with someone from Great Briton. The key to them all, however, is knowing when to use them. It also doesn’t hurt to know how to change the vocal inflection and facial expression as appropriate.

The first is “Right.”

This is said in a non-committal manner, an acknowledgement that you heard what has been said. The voice, however, must be weighted with a certain sense of importance and gravity. Nodding the head seriously whilst knitting the brow and pursing the lip will give rise to at least another 10 minutes of uninterrupted soliloquy.

Like so: “Right.”

The second is like unto it: “Really.”

Here, one is allowed to become a bit more animated in one’s response. The eyebrows may arch slightly to match the question mark of uncertainty at the end: “Really?” Or, the eyes may widen and just a hint of a skeptical smile may cross one’s lips: “Really?” Or, one may react with utter disdain, allowing the slightest of an exclamation point to claim the end of your sentence. “Really!”

It is important to remember, however, that one must match one’s response to the message being conveyed by whatever the Englishman is saying. No variations are allowed.

The third is important but must be used judiciously: “Well, there you have it.”

Generally, one saves this response after carefully waiting for the point to have been made. It may take awhile. They do so love to go on, and they positively adore the sound of their own voices and assume everyone else does as well. And, they would be right – especially Episcopalians in purple shirts.

Just be patient and when you hear a bit of excitement in their tone – it’s often hard to detect, but you’ll know it when you hear it – that will be your cue. Simply look convinced and say, “Well, there you have it.”

The final of the Four Cornerstones of British Conversation is very similar to the third, but usually signals that you understand that the conversation has come to – or will soon be at – an end: “Well, there it is, then.”

It is very important to use this only if you know the Englishman has made his point or if a trolley stop fast approaches and either of you is near your destination and the conversation must come to an end.

To do otherwise may, however unintentionally but nonetheless certainly, insult the Englishman. Not to worry. Since it is said that the English do love a good insult, you won’t find yourself in too much difficulty. He’ll just write you off as a rude American, but since he thought that of you before you even sat down, you’ll be none the worse for wear.

Chin up. Stiff upper lip, and all that. Carry on.

The real brilliance of these Four Cornerstones of British Conversation is that you never have to venture your own opinion. Neither do you ever have to agree or disagree. The Englishman will simply understand that you have heard him, which is all that he really wants, anyway.

It doesn’t actually matter what you think, you see – just what he thinks. However, 'turn about being fair play' to an Englishman, he expect this exact process when the floor of the conversation is yours.

Understand, too, that the Englishman is neither agreeing nor disagreeing with you; rather, he is just letting you know that he has heard you.

It won’t change a thing, mind you, but that’s not the point, which is to listen. Which, he will. And, so will you.

It’s all very polite and civilized, wouldn’t you say? It’s a bit like being invited to a proper lunch and knowing in advance which bread plate is yours and how to distinguish the dessert from the salad fork. Ultimately, it doesn’t change a thing, but it’s nice to know that your behavior was acceptable in public and that your mother would be well pleased. Sort of the same relief she feels when you’ve been in an accident and she knows that at least you had on clean underwear.

This, I have come to understand, is how the Listening Process works for the British.

Next up: How to speak proper English. First important lesson: a ‘fag’ is a cigarette, which the British still smoke in public with great abandon and free from any sense of guilt.

The first time I heard an Englishman say, "I'm positively desperate for a fag," I was positively slack-jawed with astonishment.

Did I mention the English penchant for hyperbole?

Well, there you have it. There it is, then. Really. Right.


marnanel said...

As an English person living in the US (I was away when our bishop visited, so I think I'm officially still CofE rather than ECUSA) I was really rather confused to find that saying "right" every so often confused people. I'm not sure how else to let people know you haven't fallen asleep. (Of course, we don't do this during sermons or anything, so we must manage somehow. I think it might actually be an interesting practice if the congregation on a Sunday responded to every other sentence in the homily with "Well, there you have it" or "Really?")

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


JimMollo said...

You should throw them a "Giddy up!" every now and then. Alternatively, how about after a long monologue, you just look them square in the eyes, a wry smile on your lips and say, "Good times." Flatly.

JayV said...

Funny, in a way. Thanks for this post. When I lived for a year in London, amazingly (creatures of habit are bus riders), I'd run into mates or neighbours taking the same bus. We'd chat (about the weather!) and state our concerns of the day (traffic, parliament, demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, whatever). Usually, as one of us hopped off the bus, by way of saying good by, I'd hear: "Well, we've got that all sorted, then, haven't we?" The English use "sorted" a lot, I found.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jayv - Yes, I do love that expression "sort it all out". Did you also note that their "Flea Markets" (a funny expression in its own right" are called "Jumble Tables." I suppose, when you get to the table where everything is all a jumble, you get to sort it all out.

What's that old expression? "Two similar countries separated by a common language."