Don’t touch me, I’m British

I live in Paris, but I recently took my family on a visit to London. At my sister’s house, we were introduced to a Brit we didn’t know. My wife is American, but in Paris she has picked up some French habits. She kissed the Brit hello. He was amazed. I suspect she made his day.

I also visited the US last month, and so received a refresher course in American rules on touching and speaking. In every country, there is one question that governs social interaction: what intimacies are you permitted with whom? And in each country, the intimate zone has its own unique shape.

In 1987, Raymonde Carroll, a French anthropologist who emigrated to the US, published a little-known classic on the topic. Cultural Misunderstandings identifies the key divide between the French and the Americans over the rules of intimacy. The French, says Carroll, will only have conversations with people with whom they are already intimate, while Americans will only touch people with whom they are already intimate.

Generalising grossly: the French are free with their touches. Most obviously, they kiss people in greeting. This kiss usually isn’t sexual or romantic, but as the French political scientist Pascale Laborier points out, the beauty of it is that it can be. In France, a kiss from a pretty acquaintance can generate a frisson.

That’s because the French aren’t averse to sexualising social encounters. Sex, or romance, can be hinted at in almost any interaction. This was first explained to me by a Frenchman I roomed with in the US. On my first night in the country, he took me for a drink, and said: “Look, I’ve been here a year already. Let me explain what I’ve learned about American women so far.” It was his personal welcoming service.

He had been puzzled at first, he said, that American women didn’t flirt with him. In France, he explained, you always flirted whether you fancied someone or not. The flirting meant nothing. Only after longer acquaintance would you discover whether the woman actually liked you. But he’d found that Americans worked the other way round. They never flirted. Then, after longer acquaintance, you might suddenly realise that an American woman you hadn’t been flirting with actually liked you. He had discovered an American social rule: they rarely sexualise social encounters. Americans typically cordon off the sexual in zones, such as the bedroom or the singles’ bar. The Frenchwoman who stripped to protest against annoying security at an Indiana airport in 2002 knew exactly what she was doing: the way to discomfit Americans is to sexualise situations. (She was arrested.)

Carroll notes that Americans hug friends of the opposite sex, but during this hug only their shoulders touch, and participants end by rubbing each other’s backs as proof that the hug was nonsexual. Otherwise, Americans rarely touch. The American vogue of “political correctness” that broke out soon after Carroll’s book appeared, with its fear of people “invading your personal space”, and the wide net it cast for “inappropriate touching”, fitted existing American norms. But “PC” just wouldn’t have made sense in France.

But though Americans won’t touch strangers, they will talk to them. They will chat to people at neighbouring tables in restaurants, or in line at the supermarket. That conversation doesn’t turn the speakers into friends – a mistake Europeans sometimes make. Generalising grossly: to Americans, conversation doesn’t imply intimacy.

Applying Carroll’s theories to Britons, you understand why foreigners think we are repressed. Americans won’t touch strangers, the French won’t talk to them, but Brits will neither touch nor talk to them. Passport to the Pub, a semi-official guide for foreign tourists to the UK, warns: “Don’t ever introduce yourself. The ‘Hi, I’m Chuck from Alabama’ approach does not go down well in British pubs.”

Nor are Britons permitted to make eye contact: the former French prime minister Edith Cresson, disconcerted that British men didn’t look at her, estimated that one in four was homosexual. No wonder Britons drink ever-increasing amounts of alcohol. Alcohol was first distilled so that British people could reproduce.

Latins are luckier. They can touch and talk to strangers even when sober. But they, too, follow one ground rule shared by the French, Americans and British: they only get naked with people of the opposite gender in sexual situations.

To us, this rule seems so obvious as to be universal. However, it isn’t. Laborier notes that Germans will sometimes get naked in public without intent.

In Finland, too, couples will invite friends over for a sauna and everyone will take their clothes off together. At a friend’s house in Helsinki, we all ended up running naked from the sauna to jump into the lake behind the garden, while the neighbours looked on incuriously. Back home again, I tried to explain to a British friend that Finns don’t seem to associate nudity with sex.

“What,” he asked, “do they associate with sex?” I’m guessing the answer might be a kiss on the cheek, or conversation.

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