Tuesday, March 22, 2005

And they all moved away from me

Shortly after arriving in London, I noticed a difference between British and American manners that no one has been able to explain to me. When Americans are sitting on bench-style seating and a newcomer approaches, everyone on the bench will scoot down to make room. In Britain, however, the first person to arrive claims the end of the bench and won't give it up for anything. They may shift their knees slightly to let others get past them, but that's it.

I first observed this on the Metropolitan Line, where it at least makes a certain amount of sense: people want to get off quickly at their stop. This doesn't explain, however, why the same behaviour occurs on church pews. Unless you arrive very early indeed, you'll probably start your worship by clambering over the shoes of an unsmiling fellow parishioner -- tricky if the kneeler is already down. Now, strictly speaking, you're not supposed to want a quick getaway from church, or at least you're not supposed to show it. Besides, it won't work, because dozens of other people have the same idea and clog up the aisle. So why do it?

I have to confess that when I'm sitting on the end, I still insist on moving down for newcomers and forcing everyone next to me to do the same -- the surprise on their faces provides much-needed entertainment during a dull Mass.


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