One of the perceptions foreigners have of the British is that we’re all so very polite.
Manners are drilled into us from an early age. I remember the school canteen with a sign that said “Pleases and thank yous are free”. Now we’re older, the signs are no longer there but the habits have remained: in her book ‘Watching the English’, the anthropologist Kate Fox calculated that the average drinks order in an English pub or bar consisted of four ‘pleases’ and three ‘thanks yous’ (or similar).
I say “or similar” because we might say “thanks”, “cheers” or “ta” instead, although these tend to be slightly more informal, and there’s definitely a gender/age/regional thing with cheers and ta as well.
In various respects, our manners filter down into everyday aspects of our lives, whether it’s when we’re forming one of our famous queues (don’t you dare think about jumping to the front!), buying a round of drinks or issuing an apology when someone walks into us (you read that correctly).
Our manners also extend to the road, and it’s here that I really notice the difference between us and other cultures. The British tend not to notice all the above signs of good manners (you only notice them when someone breaches etiquette) and therefore we’re often surprised to hear that foreigners have such a high opinion of us. But having visited various countries, the difference between us and them is most acute from inside a car.
One of the most obvious signs of our good manners on the road is our willingness to let people in front of us when they’re changing lanes or entering from a side street. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, especially when approaching motorway junctions and finding yourself in the wrong lane with a quarter of a mile to cross a lane of traffic. In similar situations in America people seem to ignore your indicator and it’s every man or woman for him or herself.
This invitation to enter is usually indicated with a flash or two of the headlights (which is a slight, albeit accepted, breach of The Highway Code), and is usually reciprocated with a brief flash of the hazards, some flicking of the indicators, or, most frequently, a hand raised in thanks. You might also raise your hand if you’ve done something wrong to signal an apology.
And this is the second sign of British manners on the road: we’ll still say thank you. A few years ago I was in the south of France and we pulled over to let another driver through who was coming towards us. We were incredulous when we didn’t even get a single nod of appreciation.
That said, we can take this all a bit too far. Usually, a driver will let someone through. The other driver will drive past, raising their hand in thanks. The first driver will often raise their hand as if to say “you’re welcome” (or maybe “thanks for saying thanks”). However, there was a brief spell last summer when the second driver would then raise their hand in thanks for a second time: “thank you for saying you’re welcome”. I was never certain whether this was endearing or daft, but it certainly brought a smile to my face and made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion.
Despite all this, there is one aspect of English behaviour on the roads that we all could do with being reminded about: using our indicators. It should be self-evident that indicators are there for everyone’s safety. If used properly, they could make everyone’s journeys a little more efficient (both time-wise and fuel-wise) too. For instance, if people used their indicators properly on roundabouts, drivers could better anticipate when they could enter the flow of traffic. At a junction, even with pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, indicating your intent can allow pedestrians to cross sooner, or cars to turn earlier.
But we generally don’t seem to care about our safety and that of other road users when we’re in a car, so I’d like to make a suggestion: using your indicators is a sign of good manners. It’s polite to let other road users know what you want to do, so please can we try and do a bit better? Like saying please, it costs nothing and shows respect for the people around us. Thank you.
Have you forgotten when you should use your indicators? Relax, The Highway Code is online.