I'm starting to notice an uncomfortable truth cropping up in conversation with students living in the UK for the first time, especially those with a learner’s grasp of English. It seems that the locals, the mild and reserved folk of Britain, are some of the least affable people on the planet. Most notably with our friends from the international community. “Surely that can’t be true,” I hear you cry, raising a cup of earl grey and reassuring me on the good nature of polite, English discourse. But apparently it is - international students often feel gated off from their British counterparts, isolated in a sea of standoffishness and pop-culture dislocation.
I first heard this after a friend and I met two Japanese students studying at a cafe in Oxford. They were discussing research in quiet bursts of their native language. My friend wanted to practice his limited yet earnest Japanese skills, so he struck up a conversation. I initially thought the gratitude and surprise my friend received as he stumbled through his “konnichiwa” was due to the students hearing an unfamiliar voice speaking a familiar language, a small oasis of normality in a baffling ocean of silent letters and contradictory grammar rules. But it turns out they were just shocked that somebody else was speaking to them at all. A British person, striking up a conversation out of thin air. It just didn't happen. What seemed to be a perfectly pedestrian moment actually became a huge outward breath - the ice was finally broken with the locals and life could continue as normal.
Pictured: Normality in Oxford
We made fast friends with the students and took them out to see the Oxford skyline a few weeks later. Our main topic of conversation was “Britain Vs Japan”, or “How Weird Are We, On A Scale Of One To Ten?” We had a fascinating discussion on Japanese social hierarchy and its impact on a person’s confidence. It was so far from my usual understanding of social convention. Studying in England provided our new friends with an opportunity to break away for a while and allowed them to engage with people who did not have to worry about those types of rules - but the girls felt isolated, surrounded by students who had arrived in the UK for the exact same reason, and yet their group clung desperately together like a small band of travellers lost in a deep, dark forest. And who can blame them? Nobody wants to be alone in a strange place. But crossing that distance - be it in the classroom, the street or a bar - and earnestly talking to a British person seemed like an herculean task, one that probably was not going to happen without a considerable deal of courage.
Are the British more closed off to foreigners, or are they just reclusive by nature? As a British person, I admit that we have a culture of putting in our headphones on the bus and sitting at the tables furthest away from other diners. If someone talks to us on the street, it surely means they want something from us, and that puts us on edge. It’s sad that our first priority in a new interaction is to find the motive, like we’re all paranoid detectives on a cult Norwegian drama. But that’s who the British often are - I’m just as guilty. “Who are you, what do you want, why aren’t you minding your own business like the rest of us?”
He isn't talking to you because it's his job. Probably.
What I failed to recognise before moving to Oxford (widely international, high proportion of bilingual speakers, every other building will charge £3.90 for simply smelling the upper skin of a macchiato) was that our reservation is, to put it bluntly, very little fun for anyone. I met a Chinese student at Oxford University for drinks after we shared the same study room - I was new to town at the time and was enjoying speaking to people from a much more diverse range of backgrounds than I was used to (take note, potential OISE Oxford students) and struck up a conversation. Turns out, the student led a profoundly isolated existence. He told me he had tried and tried again to strike up conversations with the British and his attempts always fell flat. This was a man who needed to slow down considerably to speak English, but we had conversations about international politics and moral philosophy without a problem. He was interesting, far better educated than I am, and quietly charismatic. But he couldn’t get a word in edgeways out in the clamour of real life.
Another young man, Mohammed from Oman, spoke to me whilst I was working behind a counter. After chatting with him for a while about his time in Britain, he became so excited at the idea of having a conversation in English he asked for my contact details. International students find being on the other side of the language barrier depressing, and all it takes is a little bit of effort on the part of the British to help.
You will be supported by great friends and fellow learners in your OISE programmes, so you may never have this problem. And if it is any consolation, be assured that any reservation expressed by an anglo-saxon is not your fault, and there really are plenty of people excited to have a conversation with you. At the end of the day, if a British person doesn’t seem willing to speak to you, it is not likely to be anything personal. Chances are, they simply don’t know what to say. Keep trying, as just like in all the examples I mentioned, there are plenty of people who will be thrilled to meet you. It might even be the best thing that’s happened to them all week.
Written by Sam Kearns, Community Manager.