I think it was The New Statesman, or possibly I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue on Radio 4, that first came up with the idea of asking contributors to find the most inappropriate, but well-meaning, advice to give to overseas visitors to Britain.
Suggestions such as ‘When entering a railway carriage, remember to introduce yourself and shake hands with all your fellow passengers’, ‘Never attempt to tip a London taxi driver’ and ‘If passing a game of cricket, you will always be welcome to join in’ are as good today as when they were first put forward.
So I was on my guard when I came across an excellent online guide from VisitBritain to help us Brits make overseas visitors feel more welcome, in particular, as we prepare to greet so many of them for the Olympics taking place here in under two years time.
According to the Nations Brand Index, the UK is currently joint 14th in the world rankings for the welcome we offer, with Canada, Italy and Australia getting – respectively – the gold, silver and bronze. Reassuringly, though, the French and the Germans are below us, on joint 19th.
So far, so good I suppose, although my confidence in what I believe is known as the ‘methodological rigour’ of all this was shaken a little by Scotland getting its own ranking, which was separate from (and higher than) the UK.
But quibbles such as this are by-the-by when the overarching message – that we could probably do a better job of making people feel welcome, and should do so in time for everyone to benefit when we throw open our doors in 2012 – is undoubtedly the right one.
So here are my favourite bits of advice from VisitBritain’s guide:
- don’t snap your fingers if you’re with a Belgian;
- don’t wink at someone from Hong Kong or point with your index finger, for that matter (apparently you should only point ‘with your hand open’, but no hints are provided as to quite how this is achieved in practice);
- don’t ask a Brazilian personal questions; and, best of all
- when meeting a Mexican, don’t mention the 1845-6 war with America.
This last one conjures up memories of Basil Fawlty, of course, but will I hope be firmly drilled into the training regimes of hotel porters, waitresses and ticket collectors throughout the land in the months to come:
“If the guest/customer tries to draw you on President James Polk’s belligerent interpretation of the concept of ‘manifest destiny’ in 1844, just nod politely and keep well out of it.”
I’ll be doing my best. I hope you will be too.