Thursday, 24 September 2009

Proving how English I really am

DH and I are reading this book at the moment for our book club. It's an anthropological study of the English, and we find ourselves sometimes laughing and sometimes cringing, but almost always nodding with recognition, because it's scarily accurate about our little foibles. If you're thinking of visiting the UK for the first time, I would highly recommend that you read this first - it'll really help you to understand what makes us tick.

One of the foibles that it mentions is that the English hate talking about money. This results in an awful lot of small talk at business meetings before anyone is willing actually to get down to the dirty business of discussing nasty things like orders and contracts. And even then, the financial part of the contract will not usually be raised in the meeting itself, but will be covered in writing afterwards. This is true even in my line of work - and I'm an accountant!

The taboo is so strong that last night I had a nightmare that I'd offered to help a friend's husband with his tax return. This would, of course, have entailed him telling me how much he earned, and he reacted with great embarrassment, as though I'd just offered to strip him naked and give him a bath or something. I woke up in a cold sweat and was hugely relieved when I realised it had just been a dream and I hadn't really committed such a dreadful faux pas.

Our problem is exacerbated when we're employing someone in the home. On the part of the employer, there's a squirming embarrassment about the fact that they're paying for a service, which is also tied up with the fact that we are acutely class conscious but don't want to admit it.

The result of this is that most English people are ruled with a rod of iron by anyone they pay to come into their home to do a job. Last night a friend of mine was telling me about the chap who's retiling her bathroom. She's getting very frustrated that he won't get on with the work, but follows her from room to room with his cup of tea, chatting. It's just not 'done' to mention that she's paying him to do a job and would like him to jolly well get on and do it. In fact, when he disappeared for three hours the other day and detected a slight note of testiness in her voice when he returned, he acted all offended and said he wasn't sure if he wanted to finish the job.

DH and I both work long hours, and DH is not very domesticated, so we employ a cleaner for three hours a week. Over the last few months, she has picked and chosen when she'll come to us - sometimes the house would go 10 days without being cleaned, sometimes only three. She would always let me know when she was going to grace me with her presence (though she didn't always turn up on the promised days), and I would dutifully leave her money out on the side.

Yesterday she had decided it was convenient for her to come in the evening. That was fine - DH and I were planning to be out anyway, so she would have had the house to herself. But I was somewhat surprised to get home at 5:00 (I had a day's holiday and had been out running some errands in the afternoon) and discover that she had already been, and had left me a note saying she hadn't done the cleaning because I'd 'forgotten' to leave her the money.

I immediately phoned her and pointed out that she had said she would come at 6:00, and I would have left her the money then. She responded that she'd changed her plans, and had far too much on her mind at the moment to have bothered to let me know - and if I didn't like that, perhaps it was time I found another cleaner.

So here I am, paying this woman a very good hourly rate, maintaining the pretence that we're friends rather than employer-employee and allowing her to dictate when and how she performs the job for which I'm paying her. And now I find that I've been sacked by my cleaner for daring to suggest that she might actually let me know if she's not going to turn up at the agreed times.

Sometimes I wish English society had taught me to be a little bit more blunt and direct - but since it didn't, if you want me today I'll be cleaning the bathroom.


  1. ROFL!!! This had me rolling about the room - oh my goodness! We have that book too, and it is excellent; I read great parts of it out to Jon. Having had my giggle though, how immensely rude of your cleaner, and my instinctive thought is that you're better off without her. Is there not perhaps an agency which vets people and sends a small team once a week to get the job done? That means you're paying your money direct to the agency and there's less personal interaction involved.

    I'm sorry, but I'm leaving this open for Jon to read too... hope that's ok? It's so brilliantly written :)

    Hope you get to relax post-bathroom...

  2. Of course I don't mind him reading it...

    My attitude was that she may have been unreliable, but at least she didn't break stuff like my last cleaner did. It also helped that, unlike my last cleaner, she spoke English, which made communication a little easier (at least she was able to tell me when she wasn't going to be there - if she could be bothered).

    I employed both of them through an agency, but the agency only did the introduction - I phoned them up last night to ask them to find me another.

    I lied about the bathroom, by the way - what I'll actually be doing more of is complaining that it's not clean ;¬)

  3. Wow ... that must indeed be an English thing. That would never fly if I had a cleaning lady here. I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I guess they ought to write a book about American foibles, too? Possibly that we're too direct sometimes? Oh well, we all have our quirks!

    I hope you can work out a better schedule tactfully so that you both feel satisfied with the arrangement.

  4. Trust me, a bit more directness would be a great help sometimes! I've definitely been sacked - she returned my key the next day - so I'm looking for a new cleaner now and hoping this one works out better than the first two.

    In the meantime, DH and I had another day's holiday on Friday, and while I went shopping he cleaned the bathroom and did the hoovering. I'm not sure if this is a sign of how much he loves me or of how much he hates shopping, but I have a clean bathroom out of it, so I don't really care!