How To Be An Alien

In the 1930s, a Hungarian born journalist named George Mikes moved to London. However, even after a decade or so living and working in London Mikes discovered, as I imagine many others have done since, that the British have a peculiar set of behaviours, rules and customs that make it near impossible for someone not born here to blend in completely.

In 1946 he published a short book called "How to be an Alien." It's a collection of stories and guides - ostensibly for other non natives - in order to explain the weird and wonderful ways of the English. From explaining our love of tea, to our constant need to discuss the weather, Mikes has an insightful comment and witty put down for everything.

He says, in the preface to my 24th edition, that he had intended for the book to be 'a book of defiance'. He was going to tell the English where to get off, no matter what the consequences. Given the sorts of stories he tells about his experiences, it's easy to see why they might need a telling off:

 

On Discovering That You Are An Alien

"It was like this. Some years ago, I spent a lot of time with a young lady who was very proud and conscious of being English. Once she asked me - to my great surprise - whether I would marry her. 'No,' I replied, 'I will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.'
She looked at me a little surprised and irritated, and retorted: 'I, a foreigner? What a silly thing to say. I am English. You are the foreigner. And your mother, too.'
I did not give in. 'In Budapest, too?' I asked her. 'Everywhere,' she declared with determination. 'Truth does not depend on geography. What is true in England is also true in Hungary and in North Borneo and Venezuela and everywhere.'
I saw that this theory was as irrefutable as it was simple."

How to be an Alien, George Mikes


 

In fact, the book proved to be a resounding success with readers across the country. One of the most enduring traits of the British is their ability to laugh at themselves, so the criticisms and complaints landed on receptive ears and self deprecating personalities.

 

How To Be A Hypocrite

"If you want to be really and truly British, you must become a hypocrite.
Now: how to be a hypocrite?
As some people say that an example explains things better than the best theory, let me try this way.
I had a drink with an English friend of mine in a pub. We were sitting on the high chairs in front of the counter when a flying bomb exploded about a hundred yards away. I was truly and honestly frightened, and when a few seconds later I looked around, I could not see my friend anywhere. At last I noticed that he was lying on the floor, flat as a pancake. When he realised that nothing in particular had happened in the pub he got up a little embarrassed, flicked the dust off his suit, and turned to me with a superior and sarcastic smile.
'Good Heavens! Were you so frightened that you couldn't move?'"

How to be an Alien, George Mikes


How Not To Be Clever

"... In England it is bad manners to be clever, to assert something confidently. It may be your own personal view that two and two make four, but you must not state it in a self-assured way, because this is a democratic country and others may be of a different opinion.
A continental gentleman seeing a nice panorama may remark:

'This view rather reminds me of Utrecht, where the peace treaty concluding the War of Spanish Succession was signed on the 11th April 1713. The river there, however, recalls the Guadalquivir, which rises in the...'

This pompous, showing-off way of speaking is not permissible in England. The Englishman is modest and simple. He uses but few words and expresses so much - but so much - with them. An Englishman looking at the same view would remain silent for two or three hours and think about how to put his profound feelings into words. Then he would remark:

'It's pretty, isn't it?' ..."

How to be an Alien, George Mikes