#EK – London 2012: an etiquette guide for Olympics visitors
Monday 16 July 2012
How do you hire a Boris bike? Why are Brits always saying sorry? Do you look a bit like a terrorist? Find the answers in this guide for foreign visitors
The 8,000 volunteers who will welcome international visitors to London 2012 have been issued with a 66-page instruction manual, covering everything from foreign etiquette to uniform care and advice on dealing with journalists. But what of the visitors themselves? Could they not do with a manual outlining the customs, manners and practicalities of the islands they are visiting? We hereby present a simple guide to UK etiquette for the 2012 Olympics.
Cab drivers: do not be tempted to engage in conversation. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
• Welcome, and before we begin – please accept our apologies. Your four-hour nightmare wait at passport control should not be taken as a symptom of Britain’s contempt for foreigners. It is merely a symptom of a woeful lack of spending on a key aspect of travel infrastructure in the run-up to a hugely important event. In other words, it’s the government that hates you. Don’t worry, they hate us too.
• Canadians: I’m afraid that while you are here you will be repeatedly mistaken for Americans and blamed for all sorts of stuff you had nothing to do with. Unless you can think of a quick and simple way to distinguish yourselves at a glance – flower in lapel? Saddle shoes? Maple leaf eyepatch? – then you are just going to have to suck it up.
• Americans: While you’re here, why not pretend to be Canadian? Very few Britons can tell the difference, and it will allow you to rescue yourself from awkward conversations about the death penalty.
• Under no circumstances should you ask your taxi driver how excited he is about having the Olympics in London this summer. It’s not that he will be reluctant or embarrassed to offer a personal opinion on the matter. That is not the problem at all.
• You will repeatedly hear that the East End of London, where the bulk of the Olympic events are being held, is an “up and coming” area. You may wonder what this odd English expression means when applied to your immediate surroundings. You are quite right to.
• Nobody here can answer any questions you have about fencing. Google it.
• Pay no attention to those bow-tied etiquette experts you sometimes see on CNN International, telling you how to behave while in Britain. These people are generally of dubious provenance, normally live in California and tend to peddle advice that is either irrelevant or out of date. For example, they will often say that Britons love queuing and are so fond of apologising that they will often say “sorry” even when something isn’t their fault. In reality, Britons are just as likely to jump to the front of a queue and then punch the person behind them for coughing. It all depends on how muggy it is.
• British people may seem to apologise a lot, but it doesn’t quite mean the same thing here. In the UK, “I’m sorry” actually means either a) I didn’t hear you; b) I didn’t understand you; or c) I both heard and understood you, and I think you’re an idiot.
• You might expect locals to be, in the circumstances, a bit defensive about the weather. But it’s true: it really doesn’t rain like this every summer. This is exceptional, which is why it’s so cold in your hotel room. There aren’t normally this many soldiers in the streets either. No, honestly.
• Britons love bleak humour: that’s why all the hire bikes are branded with the name of a bank currently being investigated for fixing interest rates. It’s supposed to be funny.
• London’s bike hire scheme couldn’t be simpler, by the way: just go up to the terminal at any docking station, pay by card and take away one of our so-called “Boris bikes”. When you’re done with it, simply throw it into the nearest canal. They’re disposable!
• If you have arrived early, you might just be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the final leg of the Olympic torch relay. Or you might be at a riot. Ask yourself the following questions: are there lots of people holding flames, or just one? Is everybody running in the right direction? Does the nearest branch of Foot Locker appear to be having the craziest sale ever?
• None of us is officially allowed to speak to members of the foreign press. We have all been instructed to avoid eye contact while referring your queries to a team of dedicated information managers who don’t really exist. The same policy applies to ministers from totalitarian states and anyone who turns up at the airport holding a Pepsi.
• Do not ask a policeman the best way to get to the West End or how to use an Oyster card. He wants to help, but he’s from the West Midlands.
• Please aid the Olympic authorities and organisers by demonstrating at all times that you are not a terrorist. Do not perspire, take off your shoes, smile in a weird way while texting someone, or point and shout: “Hey! Look at all those missiles on that roof over there!” In fact, if you’re not using your hands for anything, it’s probably best if you keep them in the air where everybody can see them.
• We here in the UK want nothing more than to provide you, our guests, with a fantastic experience this summer, combining the best in international sport, brilliant facilities, fantastic entertainment and a cultural legacy that draws on centuries of excellence in art and architecture. If you ended up with four tickets for the wrestling at the ExCel Centre, well, better luck next time.