In a recent blessay, "Getting Overheated," Fry writes of a dinner party at which he got into a debate with an American about global warming. It's well worth reading, mainly for some very good points he makes about intelligent argument and his reasons for taking action even in the absence of utter certainty. And he says some amusing things about Terry Pratchett fans that I managed not to take personally. Read it, do.
What struck me first in this article, though, is an observation Fry makes about the difference between the average Brit and the average American 'round the average dinner table (and this has nothing to do with whether the milk or the tea goes in first*):
I like to think I’m never vituperative or too ad hominem but I do know that I fall on ideas as hungry wolves fall on strayed lambs and the result isn’t always pretty. This is especially dangerous in America.... Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. ... To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle.... Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.
Is this so? Americans unused to debate? Adversarial ferocity? Verbal scraps? This is not my experience, but I experience Americans as a Canadian, not as a Brit. Anyone else care to weigh in?
* Milk first is, my dear, non-U. And I can even tell you why: Poor quality tea cups could crack when filled with boiling water straight from the kettle as Orwell recommends. If it's, "Milk in first, Dinah, and save the crockery," then we know a thing or two about the quality of your tea service. The finest bone china requires no such manoeuvrings.