10 Rules for Tourists When Talking About Brexit With a Brit

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As a visitor from a non-EU country, especially as a North American visitor, your curiosity may tempt you to engage local people in conversations or share opinions about Brexit, but should you? And if you do are there boundaries you shouldn't cross?

In early July 2016, a group of British journalists shared their opinions about chatting with visitors about Brexit. Their response was fast and clear -- don't do it:

"I have a lot of American friends and none of them has had a reaction to Brexit or asked me anything that hasn't filled me with rage," said freelance journalist Julia Buckley.

"How would you feel if I started quizzing you and judging your country over gun control," said another.

And commenting on the Scottish independence referendum - another touchy subject - another said, "…it was always Americans pushing a conversation it was clear the Scots didn't want to be having."

But let's face it, if you're visiting the UK post-Brexit, and you're friendly, curious, and vaguely aware that these are historic times, the subject is bound to come up. If it does, what is the etiquette for these conversations? 

Tips for Talking About Brexit When You're a Tourist

  1. Don't initiate conversations about Brexit - Besides provoking strong feelings, Brexit, its impact and its partisans are complicated topics. Many British people are already exhausted over discussing or arguing among themselves. They won't appreciate having to explain all the factors and ramifications it to you.
  1. Don't pass judgments or express unsolicited opinions - If the topic does come up, listen, ask the most innocuous, neutral questions you can think of and nod sympathetically.
  2. Don't take sides - Conversations about Brexit can quickly become pretty heated. If you are in a mixed group with differing opinions, your safest option is to pay attention. Whatever you do, avoid telling people what you think they should have done or should do now. President Obama tried that when he came to Britain and supported the Remain campaign. Even though he is very popular in Britain, people resented his interference and while he may not have hurt the Remain side, he certainly didn't help it.
  1. Do ask open questions - You can safely ask people how they feel about Brexit, how they think it will affect them personally, what changes have they've noticed so far. Then sit back, listen and nod a lot.
  2. Do be prepared to hang around a while - British people, even the ones who don't know what they are talking about, are much more politically engaged than the average American. Once you've opened the floodgates, people who care and have a stake in the aftermath of Brexit (which includes almost everyone)will have a lot to say. If you are in a group, a lot of people will have a lot to stay. Said journalist Laura Jane, "Some of us are so obsessed that you won't be able to shut us up, so it might take up quite a bit of your time." And, unless you are a confirmed policy wonk, you could soon be bored.
  3. Don't form your own opinions based on your casual conversations in pubs - One journalist I spoke to put it this way, "Be prepared to hear a lot of very interesting things from a lot of people (on both sides) who really haven't the faintest idea what they are talking about."
  4. Don't make jokes about "Freedom!" - If you're talking to someone on the Remain side they are likely to irritably ask you "Freedom from what!?". If it's the Leave side, they won't find your jokes funny. In fact, a sense of humor, from people on both sides of the question, has been seriously lacking. Even television's topical humor programs "Mock the Week" and "Have I Got News for You" were off the air in the week after the referendum results were announced and pretty tame on the subject the week after.
  1. Don't compare Independence Day with Brexit  - The EU, a colleague pointed out, "is a club of which we are (for now) a voluntary member." Not, in other words, an imperial power subjugating its colonies.
  2. Don't compare Margaret Thatcher with Theresa May - The late Maggie Thatcher was as divisive a figure as Richard Nixon. People either loved her or loathed her. Theresa May, Britain's new Prime Minister is still a relatively unknown quantity. About the only thing Maggie and May have in common is their sex. And feminists of both sexes will skewer you for daring to make that connection.
  3. Don't ask people how they voted  - or how their partner or family members voted. If you want to set hornets' nests abuzz, cause family rifts and open wounds that have barely healed, this kind of question is sure to do that. Grandchildren who wanted to remain are angry with their grandparents who voted leave; husbands and wives who were on opposite sides of the issue dare not touch the topic; quite a few who voted leave now bitterly regret their decision and too ashamed to talk about it.

    Instead  of talking about the hard-hitting stuff, why not err on the side of caution and chat with the locals about a safer topic? Whether it's hot or cold, raining or sunny, everyone in Britain is happy to talk about the weather.