Let me now dispel a pervasive myth.
True or false: The Brits are a reserved people not prone to public displays of affection.
If you answered True, then you are WRONG!
My first good English friend is a fellow journalist I'll call Nikki, whom I met when she did a short internship at Pioneer Press in 2004. A few weeks after she'd gone home, we at the newsroom received a lovely letter and package, and her card was signed with all manner of "love you"s, "miss you"s and kisses (xxx) and hugs (ooo). Nikki is a fantastic girl and wonderful friend, so, though we were a bit puzzled, we felt all warm and fuzzy and chalked the extremely affectionate messages up to her spirited and loving personality.
Then I decided to come to England to undergo the Discipleship Year service internship, and I started receiving emails from others in the program. I sat back home in my Chicago apartment last July and puzzled over an email that started out, "Hi everyone, I know we haven't all met yet but we've got a room for rent in our house" and ended with "Love, Rachel x". What was up with the loves and the symbolic kisses?
Then came an email from Pippa, who signed hers "Pippax." I tried to figure out what kind of a nickname Pippax was for Pippa (which is, in itself, a nickname for Philippa) until I figured out that the "x" was a kiss. She'd just forgotten the space.
I consider myself a rather exuberant, affectionate person, and I'm sure my friends would agree. Actually, probably just about anyone I know would agree that I'm a very outgoing extrovert. But letters or emails only get signed "love" if I'm writing to a family member (a CLOSE family member) or a very good friend. And xs for kisses? I don't think so.
Or, at least, that's how it used to be.
Last September I moved to England and suddenly found myself in a quandary. I was getting emails and text messages and Facebook postings from my new friends and they were all signed "Loads of love", "Love always" and with lots of ... you guessed it ... xs for kisses. At first I wrote back just like normal, signing "Thanks, Stephanie" or "Cheers :)" I figured if I threw in the smiley face, they'd get that I was happy to hear from them and was sending my friendly affection. But it wasn't long before I caved. I just felt weird NOT responding with love and "kisses" when everyone else was sending them to me so freely. In fact, not all of the kisses are metaphorical. Lots of people greet one another with a kiss on the cheek (or a kiss on each cheek), even upon first meeting. That's cool with me--I lived in Spain for awhile and have traveled a lot in Central and South America, so I'm used to that. But it's hard to know who wants a cheek kiss and who doesn't.
Perhaps you may think I've expended way too much thought and energy considering how best to greet my friends and how to respond to them. I don't think so, because understanding how to respond means navigating a big part of English culture, or at least English culture among young adults, or possibly English culture within a church community. But this isn't limited to those who attend church--I see from Facebook pages that most English young people are very affectionate with one another and use "loves" and xs just as liberally.
Part of the explanation, of course, is that "love" doesn't mean quite the same thing among young Brits that it might among their American peers. The word is not reserved just for romantic relationships and the closest friends and family and so it does, I suppose, inevitably lose some of its strength and power. However, it almost always makes me feel happy to get a text from an English friend who signs it "Loads of love" or even with the omnipresent "x." I'm reminded of their goodwill and of our friendship. The only time it doesn't make me feel happy is if the text or email is from someone I've only met once. Then I have my usual moment of wild panic when I construct a reply. "What do I do?" I wonder. "Will so-and-so be offended if I don't sign it love or put on a kiss? Because I can't, I just can't, if I don't even mean it a little bit."
I've mentioned this to a few of my English friends, though only the ones who know that I'm not complaining about the phenomena (do, by all means, keep sending those affectionate messages, my friends) but am simply mystified. And they are very surprised by my observation. They've never noticed it, they said. I chatted with a few guy friends last week and asked them when they put an "x" on the end of their messages. "Do you send it to all of your friends or just the girls?" I asked. And what about sending mixed signals by sending "kisses" or "love" to girls who are just friends? They certainly don't use these words or symbols when writing to guys, they tell me, but sure, they'll send them to safe girls, girls with whom there is clearly only friendship.
As for me, I've now got a system worked out. If I have any kind of a positive relationship with an English girl, and she texts, posts or emails me with loves and xs, then I reciprocate. But I don't do it with guys, unless I'm sending a message to a mixed group of guys and girls to whom I'm close. It's just too weird! Sometimes I have to catch myself when I'm posting on the Facebook wall of a good female friend back in America, though, because I've very nearly stuck on "love you tons!" or "xx". And that would certainly creep them out.
I just have one final area of uncertainty. I'm not sure what to do with American friends who are here in England or English friends that I know back home in America. Alison is one of my dearest friends back in Chicago, but we've never been the "love you honey!" types. Yet now she has to remember to skip the "x" on her Facebook messages to me, though she puts them on the notes to other friends here in the UK, and I do the same with her. And those girlfriends who've recently moved from Chicago to Britain? Well, we just laugh about it.
"I think it's hysterical," Sus told me, shortly after she moved here in February.
The next time I posted a message to Sus on Facebook, I wrote, "Love you loads and loads honey xxxxx" just to see what she'd do.
She never wrote back.