Minor British Institutions: Silence in public

In other countries, trains, lifts, queues (or what pass for them) at bus stops, checkouts or post offices seethe and buzz with animated chatter and even, sometimes, laughter. On this crowded island, silence and reserve are cherished.

Very occasionally, there might be a nod, even a smile; less often, someone might venture something about the weather, but this is meant to pre-empt conversation, not invite it. Never forget that Britain is a place where the correct response to "How do you do?" is "How do you do?". The late, very funny Gerard Hoffnung relished this, offering advice to foreign visitors such as, "On first entering an underground train, it is customary to shake hands with every passenger".

Personal stereos have accentuated the isolation, as do, strangely, people talking loudly on mobile phones to somewhere else. Oddly, too, as a reporter, I've always found the public willing to talk about anything. But that's the other British thing: politeness.