Why Americans Should “Keep A Stiff Upper Lip”

An Englishman explains his culture’s favorite coping mechanism.

Author by Tom Packman
Art credit: Richard White

There’s something appealing about the adage “a problem shared is a problem halved.” Yet, as an Englishman living in New York, sharing my feelings doesn’t always come naturally. In true English fashion, I live by maintaining a “stiff upper lip.” By that, I mean I’m more comfortable sweeping things under the rug than admitting to myself that something is wrong and confronting the problem. Americans, I’ve learned, have the opposite problem: Their upper lips seem to be permanently relaxed, and their grievances perpetually aired.

Traditionally, the stiff upper lip is used to describe the British tendency to exert emotional restraint and refrain from overreacting, or even reacting at all. The phrase is thought to stand in contrast to the way the upper lip of a (non-British) person trembles before they start to cry. In this modern, expressive world, having a stiff upper lip can make you seem cold and detached. But I’d argue that it’s a useful coping mechanism — we could all benefit from powering through life with a stiff upper lip once in awhile.

The basic idea of the stiff upper lip is that, in most day-to-day situations, you’ll be happier if you just accept things the way they are.

The phrase itself dates back to 1815, when it was unintentionally and somewhat ironically coined by an American newspaper. But it didn’t take off in its country of origin. Instead, the phrase found its rightful home in the Queen’s Albion. And that makes sense, given that Brits have long regarded emotional restraint as a virtue, inspired by the stoicism of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for instance, famously said: “If you are distressed by any external thing, it is not this thing which disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”

So, for centuries, Brits have passed down their stiff upper lips from generation to generation, creating a country full of emotionally repressed people who will never cry at the movies (not even during Marley and Me) or send back their dinner, even if they’re severely allergic to the walnuts that they politely asked be left off their salad.

I’ve lived in the US now for 18 months. And I can safely say that stiff upper lips are few and far between among Americans.

Take, for instance, the soulless human sardine can that is the New York City subway system: When New Yorkers go underground, they seem to develop a greater-than-usual need to express the full range of their emotions. If one passenger accidentally pushes another one while trying to exit the train, the pushee will most likely get very close to the pusher and spew profanities in their face, with no apparent fear of reprisal.

If someone gets pushed on the equally soulless London tube, on the other hand, they will almost certainly do nothing, other than let out a passive-aggressive “tut.” Then, maybe, they’ll complain about the altercation to their flatmates over tea and biscuits later that day. 

Another illustration of this cultural difference lies in the way Americans order breakfast. In 2006, during my first trip to the US, I went to a Greek diner about two hours northwest of Manhattan. When it was my turn to choose something from the bible-length menu, the waitress asked me a question I wasn’t expecting: “How do you like your eggs?”

My instinct was to say “medium rare.” Generally speaking, at a UK restaurant, the only question you’ll answer about your food preferences is: “How do you like your steak cooked?” Eggs, like most things, come out however the chef sees fit (fried, usually). But, as I quickly learned, Americans specify how they want each element of their breakfast cooked. They’d like their eggs soft-scrambled — two whites, one yolk — and their rye toast heavily toasted, but only lightly buttered, and so forth. And if those eggs don’t come out soft, then those eggs go back. 

Twelve years later, I’m used to fielding unending questions about every last detail of my breakfast, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable doing it. My Britishness is ingrained; I still prefer to order a non-customized meal (and eat it without complaining). As a result, my eggs rarely arrived cooked the wrong way and my expectations rarely go unmet.

Until I moved to America, I didn’t see my stiff-lipped disposition as strange. Brits wear their stiff upper lips as a badge of honor. In fact, many of our historical figures are famous specifically because of their “keep calm and carry on” attitudes. Consider the story of Lord Uxbridge. After being hit by a cannonball during the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, Lord Uxbridge turned to the Duke of Wellington, next to him, and said, “By God, sir. I’ve lost my leg.” The Duke replied, “So you have.”

Brits nowadays don’t always display Lord Uxbridge levels of fortitude, but we all have some emotional restraint coursing through our veins. And we value it. Or, at least, I do — and I’d urge everyone to find their stiff upper lip once a day. 

Next time time you’re stuck in traffic, take a breath and stiffen your lip, because, face it, honking your horn won’t open up a portal to your destination. 

Next time time you stub your toe and your immediate impulse is to broadcast the pain to your 157 Twitter followers, stiffen your lip, because stubbed toes heal quickly, but digital footprints are forever.

And the next time a tourist stops dead in front of you, and you almost spill your coffee, ask yourself, WWLUD?! (Obviously, that’s “What Would Lord Uxbridge Do?”) And then, of course, stiffen your lip, and let out a single “tut.” Your coffee’s getting cold.

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A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.