Our English friends Adam and Tabitha gave us a hugely helpful book for the holidays - Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox. Prior to moving to England this should be required reading for future residents. I've been diligently reading it during my daily commute on the London tube and in true English fashion people have been showing little reaction although I can see that they are reading the title. I suppose it has become my armour.
Here is a sample insight:
"It is not considered entirely polite, for example, to ask someone directly 'What do you do?', although if you think about it this is the most obvious question to put to a new acquaintance, and the easiest way to start a conversation. But in addition to our privacy scruples, we English seem to have a perverse need to make social life difficult for ourselves, so etiquette requires us to find a more roundabout, indirect way of discovering what people do for a living. It can be most amusing to listen to the tortured and devious lengths to which English people will go to ascertain a new acquaintance's profession without actually asking the forbidden question. The guessing game, which is played at almost every middle-class social gathering where people are meeting each other for the first time, involves attempting to guess a person's occupation from 'clues' in remarks made about other matters.
A comment about traffic problems in the local area, for example, will elicit the response, 'Oh, yes, it's a nightmare - and the rush hour is even worse: do you drive to work?' The other person knows exactly what question is really intended, and will usually obligingly answer the unspoken enquiry as well as the spoken one, saying something like, 'Yes, but I work at the hospital, so at least I don't have to get into the town centre.' The questioner is now allowed to make a direct guess: 'Oh, the hospital - you're a doctor, then?' (When two or three possible occupations are indicated, it is polite to name the highest-status one as a first guess - doctor rather than nurse, porter or medical student; solicitor rather than secretary. Also, even though an explicit guess is permitted at this stage, it is best expressed as an interrogative statement, rather than as a direct question.)... [pages 44-45]
Good golly we Americans would just say, "so what is it that you do?" Who knows how many times I've inadvertently embarrassed an English person when I've been so forward? Or perhaps they are relieved by my directness?