Watching the English


If it’s pop armchair ethnography you want (and why not, sometimes?), then

  • Kate Fox, Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour

is brilliant.

To be impeccably English, […] one must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward, and above all, embarrassed. Hesitation, dithering and ineptness are, surprising as it may seem, correct behaviour. (41)

And her insights into the “Typical!” rule (pp.199–200, 303–305) and funerals (pp.374–8)… Her final list of English traits (pp.400–414) includes Social dis-ease and Reflexes such as Humour, Moderation, Hypocrisy, Eeyorishness, Fair play, and Modesty.  I’ve also cited her remarks on headline punning. Click here for her comments on funerals.

And say what you like about Bill Bryson, but he too has some fine insights into the British (Notes from a small island, pp.68–9):

It has long seemed to me unfortunate—and I’m taking the global view here—that such an important experiment in social organization was left to the Russians when the British would have done it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the impositioning of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those over the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right.

On a related tack (pp.98–9):

And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. […] They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting—a slice of gâteau or a choice of chocolates from a box—and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it’s unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.

“Oh, I shouldn’t really,” they say.

“Oh, go on,” you prod encouragingly.

“Well, just a small one then,” they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant conformation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure into one’s mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright.

And on puddings:

It’s a funny thing about English diners. They’ll let you dazzle them with piddly duxelles of this and fussy little noisettes of that, but don’t fuck with their puddings, which is my thinking exactly.

For further comments on being English, see this roundup. Such observation should be part of fieldwork in more far-flung societies too.

34 thoughts on “Watching the English

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