This week’s letter is F, and today’s author is the British anthropologist Kate Fox. She is a specialist observer of her own culture, the English, and has written other books about their pub etiquette, and on how they behave at the races. I bought Watching the English when I was on holiday in the far north-west of Scotland, in the Mountain Coffee Bookstore at Gairloch. When I read it I was transfixed. Reading about your own society, and your own habits and bizarre behaviour is a bit of a guilty pleasure: we hope we won’t find out something foolish, or horrible, about ourselves. We’re also delighted when we find out something foolish about other people. What I didn’t expect when I read this book was to understand better how I behave. I am a foreigner in the country I’ve lived in for years, and now I understand why I get so cross, or frustrated, about other people’s behaviour: they aren’t British, but yet I am expecting them to behave like the British. Which is stupid, of course.
You’ll have noticed that I’m using the words ‘English’ and ‘British’ interchangeably. The English are not the same as the British, and neither are the British the same as the English. The English live in or come from England, whereas the British include the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the people of Northern Ireland. The British Isles include the island of Ireland, but let’s not get too complicated about political and geographical boundaries. The Scots, Welsh and Irish are not English, so don’t call them so. Kate Fox is also very clear about the parameters of her research: this book is indeed only written about English behaviour, observed in England, from people with English accents. It’s also about the British, most of the time.
Watching the English is brilliant because it’s so true, and so carefully observed. It’s not a textbook for specialists: it’s written in a jolly style, packed with anecdotes, but is also carefully organised into two sections, on conversation, and on behaviour. But Fox keeps her specialist standards. She gives clear evidence, and is very careful not to generalise or overstate the case from one single example of behaviour.
She gives us solid facts, which ring true as soon as we (the British who are reading the book) hear them. The core characteristics of British identity are a kind of social dis-ease, an uncomfortableness with social interaction. Our automatic reflexes are humour, moderation, and hypocrisy. Our normal outlooks are a passion for facts, finding fault, and class-consciousness. Our values are fair play, courtesy, and modesty. That’s a Brit, through and through. Let me explain.
Social dis-ease: we are so uncomfortable with people, we lack the easy assurance that could get us into and out of encounters with strangers, or people we love very much, unless we are actors and trained in schmoozing skills that always seem faintly American and un-British. Isn’t that true? Haven’t you ever been surprised at how awkward a British person can be? The way we get around this is using humour: it is our universal safety valve, the thing that helps us past the terrifying social contact thing. I do it all the time at work: I make a joke to keep conversations going. I make jokes for my students all the time. I may be nervous inside, but if I can make people laugh I feel fine. My particular schtick is the driest of dry humour, or a cosy British mumsiness to disarm the unwary before I go in with the killer quip. It’s all about making the other person feel good, so they won’t attack me.
As well as being addicted to being funny, or trying to be funny for our own relief and self-protection, we are also keen on not being extreme. The British are not natural extremists, in anything. British fanaticism, unleavened by humour, is rare, but when we do succumb (in football, or religion) we are can be utterly vile. On the other hand, we are also complete hypocrites, in that we will say almost anything to maintain an expected social norm. All we want to do is avoid giving offense, so we lie through our teeth socially. All this can be found with evidence in Fox.
On to the normal outlooks of the British, or English person: we like facts. We can be persuaded of anything by facts. Facts as well as anecdotal evidence are even better. We don’t take well to theoretical speculation or idealism: the British are not normally taught philosophy, or rhetoric, at school. We are also eeyorish, which refers to Eeyore the donkey of Winnie the Pooh. (The British see nothing odd in learning life lessons from a character in children’s fiction: children’s fiction is extremely important to the British.) We are pessimistic, by default. Feeling gloomy is the acceptable way for a British person to feel in public. Feeling chirpy, pleased, tragic, mirthful: all of these will cause discussion to arise, as if there’s something wrong with them, whereas feeling mildly gloomy is so normal we don’t think about it. ‘How are you?’, ‘Not too bad’ is a British conversational cliché.
Kate Fox’s most important observation on the British outlook is the big elephant in the room: our class-consciousness. Talking about class is to put one’s foot in it immediately, so I won’t. But class is still a very powerful factor in all British social interaction, and the easiest way for one British person to be unpleasant or contemptuous about another one.
When she talks about our values she’s also spot-on: fair play, well absolutely. We invented the queue, and we get upset if a queue is violated. (This is something that makes me cross, anywhere in the world: I can’t help it.) We applaud the losing side in a sports game because they need the support. This is also part of our courtesy, which is closely connected with our hypocrisy. We’ll do almost anything to avoid giving offence, and that includes lying to the person we don’t want to offend. This is all very strange.
Kate Fox has packed this book with brilliantly revealing evidence for British shyness, our worries about privacy being invaded, the rules for talking to someone you don’t know, our inability to accept compliments, how we can’t say good-bye, our fear of boasting, the rules about visiting someone else’s garden, the British compulsion for DIY, our terror of talking about money, and how we use humour for our own protection. She tells us how to sound upper-class (lose the vowels) or lower-class (lose the consonants). She sets out the class rules for vocabulary, food, how we decorate our homes, and how one class betrays itself to another. ‘Betrays’ is the right word: class is a very dangerous battlefield.
Watching the English is a great book for just dipping into. I’ve chosen three pages at random, to suggest what you could find if you were flipping through the book idly before going to bed. On page 51: how men and women gossip, and the important of detail and feedback. Englishwomen demand a lot of feedback when relaying a piece of gossip, so that the story becomes a collaborative performance between them and their audience. But men don’t do this, not even the more extravagant and lively Englishmen. Englishmen claim not to be interested in gossip, they prefer ’exchanging information’. Sometimes this can be pretty close to gossip, especially when it’s a blow by blow account of the unfairness of the manager at work and what he said next. Sometimes it can be extraordinarily dull, as in a discussion of roadworks and motorway junctions.
Second random page: p.165: the rules for car care and decoration. This is where the classes are interesting, because the upper and lower classes don’t care very much about how clean or well-cared for their car is, whereas the classes in the middle get very stressed about scratches and dust. Then there are the details of how and when, and where you clean your car, if you ever think it worth doing. Is a car-wash upper or lower class? Is car waxing middle-class? Who uses car valets? And finally, the interior decoration of the car is very class-driven. Only one particular British social class will have a spare umbrella and box of tissues on the back window shelf, or hang a deodoriser from the front mirror (and it isn’t mine).
The final random choice is from p.253: pub rules. These are utterly complex, depending on the sex of the drinkers, the choice of drinks, how to manage rounds, and even the act of ordering, which requires mime, semaphore and an intricate understanding of the concept of personal space and the queue. It wasn’t like that in north-east Scotland when I was growing up, where the only place a girl could get a drink was in a hotel bar, perched on a stupid high stool drinking Babycham or vodka and coke. Real men went to spit-and-sawdust bars where the floors really were covered in sawdust, the rooms were harshly lit and intended for several downings of whisky before going back out to collect the wife waiting outside with the dogs in the rain. English pubs are far more civilised. It’s wonderful how Kate Fox sets this all out and shows us what we’re like.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough if you want to learn how the British behave when they’re not thinking.