Book Review: Watching The English

Watching the English
The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

I love systematic explanations of things, because I feel like it gives me a greater understanding of things than mere observations. Observations are akin to symptoms, and everyone knows that it’s better to know the cause of an issue than to just treat the symptoms. I love that anthropologists and ethnographers are trained to draw from their observations a series of conclusions that they form into an underlying structure of behavior, to express the rules of engagement that govern their subjects’ lives. That’s why they’re called social “sciences!”

Kate Fox has taken her ethnographic skills and turned the magnifying lens on her own people, the English. After all, it’s not just naked indigenous tribes in the rainforest that have fascinating social structures. With frequent humorous references to her own conditioning as an English woman, Fox has drawn quite a picture of what it means to be English, and how it governs their social interaction. The book is an entertaining read, not just for the conclusions it draws, but the whole thing is rather engaging and interesting. As someone who tries to avoid sweeping statements and stereotypes, I was surprised at how adept Fox was at making generalizations without seeming like that’s what she was doing. She painted a portrait of the English character with a few broad strokes, but when you look closely, she used the fine brush of professional observation to justify her assertions, filling things in with detail and supportive examples. Her observations led to conclusions, and not the other way around.

The biggest paradox she had to deal with was the coexistence of the English reputation of being quiet and reserved, and the loutish hooliganism their sports fans are famous for. These two opposing behaviors (and many less extreme examples) are expressed even by individuals, which suggested to her that perhaps they weren’t just opposite ends of a spectrum, but actually two sides to the same coin. Fox has named this phenomenon the English Social Dis-ease. Fox explains that English people are (generally) uncomfortable and awkward in social situations, particularly when there aren’t plenty of rules to govern how they are expected to act. This unease is a major factor in determining how English people handle social situations, as it interacts with the core values and outlooks of Englishness as she sees it. The combination of these factors create a fairly predictable pattern of behavior that English people generally adhere to, and sheds some light on what may seem as opposing tendencies.

Each chapter summarizes her observations in regards to a variety of situations and interactions. This is broken into two larger sections, Conversation Codes and Behavior Codes. The underlying themes make frequent appearances, and each chapter summarizes with how exactly these observations provide a fuller understanding of Englishness. In all, the book is well-organized and educational, but more importantly, it’s actually quite entertaining, which seems like a bit of a rarity in the world of ethnographic studies.

(I don’t feel like I’m necessarily spoiling anything by revealing some of Fox’s conclusions, and this should in no way discourage you from picking up her book for yourself. This book isn’t just about the ending – the way she arrives at her conclusions is just as fascinating as her findings themselves.)

The Core: Social Dis-ease
“…A shorthand term for all English social inhibitions and handicaps… embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings. When we feel uncomfortable in social situations (that is, most of the time) we either become over-polite, buttoned up and awkwardly retrained or loud, loutish, crude, violent and generally obnoxious… temporary alleviation/remission can be achieved using props and facilitators – games, pubs, clubs, weather-speak, cyberspace, pets, etc – an/or ritual, alcohol, magic words and other medications. We may enjoy periods of ‘natural’ remission in private and among intimates, but it is never entirely curable. Most peculiarities of English behaviour are traceable, either directly or indirectly, to this unfortunate affliction.”

Reflexes – knee-jerk impulses set as default modes of reaction. “Cultural equivalents of laws of gravity”
As she puts it, the English tend to behave in certain situations, particularly when their Social Dis-ease leads them to feel uncomfortable in some interaction. Humour is their strongest weapon and one of the in-built modes of Englishness. It’s so ingrained in their minds that they will often make jokes without even realizing it. The British wit is known the world over, but it’s not often attributed to a cover-up of social ineptitude. The other two forces at work are Moderation and Hypocrisy, which keep the English from being too much of something–she mentions the English dislike of earnestness which makes people who get a little too serious get checked by the national catchphrase “oh, come off it!”

Outlooks – Ways of perceiving things characteristic to the English
The English perception of things tends to rely on empirical observations mixed with a healthy dose of pessimism. Fox would refer to that pessimism as “Eeyorishness,” which refers not only to their cynical expectations about the way things are or will be, but their deep satisfaction when those expectations are met and things go wrong. If there’s a runner up for the national catchphrase, Fox claims it would be “typical!”

The third element of English perception is their class consciousness. Although England doesn’t operate on a caste system, they are still very conscious of class. Class is not necessarily about money, but about the way you were raised; your mannerisms, vocabulary, the way you dress and speak all factor into the way people perceive you. A lot of people trying to break through to middle or upper-middle class are often what Fox refers to as the class-anxious, trying to coach their children not to use words like “settee” or “supper,” but the class-anxious also have their tells which highlight not only their class level, but their earnestness in trying to fight against it. As most things that make them uncomfortable, it’s often made into a joke; I used to love watching British comedies on PBS, and one of them was “Keeping up Appearances,” of a very class-anxious middle-class housewife who did everything to make herself and her family seem higher-class, including her speech patterns, the way she kept the house, and keeping her working class relatives far from the neighbors’ eyes. She even tried to perfume her own surname.

Delivery for Mrs. Bucket.
It’s ‘Bouquet!’

Values – Fundamental guiding principles. “The moral standards to which we aspire to, even if we do not always live up to them.”
Above all things, the English are about fairness, politeness and modesty. What Fox called Fair Play is the standards of equality that make sure everyone gets a turn in order, whether it’s lining up at the bus stop or the invisible line at the pub, or the practice of ordering rounds of drinks for each other, or even their cheering habits (so long as one of the teams aren’t THEIR team). Fox isn’t the only one to observe the English propensity for queuing, she cited someone as saying “The lone English man forms an orderly queue of one.” This observation proves quite accurate; when people are waiting alone at the bus stop, they don’t just loiter around, but will stand at the marked line to board the bus when it arrives. This isn’t just a national love of standing in lines, but rather a manifestation of their deep-seated value of fairness. Just look at how they treat queue jumpers.

English courtesy is another trait for which they are known, and Fox put this to the test by purposefully bumping into people at the train station to see how many of them would apologize–almost all of them did, even when she clearly was at fault. Please and thank you are like oxygen to English interaction, they supply the conversation with the padding of politeness. This is very similar to Japanese set-phrases, in that they are seen as very polite, but everyone knows that they are just empty words. True feelings of gratitude or apology are not often found in these words, but their omission is glaringly obvious and rude. Lastly is the importance of modesty, an extension (or perhaps the origin) of the Moderation reflex. No one wants to come off as boasting or being full of themselves, because those people usually take themselves way too seriously.

In a Word
The playful style of writing is perfectly matched with Fox’s observations of her own people, and it was as fun to read as it was educational. I only wish there were books like this about all the places I visit, it would certainly make it easier to navigate the jungles of intercultural interaction.