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Nailing the English - Rules to define 'Englishness'
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour - Kate Fox
Member Name: aethys
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour - Kate Fox
Advantages: Interesting subject, funny, easy to read, informative
Disadvantages: 200 pages too much, personal cliches, boring and unnecessary introduction, no conclusive causes
It had been on my book shelf since March this year when I had got it as part of the clearance gift from my neighbour who was moving out. I am not an English myself though a resident in UK for the past several years. When I lived in France I had read many books on the French and what makes them that unique species that they are and one especially called Merde (cannot remember the complete title) written by an English (of course:)) was very humourous, entertaining and informative. This book 'Watching the English - The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour' by Kate Fox had been, thus, on my reading priorities from the moment it adorned my book shelf. And when the Christmas holidays arrived it was the time to peep into the 'central core of Englishness' and live the 'English' as long as the book lasted on me.
Kate Fox calls herself an anthropologist (she is in fact one of the leading ones's in UK) and there is plenty of it in the book. Kate attempts to formulate the 'rules of Englishness' and concludes that 'social disease' is the central core of English traits, afflictions and behaviour. She applies all the principles of a social anthropologist - ethnography, in particular. Ethnography is that branch of anthropology that heavily relies on participant-observation. So Kate embarks on this journey to formulate the rules of Englishness by observing the English - firstly in conversation and secondly in action in order to establish the 'grammar' of being English.
After an inordinately and seemingly unnecessary introduction (maybe she could not shrug off her academic traits whaich calls for obsessively long case introductions and/or literature reviews) covering mundane anthropolgy topics of 'participant observation and its discontent', 'nature of culture', 'rule making'and 'stereotypes and cultural genomics' she begins Part 1 of the book on 'Convesation Codes'. This part is sub-divided into 6 chapters - weather, grooming-talk, humour rules, linguistic codes, mobile phone talks and pub-talk. The second part of the book on 'Behaviour Codes' is having 8 chapters ranging covering everything from food, dress codes to even rules of sex and bizarrely death rules.
Before it puts of the reader that this book is just an academic exercise it should be told that it is very readable, amusing and thoroughly entertaining.
I have no intention of robbing the future readers of this book the pleasures of discovering the 'grammar of Englishness' and hence my examination of the chapters have been selective and those that provides me with the 'grammar of Englishness' and not a comprehensive synopsis.
Kate's participant observation is either location based - work, pub etc. or theme based - weather, grooming and humour. Kate observes that all conversation English commences with the Weather and points out to Dr Johnson's conclusive comment ''When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather'. But it is not the weather that the English is actually talking about but rather the weather is an excuse for either a simple greeting, or an ice breaker to further conversation or a 'default', 'filler' and 'displacement' to move the conversation forward when it has faltered midway or come to an abrupt halt.This she terms as the context rule. Kate identifies certain other rules of the 'weather speak' which draws out the instinctive traits of the English - social inhibitions and the need of facilitators in the rule of context, the importance of politeness and etiquette over logic in the rule of agreement where 'you can never contradict anybody when speaking of the weather', surprising patriotism in the weather-as-a-family rule 'where foreigners are not allowed to criticize the weather despite the classic English weather moan'. However, there is one rule identified by Fox that makes your day - The Shipping Forecast rule where she observes that everyone English follow a ritual of listening in rapt attention to the shipping forecast on wind-strengths and visibility for the benefit of sea-farers and claims that they do so just like they would hear a Christmas Carol broadcast. The contents of the forecast containing names of obscure places and irrelevant meterological data is immaterial to them, she claims but it illustrates the English's 'deep seated need for a sense of safety, security and continuity'.
In other cultures wit is often the harbinger of folly and there is a 'time and place' reserved for humour but not for the English. English conversation, Kate observes is dominated by humour and is all pervading. It is not a variable but a 'constant'. There might be some misplaced miscoceptions that English humour, per se, is superior to the humour elsewhere on the globe though Kate observes that there is a lot more wit and irony which she calls 'high class ones'. However, she claims that the essence of Englishness is the amount of 'value'that they put to humour so as to make it the 'central importance in English culture and social interactions'. The key rule that she formulates to illustrate the centrality of humour in English conversations is the 'Importance of Not Being Earnest'. This rule comes out beautifully in the following lines 'seriousness is acceptable, solemnity is prohibited. sincerity is allowed, earnestness is strictly prohibited. pomposity and self-importance is outlawed'.'The ability to laugh at ourselves,although it may be rooted in a form of arrogance, is one of the endearing characteristics of the English'.And all the other rules that she formulates follows from her conclusion that as an English nothing could be so lofty as to take it with utmost seriousness bereft of tinge of humour. In that sense humour for the English is as reflex as sneezing.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." This is true of almost all other cultures though with varying degrees. India has the extreme in the caste system where you inherit the hatred with the caste you are born to and here in England you inherit the hatred with the class your parents belong to at the time of your birth. I do not know yet whether class here is as rigid as the caste in India and whether one could migrate to different class but definitely my English friends do tell me that you can remove the class in you but you cannot possibly remove yourself from the class. Everyone English does have an instinctive consciousness of the class radar. Just like English humour English class is also all pervasive. Ben Johnson relected ''Language more shows a man''. What he might be meaning was that it exposed his class. Kate observes that 'pronunciation' and 'terminology' are the two most reliable indicators of class. However, 'pronunciation' exposes your class in the most obvious manner, she remarks. A handkerchief becomes 'ankerchief' if spoken by an underclass and 'hnkerchf' when pronounced by the upperclass. So when you are in England it does not matter whether you speak proper English but what 'consonants or vowels you omit'. The 'terminology' rule is a lot more complex - certain words are used by certain class for certain items. Kate provides a list of such 'non-upper class' words, the 'seven deadly sins' - pardon (sorry for upper), toilet (loo for upper), serviette (napkin for upper), dinner (a lot complex and if you want to sound upperclass you need to remember the time of the day you are spelling out the word), settee (sofa for the upper), lounge or living room (sitting or drawing room for upper) and sweet (again the time is important, if after a meal then it must be pudding for the upper). I am not sure how far this linguistic jugglery could help one cross class boundaries or are they as rigid a symbol as the ''tripund'' mark on the forehead of the ''Hindu priest'' caste. But I too have experienced this linguistic symbolisms when my middle class cousin rebuked his son severely for developing a ''south london'' tongue which must be a deplorable thing to do thinking the exasperated look he had on his face.
What became certain was that class conciousness permeates the English society in the way it has been extensively covered under various chapters of the book. The distictive characteristics of the English class system also comes out -
- wealth and occupation does in no way tell your class, in that sense it is not meritocracy
- your class depends on your speech, taste and lifestyle, all non-economic indicators and tough to acquire in later life if you are not brought up with it
- the class system itself is very nuanced, intricate and highly layered with subtle distictions
- English 'hypocricy' that Kate refers to as a defining English characteristics - here it is a case of self denial and certain prudishness about the existence of class
HOME and Garden
Kate has done some extensive research on this and has come up with rules for pretty much everything from 'DIY' to 'Back-garden formula'. But there are cetain observation she makes that any foreigner could easily recognise. The English land is typically covered by rows of similar box type houses, red-brown or grey with patches of green adorning the front and a small patch resembling a dumpyard at the back. I have no idea whether every Englishmen does afford to have his own box and the green patch and if they do then there would be hardly any open space left at the end of this century. Secondly, the English home is not just a home, it is his 'castle' without the moat and the drawbridge. However, the moat and the drawbridge is replaced by the camouflaged and discretely hidden street names or number, house name or number and anything that helps a stranger locate the house. This quintessential obsession with 'privacy' is one of the hallmarks of 'Englishness'. Kate concludes that this obsession with privacy is third way that an English deals with his lack of 'social skills', the other two being the use of 'props and facilitators' like weather and 'agressiveness'.
This chapter offers myriad rules, most of them contradictory, some of them mere repeats and one or two that could sum up Kate's 'difficult' effort. Kate announces at the beginning of this chapter that the English attitude towards work is 'ambivalent', 'contradictory' and too 'complex' and hence it is 'difficult' to formulate 'rules'. So she begins with the 'muddle rule' which is full of 'buts'. The English attitude to work is 'serious but not serious', 'dutiful but grudging', 'moaning but stoical', a 'compromise' but not 'conflict'. It has neither the 'wholehearted zeal of the Protestant' nor the 'insouciant fatalism' of the Latin-Mediteranean Catholic. It is one of 'Moderation', which Kate acknowledges as yet another golden 'rule' of the English. It is not being extreme so as to be passionately stubborn whether it be views, behaviour or anything else. ''Excess of everything is bad'' and has to be spurned. How extreme the arousal may be the English has to show a minimum of fuss. This admirable quality though Kate warns leads to a 'cultural climate of pervasive anxiety' and perpetual 'compromise' even when the occasion demands otherwise. Kate gives the example of the English civil war between the monarchy and supporters of Parliament where it ended in a compromise and recently seen in the occupation of the St.Paul's Cathedral where nothing of the kind like Tahrir Square could materialise even though the urge for change would have been equally strong. Kate mockingly suggests the English protest chant to be 'What do we want? GRADUAL CHANGE! When do we want it? IN DUE COURSE!'.
A second obsession discussed at length by Kate is the rule of 'Fair Play'. Fair Play, desite being borrowed from the sporting arena aptly descibes what it means - as long as everyone gets a fair chance, as long as everyone plays by the rules, as long as everyone does his job as is required of him it does not matter who is a winner or a loser. Fair Play transends the boundaries of work or sports, it shows up in routine matters too. The rule of 'fair-play' ensures that nobody jumps the queue - not even in a pub where there is an 'invisible queue' and the bartender ensures that the person first in the queue is served before the next. Kate quotes the humourist George Mikes: ''an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one''. The only exception I find is at the Boxing Day sale where they do make the queue while waiting to enter Primark but as soon as the gates open the queue disappears into a mass of flesh and muscle all jostling to get first at the bargain jumper and rip it off the pedestal hanger and into the shopping bag. But it is definitely not 'Englishness', the poor English have to wrestle with the marauding hordes of Chinese and the Arabs.
A third obsession though covered relatively sparsely by Kate is the rule of 'Modesty'. Kate observes that in the event of the requirements of advertising and marketing are at odds with the modesty rule, it is the rule that wins, and the advertising must be reinvented to comply with the prohibition on boasting. I, for once, do not agree with this as physycologically there is a very thin line between modesty and snobbery. Kate, however, also points out that the English are not necessarily more modest than others, but they are scrupulous about maintaining the appearance of modesty, what she calls as 'reverse-modesty' but I would prefer 'snobbery'. A snob would maintain his reluctance to flaunt his achievements but his tone would suggest otherwise letting the 'listener to be simultaneously impressed with not only one's achievements (or boasts), but also with one's unwillingness to trumpet them'.
All the rules that Kate Fox covers in 'Watching the English' are summarised at the end with some additional insights and classification:
-Reflex or deeply ingrained impulses - humour, moderation and hypocricy;
-Outlooks or worldview - empiricism or just 'oh, come off it!', eeyorishness or just 'huh! typical!' and class-conciousness;
-Values or ideals - fair play, courtesy, and modesty.
These nine rules under three categories is presented by Kate in the form of an interconnected circular diagram that makes up the 'English Social Dis-ease' or as she eloquently describes it as 'chronic social inhibitins and handicaps'.
As for the causes of these quirky rules she does not have any answers or maybe it is beyond her academic boundaries or being English she is being modest - expecting us to find the answers ourselves.
Although some of the rules are undeniably 'English' some others might be present in varying degrees in all cultures and Kate's generalisation could be opposed by many many 'English'. Also it is debatable whether the rules apply uniformly across the board or only for certain sections of the English society. Is every English person 'socially challenged'? or are there many many exceptions. And then Kate does not treat the cultural diversity of England - with thousands of immigrants everywhere and the quirks of the immigrants having rubbed into the English psyche that a Saturday takeway has to be 'curry'.
Despite being a difficult academic subject Kate has tried hard to inject fun and eloquence which makes the reading pleasurable. It would have been better if she could have made the book more concise and refrained from excessive repetions which borders on the boring and at times is irritating. If she would have refrained from her own personal cliche and instead concentrated only on observations the book would have more concise and very sweet.
It is a 400+ page book with footnotes, epilogue and even an index. It costs around £6 in Amazon. If this review has aroused your interest then better get the book for yourself and discover whether desrve to be called 'English'.
I never thought that I would be writing such a long review but now that I have, I earnestly hope that you enjoy it and even if you don't speak ill of me in 'moderation'.
Now that it's over I deserve "a nice cup of tea and a biscuit". We "mustn't have too much of a good thing."
Also reviewed for Ciao Uk under same name and title
Summary: A book full of English humour and wit to define the serious rules of Englishness.
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