A book about English behaviour

I should say thanks to my bad cold that allowed me to finish reading the book <<Watching the English: The hidden rules of English behaviour>>, written by Kate Fox (2004). As I remember five years ago, my bad cold helped me prepare for the viva well.

Although I live in Wales, I don’t think I understand the British very much. Many people I know are English and most time I took people’s behaviour as culture differences. However, this book helps me to understand English a bit more.

Some statements are impressed me:

The identification of England as a predominantly ‘negative-politeness’ culture – concerned mainly with the avoidance of imposition and intrusion – seems to me quite helpful. The important point here is that politeness and courtesy, as practised by the English, have very little to do with friendliness or good nature.(p.173)

What I noticing is that there is rarely anything straightforward or direct or transparent about English social interaction.We seems to be congenitally incapable of being frank, clear or assertive. We are always oblique, always playing some complex, convoluted game. When we are not doing things backwards… we are doing them sideways… We seem perversely determined to make everything as difficult as possible for ourselves. (p.173)

The English, on the whole, do not ‘work hard and play hard’: we do both, and most other things, in moderation. Of course, ‘work moderately, play moderately’ does not have quite the same ring to it, but I’m afraid it is a far more accurate description of typical English work and leisure habits.(p.193)

The rather less admirable English habit of constant moaning is another distinguishing feature of our workplace behaviour, and of our attitude to work. The principal rule in this context is that work is, almost by definition, something to be moaned about. This is a connection here with the Importance of Not Being Earnest rule, in that if you do not indulge in the customary convivial moaning about work, there is a danger that you will be seen as too keen and earnest, and labelled a ‘sad geek’, a sycophantic ‘suck’ or self-important ‘pompous git’. (p.197) [This rule is very helpful for me as I rarely moaned about work. I may complained something such as a delivery service that happened on me unfairly, but I don’t moan about things so often in workplace. I do take work very seriously and work hard. I don’t quite understand why people spend time on moaning but not doing, now I see I probably look like an alien.]

The  sensual pleasure of eating, it seems to me, are in the same category – not exactly a taboo subject, but one that should only be talked about in a light-hearted, unserious, jokey manner. (p.298)

Our reluctance to complain in restaurants is, however, only partly due to congenital social dis-sea. There is also a wider issue of low expectations. I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter Paul Richardson’s observation that the English regard good food as a privilege, not as a right. Unlike other cultures with a tradition of caring about food and culinary expertise, the English on the whole do not have very high expectations when we go to a restaurant, or indeed of the food we prepare at home. With the expectation of a handful of foodies, we don’t really expect the meals we are served to be particularly good: we are pleased when the food is good, but we do not feel as deeply offended or indignant as other nations when it is mediocre. We may feel a bit annoyed about a overcooked steak or flabby chips, but it is not as though some fundamental human right has been infringed. Mediocre food in the norm. … English people mostly don’t expect particularly good service or products, and when their pessimistic assumptions are confirmed they say, “Huh! Typical!” (p.303) [These two statements are helpful too as I always wonder why people don’t keen on talking about food. Also, it tells me what is English people’s view of services, a kind of strange view for me.]

The central ‘core’ of Englishness. Social dis-ease is a shorthand term for all our chronic inhibitions and handicaps. The English social dis-ease is a congenital disorder, bordering on a sort of sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia (the politically correct euphemism would be ‘social challenged’). It is our lack of ease, discomfort and incompetence in the filed (minefield) of social interaction; our  embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human being. When we feel uncomfortable in social situations (that is, most of the time) we either become over-polite, buttoned up and awkwardly restrained or load, loutish, crude, violent and generally obnoxious. (p.401)

Virtually all English conversations and social interactions involve at least some degree of banter, teasing, irony, wit, mockery, wordplay, satire, understatement, humorous self-deprecation, sarcasm, pomposity-pricking or just silliness. Humour is not a special, separate kind of talk: it is our ‘default mode’; it is like breathing; we cannot function without it. English humour is a reflex, a knee-jerk response, particularly when we are feeling uncomfortable or awkward: when in doubt, joke. (p.402)

We are no more naturally modest, courteous or fair than any other culture, but we have more unwritten rules prescribing the appearance of these qualities, which are clearly very important to us.(p.404)

Moaning is also highly enjoyable (there is nothing the English love so much as a good moan – it really is a pleasure to watch) and an opportunity for displays of wit. Almost all ‘social’ moaning is humorous mock-moaning. Real, tearful despair is not allowed, except among intimates. Even if you are feeling truly desperate, you must pretend to be only pretending to feel desperate (the unbearable lightness of being English). (p.405)

The diagram in page 410 displays Englishess at-a-glance, very easy to understand what the author means. I quite like this book, it covers many rules (or things) that I never notice. For example, the invisible-queue rule in the pub, DIY, money-talk rules, queuing rules, fair-play rule, not being earnest rule, pets, dress, table manner, forks and pea-eating rules, panto and so on. Some points my friends had told me to some extent in our conversations, some are completely new for me. I encourage people who are from different culture background to read this book and see how much they understand English’s behaviours. Somehow, I feel some of my friends are patient enough to help me understand them. But largely it’s hard to really understand them completely as individual is different and it’s relevant to special context too. I prefer spontaneous to hypocrisy.

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