Saturday, 5 January 2013

Watching the English

Title: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
Author: Kate Fox
Pages: 432 (paperback)
Published: April 11th 2005
Published by: Hodder and Stoughton

In "Watching The English" anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. The rules of weather-speak. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo and many more ...

Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.

Starting off, I loved this book. It was generally well-written, easy to read, insightful and funny. Yes, I was mainly laughing at all the things I recognised that I did myself, but it was still funny. These were things I didn't even really notice, or rather didn't realise were peculiarly English (I almost wrote British there, but the book is exclusively about the English!The Scots, Welsh and Irish would probably hate to be lumped in with us). The topics were interesting and easy to relate to - things you see all the time and think nothing off. It's just the way you, or others act; it's the norm. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for Fox to remove herself from her own culture and get inside of it.

But then the chapters started getting longer. And longer.

And the time it took me to read each one got longer. And longer.

Even though each chapter has subsections (often very similar ones), it is still rather disheartening to have been reading for half an hour and still only be half-way through a 50-page chapter. I think this book would have benefited from being broken down into more bite-sized chunks. The early chapters were easy to wizz through in a sitting, and I enjoyed them a lot more like that.

There was also rather a lot of repetition. I understand that she's looking for the commonalities of English-ness in various aspects of everyday life and therefore the same things will keep cropping up, but 'social dis-ease' and 'props and facilitators' came up so often it began to annoy me a little. Similarly when it came to class and the endless lists and repetitions of what the lower/lower-middle/middle-middle/upper-middle/upper class would do in each circumstance, call each thing. Towards the end even the author made a joke about how often these had been referenced, and couldn't we work it out for ourselves by now?

In all honesty I skipped over the conclusion section. I'd read the little summary at the end of each chapter and figured this would just be a general gathering of everything said there. I scanned and skipped bits, but nothing more. Because I couldn't be bothered reading the same things all over again.

This book was quite interesting in places, but could have been written more concisely I think. Being English, I appreciated it, but I doubt people from other nationalities would unless they had spent a lot of time in England or around the English.

Some of my favourite quotes from the book:

"Formality is embarrassing. But then, informality is embarrassing. Everything is embarrassing." (p. 41)

"If you are socially skilled, or come from a country where these matters are handled in a more reasonable, straightforward manner (such as anywhere else on the planet), you may need a bit of practice to achieve the required degree of embarrassed, stilted incompetence." (p. 52)

"English men can turn almost any conversation, on any topic, into a Mine's Better Than Yours game." (p. 55)

"[T]he English...can spot the slightest hint of self-importance at twenty paces, even on a grainy television picture and in a language we don't understand." (p. 63)

"When waiting alone for a bus or at a taxi stop, I do not just lounge about anywhere roughly within striking distance of the stop, as people do in other countries - I stand directly under the sign, facing in the correct direction, exactly as though I were at the head of a queue. I form an orderly queue of one." (p. 91)

"I would suggest that home is what the English have instead of social skills." (p. 134)

"The opportunity to moan or, even better, the opportunity to indulge in some witty moaning, is irresistible." (p. 143)

"...when any inadvertent, undesired contact occurs (and to the English, almost any contact is by definition undesired), we say 'sorry'." (p. 150)

"We huff and puff and scowl and mutter and seethe with righteous indignation, but only rarely do we actually speak up and tell the jumper to go to the back of the queue." (p. 154)

"Moderation is all very well, but only in moderation." (p. 195)

"...the English take great pleasure in being shocked and outraged, and righteous indignation is one of our favourite national pastimes" (p.196)

"The English are human; we are social animals just like all other humans, but we have to trick ourselves into social interaction and bonding by disguising it as something else" (p. 241)

"The English are not keen on random, unstructured, spontaneous, street-corner sociability; we are no good at this, and it makes us uneasy. We prefer to socialize in an organised, ordered manner, at specific times and places of our choosing, with rules that we can argue about, an agenda, minutes and a monthly newsletter." (p. 250-251)

"Even an Anarchist meeting I attended followed the same sequence, although it was much better organized than most, and at the demonstration the next day the members were all dressed in uniform black, carrying professional looking banners, chanting in unison and marching in step." (p. 252-253)

"...our obnoxiousnesses are about as awkward, irrational and inelegant as our politenesses." (p. 265)

"'I get the impression,' said one frustrated American, 'that at some deep-down, fundamental level the English just don't really expect things to work properly" (p. 303) *We don't. It's more surprising when things go right than when they go wrong.

"At funerals we are left bereft and helpless. No irony! No mockery! No teasing! No banter! No humorous understatement! No jokey wordplay or double entendres! How the hell are we supposed to communicate?" (p. 375)

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