6 feb. 2009

Defining Englishness

(This is a summary of Kate Fox’s Watching the English, a book I read for my Cultural studies class. This is not an academic work; I just did it so I could remember it for the exam. Since I am not English, I was afraid to publish it here, for it might offend someone (even though these are not my own views), so I sent it to an English friend so she could give me her outlook. I have attached her answer at the end of this paper)

Although I know you are English I am going to refer to them as “they” or “the English” just to make clear that with these statements I am not trying to say that you or any particular English person ought to behave in this way, but rather I want make clear that those are the patters that are more likely to occur in English society as a whole.

It is not about what it should or should not be done in order to be a proper member of the English society, but what the Englishmen or women actually do, and the best way to do that is studying how they relate and interact with their fellow English country mate- or more likely in the English case the problems and the awkwardness that they have when they interact and bond with each other. All anthropologists agree that if there is one central “core” feature that is more likely to define Englishness, one that is related and shapes the others, including their reflexes, outlooks and values. The politically correct euphemism would be that the English are “socially challenged”. They tend to feel awkward and uncomfortable with social interactions and they have problems to relate with other human beings. This is why they do not talk with strangers (exceptions: when they have a considerable amount of alcohol, they are in pubs, they are talking about the weather or they are in the cyberspace). This is due among other things that the English are very concern about their own privacy; they do not talk about personal stuff with acquaintances. They are not fond of gossiping about friends, but on the other hand they are more than happy to gossip about public figures. These social inhibitions are reduced with alcohol which is usually an excuse to talk with strangers. Straightforward questions are also not very well-received. Even when you met someone, you don’t ask personal information- it is of bad taste to say as in the American way, “hi, I’m Paul, what’s your name?” when you meet someone for the first time- instead, the English try to obtain this personal data by other indirect means, with other kind of questions that might lead to the personal information. Even if they do want to share personal information with others they do it as subtle as possible. The pub is one of the best places for social interactions. This is why pubs usually have and old-fashioned style in order to look homey, and they don’t have waiters so they have to approach to the bar to get their drink which increases the changes that they might have to talk with someone while they’re waiting for their drink.

Due to these chronic social inhibitions, the English have developed a series of reflexes in order to cope with their lack of straightforwardness. The most important basic reflex is humour. Unlike most cultures which have “a time and a place” for humour, virtually all English conversations and social interactions involves some kind of irony, mockery, satire, wordplay etc. This is a no special kind of talk: it is the default mode of the English. A good example it can be given is when a young couple flirt: no one would expect that a guy would come up to a strange girl and ask her for “a date” or “to go out”. It is even more acceptable if he ask her “fancy in shag” in a humorous way. This takes us to the other side of the spectrum; the English are not very fond of seriousness and earnestness. In a pub they can talk about their problems at home or at work, but they can’t be too serious about it. As well, the English can’t stand when someone tries to sound clever or smart. They would probably say to them; “Oh, come off it” (which is the national catchphrase).

The second most important reflex is moderation. The English are moderate in everything but in moderation itself; this is why revolutions have not occurred in England for more than 400 years and they don’t like political extremes. Key phrases of this reflex might include: “what do we want? GRADUAL CHANGE!” “When do we want it? IN DUE COURSE! ” The third reflex is another unthinking default mode: Hypocrisy. It is true that this is also a stereotype. Great English writers have always criticized the hypocrisy of their country mates. Although it can be said that most of the English politeness/ modesty/fairness is hypocritical, it can also be said that hypocrisy is a form of politeness. Fox states, “Hypocrisy comes easily to us not because we are by nature vile and perfidious (or no more so than any other culture) but because our social inhibition makes us naturally cautious, oblique, indirect disinclined to say what we mean or mean what we say, prone to polite pretence rather than honest assertiveness”. For instance, they might like their job but unwritten rules prescribe that they should not brag about this fact. Instead, they should join the Monday morning moaning rituals which consist in complain and whine about the fact that the weekend was too short or that they didn’t have enough sleep last night or that the bloody coffee machine isn’t working etc. (they are allowed to complain, but as it was said before, always in moderation, and never too serious about it). Another good example can be found in the way the English do business. Taking about money is taboo, so they pretend that a business meeting is everything but a business meeting which usually annoys foreign businessmen.

Having said that, what it can be said about the way the English see the world, their outlooks? In this point I have also selected three key aspects. The first one is Empiricism. John Locke has been influential not only in science but also in English society. Most Englishmen and women think that all-knowledge should be derived from self-experience. English humour is very empiricist. And Empiricism is also close related with the second outlook which is how they love to moan. English moaning is very peculiar, though: they never complaint to or confront the source of their discontent, but only whinge endlessly to each other, and proposing practical solutions is forbidden by the moaning rules. Instead as we see in a previous example, complaining around the coffee machine on a Monday morning is a highly enjoyable and effective as a facilitator of social interaction and bonding. The English are pessimist by nature: they complain about politics, a bad performance of their team etc. The second catch phrase of the English is “typical”; it seems that they actually enjoy their gloomy predictions being fulfilled. The third important outlook also seems to be frown upon to talk about. Even if they deny it, the English are well-aware of class. However, what is distinctive about the English class system is that it is not judged by wealth but by other indicators such as speech, manner, taste and lifestyle. Especially the way they talk is going to determined their social status (for example, it is said that working classes usually pronounce handkerchief “andkerchief” and upper-classes usually pronounce it, “hndkrchf”)

There are also so many aspects to cover such as their values (Fair play, courtesy, modesty etc.) but I think I should start with the conclusions. All the books and works written by Englishmen that I have read about Englishness and English society are gigantic volumes filled with empirical data and examples in order to prove some points. Those books were also written in a way in which all this information was stated as subtle as possible. I feel obliged to apologize because I have broken in this summary most of the English unwritten rules that I have mentioned before. So, to sum up, the English people are unique, and even though most of these features seem rather negative or pretentious, the results of these social inhibitions combined with the reflexes they use in order to survive are astounding and highly enjoyable for anyone who visits England. It is true what is said about the English advanced linguistic skills; they wouldn’t be able to survive in their society without them. This is why English literature has always been on the top shelves in the universal cannon. It is remarkable that even if you flick through tabloids, every another page has a pun, a world play or an alliteration. Maybe I am exaggerating; I have not read all the tabloids, but unless my data is incorrect this is the pattern.

(Response from my English Friend)

Yeah, some interesting conclusions there... I think the thing about moaning is very true- we're never so happy as when we have something good to moan about, and the most annoying thing in the world is when someone just keeps trying to dive in and solve everything- we don't want the solution, we just want to vent. The best response is definitely to make a joke of it, and we're very harsh on anyone who takes themselves or their problems too seriously. Mediocrity is everything- blend in :o)

Here's a little story that might illustrate what you've been talking about- this week we've been absolutely crippled by about 3 inches of snow... one of my friends lives on a street at the bottom of a small hill, and he was telling me about his trip to work on Monday morning- he's never met most of his neighbours before, but because of the bad driving conditions, all the cars were struggling to get up the hill, so the whole street came out to help each other push their cars up the hill, have a good moan and a good laugh about the whole situation, but he still doesn't know any of their names! However, everyone had a great time, and he enjoyed making a big joke of how he nearly crashed into his neighbour's car as he slid out of control! It was dangerous, but everyone pulled together, and there was an amazing good natured community spirit.

I know you don't have time to write about everything, but it might be worth just mentioning what a difference there typically is between north and south- northerners are seen to be much warmer, much blunter, very straightforward, say-it-as-you-see it, while in the south we're supposed to be a bit cooler, more distanced etc. Also, there's a big change coming in the next generation- have you ever seen Little Britain? Just google chavs and you'll see what I mean.

All you've written is right, but despite our ridiculous politeness we do have some strong points- all those things we put ourselves through come from a strange place, but the basic ideas behind them are respect for others, that you should never assume you're better than someone else, or worse off than anyone else, and that money is not what makes you important or noble, but rather the way you treat others. And the hypocrisy thing comes from the idea that "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"- better to be polite and vague than rude and dismissive.

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