Watching the English, by Kate Fox

Study of what behaviours are characteristic of the English, written in a Bill Bryson-ish style by Kate Fox, who's an anthropologist, and gathered most of her data by observing how people behave. Fox's observations are mostly based on field experiments where she just watches, but she also tries to provoke reactions, e.g. by deliberately bumping into people to see if they'll say "sorry" (they usually do).

Quite an easy read, and lots of stuff that seems spot-on. Her main thesis is that the English suffer from social "dis-ease"; we don't know how to interact naturally with others. This leads to various behaviours: excessive politeness and deference ("reserve") when we're sober; aggressive and boorish ("loutish") behaviour when we're drunk. She says that the English don't necessarily have a better sense of humour than other nations, but that humour (often ironic) is present in most of our conversations, which is something that foreigners find very hard to deal with. E.g. "oh really" could indicate surprise, scepticism, interest, or disinterest, and while a native English speaker would be able to infer the subtext it's not so easy for someone who isn't familiar with the linguistic idioms.

She mentions "fair play" as a peculiarly English trait, although not so much from the point of view of being admirable, just something that we all expect everyone to observe. This manifests itself in the way we form queues, get cross when someone pushes in (although we probably don't make a fuss about it), cheer the underdog, etc..

I think one of the most interesting sections was on class, specifically how to tell what class someone is by their appearance/behaviour. She says that English people are very sensitive to this and I've noticed that many of the things she points out very closely reflect my own prejudices. E.g. working-class youth are more likely to wear skimpy clothes in cold weather, and more likely to wear clothes with ostentatious designer labels, than those of the middle-class. For adults, "as a rule, the amount of visible cleavage is inversely correlated with the position on the social scale - the more cleavage...the lower the social class of its wearer...and skimpy, skin-tight clothes clinging to bulges of fat are also lower class." [p287]. Middle and upper-class regard the lower classes dress as vulgar and ostentatious, and it's quite hard for me not to think that they really are that way, but I guess that if I was working class I wouldn't think that.

A fun book to read.

Completed : 15-Jun-2005

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