Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Watching the English

In preparation for an exciting adventure coming later this summer, a friend recommended this book, "Watching the English."  I'm finding it fascinating.  The author, Kate Fox, is an English anthropologist who grew up in England, the United States, France, and Ireland.  She now lives in England and spends her time studying English behavior.  In this book, she attempts to explain it.  Her explanations are both enlightening and amusing.

Thus far, my favorite section is when Fox explains "The Embarrassment Rule":
In fact, the only rule one can identify with any certainty in all this confusion over introductions and greetings is that, to be impeccably English, one must perform these rituals badly.  One must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward and, above all, embarrassed.  Smoothness, glibness and confidence are inappropriate and un-English.  Hesitation, dithering and ineptness are, surprising as it may seem, correct behavior.  Introductions should be performed as hurriedly as possible, but also with maximum inefficiency.  If disclosed at all, names must be mumbled; hands should be tentatively half-proffered and then clumsily withdrawn; the approved greeting is something like 'Er, how, um, plstm-, er, hello?'
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. 
The most interesting thing for me is how much this book helps me understand some very English tendencies in my very American family.  Some tendencies and ways of thinking have survived the generations.  Fox talks about how the English practice "negative politeness" more than "positive politeness."  "What looks like unfriendliness is really a kind of consideration: we judge others by ourselves, and assume that everyone shares our obsessive need for privacy - so we mind our own business and politely ignore them."

I also like her explanations for how the English go out of their way not to ask about others' names, or jobs, or marital status, all because they don't want to make someone uncomfortable by inadvertently bringing up a subject that my be sensitive.  And to people from the outside, this seems very uninterested and unwelcoming, when it is often, instead, an effort to avoid possible awkward situations.

I'm thoroughly enjoying learning the unspoken rules of England, especially since many of them were also unspoken rules at my house growing up.

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