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Watching the English


Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
Kate Fox
416 pages

First sentence: I am sitting in a pub near Paddington station, clutching a small brandy.

Reflections: I approached this book with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. Having spent four years living in England, I was interested in this analysis of "Englishness," but also somewhat afraid I would discover several cultural norms that I had inadvertently violated during my stay there. Fortunately, Watching the English simply reinforced the blunders I already knew about. It also provided amusing insight into a culture and way of life that I truly enjoyed being part of.

Kate Fox is a social scientist, and her book is written very much in layman's terms, a kind of "pop anthropology." She describes the central core'of Englishness as a "social dis-ease," a "congenital disorder, bordering on a sort of sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia" that manifests itself in a sense of extreme discomfort in most social situations. This is exhibited in many ways, several of which struck me as fundamental differences from American culture:

  • "The Denial Rule," in which strangers are completely ignored.  This occurs in a variety of situations from public transportation, to school functions, to village gatherings.  The denial rule made it difficult for us to assimilate into village life.  Reading this book, I greatly appreciated one couple who went against cultural norms and initiated contact with us right away.  They were the only people to do this in four years!
  • "Negative Politeness," which is primarily concerned with people's need not to be intruded or imposed upon.  Underlying this is the importance of privacy.  While I also value privacy, American cultural norms promote  "positive politeness," which is concerned with inclusion and approval. 
  • Inability to complain effectively, coupled with an intense dislike of "making a scene," results in a quiet acceptance of poor service, delays, and equipment malfunctions.  This was the principal source of my own cultural faux pas, since when presented with poor service or repairmen who didn't show up, my first reaction was to become assertive and demanding.  This was highly ineffectual in the English culture.

Throughout this book, Fox also highlights the importance of humor, particularly self-deprecating humor.  Humor is often used as a form of modesty, to cover up success or, in a backward way, to highiight success without being seen as boasting.  Humor is an essential element of every type of interaction, with funerals the sole exception.  While some aspects of English culture can be frustrating to those from other countries, for me the pervasive nature of humor made up for those frustrating aspects and left me with lasting fond memories of the English people.

Recommended reading for Anglophiles.  ( )

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