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Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of…

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (original 2004; edition 2005)

by Kate Fox

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Title:Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
Authors:Kate Fox
Info:Hodder & Stoughton (2005), Paperback, 424 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

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Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox (2004)

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I've replicated her experiment on the number of thank yous exchanged when buying a pint and can confirm her findings are correct. ( )
  Lukerik | May 17, 2015 |
In this thorough study of the English, anthropologist Kate Fox studies social rules regarding every aspect of life you can think of - rites of passage, work, play, dating, etc. - to uncover unwritten social standards and from there deduce what defines English culture. (Curiously absent was child-rearing, with nothing more than a cursory review of what parents say to each other, not much to say about the philosophy of child-rearing in general).

At the end of each section, she has a brief discussion of the inferences one can draw from these unwritten rules. Fox interprets the importance given to the weather to mean that English people are more reserved and have a hard time broaching strangers with conversation – unless, of course, there is a socially acceptable way of doing so (in this case, the weather). I am reminded of a quote from Cabin Pressure: “Anyone with a dog is allowed to talk to anyone else with a dog. It’s like a-a secret loophole for allowing the English to talk to strangers" ("Limerick").

Some of the conclusions she draws, however, both in these sections and elsewhere, are somewhat baffling. Take, for instance, the rules of mobile phones. She notes that young women often use mobile phones as protection against unwanted attention from others: “…many women use their mobiles as ‘barrier signals’ when on their own in coffee bars and other public places, as an alternative to the traditional use of a newspaper or magazine to signal unavailability – particularly to any potentially predatory males – and mark personal ‘territory’. Even when not in use, the mobile acts as a kind of symbolic bodyguard, a protector against unwanted social contact: women will touch the phone or pick it up when a potential ‘intruder’ approaches” (119). Fair enough, I’ve both seen and done this myself. However, from this she concludes: “The idea of one’s social support network of friends and family being somehow ‘inside’ the mobile phone means that even just touching or holding it gives a sense of being protected” (119).

Perhaps this is something intrinsically English, and if so, then I humbly apologize – but at least in my own experience and that of my friends, pretending – or even actually – texting someone or preparing to call relies more on the belief that most people find interrupting someone in the middle of something else is rude and would not do it. A person who is waiting for the bus has no excuse not to respond to someone talking to them; a person who is reading, texting, or otherwise engaged has a ready excuse – and it would be extremely rude to interrupt that person, just as it would be rude to interrupt someone talking in real life to someone else. The phone is a symbol of protection, but if I could paint a brick convincingly enough to resemble a phone, that would work just as well.

Or, in her section on rites of passage, she mentions that lower-class people will often throw more lavish weddings than middle to upper-class. She concludes that this is because, “Even if one is struggling financially, it is important to look as though one has spent money and ‘pushed the boat out’ “ (540). Again, this might be different in England, but if the same scenario occurred here, the more charitable – and equally valid – conclusion would be that because it is a rare event, lower-class people may be willing to spend more on a wedding (or Christmas, or what-have-you) to make up for the rest of the time. If going out to eat is a rare treat, rather than a weekly thing, then everyone gets dressed up and is on their best behavior, because of its rarity.

These are just a few examples where I found myself raising an eyebrow and thinking, “Really? That’s what you get from that?” as I was reading.

You might also notice in the text quoted a habit that I found myself growing more and more annoyed by throughout the book. Every other word had to have ‘quotations’ around it, some of them ‘needed’ and others ‘absolutely unnecessary’. I realize that the book is relating a scientific field to laymen, and some terms may be unfamiliar, but anyone with an ounce of intelligence can figure some of this out without having to constantly be told via punctuation that this is ‘technical jargon’ that only anthropologists understand. For instance, did barrier signals really need quotations in the above example? Does it really impede our understanding if they were taken out? Is this so technical that the average person would not understand what she meant by this if she had not helpfully marked it?

Additionally, she makes assumptions about other countries that are suspect at best. This is, by its nature, a comparative study; there is no way to define what is Englishness without first deciphering what is universal and what is distinct to the English. Obviously it is not feasible to study every single culture with the laser focus she shows here. That said, the constant “Americans are…” is somewhat grating, particularly when it tends to be … wrong, or at the very least, probably regional. America is by no means homogenous, and the North and the South are very different (to say nothing of East coast versus West coast and so on). For instance, at one point she is conversing with two English gentlemen, one of whom lived in America for some time. When she asked him what was most surprising, he professed his shock at how “willing Americans are to ask people what they earn, and to reveal their own incomes” (291). My kneejerk reaction to this was, “Absolutely not!”. Before I was even old enough for a job, I understood without ever being told that it would be unconscionably rude to ask someone’s income. Out of curiosity, I polled 20 or so colleagues, friends, and family members – all of them agreed that it would never be appropriate to ask or talk about such things. My brother even added, “I don’t even know what you make, and you’re my sister.” (Granted, this is clearly a biased – not to mention laughably small – study, but you see my point).

Or take the “Americanism” “klutzing out”, which I have never heard or read before, and I am a pretty prolific reader. Asking around, none of my friends had heard the expression either. I have no doubt that somewhere someone uses it – but that only makes it more evident that there should be some distinction between “East Coast Americans” or “Southern Americans”, otherwise the comparison seems false. (She does, at parts, talk about the differences in her idea of ‘Englishness’ in regards to, for instance, Yorkshire, but I also have to wonder if there are not a great deal of regional differences within England that she disregards).

There are some things, also, that I have to question whether are truly distinct. In her work section, she mentions that “foreigners not invariably assume that the speaker respects them or their views” when someone says, “With all due respect” (282). With all due respect, those are some truly naïve foreigners. Just as someone who starts anything with “No offense, but…” is about to say something gallingly offensive, we all know what “all due respect” means. In her rites of passage section, she tells the story of an American woman giving a soppy emotional speech at a birthday party (558). I would argue that this is the exception that proves the rule, again. While there are some “accepted” times for emotional speeches (and I would grant these occasions are much more than in England), the times that aren’t tend to be the exception that proves the rule. For every one woman giving the outpourings of effusive emotion, there are ten sitting with forced smiles on their faces fighting not to fight with intense discomfort, politely praying for the person to stop speaking or a natural disaster to put us out of our misery. Perhaps these emotional outbursts are only more strongly sanctioned in England – with scandalized tones to one’s neighbor, if not directly. (In short: we hate those people, too.)

My point with this is not that I am arguing that Americans are less emotional or anything – I think that’s a moot point – but a recurring problem in that the things she singles out as ‘distinctly’ English are often a matter of degree and often not well-explained. The work section is a particularly good example of this. She talks about how people moan about work, particularly meetings and Monday mornings and the one coffeemaker that never works, but no one likes a real shirker, and then concludes that “English work-culture is a mess of contradictions” (310). If you take off the first word of that sentence, it is very true. Every workplace seems to sound the same – it was both heartening and very depressing to see the same exact jokes that I hear every Monday morning/meeting time are heard in workplaces around England. There are three constants, apparently: death, taxes, and workplace jokes.

But maybe there’s something qualitatively different about the English jokes – perhaps they emphasize the second syllable in “coffee” or something. How do you go about explaining that? Ordinarily I would be more generous and admit that you can’t, not really, without deep immersion into that culture to find that ineffable quality. However, my generosity disappeared when Fox took another author to task for the exact same thing: “… and, on the part of those trying to explain Englishness, a bit of a typically English cop-out” (387). Then it behooves you to explain the difference, which I just don’t think she accomplished satisfactorily. There were a number of differences throughout the book; tangible ones, things that definitely set the English apart, but they were so mired down by things that I think are fairly universal or at least strikingly similar if not told in different accents, that my goodwill faded somewhat.

Finally, as mentioned, the chapters are an exercise in redundancy. I fully recognize the technique of showing the same evidence over and over in order to prove a point, but I have to question whether or not it was the best play in a book this length. It came across as somewhat condescending to the reader, particularly when it would have been so much easier to have her deductions compiled into the single, final concluding chapter that referred back to the individual chapters (“We can see by the pub rules and the racetrack rules that X holds true…”). Or, ideally, assume that the reader is capable of making some intuitive leaps of their own based on the evidence given.

This goes even beyond something that I have noted before, which is that American non-fiction writing tends to have a much more straight-forward, direct tone where the thesis is generally stated in the introduction, whereas British authors tend to hedge and provide a preponderance of evidence that leads naturally to the thesis statement, usually located in the conclusion. Even attuned to these differences, however, Fox’s repetition seemed gratuitous.

I also had some fun in diagnosing her writing under the observations she was making about her own culture. For instance, she writes about the complicated rules dictating class differences regarding table manners and says exasperatedly, “The class rules in this chapter expose, perhaps even more than the previous ones, the truly mind-boggling silliness of the English class system. I mean, really. How many peas can dance on the back of a fork? I’m ashamed to write this stuff. I’m ashamed to know this stuff, even though it is my job to observe and describe and try to understand it… the English do seem to take [cultural systems of eating] to the most utterly ludicrous extremes” (450). And here we can see the Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule (for someone who argues that sincerity is the eighth deadly sin in English culture, she identifies some quite sincere unspoken rules) and the avoidance of bringing any attention to class dividers. I mostly jest, but she does have a habit of quite purposefully being falsely modest or mock-derogatory about the English, presumably to avoid anyone accusing her of taking her profession too seriously. This is fine, except it is aggravatingly transparent at some points.

Despite all my complaints, this book was well-written, often funny and insightful, and mostly well-reasoned. And yet I just did not like it. It was a miserable slog, one I dreaded coming to each night. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, and I feel like I am doing a great disservice to Fox, but for all the book’s shining qualities, it was singularly difficult for me to actually summon the willpower necessary to finish this book. What ordinarily would have taken me six hours to read took me over a month - enough said.

ETA: This is also a growing pet peeve of mine: American TV is not accurate to life. In the section on the growing popularity of American proms in England, she notes these "glamorous" events and even designates the "cheap" proms as those who "club together to squeeze a dozen girls into a hired limo" (510). I believe I went to prom in my friend's Taurus, and I was certainly not in the minority. High school as portrayed in American television is especially susceptible to this unreality; I have yet to meet anyone who had full lockers in high school, which was a source of great disgruntlement to me when I first transitioned into high school. She admits that, "our proms have indeed been largely inspired by American films and television series" and then says that some argue against the "Americanism" of the custom (511) - these complainers would do well to remember that they are arguing against Hollywoodization, not Americanization. ( )
2 vote kittyjay | Apr 26, 2015 |
Ah, now this is embarrassing: this book was recommended to me and I have duly read it - or to be more accurate, half read it. The fact that I did not complete the task, and my star rating, might lead you to surmise that this is not going to be a complementary review. Take a pat on the back, you are correct.

The first chapter (yes, honestly, the WHOLE chapter) is taken up by the revelation that, whilst the British do talk a great deal about the weather, it is not from a deep seated fascination with matters meteorological: who knew? If you feel the need to take a break from reading to digest this devastating news, I shall understand and, I believe there are organisations out there to assist, if the trauma is too great...

OK, ready to continue? The book proceeds at this level of devastation to all that we think that we know, for 400 pages. It is the scientific equivalent of clairvoyance; it takes little clues which. were we to sit and consider them, we would work out for ourselves, and heralds their cracking with all the fanfares which greeted the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem.

The above criticism is, of course, in addition to the dubious theory that one may define a national stereotype: the Germans are ruthlessly efficient but have no sense of humour, the French are garlic eating surrender monkeys and the sun never sets upon the British Empire. Hum. I suspect that, anybody amazed by the wisdom of this book will, at the very least, need help with some of the big words. ( )
1 vote the.ken.petersen | Dec 7, 2014 |
This is an amazingly entertaining book for such a scholarly topic. Every page is filled with fascinating observations and insights, almost always delivered with a wry humour. More often than not, the humour is directed against the author herself. The writer sees herself as one of her most typical 'subjects' and is generous in exposing her own foibles to provide examples.
My only issue with the writing is that it is somewhat repetitive. The writer tells us what she is going to tell us, then tells us and then tells us what she told us. This would be fine if it was very different at each stage but mostly the conclusions from one chapter are reinforcements of the conclusions from the previous chapter. This is standard for an academic approach and is only a minor quibble.
I very much enjoyed and learned a lot from this book - especially being Irish. ( )
  rosiezbanks | Nov 6, 2014 |
This book was great! I kept having to go into the other room and interrupt my husband's music to read passages to him. I got great laughs throughout. I read a lot of English fiction and enjoy English television. This opened up these worlds and gives new depth to what I'm reading and watching. I highly recommend it! ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
"Social dis-ease", she decides, is the "central core of Englishness". She holds this congenital awkwardness responsible for everything from our "obsession with privacy" to our celebrated courtesy, famous reserve and infinite capacity for embarrassment. "We do everything in moderation," she believes. Fox's curiosity about English behaviour, which she attempts to reduce, in this prodigously long investigation, into key constituent parts, is matched only by her regret that we are not a more free and easy nationality.
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To Henry, William, Sarah and Katharine
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I am sitting in a pub near Paddington station, clutching a small brandy.
There are of course other theories of language evolution, the most appealing of which is Geoffrey Miller's proposition that language evolved as a courtship device - to enable us to flirt. (from footnote 15)
the Edwardian rhyme "The Germanys live in Germany; The Romans live in Rome; The Turkeys live in Turkey; But the English live at home. (from footnote 31)
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In this volume, Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks and habits of the English people. From the most famous traits through to the most bizarre reflex reactions, she holds a mirror up to the English national character.

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