Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox
-01- Every human activity, without exception, including natural biological functions such as eating and sex, is hedged about with complex sets of rules and regulations, dictating precisely when, where, with whom and [??] what manner the activity may be performed. Animals just do these things; humans make an almighty song and dance about it. This is known as civilisation.
-02- But we judge social class in much more subtle and complex ways; precisely how you arrange, furnish and decorate your terraced houses; not just the make of the car you drive, but whether you wash it yourself on Sundays, take it to a car wash or rely on the English climate to sluice off the worst of the dirt for you. Similar fine distinctions are applied to exactly what, where, when, how and with whom you eat and drink; the words you use and how you pronounce them; where and how you shop; the clothes you wear; the pets you keep; how you spend your free time; the chat up lines you use and so on.
-03- Ethnic minorities constitute only 6% of the population [of England] .
-04- Irony and Understatement Rules. We have a tendency to say, ‘Well, I expect we’ll manage somehow,’ when we mean, ‘Yes, certainly, no trouble’ and ‘That would be quite helpful,’ wen we mean, ‘For Christ’s sake, that should have been done yesterday!’; and ‘We seem to have a bit of a problem,’ when there has been a complete and utter disaster. (Another typically English response to, say, a catastrophic meeting where a million pound deal has fallen through, would be, ‘That all went rather well, don’t you think?’
It takes foreign colleagues and clients a while to realise that when the English say, ‘Oh really? How interesting!’ they might well mean, ‘I don’t believe a word of it, you lying toad.’ Or they might not. They might just mean, ‘I’m bored and not really listening, but trying to be polite.’ Or they might be generally surprised and truly interested. You’ll never know. There is no way of telling: even the English themselves, who have a pretty good ‘sixth sense’ for detecting irony, cannot always be entirely sure. And this is the problem with the irony-habit: we do sometimes say what we mean, but our constant use of irony is a bit like crying wolf when there really is a wolf; when we do mean what we say, our audience is not surprisingly, somewhat skeptical, or , if foreign completely bewildered. The English are accustomed to the perpetual state of uncertainty.
-05- The Rules of Bogside Reading. We read compulsively, any time, anywhere. In many English homes, you will find what I call ‘bogside reading’: piles of books and magazines placed next to the loo or even neatly arranged in a special rack or bookcase for reading while sitting on the loo. I have occasionally come across the odd book or magazine in loos in other countries, but bogside reading does not seem to be a firmly established custom or tradition elsewhere in the way that it is in England. There are many English people—particularly males—who find it very hard to defecate at all unless they have something to read. If there is no proper bogside reading, they will read the instructions on the soap dispenser or the list of ingredients on the spray-can of air-freshener.
The unwritten rules of bogside reading state that the books and magazines in question should be of a relatively unserious nature—humour, books of quotations, collections of letters or diaries, odd or obscure reference books, old magazines; anything that can be dipped into casually.
Class indicators: Working-class. Mostly humorous, light entertainment or sports related—books of jokes, cartoons maybe the occasional puzzle-book or quiz-book and perhaps a few glossy gossip or sports magazines. You will also sometimes find magazines. You will also sometimes find magazines about bobbies and interests, such as motorcycles, music or skate-boarding.
Lower & middle-middle: not so keen on bogside reading: they may well take a book or newspaper into the loo with them, but do not like to advertise this habit by having a permanent bogside collection, which they think might look vulgar. Females of these classes may be reluctant to admit to reading on the loo.
Upper-middles are generally much less prudish about such things and often have mini-libraries in their loos. Some upper-middle bogside collections are a bit pretentious, with books are magazines that appear to have been selected to impress, rather than to entertain but many are genuinely eclectic, and so amusing that guests often get engrossed in them and have to be shouted at to come to the dinner table.
Upper-class bogside reading is usually closer to working-class tastes, consisting mainly of sport and humour although the sporting magazines are more likely to be of the hunting/shooting/fishing sort than, say, football. Some upper-class bogside libraries including fascinating old children’s books, and ancient, crumbling copies of House and Hound or Country Life, in which you might come across the 1950s engagement-portrait of the lady of the house.
*A little spasm of scrupulous honesty just propelled me to our own look to check the current bogside reading matter. I found a paperback edition of Jane Austen’s getting and a mangled copy of the Times Literary Supplement. Oh dear. Could possibly be seen as pretentious. I suppose it’s no use saying that both are gloriously bitchy and extremely funny. PerhapsI should be less quick to cast aspersions on other people’s bogside libraries. Maybe some people really do enjoy reading Haber [???] and Derrida on the loo. I take it all back.
-06- Newspaper Rules. Over 80% of English people read a national daily paper. Only about 16% read the so-called ‘quality’ national daily papers.
These are also known as ‘broadsheets’, because of their large format. I could never understand why these papers were such an awkward, unwieldy size, until I started watching English commuters reading them on trains, and realised that read ability and maneuverability were not the point and the point is clearly to have a newspaper large enough to hide behind. The English broadsheet is a formidable example of what psychologists call a ‘barrier signal’–in this case more like a ‘fortress signal’. Not only can one conceal oneself completely behind its oversize, outstretched pages—effectively prohibiting any form of interaction with other humans, and successfully maintaining the comfortable illusion that they do not exist—but one is enclosed, cocooned in a solid wall of words. How very English.
Broadsheets are also to some extent, as signals of political affiliation. Both The Times and the Daily Telegraph are somewhat to the right of centre—although the Telegraph, also know as the Torygraph, is regarded as more right-wing than The Times. The Independent and the Guardian balance things out neatly by being somewhat to the left of centre—again with one, the Guardian being seen as slightly more left-wing than the others. The term ‘Guardian-reader’ is often used as shorthand for a woolly, lefty, politically correct, knit-your-own-tofu sort of person. This is England, though, so none of these political positions is in any way extreme; indeed, the differences may be hard to discern unless you are English and familiar with all of the subtle nuances. The English do not like extremism, in politics or any other sphere: apart from anything else, political extremists and fanatics, whether on the right of left, invariably break the all-important English humour rules, particularly the Importance of Not Being Earnest rule. Among their many other sins, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Franco were not noted for their use of the understatement. No such totalitarian leaders would ever stand a change in England—even leaving aside their ethical shortcomings, they would be rejected immediately for taking themselves too seriously.
-07- The English love to complain, and the English educated classes do have a tendency to complain noisily about matters of which they have little or no knowledge.
|by V. L. Craven|
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox