Thanks for the recommendation, Emily, I enjoyed this hugely. Watching The English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour is a fun-to-read socio-cultural/anthropological study of English people specifically, meaning all those who live in England, whatever their origins. In it, I found much that rang very true, quite a few convincing explanations or at least hypotheses and a lot to laugh about. And I begged to differ about a few things too. As she takes us through her analysis, Kate Fox often refers to Jeremy Paxman’s book The English (which I read years ago and also thought was pretty much spot on); she apologises for disagreeing with him every now and then with these words “it is because his book is so good that it is worth quibbling with“ I only need to change “his” to “her” to justify my slight differences of opinion with this English watcher.
So starting with the “Oh yes, that’s exactly what it’s like” part, it’s both satisfying to understand and a bit shaming to admit that when I make a self-deprecatory comment about my work, say, or play down my children’s achievements, I am in fact boasting in an Englishly acceptable manner. I am also very familiar with weather-based grooming talk, frequent apologies and the fuss over hot drinks and biscuits at the start of a meeting. (I worked in the headquarters of a NHS region when these still existed, and it was the same selection of biscuits that was offered at each meeting, but discussion on preferences, calorie content etc. still managed to take up a good ten minutes EVERY time). My middle class status (which I never held in any doubt, to be frank), is also irrevocably established through such things as my insistence on using the word “serviette” rather than “napkin” and the way I clean my car.
And there is so much that is a joy to read in this book. The deadly accuracy of such absurd statements as “The upper middle classes […] will buy M&S towels and bed-linen, but not M&S sofas, curtains or cushions” or “rice salad … [is] lower class in any shape or form but particularly with sweetcorn in it” makes them doubly funny.
As a person with two cultures, I can confirm that contrasting certain English traits with French ones reinforces the veracity of their description in Watching The English. The pervasiveness of humour for example. My French side sometimes protests at the constant use of sarcasm – or as Kate Fox has it, at the humour that prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously … – and then I find myself joining in a moment later with an appropriate quip in the same vein.
But I dispute a couple of points. Fox lays a lot of emphasis on the fact that English people avoid eye contact in public transport but French people do that too. Very recently, I noted that even when fellow commuters in the Paris métro politely push their knees aside to let you get out of your seat easily (in a two seats facing two seats configuration) they do so without looking at you. It might just be a question of degree : French people may be able to bear slightly longer eye contact than the English.
I also beg to differ on politeness. Certainly, we hear a lot of pleases, thank yous and sorrys in England. In France, we hear “please” and “thank you” too (OK, actually we hear “s’il te/vous plaît” and “merci”, “merci infiniment”, “mille mercis” etc.), we don’t hear anywhere near as many as sorrys, justified or not, the latter indeed being a very peculiar, very English thing but we do hear a lot more “Bonjour”, “Salut”, “Bonne soirée”, “Bon dimanche” etc. When I go to England these days (I live in France), I’m struck by the difference in the amount of greeting that goes on in my two countries. Here in France, it is still generally considered rude not to greet when entering and leaving a shop or a restaurant, whereas I find I have to engage with shopkeepers in England to elicit their first greeting. Greetings in lifts are also far more common in France as are those between walkers and passers-by and not just in rural areas and among older people either.
Obviously, all these observations are strictly unscientific …
And my last point will be to note the affection for these apologetic, highly class-conscious, island-dwelling Englanders that shines through Kate Fox’s book and which I share. We English are weird (quirky is the more acceptable term), we know it and we quite like it that way.