Watching The English by Kate Fox

Thanks for the recommendation, Emily, I enjoyed this hugely. Watchinwatching the englishg 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.

Talking At Cross Purposes

My news feeds at the moment are filled with articles and papers on how and why people are increasingly disregarding facts, evidence, the scientific approach and preferring to believe what they hold to be true. What I read and hear ranges from incredulous reactions (only last week, I heard a podcast contributor for whom the light had only just dawned: “And you know what, they carry on believing Donald Trump! It’s really scary.” I felt like throttling her and yelling where have you been hiding? Do you walk around with your eyes shut and your hands over your ears?) to far more thoughtful analyses, including in some fairly meaty and academic research. A quick flick through this week’s New Yorker, for instance, offers this article by Elizabeth Kolbert, which reviews several pieces of research on just that topic.

But at the risk of sounding cynical, I am acutely reminded of the 1980s, when for a while you were submerged  with advice on how to avoid the then brand new bogey: AIDS. After a spate of adverts, awareness raising campaigns, sexual health promotion initiatives, a raft of articles came out. They all boiled down to this: when people are about to have sex, they’re not necessarily focused on being prudent and wise and cautious. Duh.

Coming back to the topic I introduced above, it’s not that amazing that people cling to their world view. It’s depressing, it doesn’t show us humans in a particularly favourable light, but it’s not difficult to understand. We like our comforts, and one of them is to maintain a belief system that feels right and fitting.

So I’m going to add my two pennies’ worth by writing a few pieces like this one. I’m starting with this essay on miscommunications, which is kind of tangential to this issue of the so-called post-factual era (a term I prefer to “post-truth era” because surely we can all at least agree that truth is eminently subjective?). Never mind misleading soundbites, quotes stripped of any context, pure inventions and fake news, we humans are not always that great at communicating in the most general sense.

It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long time. I have often thought to myself “that’s not what they said exactly!” when involved in or overhearing a conversation or other communication. I often used to pick up on linguistic differences when French or English were used by non-native speakers and the habit extended to what I saw as blips in communication even where language proficiency wasn’t an issue. And when I felt involved enough and legitimate to clarify what I thought was unclear, I did so. I do so less nowadays, at least for anything other than what I feel are the more glaringly obvious misrepresentations. And even then I only do it when I think my reaction will be noticed, which sadly excludes most of the nonsense that is currently being bandied about.

Fundamentally, the main reason I don’t often try and “correct” miscommunication is that I’m very aware that my assessment of what is or isn’t a clear message might not be the only valid one…

Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas d’Olivier Adam

J’ai trouvé ce livre un peu trop fade à mon goû

Il se laisse pourtant très bien lire et raconte une histoire plutôt bien ficelée. Son sujet est grave –  il s’agit de la disparition d’un être cher et l’impact de ce drame sur les proches – et il est traité assez sobrement. Ses personnages sont plutôt convaincants sur le plan psychologique et émotionnel. Jusque-là, tout va bien.

Pourtant, je n’ai pas pu m’empêcher de lui trouver un côté un peu morne et ennuyeux. Je n’ai pas réussi à pointer du doigt exactement ce qui me chiffonnait mais une ou deux fois, j’ai posé le livre en me disant « Bon, alors, on avance un peu là ? » Peut-être le choix du présent narratif, courant, je le sais, mais qui à mon sens peut rendre un texte un peu « plat ». Peut-être des personnages finalement pas très sympathiques, à part l’héroïne et sa famille immédiate.  Peut-être un thème trop triste pour passer un « bon moment » de lecture.

En fait, j’ai l’impression que le roman d’Olivier Adam hésite entre le romanesque qui ne s’assume pas complètement et le docu-fiction qui ne veut pas trop déranger quand même.


Et puis j’ai un relevé micro-détail qui m’a fait mal aux yeux : le livre contient un « s’en rappelle ». À l’instar d’une amie qui m’avait fait sourire en disant à propos de je ne sais plus quelle expression : « Tu comprends, il y a des mots socialement bloquants », je dirais qu’il y a des tournures littérairement bloquantes. Je sais, je suis snob, mais j’assume.


Ce blog cause surtout de livres, en français parfois.