Monday, December 1, 2014

'Watching the English'

I've just finished a book called "Watching the English" by Kate Fox, a sort of anthropological dissection of English behavior. Someone recommended it to me when we first moved here, and I never got around to reading it until now. Fox is a trained English anthropologist who traveled the country trying to collect evidence of the distinctive peculiarities of her culture, and then puzzling out the reasons for that behavior.

Fox's central thesis is that the English are socially ill-at-ease, and that tension contributes to all the character traits for which they are known -- an instinctive sense of humor and wry pessimism, a tendency to play down achievements and to hide their inner selves. She theorizes that social discomfort is at the root of both the famous English reticence and occasional outbursts of loutish (usually drunken) violence.

It was a cleverly written book, entertaining in parts, although overlong as a whole. My chief complaint is that Fox lacked a control group, and a lot of the behaviors she uses to define Englishness I believe are more universal. They certainly seemed familiar to me. (Granted, my American family has English roots, and maybe that's why -- maybe I wouldn't feel this way if I were from Argentina or Papua New Guinea.) Don't many cultures proscribe boasting, for example, and use humor to defuse social tension?

Fox also attempts to characterize the effects of class on certain behaviors -- acknowledging that while the British try to follow a strong doctrine of fairness, class-consciousness still pervades everything -- and while I think she's probably mostly correct, I wonder if she doesn't veer into stereotype a little too often. ("Too much jewelry (especially gold jewelry and necklaces spelling out one's name or initials), too much make-up, over-coiffed hair, fussy-dressy clothes, shiny tights and uncomfortably tight, very high-heeled shoes are all lower-class hallmarks, particularly when worn for relatively casual occasions. Deep, over-baked tans are also regarded as vulgar by the higher social ranks.")

As for English behavior, allow me to provide an example of how wrong it can go -- Black Friday. Apparently the U.S. has exported this horrendous holiday ritual to the U.K. I don't remember hearing as much about it when we first moved here, but it was all over the news on Friday and that video footage of crowds literally stampeding to get at discounted televisions and coffee pots is unbelievable. (Watch it!) I mean, who wants a coffee pot that badly? I'd sooner pay double for any of those items than get into the middle of that melee.

Needless to say, there was no Black Friday around our house. Unless you count my trip to three mostly empty thrift stores.

(It strikes me as I write this, a la Kate Fox, that tut-tutting about Black Friday is very middle class, as it seems to be a largely working-class phenomenon and those of us who can afford to pay more can sit around and cluck about the absurdity of it all.)

We had an almost-sunny day yesterday, so Olga and I took a long walk on Hampstead Heath. She collected about three pounds of topsoil on her underbelly, necessitating a bath when we got home. But we both had a wonderful time!

(Photo: A road near Hampstead Heath, yesterday.)


  1. I read something yesterday chiding people for criticizing shoppers at thanksgiving day and Black Friday sales saying it might be these poor people's only chance to get things they normaly could not afford. Perhaps for some and for some certain items. Running through the stores and brawling in the aisles. I'd rather do without and keep my dignity.

  2. I just ignore the whole Black Friday thing. I don't need any of that stuff. But I think there's a sort of primal thing behind it- the hunting of the treasure. Even the implied danger of it is exciting to some people.
    As to the culture of the British- I cannot speak to that at all. I am just glad that there ARE still cultural differences because they are part of the whole glory of the human race.

  3. I actually saw the video here on the news. They discussed that black Friday was new to England but that it certainly took hold. I managed to spend the entire day not spending a dime on anything other than lunch.

  4. My mom LOVED Black Friday. She'd get up at some ungodly hour just to go shopping. A concept I am NOT familiar with - ha! But she loved to shop & considered getting a bargain to be the best thing ever.

    I myself am ignoring the whole "shopping" concept until I absolutely have to.

  5. unaware of black Friday, I am not really a shopper. Glad you avoided the stampede. Your shots of the mist on previous post are so soft and ethereal. LOVE them.

  6. It's true that the British have many stereotypes: two of which seem to be at the forefront:
    Bad teeth and
    Too polite.

    Remember the Chevy Chase movie European Vacation where they keep running into/over the British guy and he keeps apologizing for being in the way?

    I'm sure the Brits have the same typing for Americans.

    Black Friday? Ugh. I stay home and well away from the shops.

  7. In Australia we have a similar sale on Boxing day where items are heavily reduced but it has never got to the extremes that you showed on BBC. It would never be called Black friday here as that is known as the anniversary of a dreadful Bushfire.