The book of “Watching the English: The hidden Rules of English Behaviour” by Kate Fox is a Gold-mine. I am currently only 200 pages in but it’s given me a lot to think on. In the beginning Fox tries to simplify what she means to explore, quoting George Orwell “English identity is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, and there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature” and making up her own vocabulary, in our to turn this book from a professional accounting a study to a professional killing time: “Ethnographic dazzle”, explained as to mean “blindness to underlying similarities between human groups and cultures because one is dazzled by the more highly visible surface differences.”
Fox explains what she intends to attempt to catalogue into a neat set of rules by the comment “By ‘culture’ I mean the sum of a social group’s patterns of behaviours, customs, way of life, ideas, beliefs and values” to understand a “national character.” I know I sound a little annoyed with this but Fox has a tendency throughout the entirety of the book, so far, include and then removed her-self from being British depending on the rule. When she comments on the British stereotype: which is a true enough assumption; being British myself I know I do this, of “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” (George Mikes) She notes that she participates in this rule yet when it comes to the ‘Garden Rules’: “Your own front garden you may not enjoy”, she comments about both the ‘left-over Hippies’ who as part of a ‘Counter Culture type’ “may sometimes boast an old, sagging sofa, on which inhabitants will sit, self-consciously defying convention and actually enjoying their front garden (which also in defiance of convention, will be un kept and overgrown)”, and the audience of the surrounding neighbours, who submit the ‘Counter-Culture’ to “much tutting and puffing, but in accordance with the traditional English rules of meaning, the curtain twitches will usually just air the grievances to each other.” Then indentifies with neither; Fox either seems to change between professional- keeping herself out of the experiment and subsequent results, and including herself as an easy example, or her own capabilities in mastering such a foolish and over-complicated culture as the English.
“Englishness means always having to say you’re sorry”
Although the original point of bringing up the book is its value in describing our social interactions simply and in ways that offend neither side. Like the ‘Counter-culture’ rule; after the comment on the audience of the ‘left-over hippies’ she states that “So long as the sofa-sitters abide by their set of counter-culture rules and do not do anything startling, they will be tolerated.” Insinuating that although they have broken free of the ‘normal social constrictions’ they have confined themselves in another, just with a smaller group of participating people whom they should care of their opinions.
Charles Quest-Ritson is quoted with “[Gardening] has little to do with history of art or the development of aesthetic theories… it is all about social aspirations: Lifestyles, money and class.” In that the obsession in ‘nest-building’ is English habit, as we are a “nation of nest builders.”
It is commented that although “all humans have a territorial instinct” the English obsess with our homes and have a “mania for nest building.” This is globally compared as “The Germans live in Germany; the Romans live in Rome; The Turkeys live in Turkey; but the English live at home” and is jokingly, hopefully, explained that “Home is what the English have instead of social skills.”
There is a part in the ‘Home Rules’ that covers the interior of our homes; explaining that the way we make up our homes is not determined by the amount of money we can spend on the items, modifiers or indeed the house itself is “determined by social class” and has “Little to do with wealth.” As it is further explained that whenever you move into a new house you must immediately remove any and all evidence of the previous owner, when this does not happen a situational set of rules are played out “If you do not have the time, skill or funds necessary to rip out all evidence of the former owner’s bad taste, you must, when showing friends around your new house, sigh deeply, roll your eyes or grimace and say “it’s not what I would have chosen” if only to save face from any embarrassment at the left over fingerprint.
What you actually fill your home with, particularly the parts on display, is submitted to the Eccentricity clause rules; where the ‘taste’ of the item is judged socially by the ‘doer’, that is if they are rich or high standing enough anyone who sees the item that is out of place can cover their mistake or indeed honest ‘dip’ in taste by the clause, without any reclassification, either way.
“There are two main factors involved in the calculation of this position: Terminology and pronunciation – the words you use and how you say them.”
Near the start of the book there is a lot written on language: “Language most shows a man. Speak that I may see them” (BEN JONSON) is one of the starting points: which leads to elaboration of what it means to speak as according to social scale. It boils down to; if you are at the top of the social scale you, more than likely think, that you are ‘correct’ in your speak tone, along with the idea that ‘lower-class speech’ is “incorrect, a lazy way of talking-unclear, often unintelligible and just plain wrong”, whilst you drop all your vowels; whereas if you sit at the other side of the scale you laugh at the aforementioned people and drop you ‘t’s and ‘h’s everywhere.
There is an interesting moment where Fox explains that “The correct word for upper middle and upper class say not posh but ‘Smart’”, which can be applied to my wallpaper project, where the overlap and down scale from having wallpaper being elaborate and complicated designs sinking down into the lower classes, and then causing the upper class to take the lower class’s previous method of simplistic patterns and block colours.
The language goes onto the “Rules of humour” which “may be classless, but it must be said that a great deal of everyday English humour is preoccupied with class issues.” (Particularly with The two Ronnies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JSahEDRjvw) and Ed Bryne (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhw-ZHKdjF4 )) Fox writes that “Humour is omnipresent and omnipotent… like class; it (humour) permeates every aspect of English life and Culture and would therefore crop up in different contexts.” Which are explained as ‘oh come off it/ Not being earnest/ Understatement/ and Irony, which is apparently understood to hold the secrets of all English humour.
“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him” – GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
The social norm for the English is that we do not introduce ourselves, and it was covered in the book that if there is no one to introduce you, you wait until you can casually bring it up or leave your name until the end of the conversation or: “Like Alice in the Looking Glass: you do everything the wrong way round.” The usual method of sliding into a conversation, whether you know the person or not, you comment on the weather: It is apparently Dr Johnson who commented that “When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather”, although Fox politely covers this a social bonding act, as although we are very accustomed to our weather, which probably should be more changeable; we want to be surprised by it. We are just waiting for the moment and although we have the patience to wait for it to change we do not actually have a “capacity for infinite surprise at the weather”, as according to Paxman.
“[England is] the most class- ridden country under the sun.” George Orwell
My favourite part is where the accurate comment, although perhaps an oversimplification of our culture, where Fox states “Our labyrinth of rules and codes of polite egalitarianism are a disguise, an elaborate charade, a severe collective case of psychotherapists would call ‘denial.’” This is brought up with the ‘Denial Rule’ which explains pretty much every public moment where there is no conversation, expectation or otherwise any participatory act that waiting. “The denial Rule requires us to avoid talking to strangers and or even making eye contact with them, or indeed acknowledging their presence in any way unless ‘absolutely necessary.’” It is that moment on the bus, or waiting for the train, or sitting in a cafe, where we all pretend to not exist, until a conductor, or waiter or cleaner, etc, comes along and the ‘Us and Them’ principle comes into effect- where the customer, becomes a united group as a socially acceptable means of creating acquaintances from strangers.”
Reading this so far, has helped majorly in understanding a culture I am actually in: it gives me the outside in viewpoint that I completely lack, aside from the fact I don’t know much on categorising behavioural patterns, and have no time to sit learning or participating in doing so, nor the want to; people suck.