Sunday, 10 June 2007

The hidden rules of English behaviour

This is the sub-title of Watching the English, a survey by the social anthropologist Kate Fox which dissects and explains the quirks and habits of the English people.

The hidden rules that govern our behaviour—rules we obey without thinking—are revealed in all their Byzantine complexity by minute observation of the way we talk, dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt, fight—and moan about it all. As the blurb says, …If you are English, it will make you stand back and re-examine everything you normally take for granted, discover just how English you really are, and laugh ruefully at yourself. If you aren’t English, you can laugh without squirming: you will finally understand all our peculiar little ways. If you wish, you can become as English as we are—Englishness is not a matter of birth, race, colour or creed: it is a mindset, based on a set of behaviour codes that anyone can decipher and apply….now that Kate Fox has provided the key.

No more now: I must finish reading about: the reflex-apology rule; the ironic-gnome rule; the money-talk taboo; the eccentric-sheep rule; the paranoid-pantomime rule; the dangers of excessive moderation; the rules of bogside reading…..and the rest of the 420 pages. Then in future posts I can quote chunks of this witty and fascinating treatise.

For a start, the ten pages explaining in detail the rules of English weather-speak are introduced with the observation that:
Our conversations about the weather are not really about the weather at all: English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other. Everyone knows, for example, that ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’, ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?, ‘Still raining, eh?’ and other variations on the theme are not requests for meteorological data: they are ritual greetings, conversation-starters or default ‘fillers’. In other words, English weather-speak is a form of ‘grooming-talk’—the human equivalent of what is known as ‘social grooming’ among our primate cousins, where they spend hours grooming each other’s fur, even when they are perfectly clean, as a means of social bonding.

I would like to copy the whole of the book into Other Men's Flowers page by page, but it wouldn’t be proper. Besides, English readers don’t need it and foreigners who want to understand us can buy it from Amazon (paperback) for $16.

[Watching the English was published in 2004 but we haven’t changed much since then. The whimsical How to be a Brit by the Hungarian George Mikes is funny but dates from 1986, and we have modified a few of our little ways the last twenty years.]

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