Posted by: Jacqueline Ahmed, Manager, Training Operations, EMEA - November 10th 2016
In her book, Watching the English, Kate Fox seeks to uncover and explore the hidden rules, or “grammar”, of English culture. International assignee's who will be moving to England – as well as relocation professionals who work with British contacts on a regular basis – will find this book a very helpful tool, as it sheds light on common behaviors, providing helpful insight to guide intercultural interaction.
As with the grammatical rules of language, a country’s native speakers and members of its society usually understand and follow these cultural rules automatically, without being consciously aware that they are doing so.
Non-native Britishers will find Kate Fox’s book to be a tour of the commonalities of English social conduct, from conversation to behaviour. Fox looks at these through various lenses, including humour, social class, information technology, and the pub (the consumption of alcohol has an interesting impact on English social reserve!). She also examines the behaviour rules of English society in the home, on the road, at work, at play, and relating to food, dress, and sex.
The author starts with an often remarked-upon English trait – talking about the weather. She observes that most people assume that “conversations about the weather are conversations about the weather.” Her analysis, however, is that weather-speak is a form of code that helps the English overcome their natural social reserve. These conversations have a particular rhythm, and can function as ritual greetings, conversation-starters, and default “fillers”. This is borne out by the structure of much weather-speak, which involves a question (“Cold today, isn’t it?”; “Hasn’t it changed since yesterday?!”), inviting a response and therefore interaction with the other person. It’s also a reliably safe topic of conversation, and with the unpredictability of English weather there’s always something to talk about!
Another notable English quirk is examined in this book: if you bump into an English person, it’s highly likely that s/he will say “sorry” to you. The author conducted an experiment in which she set out to deliberately, “accidentally” bump into people in crowded public places, so that she could research this phenomenon. After silencing her own English apology-reflex, she found that around 80% of people apologised to her, even though the collisions were clearly entirely her fault. Her analysis: these apologies are not admissions of blame or mistake – they are knee-jerk, reflex responses that are deeply ingrained. She says “Any intrusion, impingement or imposition of any kind, however minimal or innocuous, generally requires an apology.” This is seen in the widespread use of “sorry”; as a prefix (“Sorry, is this seat taken?”), as a request for someone to move (where other cultures may use “excuse me”) and as an interrogative (“Sorry?” for “I didn’t hear what you said, please could you repeat it?”).
What emerges from a reading of this book is a picture of a society perhaps best embodied by Hugh Grant’s characters in the films Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral: self-deprecating, polite, funny, slightly socially awkward, apologetic, and indirect. Fox summarises this core of Englishness as “social dis-ease”, and believes that from it (and from dealing with it) stem many key behaviours and values. These include the use of humour, and the tendency towards moderation, courtesy, and modesty.
This book is a great read, engagingly and affectionately written. English readers will find a wry smile of recognition creeping over their faces, and for nationals of other countries relocating there, it could just prove to be the key that unlocks many of the mysteries of English behavior and makes their business and day to day interactions a lot more understandable!