Watching The English

Kate Fox

I like recommending books to people and there are two that I think I have suggested to people more than any others.  The first is William Goldman's Adventures In The Screen Trade, and I'm now on my third copy because the previous two haven't been returned.

The second is this.  Subtitled "The Hidden Rules Of English Behaviour", it covers the oddities, idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of English behaviour from the point of view of a professional anthropologist.  In this it differs from previous, well-known analyses of the English character by such luminaries as Jeremy Paxman (The English), Bill Bryson (Notes From A Small Island) and Jilly Cooper (Class).  Entertaining as these all are, they all struggle to escape the cliches; and intelligent and insightful as the authors are, they are not looking for the same things as an anthropologist.

This becomes clear when Kate Fox examines some of the most often cited aspects of the English character.  For example, most people comment on the politeness so common in England - all the pleases and thank-yous, the after-yous, and so on - but she identifies it as arising from a deep-seated unease about how to interact with people.  She calls this a "social dis-ease" (ho ho) and points out that the flip side of it is a tendency to go too far the other way in certain situations and become loud and obnoxious.

Despite being a serious book of anthropology, this is nevertheless a highly entertaining book that not only identifies the rules of behaviour (e.g. the "hidden queue" at a pub bar) but does a good job of putting it into a context.  If in some places it resembles observation-based comedy ("have you ever noticed how everyone does this ...?" type routines), it's because it's based on the same sort of material.  And to be fair Kate Fox acknowledges this herself.  But she goes further by analysing the reasons behind it.

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