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Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour [Paperback]

Kate Fox
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 11 2005
In WATCHING THE ENGLISH anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. The rules of weather-speak. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo and many more ...Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.

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She has not only compiled a comprehensive list of English qualities, she has examined them in depth and wondered how we came to acquire them. Her book is a delightful read. The Sunday Times I loved the section on mobile-phone etiquette. Shrewd ... I liked the chapter on English humour. This is an entertaining, clever book. Do read it and then pass it on. Daily Telegraph Amusing ... entertaining. The Times Watching the English ... will make you laugh out loud ("Oh God. I do that!") and cringe simultaneously ("Oh God. I do that as well."). This is a hilarious book which just shows us for what we are ... beautifully-observed. It is a wonderful read for both the English and those who look at us and wonder why we do what we do. Now they'll know. Birmingham Post Fascinating reading. Oxford Times An absolutely brilliant examination of English culture and how foreigners take as complete mystery the things we take for granted. Jennifer Saunders, The Times If you like this kind of anthropology (and I do) there is a wealth of it to enjoy in this book. Her observations are acute...fortunately she doesn't write like an anthropologist but like an English woman -with amusement, not solemnity, able to laugh at herself as well as us. Daily Mail

About the Author

Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, is Co-Director of the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford. Her work involves monitoring and assessing global sociocultural trends, and has included research, publications and broadcasts on many aspects of human behaviour including: social aspects of drinking, sex differences, flirting, body image, pub culture, gossip, eating, health issues, taboos, horseracing, mobile phones, email, stress, drugs, crime, violence and disorder.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cor Blimey Aug. 2 2010
An academic book for the layman. An anthropologist looks at the English, their quirks, their humour, their class pretensions. Occasionally heavy going, but overall an often hilarious and fascinating look at the tribal antics of the people whose language and culture have had such a global impact. You've got to love the insights based on the author's years of eavesdropping, interviewing and peeking into the dark corners of the English national personality!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant! Sept. 17 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I'm a Canadian living in England, and this book has really helped me understand why my English friends behave the way they do. I often read it on the train, and quite a few times I literally had to stop reading it and find something else to do because I was laughing so hard, and people were looking at me!

In short, it was fascinating, informative, and hilarious!
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5.0 out of 5 stars good book July 27 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It is a wonderful book. The book is same as description, and I got it just 1 day before the deadline. Generally, the experience is good.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars Aug. 31 2014
By Jam
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Terrific inside look at the English. Highly recommend.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  110 reviews
151 of 156 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tribal talent for avoiding fuss Feb. 4 2006
By Joseph Haschka - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"Really, I don't see why anthropologists feel they have to travel to remote corners of the world and get dysentery and malaria in order to study strange tribal cultures with bizarre beliefs and mysterious customs, when the weirdest, most puzzling tribe of all is right here on our doorstep." - Kate Fox

WATCHING THE ENGLISH, by social anthropologist Kate Fox, is an engaging, perceptive, informative, and entertaining treatise on English (as opposed to "British") behavior in all aspects of life. At times, the author's style seems tongue-in-cheek. However, as she herself is English, this is simply a manifestation of her tribe's trait not to be seen as being too earnest and, while the subject is to be taken seriously, not too seriously.

In what must have been a prodigious research effort (yielding 416 pages of small type), Fox characterizes English behavior and attitudes as they relate to weather, social small talk, humor, linguistics, pubs, mobile phones, home, queues, transportation, work, play, dress, food, sex, secondary education, marriage, funerals, religion, and recurring "calendrical rites" (e.g. birthdays and holidays). Within these categories, Kate addresses everything from the pets and jam to the furniture that the English favor. And, since class consciousness is irrevocably embedded in the national social fabric, all is explained relative to the various classes: lower- and upper-working, lower-, middle- and upper-middle, and upper. As an example, when it comes to one's automobile:

"A scrupulously tidy car indicates an upper-working to middle-middle owner, while a lot of rubbish, apple cores, biscuit crumbs, crumpled bits of paper and general disorder suggests an owner from either the top or the bottom of the social hierarchy. (Further,) the upper and upper-middle classes of both sexes have a high tolerance of dog-related dirt and disorder ... The interiors of their cars are often covered in dog hair, and the upholstery scratched to bits by scrabbling paws."

Kate's observations stress the importance of self-effacement, fair-play, moderation, compromise, courtesy, modesty, desire for privacy, polite egalitarianism, irony, ambiguity, and hypocrisy in English behavior. However, to me, the single most important concept to be absorbed from WATCHING THE ENGLISH is that of "negative politeness", which explains the notorious English reserve, and:

"... which is concerned with other people's need not to be intruded or imposed upon (as opposed to 'positive politeness', which is concerned with their need for inclusion and social approval). We judge others by ourselves, and assume that everyone shares our obsessive need for privacy - so we mind our own business and politely ignore them."

After all, one mustn't "make a fuss".

I myself was born in Milwaukee. My paternal grandfather emigrated from central Europe, and his family was German-speaking. Yet, as I read this book, my reaction was: "Wow! That describes me perfectly." Perhaps this is because I was an Englishman in a previous incarnation or, more plausibly, because English values persist in the core, WASP, sub-culture of the country descended from the thirteen, original, Anglo-American colonies.

WATCHING THE ENGLISH is a must-read for anyone who loves England, and is an obligatory duo with Jeremy Paxman's THE ENGLISH: A PORTRAIT OF A PEOPLE.
107 of 109 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So true! Nov. 17 2005
By T. Edwards - Published on
I'm English, and having just devoured this book in a day or two I have to say that it is extremely accurate! It made me laugh out loud on the train while reading, which as you'll see from this book is an unusual occurrence for someone from my country...

This book describes the amazingly complex and intuitive set of rules by which we English live. It covers our obsessions with privacy, understatement, humour, anti-boastfulness, excessive politeness and all the other motives and societal rules behind the way we act.

Non-English readers will cry "What?! Is that really true? Do the English really think and act like that?!" - and I can assure you that we absolutely do...

An enlightening, funny, thorough and brilliant portrait of the English.
126 of 141 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An amusing and acute book about the English Nov. 10 2006
By Helen Hancox - Published on
I started this book 3 days after returning from my first trip to America. Whilst in America I became aware of the huge cultural difference between the friendly people of the USA and traditional Brits amongst whom I've lived almost my whole life - I found much of American behaviour inexplicable and rather rude and personal towards someone they didn't know. I breathed a sigh of relief when returning to England, back amongst normal people who aren't continually nosy and telling you what they think about politics, religion and anything else the whole time.

I wish I'd read this book before I went. Not that I wouldn't have found a lot of American behaviour strange after reading it (I would still have done) but I would have been more aware of my cultural disabilities and how weird I must seem to them.

That's the power of this book - you can dip into almost any page, read a paragraph and say "that's me!" Kate Fox has studied the English for 10 years with remarkable acuity and she is able to identify behaviours that, to us, are entirely normal but are actually just part of our collective odd English behaviour patterns. When a man I had just been introduced to in America said "So, tell me all about yourself" I was left gaping at him in horror; `Watching The English' describes how people in the UK never share personal information unless they know someone particularly well - and in fact most people don't even introduce themselves to start with - my horror was expected and justified as I had never before been called upon to `blow my own trumpet' and it is completely counter to British reserve and our self-effacing nature. Her comments on ignoring other passengers on train journeys, on our national obsession with pets, on queuing, mobile phone use, class distinctions, dislike of fuss and bother and so many other areas rang completely true.

What I particularly liked about the book (and that I am English would of course confirm this) was that she wrote with a lot of humour and throw-away one-liners, she wasn't hugely pro-English or anti-English, she wasn't anti-American (despite them being so ODD!) and was able to illustrate her comments through the vast amount of research that she has done, including interviewing English people and foreigners and carrying out experiments herself (such as bumping into people in the street and seeing if they say `sorry' - the English generally do).

It's a surprisingly long book and not something you'd sit and read in one go. In fact I think it works best as something you dip into and that's how I've read it over a few days - opening it at random, reading a few pages, then flicking on. It's all subdivided into different headings and subheadings and doesn't really need to be read linearly to be understood. I found myself reading out vast tranches of it to anyone in earshot as it was so amusing and accurate. I read the introduction last of all, having read many comments by Amazon reviews that it was rather hard going - I found the introduction fine, but perhaps that was because by then I had enjoyed the book and found that I very much appreciated the author, her self-deprecating humour and her willingness to share her foibles and those of her family.

This book would make an ideal present for any English people out there who want to laugh at themselves (that's all of us), for anyone about to travel to a different culture (to avoid misunderstandings through others' behaviour) and particularly for those living in other countries who want to visit us without putting their foot in it at every conceivable opportunity.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prodigious - and prodigiously funny June 2 2007
By Forza - Published on
As an American social scientist who has an English partner and has visited the UK multiple times, I found this book engrossing for many reasons. Kate Fox does the miraculous: she makes fascinating reading out of chapters on tea, queue-jumping, arrangements of knick-knacks, incessant talking about the weather, and myriad other English characteristics that so charm, frustrate, and baffle we non-English of the world. Moreover, her writing is hilarious - she has a droll, tongue-in-cheek, utterly English sense of humor that had me laughing through every chapter.

The book is incredibly useful, too. I read it after my English partner recommended it to me, saying he had never read anything that captured the English so well. The insights in the book clarified several things to me and greatly reduced the quantity of cultural faux pas on my part. It also gave my partner a great deal of insight into his own personality as well as his interactions with Americans. Plus, it led to many, many fascinating discussions between us about (among other things) the markers of class and attitudes about it, the nature (and point) of politeness, and how it is that societies can make us who we are.

The only shortcoming of the book is that I still don't understand Vegemite, but I think that may just be beyond comprehension.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mid-Atlantic reading on the English Sept. 18 2008
By Chris Brooks - Published on
Although international industry analyst firms aim to use similar methods when writing their research, winning sales recommendations still means connecting with the `go-to' analysts in national markets. I tend to recommend Kate Fox's book, Watching the English, to those trying to cross the cultural divide when briefing industry analysts here.

Fox is an Oxford-based anthopologist who is better known for her studies of English behavior at the race course and in the pub. It is popularly written, well structured and thoroughly researched. Fox goes deeper than the usual observations about Britain being, like Japan and France, a rather high context culture. She picks up three sets of attributes which might especially hamper those from low context cultures, like the US and Germany, who try to build rapport with analysts in the UK.

1. Reflexes in British culture include humor, moderation and hypocrisy. The first two are easier to work around. Humor is always on, even in rather formal business settings, and most interactions will be peppered with tepid humorous gambits: it's quite unlike most other cultures. Moderation is also an obstacle: paradigm changes are seen as risky rather than bold; what is new is often untested. Hypocrisy is a key element of our `negative politeness', in which not making the other person uncomfortable is often more important than being honest.
2. The general outlook is empirical, and therefore seeks facts, proof and experience. Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh's downcast friend, is a role model when it comes to the pessimistic and doom-laden scepticism of many English folks: perfectly confident projections of the future tend to be discounted. Class consciousness pervades organisations. Especially in London, many cosmopolitian organisations might be staffed largely, or even principally, by foreigners. Even in those businesses, an invisible pecking order will exist the classify the English (and a few French, who meritocracy provides metadata for mapping on to British class structures).
3. The English value fair play, courtesy and modesty. Aggressive, winner-take-all, attitudes are often seen as blinkered, comic and dangerous. Courtesy is a major flaw of many visiting business people, especially in their assumption of hierarchies in analyst firms: I often see spokesmen ignoring women and younger analysts and addressing their comments to only the analyst they feel is most senior. Modesty is also likely to give rise to misunderstandings: because no-one likes a show off, the tendency here is to underplay one's hand with irony. One might say that one `knows a little about semiconductors', which could easily mean that the person is a leading authority on the subject. In the US, business people often open conversations by dropping names and terms to locate each other on a pecking order; because English analysts will often not spar in this way, and do not feel obliged to show what they know, US spokespeople might leave a meeting with a highly able analyst still unaware of that analyst's knowledge and perceptions.
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