"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.