Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Watching the English

In Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Kate Fox, 2008) a social anthropologist takes on her own people. I'm internet-acquainted with Fox, just barely. She frequents a horse board where I mostly lurk and occasionally post equine questions related to my WIP. (She owns a splendid Arabian stallion named H Tobago. I'm normally not a fan of chestnuts--give me a glossy dark bay or a dapple gray--but I think Tobago is close to the platonic ideal of a horse.)

Watching the English is another book I wish I'd been able to read before my year in England. I actually didn't find the English as socially awkward as they're characterized here. I made several good friends and had a wide circle of acquaintances to go to the pub with, and got into countless fascinating conversations comparing and contrasting our countries. Maybe it helps that I'm not overly given to personal revelations in casual conversation, since that's apparently one of the prime English complaints about Americans. Could being a Southerner who was Raised Right give one a certain degree of English-style reserve?

I do wish I'd understood the nuances of the class system as outlined throughout Fox's book. Not because it would've changed how I treated anyone, but because it's interesting, all these little shibboleths.

And here I have to tell my favorite story from my time in England: I had lunch with a family from the church where I was working, and after the meal I was playing with their 4-year-old daughter. I told her to "try the red button" on a toy, and like many, maybe even most Americans, I replaced the "tt" in "button" with a glottal stop. The girl fixed me with a solemn glare and told me I was supposed to say "button," pronouncing the t's with utter precision. I smiled and said that I was American, and we have a different way of saying some words. The parents fell all over themselves apologizing--which wasn't necessary, as I was amused rather than offended--and said they were just trying to make sure she didn't develop a common accent. As soon as this came out of the mother's mouth, she realized that what she'd said was far WORSE than her daughter's attempt at retraining my errant American tongue. Next came deep crimson blushes, stammered apologies, assurances that I didn't sound common at all, that they knew the rules for Americans were different, and so on.

Anyway, having read Fox's book, I can now see that those parents were aspirational middle-middle or upper-middle class, anxious about maintaining and displaying their status. And if I were English, I'd want to be either upper or working class, because if Fox is right, they're the ones who don't feel like they have anything to prove and get to just be themselves!

(As a side note, often as I read I thought of how Seattle really is the England of America, in everything from a general reserve and reticence to gardening obsession to our strange habit of thanking bus drivers for simply doing their jobs. In England it came naturally to me--I think I thanked them at first because they were actively helping me navigate Bristol, but then noticed everyone else did it and kept it up--but when I moved to Seattle, after returning from England, I thought it was weird. Nobody ever did that in Philadelphia. Anyway, if I'm right, maybe climate is destiny. Turn people loose in mild, hilly, pleasant but damp conditions, and they become English.)


Cara King said...

Wow, that's all so interesting, Susan!

About that English reserve: I think it's also in different areas than for many Americans. I spent my junior year abroad at an English university, and was in a student-written-and-directed play. By the end of months of rehearsal and performance spent with the other eight students, all Brits, (time which included a week camped out together in a heat-lacking Welsh "cottage"), I realized I knew detailed sexual histories of many of them, but knew almost nothing about their families -- even whether or not they had siblings.

They must have thought I was constantly talking about my family! ;-)


benetedmund said...

Can I post a comment? As a Brit (and I thought the book was great - really nailed the English allergy to "earnestness", the need to be self-deprecatingly humourous ALL THE TIME!) I think you misinterpreted the family's embarrassment. I wouldn't have thought they'd offended you: I'd have thought they were worried you'd think they were the kind of people who were ambitious, aspirational or (perish the thought) pushy! Even more English - the fear of being judged!

But great blog!