The first book I read about a country’s philosophy, and still one of the best. (Au Contraire, about the French, is the other.) I re-read it now 11 years later, and loved her insights and writing. Active anthropology. A must-read if you’re spending time in England.
No, I am not going to get beyond the stereotypes, I am going to try to get inside them.
Conversations about the weather are not really about the weather at all: English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk.
‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’ – like ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ and all the others – is English code for ‘I’d like to talk to you – will you talk to me?’, or, if you like, simply another way of saying ‘hello’.
The reciprocity is the point, not the content.
Never contradict anybody when discussing the weather.
The Shipping Forecast is a cold poetry of information.
The English do not want to know your name, or tell you theirs, until a much greater degree of intimacy has been established.
The object is to drift casually into conversation, as though by accident.
To be impeccably English, one must perform these rituals badly. One must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward and, above all, embarrassed.
The ‘print exception’: writers are allowed bare their soul in writing.
But just as you would not ask a professional topless model to take her top off at a family Sunday lunch, so you do not ask professional soul-barers to bare their souls over the canapés at a private party.
Earnestness is not allowed; zeal is unmanly.
Seriousness is acceptable, solemnity is prohibited.
Sincerity is allowed, earnestness is strictly forbidden.
Pomposity and self-importance are outlawed.
‘Oh, come off it!’ is a strong candidate for England’s national catchphrase.
This may be why the English have satire instead of revolutions.
The ‘Oh, come off it!’ rule encapsulates a peculiarly English blend of armchair cynicism, ironic detachment, a squeamish distaste for sentimentality, a stubborn refusal to be duped or taken in by fine rhetoric, and a mischievous delight in pin-pricking the balloons of pomposity and self-importance.
When we ask someone a straightforward question (e.g. ‘How are the children?’), we are equally prepared for either a straightforward response (‘Fine, thanks.’) or an ironic one (‘Oh, they’re delightful – charming, helpful, tidy, studious …’ To which the reply is ‘Oh dear. Been one of those days, has it?’).
The English are always in a state of readiness for humour.
The understatement rule:
Rather than risk exhibiting any hint of forbidden solemnity, unseemly emotion or excessive zeal, we go to the opposite extreme and feign dry, deadpan indifference.
We are parodying ourselves. Every understatement is a little private joke about Englishness.
Deal with the embarrassment of success and prestige by making a self-denigrating joke out of it all.
If you do have the misfortune to be financially successful, it is bad manners to draw attention to the fact. You must play down your success, and appear ashamed of your wealth.
The kind of anthropology I do is not far removed from stand-up comedy: pithy, acute, clever observation on the minutiae of human behaviour and social relations.
The English are very much a verbal rather than a visual culture.
Reliance on linguistic signals, and the irrelevance of wealth and occupation as class indicators, also reminds us that our culture is not a meritocracy.
The bar counter is the only place in England in which anything is sold without the formation of a queue.
There is in fact a queue, an invisible queue, and that both the bar staff and the customers are aware of each person’s position in this queue. Everyone knows who is next.
It is not customary in English pubs to tip the bar staff who serve you. Instead, ‘And will you have one yourself?’ at the end of your order. The offer must be clearly phrased as a question, not an instruction, and should be made discreetly. It implies that the bartender is being included in the ‘round’.
Identifiably English: the celebration of eccentricity, the constant undercurrent of humour, the wit and linguistic inventiveness.
In the pub, sticking to the same subject for more than a few minutes may be taken as a sign of excessive seriousness.
Free-association: attempts to focus on a particular subject for more than a few minutes are fruitless, and only serve to make one unpopular.
Pubgoers do not pour their hearts out to each other; they do not reveal – except inadvertently – their private fears or secret desires. In fact, it is not done to talk about ‘personal’ matters at all, unless such matters can be aired in a non-serious manner. Earnest heart-to-heart outpourings are frowned upon.
Moaning is English ‘polite egalitarianism’, a less invidious form of hypocrisy. The moaners, by emphasising the mundane practical details and difficulties of home-buying or moving, are focusing on problems they and their listeners have in common, matters with which we can all identify, and politely deflecting attention from any potentially embarrassing disparity in wealth.
One of the most important rules of moaning: you must moan in a relatively good-humoured, light-hearted manner. However genuinely grumpy you may be feeling, this must be disguised as mock-grumpiness.
The Germans live in Germany; The Romans live in Rome; The Turkeys live in Turkey; But the English live at home.
Negative politeness 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.
What looks like unfriendliness is really a kind of consideration: we assume that everyone shares our obsessive need for privacy – so we mind our own business and politely ignore them.
Visitors from ‘positive-politeness’ cultures are more likely to misunderstand and be offended by the ‘polite’ aloofness.
‘Sorry’ is a useful, versatile, all-purpose word, suitable for all occasions and circumstances. It is not a considered admission of guilt.
The determinedly unpatriotic English object to my more positive findings about them.
The English have some pleasant and even admirable qualities. The English themselves just cannot seem to accept this.
English social interaction: We seem to be congenitally incapable of being frank, clear or assertive. We are always oblique, always playing some complex, convoluted game.
The top and bottom ends of the social scale have more in common with each other than either has with the middle ranks. The common factor usually turns out to be some form of disregard for social niceties or a lack of concern about ‘what the neighbours will think’.
The majority of the more notable and flamboyant English eccentrics have always come from either the highest or the lowest social classes.
What looks like anti-intellectualism is often in fact a combination of anti-earnestness and anti-boastfulness. We don’t mind people being ‘brainy’ or clever, as long as they don’t make a big song-and-dance about it, don’t preach or pontificate at us, don’t show off and don’t take themselves too seriously.
Workplace encounters: there is always an awkward period – usually lasting around five to ten minutes, but it can take up to twenty – in which all or some of the parties feel that it would be rude to start ‘talking business’ straight away, and everyone tries to pretend that this is really just a friendly social gathering.
A visiting Canadian businessman complained: “I suggested maybe we could get started on the contract and they all looked at me like I’d farted or something! Like, how could I be so crass?”
The English find ‘doing business’ awkward and embarrassing at least partly because of a deep-seated but utterly irrational distaste for money-talk of any kind.
It is best to do all the financial negotiating in letters or emails.
The English just can’t talk about money face to face, you have to do it in writing. In writing they’re fine – they don’t have to look you in the eye and they don’t have to say all those dirty words out loud.
Yorkshire: a county that prides itself on being forthright, blunt and plain-spoken, especially on matters that mincing, hesitant southerners find embarrassing, such as money.
Blunt Yorkshiremen know that they are turning the rules upside-down: they do it on purpose.
In England, money will buy you a lot of things, including access to power and influence, but it will not buy you any respect – quite the opposite: social class is completely independent of material wealth.
People use ‘work hard, play hard’ to describe their exciting lifestyle and their dynamic approach to work and leisure. They are almost always lying. The English, on the whole, do not ‘work hard and play hard’: we do both, and most other things, in moderation.
Our relative freedom from the corruption they felt was endemic and tacitly accepted in other parts of the world.
‘You just take it for granted,’ a Polish immigrant complained. ‘You assume that people will play fair, and you are shocked and upset when they do not. In other countries there is not that assumption.’
‘Typical!’ is a generic, all-purpose term of disapproval. It is a complaint, but a complaint that also expresses a very English kind of grudging forbearance and restraint – a sort of grumpy, cynical stoicism.
If you ever find that a business discussion is somewhat stilted, over-formal or heavy going, ask the person to ‘just talk as though we were in the pub,’ or ‘tell me about it as you would if we were in the pub.’ Everyone will know exactly what you mean: pub-talk is relaxed, informal, friendly talk, not trying to impress, not taking things too seriously.
Latin-Mediterranean = insouciant fatalism.
Anti-intellectualism looks awfully like ‘empiricism’, particularly the anti-theory, anti-dogma, anti-abstraction elements of the English empiricist tradition, our stolid preference for the factual, concrete and common-sense, and deep mistrust of obscurantist, ‘Continental’ theorising and rhetoric.
Home is what the English have instead of social skills.
Our love-affair with our homes is directly related to our obsession with privacy, which in turn is due to our social dis-ease.
The term ‘Guardian-reader’ is often used as shorthand for a woolly, lefty, politically correct, knit-your-own-tofu sort of person.
Shopping is not an act of spending, but an act of saving. You do not speak of having ‘spent’ x amount on an item of food or clothing, but of having ‘saved’ x amount on the item. You would certainly never boast about having spent an excessive sum of money on something, but you are allowed to take pride in finding a bargain.
This rule applies across all social classes.
Always praise people’s pets, and when you speak to our animals directly (which you should do as much as possible) remember that you are addressing our inner child.
The rest of the world is not as socially inhibited and inept as the English. We do not find it easy to initiate friendly conversation with strangers, or to develop closer relationships with fellow pubgoers. We need help. We need props. We need excuses to make contact. We need toys and sports and games that get us involved with each other.
On average ‘initiating’ round-buyers (those who regularly buy the first round) actually spend no more money in the long term than ‘waiting’ round-buyers (those who do not offer a round until later in the session). In fact, far from being out-of-pocket, ‘initiators’ often end up rather better off than those who wait, because their popularity and reputation for generosity means that others are inclined to be generous towards them.
When people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.
In some societies (such as the UK, the US, Australia and parts of Scandinavia), drinking is associated with aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour, while in others (such as Latin/Mediterranean cultures) drinking behaviour is largely peaceful and harmonious.
To prove to their companions that they have attained the socially desirable degree of drunkenness, they generally feel obliged to do something ‘mad’ – to put on some sort of display of outrageously disinhibited behaviour.
By blaming the booze, we sidestep the uncomfortable question of why the English, so widely admired for their courtesy, reserve and restraint, should also be renowned for their oafishness, crudeness and violence.
We suffer from deeply ingrained inhibitions that make it difficult for us to express emotion and engage in the kind of casual, friendly social interaction that seems to come naturally to most other nations.
Opposite extremes: when we feel uncomfortable or embarrassed in social situations we become either over-polite, courteous, buttoned-up and awkwardly restrained, or loud, loutish, aggressive, violent and generally insufferable.
We disguise our craving for social contact as a burning desire to throw balls at each other, or to perfect our flower-arranging or motorcycle-maintenance skills, or to save the whales, or the world, or something – and then go to the pub, where we can pretend that we are only there for the beer, and attribute any embarrassing evidence of normal human emotion to its miraculous properties.
One should not be seen to be overly concerned about being fashionable or well dressed. Dress, like pretty much everything else, is not to be taken too seriously.
Dress is essentially a form of communication – one could even call it a social skill – so perhaps it should not be surprising to find that the socially challenged English are not terribly good at it.
We do not like formality; we object to being dictated to by prissy little rules and regulations – but we lack the natural grace and social ease to cope with informality.
Food is not given high priority in English life.
We have no great culinary tradition of our own.
In Italy, they are much more traditional, much less open-minded about food. And the French are even more narrow-minded. But we can be remarkably flexible, willing to try new things and absorb different culinary practices. Indian food in particular is now an integral part of English culture.
The English just don’t really expect things to work properly and don’t expect particularly good service or products, and when their pessimistic assumptions are confirmed they say, “Huh! Typical!”’
But we never DO anything about it except sit around saying “Typical!” to each other.
We do tend to treat such failings as though they were acts of God, rather than instances of human incompetence.
When we say ‘Typical!’ we are expressing annoyance and resentment, but we are also, in some strange way, pleased that our gloomy predictions and cynical assumptions about the ways of the world have been proved accurate. We may have been thwarted and inconvenienced, but we have not been taken unawares. We knew this would happen. We always choose the slowest queue; deliveries are always late; builders never finish a job properly, something always goes wrong, and on top of that it’s bound to rain. To the English, these are established, incontrovertible facts.
Unless you fully appreciate this peculiar mindset and its implications you will never truly understand the English.
Try repeating the above mantras to yourself every day. Recite them in a resignedly cheerful tone, adding the odd ‘mustn’t grumble’ or ‘never mind’ or ‘better make the best of it’, and you will be well on your way to becoming English. Learn to greet every problem, from a piece of burnt toast to World War Three, with ‘Typical!’, somehow managing to sound simultaneously peeved, stoical and smugly omniscient, and you will qualify as a fully acculturated English person.
Food taboos have become the primary means of defining one’s social identity. You are what you do not eat.
The working classes generally have no truck with this sort of nonsense. They have real problems, and do not need to invent fancy food allergies to make their lives more interesting.
The upper classes are equally down-to-earth and sceptical about such matters. They do not suffer from the same insecurities about their identity as the fretful middle classes, and so do not need to define themselves through conspicuous non-consumption.
What do you call your evening meal? And at what time do you eat it?
If you call it ‘tea’, and eat it at around half past six, you are almost certainly working class.
If you call the evening meal ‘dinner’, and eat it at around seven o’clock, you are probably lower-middle or middle-middle.
If you normally only use the term ‘dinner’ for rather more formal evening meals, and call your informal, family evening meal ‘supper’, you are probably upper-middle or upper class.
A family ‘supper’ is generally eaten at around half-past seven, while a ‘dinner’ would usually be later, from half past eight onwards.
To everyone but the working classes, ‘tea’ is a light meal taken at around four o’clock in the afternoon, and consists of tea (the drink) with cakes, scones, jam, biscuits and perhaps little sandwiches – traditionally including cucumber sandwiches – with the crusts cut off. The working classes call this ‘afternoon tea’, to distinguish it from the evening ‘tea’ that the rest call supper or dinner.
Everyone has lunch at around one o’clock.
The English do not take the middle-of-the-day meal at all seriously: most make do with a sandwich or some other quick, easy, single-dish meal.
Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: when in doubt, put the kettle on.
Almost all eating is supposed to be done with both knife and fork.
Almost all foods must be speared and/or squashed onto the backs of forks.
Only first courses and salads, for example, or spaghetti or shepherd’s pie – may be eaten with the fork alone.
Cut up and eat foods one small piece at a time.
‘Small is beautiful’ and ‘slow is beautiful’ principles seem to be at the root of many of the class-indicator rules.
Break off (not cut off) a bite-sized piece of the bread or toast, spread butter/pâté/marmalade onto just that small piece, eat it in one small bite, then repeat the procedure with another small piece.
It is considered vulgar to spread butter or whatever across the whole slice of toast and then bite into it.
Fillet the fish one small bit at a time.
Grapes must be broken off in a small bunch, and eaten one at a time.
Apples and other fruit are peeled, quartered and eaten one segment at a time, not bitten into whole.
Bananas should be peeled and cut into discs, which are then eaten one at a time.
Class-indicator rules are designed to slow us down, to make things deliberately difficult, to ensure that we eat the smallest possible mouthfuls.
What it all boils down to is not appearing to be greedy.
Over-eagerness about anything is undignified; over-eagerness about food is disgusting.
Napkin: gentle dabbing.
The napkin should be left carelessly crumpled on the table.
You are supposed to dip your fingers briefly in the finger bowl, then pat them gently dry with your napkin – not wash and scrub and rub as though it were a bathroom sink.
Port must always travel round the table clockwise. You must always pass the bottle or decanter to your left.
Why do we find sex so funny? We don’t, not really: it’s just that humour is our standard way of dealing with anything that makes us feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.