Do you ever have the experience of reading a book and enjoying it quite a lot until near the end, when the book begins to get on your nerves? When a book finishes badly, or when minor flaws start to grate through repeated exposure, the book ends up leaving a sour taste in my mouth, even if on the whole, I got more pleasure than irritation out of it. That was my experience with Watching the English by Kate Fox. I had a lot of fun reading Fox’s anthropological study of English culture, and then I didn’t. And now I’m feeling down about the book as a whole.
Fox, an Englishwoman herself, uses her expertise as a social anthropologist to try to understand the English psyche through observation of people’s ordinary habits and behaviors. In her introduction, she describes her aims and method:
Most people obey the unwritten rules of their society instinctively, without being conscious of doing so. For example, you automatically get dressed in the morning without consciously reminding yourself that there is an unspoken rule of etiquette that prohibits going to work in one’s pyjamas. But if you had an anthropologist staying with you and studying you, she would be asking: ‘Why are you changing your clothes?’ What would happen if you went to work in your pyjamas?’ ‘Does everyone in your company do that?’ ‘Why don’t the senior managers follow the Dress-down Friday custom?’ And on, and on, until you were heartily sick of her. Then she would go and interrogate other people—from different groups within your society—and, hundreds of nosy questions and observations later, she would eventually decipher the ‘grammar’ of clothing and dress in your culture.
She watches and takes notes in train stations and pubs and interviews English people as well as foreign tourists and immigrants to England. Chapters in the book cover everything from the English’s seeming obsession with the weather, the love of queuing, class differences related to word choice and shopping preferences, English humor, pub culture, and the notorious English reserve. She conducts experiments in queue jumping (much to her own horror) and intentionally jostling people on the street to see if they’d apologize to her (which they did).
Fox makes it clear in her introduction that she’s observing and recording what would be considered the habits of a typical English person. She knows that not everyone will always follow the usual societal patterns and that not all these habits are unique to the English. She says that clearly in the introduction, and for most of the book, I could accept that she had to generalize and that she didn’t necessarily consider all these actions uniquely English.
There were, however, a few times when I felt she was too caught up by what she calls “ethnographic dazzle,” the tendency to be blind to the commonalities between cultures. Just about everything she said in the chapter on fashion could apply in the United States (which, to be fair, she notes is culturally closer to England in some respects than continental Europe). The explanation about public transportation was amusing because it so perfectly echoes Washington DC subway culture:
Our main coping mechanism on public transport is a form of what psychologists call ‘denial’; we try to avoid acknowledging that were are among a scary crowd of strangers, and to maintain as much privacy as possible, by pretending that they do not exist—and much of the time, pretending that we do not exist either. The denial rule requires us to avoid talking to strangers, or even making eye contact with them, or indeed acknowledging their presence in any way unless absolutely necessary. At the same time, the rule imposes an obligation to avoid drawing attention to oneself and to mind one’s own business.
Even when I questioned Fox’s observations and their particular Englishness, I enjoyed reading them. I especially loved the explanation of pub culture, which I find mystifying. Fox wrote a book about pubs, so she’s spent a lot of time researching customs surrounding pub games, nicknames, and round buying. It was illuminating, but I’m still confused about the custom of “tipping” the bartender by buying him or her a drink. Perhaps some of you could enlighten me. Fox makes it sound fairly common, but I can’t imagine it being so because that’s a lot of drinks. And although Fox says the bartender might keep the money to have the drink later, she implies that there is always a drink for each tip, complete with a nod of thanks from the bartender to the customer when he or she gets a chance to enjoy the drink. I had read about the custom elsewhere and was under the impression that the bartender just pocketed the cash and may or may not use it for a drink. I also was under the impression that most people don’t “tip” at pubs at all.
The social analysis that bothered me was Fox’s description English social awkwardness, which she terms “social dis-ease.” She talks about how the English prefer gatherings that have a specific purpose or how they choose “negative politeness” (that is, leaving people alone) over “positive politeness” (which focuses on inclusion and social approval). Having recently read Susan Cain’s Quiet, I could easily see these tendencies as signs of introversion. Indeed, Cain identifies England as one of the more introverted nations. Knowing that, Fox’s treatment of discomfort with purposeless small talk and disinclination to make a fuss as a freakish (even sociopathic) disorder that needs curing bothered me. I think she was at least half-joking in her word choice, but this American didn’t quite get that bit of English humor.
The main trouble, however, with the book is that it’s just too long and repetitive. There are only so many ways to explain the English use of humor or to delineate class differences or to show how the English are socially awkward. Compounding the problem are the summing ups at the end of each chapter, which repeat the main ideas of the chapter. These summaries are meant to show how she’s constructing a diagram of the English psyche, piece by piece. But the overall effect is artificial; it’s as if she wants us to believe that she studied the topic in chapter one, drew some conclusions, and then moved on to the next topic. The style got on my nerves, and by the epilogue, she even tries to convince readers that she’s sitting in Paddington station writing the epilogue on a napkin. At that point, I just wanted to scream “Oh, come off it!” and toss the book aside. Thank goodness I was just about done. (To be honest, I was probably still annoyed at being called sociopathic for often preferring my own company to that of strangers.)
So even though I was annoyed with this book when I finished it, I liked a lot of it. It made me think a lot about how our individual personalities are shaped by the cultures in which we live. As an introvert living in an extroverted culture, have I been socialized to be more outgoing that I might be otherwise? Or would I be more comfortable—and thus more outgoing—in a culture that tends to treat my own reserve as normal? The interactions between all these forces are fascinating and probably worthy of a book of their own.