Watching the English

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.

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22 Responses to Watching the English

  1. Simon T says:

    Fascinating review, Teresa – I remember unadulteratedly loving the book (except for the chapter on pubs – which was equally mystifying to me, but which spoiled the oh-yes-I-do-that feel of the rest of the book for me – the concept of ’rounds’ definitely terrifies me) but perhaps I did get irked by some of it too. But my abiding memory is loving and laughing – and thinking that it wouldn’t be enjoyable for anybody who wasn’t English, oddly enough.

    • Teresa says:

      What’s interesting is that I too often recognized my own ways of thinking in her descriptions. The whole “negative politeness” thing is me all over. I would say that just means I’m as English as I am American, except that so many things she talked about apply to so many other Americans I know. So the jolts of recognition had a different effect on me!

      On the other hand, I wonder if my not being English caused me not to realize when she was being funny. (I have a tendency not to catch jokes in general, though.)

      I also wonder if there are English people who had the opposite experience as you–who said, “I’m not like that at all!” I’m pretty sure I’d feel that way at times if someone wrote a similar book about Americans :)

  2. Jenny says:

    I really loved Watching the English. I read it just when I was getting back from a London vacation, and it absolutely hit the spot then. But yeah, definitely some of the things she talks about are common to the UK and the US (and probably other places). It was a cool piece of anthropology anyway, and I did enjoy the parts about the pubs.

    • Teresa says:

      There were definitely things she talked about that made me wish I were going to England for vacation this year, and maybe I’d have enjoyed it more if I were fresh back from a trip or just getting ready to go.

      But I really did get more pleasure than annoyance out of it; it’s just that the annoyances end up having more staying power in my head.

  3. I loved this book! It has been several years since I read it, but it really helped me to understand more about myself and where certain aspects of my personality come from (I am a mixture of several different classes and so never seem to fit in a specific hole.)

    I agree about how we English need a specific occasion to get together. People do seem to think it is a bit strange when I suggest we get together without it being someones birthday etc.

    The tipping thing is quite complicated. I agree that we rarely tip in pubs (or anywhere!) but it is often the case that you become a regular at a specific pub and then become friends with the people behind the bar. You’ll then buy the person behind the bar a drink, because they are your friend. I wouldn’t tip in a bar normally.

    Sorry some aspects of the book annoyed you. Let me know when you find that book about interactions :-)

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you Jackie for explaining about tipping in pubs. That makes a lot more sense than having every few people buy another drink for whomever’s behind the bar. But for a friend from time to time, sure.

      The whole idea of needing a reason to get together makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think it strange to get together just for the sake of doing it, but it doesn’t occur to me to suggest it. And gatherings to spend time with people I don’t know well must have some kind of agenda or planned topic. I could completely relate to the English sensibility there!

  4. scrambledbooks says:

    My daughter is going to London for a May term in 3 weeks. This book was assigned reading before they leave. I’m going to send your review on to her.

    • Teresa says:

      This would be a nice book to read before a trip like that. It’ll provide more fodder for effective people watching, I think, and probably help your daughter avoid giving offense accidentially.

  5. boardinginmyforties says:

    I’m interested in this one and am duly warned about the aspects that might bug me as well. My boss is a Brit and she and I endlessly discuss cultural norms and differences with one another.

    • Teresa says:

      I imagine this would give you and your boss a lot to talk about. There were a lot of things in it that it wouldn’t occur to me to bring up.

  6. Simon T says:

    Just remembered my favourite bit from the book – the one-person queue. I totally do that!

  7. I’m going to look for this book – it sounds very interesting, even if it’s repetitive. One thing struck me as I was reading your post is that I don’t think we ‘love’ queuing, it’s more that it’s a matter of fairness and being polite – that’s why I hate people queue jumping, but have to be really annoyed to actually say anything about it.

    • Teresa says:

      That makes sense. I can’t remember if “love” was the precise word she uses, but she does talk a lot about fair play being a factor. I like the orderliness and clarity of a queue.

  8. This will be interesting to read, though Simon T thinks it wouldn’t be enjoyable to a non-English reader. Most of the time we who live in such cultures under study are not conscious of our own actions.

    • Teresa says:

      I think the enjoyment is just different if you aren’t English. And it is so true that we do all kinds of things just because it’s what “everyone” around us does, not because we’ve thought it through.

  9. Christy says:

    Yeah, I definitely resonate with the ‘negative politeness’ thing, although I am an American.

    • Teresa says:

      One of my best friends and I are so entrenched in negative politeness that we won’t even call each other without a very specific reason for fear of being annoying. We joke about how silly this is all the time, but do we call just for a chat? Nope.

      • Christy says:

        I think the only people I regularly call up just to chat are my parents and my sisters. I’m not a big phone person. I don’t know if the ‘negative politeness’ is connected with that somehow.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book even if I’m not english. The book made me understand some of Terry Pratchetts hints to social climbing in the english society (in the book Hogfather). Brilliant book!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I recently returned to the USA after a relatively short stay of 5 months in England, during which time I interacted with plenty of people from all classes (and it wasn’t always lovely). I think it would be helpful to understand that a comprehension of the essence of a different culture takes a long time; you can’t just read about it. If you haven’t felt it first, words written about another culture mean little and are easily misunderstood, interpreted into the only paradigm that the reader understands (this happens mostly with people who have only ever lived in one culture). It takes a long while for any person to begin to genuinely understand all of the influences within a new/different culture, especially your first new cultural experience. Many people who have lived outside of their birth country by choice for long periods of time tend to feel similarly: that you can only begin to deeply understand a second culture (the first being the one you grew up in) after you have been living in that second culture for 2 continuous years. That initial 2 continuous years is necessary in order to give you a perspective that isn’t based on interpreting through the paradigm of the country/culture you were raised in. Many of the people who have lived outside of their birth country for long periods of time (many, but not all) become anthropological observers regardless of where they go or where they live after that initial second cultural experience. After your second culture it is much easier to understand social norms in new places even after as little as 2 or 3 months because you went through a process of intense learning, similar to that of a formal schooling. Living in a second culture for 2 continuous years is like going to university and studying. Well, those who actually make the effort to dissect and understand the new-to-them cultures are those who get this “depth perspective”. I bought “Watching the English” as I was about to leave England. I’m now half way through the book and am tickled to see how “spot-on” Kate Fox has been about everything so far. Really, EVERYTHING. I wouldn’t have understood any of what Kate Fox was writing if I hadn’t spent all that time there. It is too easy to think that the culture from the USA and that of England is similar because on the surface so many things seem similar. But I think it would be difficult for a reader to grasp what Kate Fox was writing about if you didn’t have the experience of having been in England for a while. The pub “tipping” thing that people don’t understand is a great example. Kate Fox never said that the bartender and patrons were friends. She said they were friendly. Big difference. And though her “tipping” scenario doesn’t happen in all pubs (though is more likely in pubs where tourists and temporary visitors weren’t as likely to go), the essence of the whys behind it are incredibly English. The bartender is NOT the friend of the patrons (in terms of what a person from the USA would call a friend). They may or may not be of the same social class (and your relative level in the social hierarchy is hugely important in England). Only the monied, tenured, true upper class doesn’t care about social levels and that is because EVERYONE is beneath them! The bartender and the patrons are in a friendly “game” of verbal amusement and banter and, at the same time, the complex tipping scenario is a superficial effort (a guise) made to try to diminish the temporary make-believe differences in social standing between the patron with money and the bartender without, all done within the firm guidelines of their social code. And the social code in England is much more rigid than what most people from the USA would understand (with the exception, possibly, of the New England Protestant or the monied “Southern” baptist classes of the USA: those two USA sub-groups might begin to understand the unspoken strictness of culture). I can see why it is required reading before a trip. But I felt that I am able to get a lot more out of it because I have had the experience of being “in” it. The bottom line: read and travel as much as you can afford, and do so thoughtfully.

  12. Connie says:

    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.


    I thought I’d clear this up for you a bit, she was joking in our weird grain-of-truth-but-don’t-really mean-it way, our introverted cultural tendencies are not real introversion, they’re a cultural bit of faff and not a comment on actual introverted people (of which I imagine we have a similar number to the rest of the world.)

    Basically its a form of teasing(and ironic overstatment,) by pointing out (or magnifying) our flaws in plain language but a teasing (or ironic) tone. (Example “Yeah Dave but lets be honest, your often a massive prick and you live with you’re mother, give it up mate.”) no offense will be taken and strangely the better friends you are with someone the harsher the comments get. Crucially its understood that the commenter either does not mean what they are saying or only means a much milder version, or its funny because they’re breaking our social rules by plainly pointing out a fact you normally wouldn’t mention in polite company(“yeah but your old” reply would be a sarcastic “thanks” or some fake outrage). So by playfully exaggerating what she thinks of these tendencies shes conveying a fondness for our eccentricities not what she actually believes.

    As a rule of thumb, if an English person’s making fun of you to your face, it means they like you, you’ve broken down the cultural barriers and have now hit banter, if after a time they’re still being carefully polite to you it either means they think your a prick or you haven’t quite got there yet.

    … Yeah its kinda complicated now I think about it

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