Book Review: Watching the English by anthropologist Kate Fox

Jennifer Saunders, from The Times, described this book as ‘an absolutely brilliant examination of English culture’. Titled Watching the English, The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, that is exactly what this book is – a funny and systematic account and analysis of the English as a people, their nature, their characteristic behaviours, and their quirks.

An English woman herself – and in her own words a bit of rebel anthropologist – the author sets out to outline the Grammar of Englishness by observing her family, her peers, the English in general, and herself. Her approach is systematic and dotted with scientific rigour, which she explains in detail in the book’s prologue before taking our hand and introducing us to the English.

As with every single conversation on this island, she starts her analysis by talking about… the weather. The ultimate icebreaker, weather talk is the safe zone everyone defaults to when addressing strangers, acquaintances, and loved ones. Every. Single. Time.

Part I

The first part of the book deals with Conversation Codes: the weather, introductions (usually a confusing affair that tends to leave people uncertain of how to best greet each other and trying to get to the other person’s cheek while shaking their hand and hoping to avoid the mouth), the ever-present English humour, class codes (a big issue on this island, even if nobody actually talks about it), and, most importantly, pub talk, where most of the English social life (and some business deals) takes place.

Part II

The second part of the book deals with Behaviour Codes: at home, on the road, at work, while out and about; as well as with dress codes, rites of passage, and rules of food and sex. Yes, no aspect of English life escapes Kate Fox’s microscope.

We read this book as part of our Wimbledon Book Club year of diversity that will take us around the world throughout 2018. It was only fair – and very English, I should say – to start ‘at home’.

Having lived in London for three years now, I found the book entertaining and easy to read. I was happy, also, to have so many of my own intuitive observations confirmed.

Highlights

The English are extremely protective of their privacy. I called this tendency ‘six steps of separation’ in an article I wrote for the Argentine Association of Translators and Interpreters back in 2015. At first glance, they may seem standoffish but, the truth is, they are simply respecting the privacy they would like to have respected back themselves. Thus, the importance of weather talk, as it is a useful face-saving tool to check whether it is all right to talk to someone or not.

However, it seems that centuries of respecting others’ privacy and demanding respect for one’s own has lead the English to develop certain response mechanisms and social crutches such as resorting to humour – especially the self-deprecating type – moderation with a touch of hypocrisy as when women say ‘oh, this old thing’ when complimented on their sartorial choice, and a sort of ritualistic communal moaning devoid of any actual intention to fix the issue at hand.

I can see how it may all seem extremely baffling to non-English people like me. It takes an open mind, a great sense of humour, modesty, and respect to get the rules and learn to play by them. The good thing is there is always someone around eager to moan a bit about it.

According to the author, the English tend to prefer empirical observation to empty theorising about life and the state of the world, are deeply class conscious, and detest self-boasting, which falls in line with their values of fair play and courtesy.

Personally, I enjoyed reading about her ‘Sorry Experiment’, which had her intentionally bumping into people in the street. I confess to having adopted the same habit myself – the saying ‘sorry’ one, not the intentionally bumping into people one. Please note that any bumping into people of mine is purely accidental, whether in England or anywhere else in the world.

I also liked her conclusion that the only true eccentric in the country is The Queen (see the Dress Codes section) and took note of the conversational safe zones, like the bar at the pub. Being an extrovert Argentine, it is very good to know how and where I can safely engage in conversation and make new friends.

The Rules of Work section is particularly enlightening for anybody wishing to do business with the English, as the combination moderation, understatement, and self-deprecating, ironic humour may easily lead foreigners to understand the exact opposite of what was intended and misjudge many situations.

Conclusion

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book and especially like the fact that it provides scientific foundations to what in many other printed and online works is just acute, empirical observations and to my own intuitive ones, such as what I call the English slot system.

“Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers.” ~Paulo Coelho

Useful Resources


Photo taken by me in Edinburgh. I decided to stay behind after interpreting for the World Haemophilia Federation World Congress in Glasgow. Edinburgh is such a beautiful city!

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