Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

A truly English protest march would see us all chanting: 'What do we want? GRADUAL CHANGE! When do we want it? IN DUE COURSE!

During the London riots in August 2011, I witnessed looters forming an orderly queue to squeeze, one at a time, through the smashed window of a shop they were looting. They even did the ‘paranoid pantomime’, deterring potential queue-jumpers with disapproving frowns, pointed coughs and raised eyebrows. And it worked. Nobody jumped the queue. Even amid rioting and mayhem – and while committing a blatant crime – the unwritten laws of queuing can be ‘enforced’ by a raised eyebrow.

Even the English, who understand it, are not exactly riotously amused by the understatement. At best, a well-timed, well-turned understatement only raises a slight smirk.

...fine love poetry tends to be written when the object of one's affection is at a safe distance; also, it often reflects a love of words more than a love of women...

I mentioned earlier that someone once said that the English have satire instead of revolutions (or something to that effect): we complain bitterly, and often wittily, but we do not actually do anything about it.

Many of those who pontificate about "acculturation" are inclined to underestimate this element of choice. Such processes are often described in terms suggesting that the "dominant" culture is simply imposed on unwitting, passive minorities, rather than focusing on the extent to which individuals quite consciously, deliberately, cleverly and even mockingly pick and choose amongst the behaviours and customs of their host culture

My father was already training me to be an ethnographer, a ‘participant observer,’ but I was by nature much more of an observer than a participant. And an arrogant little observer at that.

Native speakers can rarely explain the grammatical rules of their own language. In the same way, those who are most ‘fluent’ in the rituals, customs and traditions of a particular culture generally lack the detachment necessary to explain the ‘grammar’ of these practices in an intelligible manner. This is why we have anthropologists.

One woman told me, ‘Well, I’d ticked “Christian” on the first page, in the sense that I suppose I’m sort of Christian as opposed to Muslim or Hindu or something, so then I thought I’d better tick God as well – otherwise I’d look a bit inconsistent.’ Others are clearly not so concerned about consistency, as surveys regularly show that up to 15 per cent of those identifying themselves as Christian freely admit that they do not believe in God. This may seem utterly bizarre, but Alan Bennett wasn’t joking: in the C of E, belief in God is optional, and even raising the issue of belief would be in poor taste. Over half of those who tick ‘Christian’ do not believe in Christ .

Pardon This word is the most notorious pet hate of the upper and upper-middle classes. Jilly Cooper recalls overhearing her son telling a friend ‘Mummy says that “pardon” is a much worse word than “fuck”.’ He was quite right: to the uppers and upper-middles, using such an unmistakably lower-class term is worse than swearing. Some even refer to lower-middle-class suburbs as ‘Pardonia’. Here is a good class-test you can try: when talking to an English person, deliberately say something too quietly for them to hear you properly. A lower-middle or middle-middle person will say, ‘Pardon?’; an upper-middle will say ‘Sorry?’ (or perhaps ‘Sorry – what?’ or ‘What – sorry?’); but an upper-class and a working-class person will both just say, ‘What?’ The working-class person may drop the t – ‘Wha’?’ – but this will be the only difference. Some upper-working-class people with middle-class aspirations might say ‘pardon’, in a misguided attempt to sound ‘posh’.

...retreat into the privacy and sanctuary of our castle-like homes, shut the door, pull up the imaginary drawbridge and avoid the issue. Home may indeed be our substitute for a Fatherland, but at another level, I would suggest that *home is what the English have instead of social skills*.

Social scientists are not universally liked or appreciated, but we are still marginally more acceptable than alcoholics and escaped lunatics.

Tea is still believed, by English people of all classes, to have miraculous properties. A cup of tea can cure, or at least significantly alleviate, almost all minor physical ailments and indispositions, from a headache to a scraped knee. Tea is also an essential remedy for all social and psychological ills, from a bruised ego to the trauma of a divorce or bereavement. This magical drink can be used equally effectively as a sedative or stimulant, to calm and soothe or to revive and invigorate. Whatever your mental or physical state, what you need is ‘a nice cup of tea’.

the myth is still widely believed, particularly among males, that men spend their conversations ‘solving the world’s problems’, while the womenfolk gossip in the kitchen. In my discussion groups and interviews, most English males initially claimed that they did not gossip, while most of the females readily admitted that they did. On further questioning, however, the difference turned out to be more a matter of semantics than practice: what the women were happy to call ‘gossip’, the men defined as ‘exchanging information’.

This comment seemed to reflect an assumption that a stereotype is almost by definition ‘not true’, that the truth lies somewhere else – wherever ‘beyond’ might be. I find this rather strange, as I would naturally assume that, although they are unlikely to be ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but’, stereotypes about English national character might possibly contain at least a grain or two of truth. They do not, after all, just come out of thin air, but must have germinated and grown from something.

When the priest says ‘Lord, have mercy upon us’, you do not respond ‘Well, actually, why should he?’ You intone dutifully, ‘Christ, have mercy upon us.’ In the same way, it would be very rude to respond to ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’ with ‘No, actually, it’s quite mild.