Book Review: Watching the English by Kate Fox

Before I delve any further into my own, highly subjective analysis of the absurdities of English life, I should point out that Kate Fox has done it all before. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour was first published in 2004, the year before I settled in Liverpool. I had heard about it before, but it wasn’t until my (English) friend gave me a copy that I paid proper attention to it. It came at the right time.

Cover of Watching the English by Kate FoxWhile Watching the English is quite humorous, it is actually a real anthropological study, written by a real anthropologist after more than a decade of intensive field studies. Which means that I can’t really tell you anything new. But I’m still glad Fox wrote it, because it’s a wonderful book. Everything in it rings absolutely true, and although written to academic standards, it is a joy to read.

Fox, an Englishwoman herself, aims to determine the behavioural rules that make the English what they are and that define what the world sees in them. To do this, she spent years listening to conversations on trains, spying over garden walls, and drinking in pubs all over the country. What a job! I decided to become an anthropologist while reading the book. The first part of the book is then dedicated to Conversation Codes: the way the English communicate. In this part, the first behavioural rules start to emerge. It is quite clear from the beginning that the English need a lot of linguistic props to get into any conversation at all. Fox describes the many rules that govern any small talk, including taboo subjects and standard phrases. From her observations, it seems like the English are a very private people, socially inhibited and as such constantly embarrassed to make any contact at all, let alone volunteer information about themselves. As such, even informal meetings at parties are seen as potentially embarrassing and lead to an awful lot of weather-talk (a safe, impersonal subject), mumbling, and coughing. Kate Fox goes a step further when she determines the rules that govern even such seemingly random conversations: It is, for example, not advisable to disagree with a person’s view on the weather, even if one is happy with a cold spell or the heat, since weather-talk is not really about the weather at all. It is a universally agreed conversation code that facilitates human contact and bonding. The book continues in this vein – every aspect of language, from small talk to pub banter, from linguistic class rules to that pervading sense of humour, is analysed for its secret rules. And it turns out they really are all about helping those inhibited people get into contact with each other.

In the second, larger part of the book, Fox analyses the main aspects of English life – home, travel, work, play, dress, food, sex, and rites of passage – in regards to their rules, using the conversation codes determined earlier. And here, it really helps that Fox is an academic. Trying to work through such an enormous amount of data can be daunting and could cause most people to lose the plot. But Fox uses the same framework for each category, and the emerging Rules of Englishness become quite clear. Every category, for instance, has its own sub-chapter on class rules and humour, since according to Fox, these are not merely categories, but rather inform every aspect of English life. While the class rules are quite depressing (you can basically get it all wrong on so many levels – one wrong use of a fork, and you’re unmasked as a class intruder. No wonder class anxieties run high), the humour rules are real eye-openers. I’m beginning to understand what makes English humour special: it is simply everywhere. Basically, English people have a rule hardwired into their genetic code that does not allow them to take themselves too seriously. Earnestness and over-eagerness are frowned upon, and so they turn everything into a little joke, which can be quite unsettling for foreigners. This applies to everything from clothes to weddings, from moaning about work to flirting. It’s what makes them distrust religion and overzealous politicians. And I have to admit that I like it!

By the end of the book, Fox has determined that the main English trait, the whole problem, if you will, is what she calls the “social dis-ease”: the extreme social inhibition that makes it hard for the English to come out of their shells and communicate with other people. All the rules that determine their behaviour (humour, moderation, hypocrisy, empiricism, fair play, courtesy, modesty etc.) are merely props and reflexes to help the poor people overcome their anxieties. It’s quite sad, really, because they are people just like anyone else, with an innate need to bond with others. Here, and throughout the book, Kate Fox makes it clear that most of the phenomena she has discovered are indeed universal to humans. The English are mostly just people, only slightly more inhibited and in need of a clear framework that helps them to overcome this. Fox comes across as a very sensible person. She manages to make the book funny without overdoing the stereotypes. She is moderate and reminds the reader of the difference between universal human behaviour and little English quirks, lest we get too carried away. And she allows for personal differences and tastes, while never ridiculing a person for their adherence to the Englishness Rules, but rather pointing out that there’s little anyone can do when it comes to cultural codes.

I learned a lot from this book, but having lived in England for a while, I felt I was able to put everything in perspective. It’s not meant to be a guide-book, since everything is, of course, not always true. I found that a lot of the rules Fox speaks of do not, or only partly, apply to Liverpool (and probably the whole North). There are an awful lot of chatty folk up here. If I was reading the book abroad, without knowing this, I would probably imagine I knew it all, when in fact it’s only half the truth. Also, I saw myself in many, many of the aspects described in Watching the English. This could be purely personal, or it could mean that while true for the English, most of it could just as well apply to any other people in the world. That doesn’t mean that Fox did a shoddy job. She wrote the truth about the English, although some of it happens to be a universal truth about people.

There is such a lot of information in this book, and quite a few quotes that had me howl with laughter and embarrassment, that I’ll be adding a Part Two next week. You can look forward to a lot of Things You Never Knew, like the Front-garden Social-availability Rule, The Long-Goodbye Rule or the true English catchphrase. And, of course, you will never use the word “Pardon” again once I introduce you to the Seven Deadly Sins of class-ridden vocabulary. So long then, chums!

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Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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