Expat Ramblings: Watching The English, Part 2

I’m so glad I came across Kate Fox’s book – being able to formulate and understand rules helps me a lot generally, and in this case I can finally put some things into words that have vaguely puzzled me for a while now. Yes, many things about the English are weird. So finally making sense of the weirdness comes as a relief.

As I said in my review, Fox takes care to stick to academic procedure and standards. There is no sense of unfairness or blatant stereotyping in her book, which means you can allow yourself to laugh heartily without feeling guilty. The whole first chapter of the book is dedicated to said procedures as well as facts and observations about linguistic and cultural qualities and choices. Yes, choices:

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Englishness is rather more a matter of choice for the ethnic minorities in this country than it is for the rest of us.[…] Immigrants have the advantage of being able to pick and choose more freely, often adopting the more desirable English quirks and habits while carefully steering clear of the more ludicrous ones.

And that’s exactly it. While my children already stick out back home by being overly polite (there is a whole chapter in Fox’s book dedicated to the excessive use of “please” and “thank you” among the English), I see those things merely as cultural markers and use them in any which way I like. I find the class system ridiculous and don’t live in fear of being classified wrongly. I am not a compulsive tea-drinker. On the other hand, I still have to make a conscious effort to stick to certain rules that come naturally to the English. I will be extra polite when I’m talking to an English person in an official function, but I still lie awake at night wondering if I have been too familiar in my talk with a neighbour. The fact that I worry about such rules at all goes to show that I too live by them now – nobody really wants to constantly make a bad impression.

It’s all about that. According to Fox, the English are terrified of doing a social situation “wrongly.” The most hilarious part of Watching The English deals with the not-so-simple act of introducing yourself to a new acquaintance. Now, while I’m not the most self-confident person, I can still manage to say “Hi, I’m Karo!” (Just.) The English, however:

[…] do not want to know your name, or tell you theirs, until a much greater degree of intimacy has been established – like maybe when you marry their daughter. Rather than giving your name, I suggested, you should strike up a conversation by making a vaguely interrogative comment about the weather […]. This must not be done too loudly, and the tone should be light and informal, not earnest or intense. The object is to “drift” casually into conversation, as though by accident. Even if the other person seems happy enough to chat, it is still customary to curb any urges to introduce yourself.

See, I’m not good at role play. This is making me nervous! And I wonder why I feel like I put my foot in it most times… And to make matters worse, there is also a Long Goodbye Rule which states that you will also never get to the stage where you actually leave a gathering, because apparently it’s just as awkward. Great.

Another important rule that the above quote mentioned is the fact that you are NEVER allowed to be completely serious, earnest or emotional. This, again, is too personal for the English to deal with. It shows in my personal experiences with the English humour, and applies to everything from best man speeches at weddings to moaning:

You must moan in a relatively good-humoured, light-hearted manner. However genuinely grumpy you may be feeling, this must be disguised as mock-grumpiness. […] if you become too obviously bitter or upset about your grievances, you will be labelled a “moaner,” and nobody likes a “moaner” – “moaners” have no place in ritual moaning session.

The True English Catchphrase, by the way, according to Kate Fox, is “Oh, come off it!” Which makes sense. Anybody venturing too far into emotional/earnest territory is immediately called out. Refreshing, but hard to deal with on a daily basis. I often feel I don’t have many friends, when in fact I probably have, we’re just sticking to a very puzzling rule that forbids us to be completely open with each other.

Much as humour, class rules can be found in any situation or environment. Fox dedicates a whole chapter to general class rules before pointing out class markers in specific situations throughout the book. While the class system is highly infuriating, Fox points out that it’s not wealth or birth that determines your class, but rather language. Linguistically, there are seven “deadly sins” that will instantly classify you as lower class. And because we all love to test and improve ourselves, here they are:

  • Pardon. This is interesting for me, because I honestly had no idea, and also, great! For years I have been feeling bad about not using it. Turns out “Sorry?” is indeed the upper way to go.
  • Toilet. For the upper classes, it’s “loo,” but that’s just silly. People all over the world will always understand the word “toilet.” Ask for the “loo” and who knows where they might send you.
  • Serviette. Typical example of people trying too hard to be genteel. And trying too hard is never a good thing for the English. It’s “napkin.”
  • Dinner. Correct only if used for the evening meal. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher uses it for the midday meal (a.k.a. lunch). Apparently, that says a lot about her.
  • Settee. It’s a sofa, silly.
  • Lounge. And that’s a sitting room. My living room is somewhere in-between, and I like it just the way it is, thankyouverymuch.
  • Sweet, meaning a dessert. It’s a dessert. Just as dinner is not “tea.” Confused yet?

I’m not-so-secretly proud of myself for using almost all the “right” words. But then again, I’m a pick-and-choose foreigner. Poor, poor English people. If your mum (Mother!) has a settee, you’ll always be working class, even if you own a bank.

And finally, my favourite: the Front-garden Social-availability Rule. Desperate to make contact with their neighbours, the English have found a way to at least signal their willingness to communicate: They pretend to weed their front garden. I am also desperate to make contact with my neighbours, and I don’t even pretend. I just stand in front of my house and wait. It might be sad and possibly too pushy for the English, but I don’t care. I’m a pick-and-choose foreigner, and I’m merely using my favourite behavioural rule. And one day, I will tell them all my name.

By Karo

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

8 replies on “Expat Ramblings: Watching The English, Part 2”

The introducing yourself thing is hilariously true – but it’s not just English people I think, but rather Britain and Ireland too.

“Fox points out that it’s not wealth or birth that determines your class, but rather language.” ooo I don’t know about this. Language and accent is big, but also the way you dress and where you live are huge indicators.

True. I’m not an expert on this, but (and maybe this isn’t even a proper “but”) such indicators would then be confirmed by language immediately. If you saw someone being dressed in a lower-class way (again, a whole chapter on this!), and they had this perfect middle-class way of talking, would you reconsider your first impression? I think many people probably would. Someone dressed in perfectly understated yet ridiculously expensive clothes who has a strong accent or uses “settee” would immediately be outed as an upstart, no? All very confusing. And stupid.

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