Friday, December 16, 2016

Explaining the English


In the facts-delivered-with-snark tradition of Lisa Birnbach's The Official Preppy Handbook, Paul Fussell's Class, and (not read) Oliver Sacks' An Anthropologist on Mars is Kate Fox's Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour from 2004. For many normal people, it's self-aware humor*, maybe sending up themselves (what Birnbach and her friends were up to, making fun of their own class); for foreigners, even or maybe especially from other English-based countries expecting more similarity/familiarity than there is, and for natives on the autism spectrum (being a foreigner in your own land thanks to having a different kind of brain), it's useful to avoid common social misunderstandings/pitfalls.

An overview of England 12 years ago is still current considering most Americans who have never been there have an image of the country at least 40 years out of date: Dickens, Right Ho, Jeeves, Brideshead Revisited (of course I've seen it and read it), "Downton Abbey" (which I didn't follow; I understand it's politically correct revisionist in ways, such as zero religion, the anti-Brideshead), moptops, "Monty Python," and punk (which was invented in New York but the English owned it). My firsthand knowledge is only 25 years past, which isn't too bad. "Mainstream" as a putdown (an example of what the English call naff) still sounds current on both sides of the Atlantic.

Interesting points:
  • That English reserve: Fox calls it "negative politeness," giving you and everybody else a lot of personal space. That's why American-style friendliness, sticking your hand out and giving your name, doesn't work with them. The famous English banter about the (crappy) weather, and about sports, actually follows one of many unwritten rules in society, asking the other person's permission to speak to them.
  • Offsetting that reserve is that famous English humor, often self-deprecating. Like the weather talk and sports talk, a way of safely interacting, without getting too close. Me: Canada (been there), really being a British country, famously seems to have that reserve (basically, unsocial Americans who say "sorry" a lot) without the wry humor. (I love "SCTV"; I don't get "Red Green.")
  • Masters of wordplay: again, as part of interacting comfortably on the surface, the English often don't say what they mean or mean what they say.
  • Fox has noticed that her people are like the Japanese: super-capable, living on crowded islands, hierarchical and ultra-polite to keep the peace, but with unofficially sanctioned violence (from weekend nights at the pubs to soccer hooligans) to let off steam.
  • The place of the pub in society: a safety valve, the bar being the only place you can talk to strangers, but within certain bounds; very English!
  • A good deal of overlap with Fussell: the upper and upper-middle classes in England and America are very similar, as he pointed out. Unlike the "diversity" propaganda claim (anti-whiteness from certain whites!), we have a foundation culture, which is English. Me: Some of the class markers are different besides national differences in accent and slang (short version: we talk funny because English sounded very different in the 1600s when the English settled in America, as you can hear in clips of Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation; then throw in 400 years of separate development), the biggest probably being soccer. In the mother country, which created it, and most of the rest of the world, it's a prole competitive sport taken seriously. In America it's considered to have class because it's European; a non-competitive way for upper-middle-class kids to get exercise. Class insecurity: the uppers and the lower proles have nothing to prove. The upper-middles and middles are nasty/snobbish because they fear losing status: every class hates the one right below it, with cultural boobytraps to catch those trying to move up. Great quotation from Fox: social climbers aping a class they don't really know end up performing "an anagram" of that class, throwing markers together wrongly because they don't understand them. The two books share a quotation: "Mummy says pardon is a worse word than fuck."
  • Class markers are less obvious in this weird era when people buy into the egalitarian myth but they're still there (including accent, even though Received Pronunciation seems to have been waning since the Sixties), sometimes very subtle: upper-middle-class kids almost always dress down/go slumming but choose more muted, tasteful colors than the lower-class kids.
  • It's so funny because it's true: Fox on Anglicanism. As you might know, the English are irreligious, and the Church of England is really the church of "I don't care": indifferent Protestantism, lately with Catholic trappings. "Mummy, what religion are we?" "Nothing really; just write 'C of E.'" According to Fox even retired Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (an Evangelical Anglican) has compared it to a senile aunt talking to herself. Me: But at heart England is a Catholic country with a guilty conscience, having been driven from the church by force. Reminders are everywhere for those sensitive to that (such as the old churches, the names of the old colleges, and the Catholic trappings the C of E has readopted); it haunts that country but doesn't haunt America, which doesn't have those roots. (Our Catholicism famously has become defined by non-English immigration; it's Irish-based. The remaining church in England became very Irish too but is much smaller numerically and proportionally than ours.) Reformed Christianity is a made-up religion from the 1500s which largely lost its faith at the "Enlightenment," hence the unbelieving English today.
More: Alex Gross on the differences between the two Englishes.

*Noah Webster invented American spelling out of spite after independence.

1 comment:

  1. The Red Green Show is a bit like the Canadian equivalent of King of the Hill; it's loving satire of Canada's working-class rural whites. "Handyman Corner" is meant to be absurd, but also pays a kind of sincere tribute to blue-collar ingenuity on a shoestring budget. The awkward, nerdy nephew was the only character ever depicted working a white-collar job.

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