Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Watching the English, by Kate Fox

Did you hear that joyful yell? I finally finished reading Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior after about, oh, two or so months of reading. It's not that it was a dull book or even terribly boring. However, I also can't say that it was exciting, thrilling and/or totally enthralling. I wanted to read it because we've got this upcoming trip to England later this year which I keep mentioning. I wasn't totally sure what to pack (to wear) and I always hate stepping on well-known customs (embarrassing) and I thought that reading this book might help us all navigate our way around the country a little bit better. I was right about that.

Kate Fox is an anthropologist (the study of humanity) and her epic work would be this book, originally published in 2006 and updated and reprinted in 2014. Watching the English is 566 pages of her observations of the English and their behaviors. She wanted to find out and help define what makes the English, English. She observes and make notes of their sense of humor, table manners, holiday customs, shopping habits, bus riding habits, behavior in pubs, dress, food, you-name-it-and-she probably-made-a-note about it! To some readers, this work might come across as dry and boring. Again, I can't exactly say that this book was a real page turner. Gratefully I enjoy the quintessential form of British humor - their dry wit - and thus found many things to snicker over as I read along. She described her findings in a witty manner which is what ultimately kept me reading. However, do remember that despite the humor it took me many months to make my way through the book.

There was only one chapter which I did not read and that was the chapter on sex. Why, you ask? Simply this: exasperation. Being that we are daily bombarded with the sex life of Americans everywhere every time we open up a news feed on our computers, turn on our television sets, or glance at a magazine rack, I'm just feeling done. Does anyone feel the need for privacy anymore? Must we discuss every single sexual detail of our lives? I think no. Perhaps Kate Fox agrees but I really couldn't tell you.

Quite frankly I'm not really sure where to take the review of Watching the English. If you love England and its people, and are curious to learn more about them, then that is a pretty good reason to read this book. If you frequently find yourself paying attention to the behaviors and tics of others (and find them amusing) then you might also like this book. If you favor non-fiction titles which educate you as to society and the world then you are also a good reading candidate. I happen to be all of those things. If you are none of those things then the chances are high and likely you'll wish to spend your time with a different title.

In my reading of this title, I gleaned various bits and pieces of information about the English and what I should expect to find when I spent time among them. I learned about what differentiates the upper classes from the upper middle/middle middle/lower middle and lower classes when it came to clothes and even to what type of marmalade a person will purchase. I learned that I probably shouldn't stress out too much about what to pack and wear in England because they have no solid sense of style or class, a similar complaint of Americans. (However, it is thought that the English should be better dressed as they are, what?, only one hour away from Paris!? Although Americans have no style we're excused to some extent by being younger.) I'll bring one longer-in-length dress with a nice cardigan but no jewelry which is too matchy-matchy and I should blend in ok if we went out to dinner.

I also learned that people usually greet each other by remarking on the weather and that you should agree with them in whatever they say (at least at first). If someone says, "Rainy out there, isn't it?" I should respond, "Yes, isn't it? But it's warm out and it looks as if the sun might shine through." First you must agree and then express your own opinion, should it differ. Otherwise you'll be considered rude and/or obnoxious. Do remember to call napkins napkins and not serviettes. Also, consider the food to be descent in spots but not spectacular. Go with low expectations and don't be surprised when things fall apart or aren't exactly to your liking. Say things like, "Typical!" if the train is late - should you feel the need to say anything at all. Keep calm. Apologize for everything even if it's not at all your fault. Don't talk about money. When in public, don't make eye contact with others; everyone has their own personal bubble which they are striving to live in.

Actually, what I learned about the English is that I'm remarkably like them thanks to my introversion. If I were an extroverted personality I might more easily be considered to be the loud and rowdy type of American-over-seas. After reading this book I started observing myself in social settings and making note of my tendencies. A few weeks ago I was grocery shopping when a fellow patron bumped into me by accident. They didn't apologize but I did! "Whoops, sorry!" I said before continuing on my merry way. Then I chuckled because I realized that was so like the English. I've noticed I do that a lot, as a knee-jerk reaction. In public I'm extremely self-conscious and careful not to offend. It's when on Facebook or the blog when I feel more free to speak my mind. Perhaps the English are all more introverted, or perhaps it's just their way. At any rate, it's my way too. This to say that if I were at all worried about our ability to navigate the country, I'm less so now. Our accent (or lack thereof?) will peg us instantly but hopefully we'll show ourselves friendly and respectful. I might have us rehearse our eating habits with a plate of peas (fork prongs down) but otherwise I think we'll be fine.

On the whole I'm glad to have read Watching the English. It was entertaining and informative. It's not a book I'd slide up on my shelf and read again but I have some friends who I think might very well enjoy it so I'll pass it along to them.

Now. If someone has written a book like this about Americans, I'd like to read it.


Annette Whipple said...

I suspect if a book were written about Americans, I would keep saying, "But that's not how I do it."

Carrie said...

@Annette - Yes, that's probably what I would say too! :D I think a book about Americans would be HARDER to write for a few simple reasons:

A.) We're different in speech patterns and behaviors by geographical region. And we have a lot of land to cover. ;)
B.) We're quite diverse.

I don't know how anyone WOULD write this book. But I'd be interested in reading it if they tried!

Tarissa said...

Sounds like a fascinating read. I'd love to try the book out myself, but not sure how long it would take me to finish. Haha!

bekahcubed said...

I'm loving hearing your comments (although I probably won't pick up this book myself - as much because it's not at my library as because you had a hard time getting through it.)

I have a friend who lived in England for 7 years and married a Brit - one comment she's made about clothing is that all women (even stay at home moms :-P) dress if they're going out of the house. No grocery store runs in yoga pants allowed!

In relation to your comment about speech patterns and behaviors differing by geography in the US, we may actually have LESS of that than England does - it's just that we have a lot more land to cover. England itself is smaller in land mass than my state (Kansas), but it has an awful lot of dialects (28 according to Wikipedia) of English (versus 37 in the entire United States). And that's just talking England, not the UK. It's kinda crazy to think about.

FancyHorse said...

If I saw this book at a secondhand shop or a Little Free Library, I would pick it up, but I don't expect to go looking for it.

We were in England in 2011 (so long ago! :-( ) I noticed that they say "Sorry" when I would say "Excuse me." On rainy days, they said, "How do you like our English weather?" I wanted to say it rains where I'm from, but I didn't. I just shrugged and smiled.

I did appreciate the fact that, in London, they painted on the street just at the curb, "Look right". Of course, I always look both ways, but the nearer traffic comes from the right in England!

Jessica B. said...

We only have been to London so I don't know about the rest of England, but I loved it! If you do go to London, make sure you're aware of the proper procedures for riding the Tube. That was one place people were not kind to us. We were traveling when our kids were 4, 2, and 3 months so we had a few strollers and it was difficult to get through the Tube maze. Some people were quite rude when we didn't know (and thus follow) the rules.
But it was an amazing trip and I hope to go back some day for a much longer trip and also to see more of England.

Julie @ Smiling Shelves said...

I really enjoyed this book when I read it, but I think you're right in saying that it targets a specific type of reader. Not everyone will be enthralled by this book. I hope you enjoy your trip to England!

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