Book: Watching the English by Kate Fox
Publication date: 2004
Source: Borrowed from a friend
Summary: Kate Fox, an anthropologist turns her skills for participant observation on her own culture. She defines participant observation as “participating in the life and culture of the people one is studying, to gain a true insider’s perspective on their customs and behaviour, while simultaneously observing them as a detached, objective scientist.” She indicates that’s easier to say than do, but we learn that one characteristic of Englishness is understatement, especially when applied to anything that could possibly resemble boasting.
Thoughts: This book took a long time to read because it was pleasantly consumed in bite-size morsels. Then, I sat on the review forever. Just about the time I was going to write it, the riots in London broke out. I felt like this book should have given me some perspective on the matter and it did. But expressing that opinion after reading one book felt like hubris, as if I were practicing anthropology without a license.
According to the book, the English are famous for two diametrically opposed ways of being: reservedness and hooliganism. Kate Fox says these are two sides of the same coin, the central core of Englishness: social dis-ease. So, perhaps the riots were the hooliganism side of that coin, an ineffective over-the-top response to frustration. Of course, it’s not like the English are the only culture to erupt into rioting (is there any culture immune from that?), so I’m not feeling too confident that social dis-ease is a major factor.
Many of the amusing bits of this book are about this social dis-ease, especially in contrast and misunderstandings with folks from the U.S., like this bit from page 39:
The ‘brash American’ approach: ‘Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,’ particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and beaming smile, makes the English wince and cringe. The American tourists and visitors I spoke to during my research had been both baffled and hurt by this reaction. ‘I just don’t get it,’ said one woman. ‘You say your name and they sort of wrinkle their noses, like you’ve told them something a bit too personal and embarrassing.’ ‘That’s right,’ her husband added. ‘And then they give you this tight little smile and say “Hello” –kind of pointedly not giving their name, to let you know you’ve made this big social booboo. What the hell is so private about a person’s name, for God’s sake?’
As an introvert, sometimes being a bit too reserved in social situations, I’ve always thought I might be more comfortable in England than in the outgoing environment of the U.S. But that was before I read the part about the English aversion to earnestness. Apparently, the English make a distinction between sincerity and earnestness–sincerity is acceptable, but displays of earnestness are strictly forbidden. I read the whole book and I’m still not sure I fully grasp the difference, being about as earnest of an American as they come. I once had ‘earnest’ on my resume. I changed it to ‘enthusiastic,’ but all I meant by that was earnestness with a smile.
As an introvert, I could probably forget what I’ve learned about greeting people warmly and with confidence. What I can’t rid myself of is the earnestness with which I approached that project. Like many American women my age, I learned how to shake hands firmly and other greeting skills in a business class. My mother rarely shook hands and didn’t teach me, so I consciously developed greeting skills and I’m proud of them, earnestly proud. Heh. The good news, of course, is that I’m kind of stuck here in the Midwest so the fact that this book made me feel more American is a very good thing, worth losing the fantasy that I would make a good English person.
As for the riots, I take a lot of comfort from stories about Londoners and others using social media to organize the clean up: London Riots: Social Media Mobilizes Riot Cleanup. In the US, I look at both the Tea Party demonstrations and the Occupy Wall Street protests to see rage expressed without riot. Riots aren’t inevitable and they can be recovered from, both good things to keep in mind at moments when the world feels explosive.
Appeal: This book appears to be written for English readers, but it was a fun way for this Anglophile to peek into the culture. It’s a thick book that gets a bit repetitive later on, but even that is funny because the author is aware of it and makes fun of herself, pervasive humor (including the self-deprecative type) being another English trait.
Challenges: Book 5 of the British Books Challenge.
Reviews: Jenny of Jenny’s Books also enjoyed this book which made her miss her time in England, Reviews: Watching the English and Changing My Mind. Laura, at Musings, also highlighted the differences between Americans and English drawing on examples from her four years of living in England: Watching the English. Simon of Stuck In a Book gives us the English perspective of reading the book, often wondering what it would be like for others to read it: 7. Watching the English – Kate Fox.
Have you read this book? What did you think?