Watching the English

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

I read this a while ago, my friend recommended it to me. I think all UK  immigrants should read it. It is basically about rules of social life of English. I found it extremely funny and entertaining. It is funny 'cause it's true! Last year I read a book by Lithuanian author on life in Britain, which explained some of the differences between us, Lithuanians and the British, however I very much disliked that he wrote that people in UK don't talk about weather often. Because they do, they do it every day, it's conversational ice-breaker.Actually, Kate Fox in her book starts with the weather and English people relationship with it. Reading that chapter I was nodding and laughing all along.  I'm including some extracts from the book to get the idea.

Any discussion of English conversation, like any English conversation, must begin with The Weather. And in this spirit of observing traditional protocol, I shall, like every other writer on Englishness, quote Dr Johnson’s famous comment that ‘When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather’, and point out that this observation is as accurate now as it was over two hundred years ago. English weather-speak is a form ofcode, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other. Everyone knows, for example, that ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’, ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’, ‘Still raining, eh?’ and other variations on the theme are not requests for meteorological data: they are ritual greetings, conversation-starters or default ‘fillers’. In other words, English weather-speak is a form of ‘grooming talk’ – the human equivalent of what is known as ‘social grooming’ among our primate cousins, where they spend hours grooming each other’s fur, even when they are perfectly clean, as a means of social bonding.


In 1946, the Hungarian humorist George Mikes described queuing as our ‘national passion’. ‘On the Continent,’ he said, ‘if people are waiting at a bus-stop they loiter around in a seemingly vague fashion. When the bus arrives they make a dash for it . . . An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.’ In an update over thirty years later, in 1977, he confirmed that this was still the case. After nearly another thirty years, nothing much seems to have changed.

The English have an acute sense of fairness, and what in other cultures would be seen as entirely legitimate opportunistic behaviour – such as heading directly for the ‘free’ cashier when there are two people already waiting to be served in front of the cashier alongside, who have simply not been quick enough to move across –is here regarded as queue-jumping, or tantamount to queue-jumping. I am not saying that English people do not perform this manoeuvre: they do, but it is obvious from their self-consciously disingenuous manner, particularly the way they carefully avoid looking at the queuers, that they know they are cheating, and the reactions of the queuers indicate that such behaviour is severely frowned upon. You can tell by the severe frowns.

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