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Saturday, February 17, 2007

This is an anthropological book, written by an English woman about the English. I enjoyed it very much. Haven't read anything like it before, and don't think it's going to become my new favorite kind of book, but it was worth my time. Kate Fox takes a step back from her own culture, to try and explain it to outsiders. Most of us (all of us?) grow up inside at least one culture, and know how to act, what to say, how to dress, what to value .. even if we couldn't explain it to anybody else. Having someone take the time to share a bit about Englishness was a gift. And after reading the bulk of it, I found myself reading an Agatha Christie novel and realizing 'oh! this character is just being English.' And, as I have opportunity to interact with the English, hopefully I'll be able to understand them better and be able to interact in ways that are valuing to both of us as individuals as well as our separate cultures.

The last chapter is a summary, where she wraps up all she has learned into a few short words. These words cannot express everything, but they do a good job of summarizing. (As they are supposed to!) The core of Englishness she calls social dis-ease (being uncomfortable with others unless they are very well known). There are 3 reflexes (which are learned so deeply they often cannot be stopped): humour, moderation, and hypocrisy. 3 outlooks: empiricism, eeyorishness, and class-consciousness. 3 values: fair play, courtesy, and modesty. All of these characteristics became clear as Fox did much research, including participant-observation research. This kind of research means watching queues to see what happens when someone tries to jump to the front. It means purposely bumping into people on the sidewalk to see if they respond "sorry" which they almost always do. It means asking lots of questions and pushing social boundaries to see if they are really there and how others react when they are pushed (or shattered, as the case may be).

One of my favorite parts of the book was the underlying humour, which one would expect from a truly English author. Since the English usually extend courtesy by not prying into others' business, it was funny to read about Fox working up the nerve to push a boundary everyone knows should never even be looked at (like how much home renovations cost). As she discovered/observed certain characteristics, she duly noted them in herself. Reading a book like this written by someone who is so aware both of her own culture, and her individual reactions, was a treat. I consider myself somewhat self-aware, but in terms of cultural awareness .. I have a long way to go. (If I were english, a statement like that would mean "I'm brilliantly aware, but wouldn't admit it for the world.") But I'm not, so it means I really do have a long way to go. See? I did learn something!

Title:Watching the English - The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
Author: Kate Fox
Date published:2004
Genre:Nonfiction, Anthropology
Number of pages: 416
Notes:found in a Romanian bookstore!


Amy @ Experience Imagination said...

Might I suggest Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson as a follow up book on the English? It's more a travelogue than cultural study, but a very interesting perspective from an American who lived in Britain for nearly 20 years.

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