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Posts Tagged ‘Englishness’

I had a fascinating conversation with friends yesterday about money. I’m about to do an appeal for a charity I’m involved in, and I was asking their advice about the best way to go about this. Do I gently ask everyone on my email list if they’d like to help out with this worthy cause, and let them get back to me if they would? Do I just send them a link to the ‘donate’ website and hope for the best? Do I ask them, American-style, if they would like to pledge a certain amount – even before they have reached for their cheque-book – in the hope of encouraging them to make a commitment, and to solidify that commitment by telling me?

Lots of cultural and psychological issues come up here, and many of them touch on the strange nature of being English. Our awkwardness in talking about money – we hate to reveal our bank balance, our salary, our debts, our charitable giving – even to close and trusted friends. It’s just something you don’t do.

I was saying how much I admire the American instinct to praise, publicly, those who give generously to good causes. Yes, there are risks: it can encourage pride, jealously, etc. But why is it that we would happily praise those who give their time in volunteering, or their wisdom in teaching, or their patience in suffering, or their good example in leading – but we feel there is something rather grubby about putting the spotlight on someone’s generosity in giving some of their hard-earned cash, even if it is making a huge difference to the lives of others? My friends didn’t agree – they thought if you are going to give in this way you should do it humbly and quietly, without drawing attention to yourself, and without others giving you special attention. Of course I can see the truth in that, I just think there is something we are missing here.

These are just some of the questions that came up over coffee yesterday morning! Now I must work out what to do myself, and write the email appeal.

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Don’t worry, this is not going to be a xenophobic rant. I had supper with a German friend at the weekend, who has lived in France for many years, and has just spent a few weeks in London improving her English.

We got onto the difference between the French and the English, and it was interesting having her fairly objective viewpoint as someone who has lived in both countries as an outsider.

She said that the French, in the way they think and argue, are more abstract. They start with first principles and work outwards to the nitty-gritty of reality. The English are more concrete, more empirical. They start with things, stuff, examples, case-studies, and only then try to draw some more general conclusions from the specific instances.

She also put the same point in another way: that the French work by deduction, and the English by induction.

It struck me that this, if it’s true, is exemplified by our measuring systems, metric and imperial. A metre length is just an idea. It’s not based on anything ordinary or everyday or natural. Yes, there is a bar of platinum-iridium in a vault in Paris that used to be the standard measure of a metre, for reference (although this system has been surpassed now). But the bar, the metre, was created by the French mind – a mind imposing order on the world.

The imperial system – take the foot as an example – is based on (wait for it…) the foot! The whole system of measurement is based on the length of a man’s foot (a man’s and not a woman’s…). You see the world, and measure it, and understand it, in terms of something concrete; you see and understand one aspect of reality in the perspective of another aspect of reality. In the imperial system, man is – literally – the measure of all things; not a metal bar in Paris.

It sounds like I am defending the English way. Not really. There are advantages to each way; and the abstraction certainly appeals to me. And anyway, the French won! The metre rules the world. I’m just noticing the philosophical differences in world-view that are embodied in something as benign as a unit of measure; and how that connects with a German’s perception of English-French differences.

[Update: I received some good criticism in the comments, which I wanted to copy here, about my failure to mention the origin of the metre. E.g. this from Roger: ‘Sorry, Fr Stephen, as a physicist I can’t let you get away with that one – the metre was originally intended to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the Earth’s equator to the North Pole. If it’s “just an idea” it’s a very practical one!’ To which I replied: ‘Thanks Roger. OK – the metre, like the foot, starts in the concrete world. I’d still say the way it was arrived at reflects a different mentality, a more abstract kind of reasoning (taking a distance that can only be established by careful scientific investigation and then dividing it by ten million to establish a length that is more connected with everyday human life) – that reflects something about the difference between a more deductive mindset and a more empirical one.’ The metre, despite the geographical origin, is definitely ‘a product of the mind’; the foot is ‘a product of experience’ – I think.]

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My last post was about people doing what they are not meant to do: defying the social conventions that almost define them, the unwritten rules of behaviour that we take for granted without ever reflecting on. The best thing I’ve read about this is undoubtedly Kate Fox’s Watching the English.

It’s hysterical, and full of profound insights into the strange reality of being English, or British (she can’t quite decide). If you can’t afford psychoanalysis, read this book, and it will bring to light all sorts of habits and behaviours in your own life that you’ve never really thought about. I kept thinking, ‘How does this woman know me so well?’ If you have any drop of Englishness in you at all, you will learn things about yourself that you never knew before.

Why do we English people talk about the weather so much? Why do we say sorry (and actually feel sorry) when we have no reason to be sorry? Why do we queue so often? Why do we get so angry when other people jump our queue? Why are we so unable to express our anger? Why are we afraid of complaining about bad service? Why are we so awkward in social situations? Why do we consistently fumble for the right word or the appropriate gesture when we meet someone, or leave someone, or thank someone, or correct someone, or offer them our sympathy in the face of difficulty, disease or death? Why is this social ‘dis-ease’ almost a part of our genetic make-up?

Fox is one of these social anthropologists who takes part in her own experiments. So she set about systematically upsetting the social cart and seeing how people reacted. A whole morning aggressively bumping into people to see if they did indeed say sorry for her own rudeness. An afternoon pushing into carefully formed queues to see how many people would dare to challenge her, and how they would deal with this unwelcome need to enter into confrontation (loud coughs, long stares, the odd ‘Excuse me?!’).

Here is the Blackwell’s blurb:

In WATCHING THE ENGLISH anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. Her minute observation of the way we talk, dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt, fight, queue – and moan about it all – exposes the hidden rules that we all unconsciously obey. The rules of weather-speak. The Importance of Not Being Earnest rule. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo. Humour rules. Pub etiquette. Table manners. The rules of bogside reading. The dangers of excessive moderation. The eccentric-sheep rule. The English ‘social dis-ease’. Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.
It’s a very funny and very revealing book.

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