Monday, November 15, 2010

Watching the English / Kate Fox

Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behavior by Kate Fox. 424 p.

Fox is an English anthropologist who decided to study her own culture. She uses the participant-observation method, as she would if she were studying a completely foreign culture, and attempts to determine the underlying patterns of English customs and behaviors. For example, the fact that one does not tip the English bartender, but rather offers to buy him a drink, is an outgrowth of the underlying English mania for ignoring class differences even when they are obvious; the polite fiction is that you and the barman are social equals enjoying a drink together, rather than one person engaging in trade (horrors!) by selling the other one a drink. Fox does manage to generalize some underlying general ideas, but the joy of the book is reading about all of the specific social rules, and how to tell class from behavior, and stuff like that. (Apparently one of the best ways to determine an English woman's class is to ask what she buys at Marks & Spencer. Everyone but the very upper classes shops there, but they buy very different things.) Plus, Fox can be very funny. I think my favorite bit was where she described an experiment: she would bump into an English person in a public place like a train station. Her hypothesis was that even if she was clearly at fault, the person she bumped into would say "Sorry." She verified her hypothesis--about 80% of English people reacted that way; but she had great difficulty carrying out the experiment because, being English herself, she had a tendency to blurt out "Sorry!" before the other person had a chance to. She ended up having to bite her lip to keep herself quiet.

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