Type: Research Essays
Sample donated: Teresa Cobb
Last updated: September 22, 2019
IntroductionEverysociety has its own hidden and unwritten rules, cultural restrictions andtaboos that can be easily understood and followed by its members, but need tobe explained to foreigners. As a matter of fact, these rules can be very differentfrom country to country and what seems normal to someone can be strange tosomeone else. These differences are what create the so-called “cultural shock”to travellers or to people moving to another country. The United Kingdom is notan exception. British culture is indeed characterized by many unique rules thatguide the behaviour of its members. KateFox, a social anthropologist and co-director at the Social Issues Research Centrein Oxford, in 2004 published Watching theEnglish: the hidden rules of English behaviour.
With this book, she triesto determine the quintessence of Englishness and, therefore, discover all the behaviouralrules that make the English what they are and that distinguish them from others.To do this, throughout her research, she followed a method called “participantobservation” which means that she participated in the life and culture ofEnglish people to gain an insider’s perspective, but, at the same time, sheobserved them in a detached and objective way. FromKate Fox’s observation it seems clear that one of the main characteristic ofEnglish people, or, at least of the majority of them, is being sociallyinhibited, excessively reserved and awkward in building relationships. The English social dis-ease and individualityKateFox concludes her book, Watching theEnglish: the hidden rules of English behaviour (2004), with a diagramshowing which are the defining characteristics of Englishness (English culturalidentity).Accordingto her, its central core is what she calls “social dis-ease” that she definesas a shorthand term for the social inhibitions of English people and refers, also,to the awkwardness and embarrassment that leads them to a sense of discomfortand incompetence in the field of social interactions and so to a lack of relationships.Moreover, Kate Fox believes that the general disinclination of the English ofshowing emotions and feeling, which is known as “English reserve”, and theirobsession with privacy are two of the symptoms of this social dis-ease. However,she believes that this is treatable and that there are ways of dealing with it:with the use of props and facilitators that allows them to break the ice andinteract with others, overcoming their awkwardness by masking, at the sametime, their social incompetence, or retreating in their houses. Weather-talk, for example, is one of the social facilitators the author describes alongwith others such as pubs, clubs, pets etc.
It is extremely important for theEnglish as every of their conversation seems to begin with it, helping themovercome their embarrassment and reserve to start talking with each other. Also,she connects their obsession with nestbuilding and privacy sensitivity to theirtypical characteristics of social inhibition, reticence and embarrassment as, tocompensate their lack in social skill, English people love to retreat to theprotectiveness and security of their own homes because behind the doors they donot have to worry about it. Therefore, the English consider their houses as castles and, in fact, home improvement for them is not a simple hobby,but it is, also, regarded as a necessary activity for the destruction of anyevidence of the previous owner and, in a sense, to mark the house as theirs.Moreover, English houses are characterized by a lack of indicationas house numbers are often hidden and follow an illogical order, making itdifficult, especially for a foreigner, to find a house one is looking for. Probably,even this has to do with their mania with privacy.
Asshowed by Kate Fox’s research, the English are, indeed, very private people andhighly individualists. As a matter of fact, British culture is what is called alow context culture as opposed to the high context ones. These two terms werefirst introduced in 1976 with the publication of the book Beyond Culture written by Edward T.
Hall, an Americananthropologist and cross-cultural researcher.Accordingto Hall’s definitions of these concepts, a high context culture valuestradition, long lasting relationships and the group harmony and thus it isdefined as collectivistic because it emphasizes the belonging of individuals ina group and encourages conformity while discouraging individuals from standingout. On the other hand, a low context culture is characterized by valuingshort-term relationships and by being more individualistic, meaning that the individualneeds are considered to be more important than the group harmony. Therefore, individualism is a dimension of aculture that has to do with whether people regard themselves primarily asindividuals than as a part of a group by emphasizing personal freedom,accomplishment and every action that make an individual stand out. As a matterof fact, in low context cultures, as the United Kingdom, children are taughtfrom an early age to think for themselves as the route to happiness is onlythrough personal fulfilment.Theconcepts of high and low context cultures refer, also, to the way peoplecommunicate.
In the case of high context cultures communication is implicit andvery few words are necessary as they are replaced by the use of contextualelements such as body language, tone of voice etc. Instead, in low contextcultures communication has to be explicit and the message is communicatedalmost entirely with words. This type of communication is typical of societieswhere people tend to have many connection, but of a short duration. Behaviour showing UK’s individualityAswe have already discussed, English people are known to be more sociallyreserved than other cultures; they do not talk to strangers or make friends easily.Communication is often brief and limited. These factors are, probably, some ofthe causes of their lack of communication with other people and, also, neighbours.
British people are, in fact, barely friendswith them. Anew YouGov research looks at the realities of neighbourhood life in Britain,revealing that only one in four British people would call their neighbours goodfriends. Few say they get on badly withpeople who live near them and the majority of British people say they speak tothem every week.
However, the vast majority (65%) say they would not call anyof their neighbours ‘good friends’ and an even greater majority (67%) have notinvited any of them into their house for a meal or a drink in the past year.Obviously, this varies by location. Only 32% of people living in urban areasknow all of their nearest neighbours’ names, while in rural areas 51% do, andin town 47% do. Regarding the differentareas of Great Britain, Wales and the North are the most neighbourly areas,with 32% and 31% respectively calling their neighbours good friends compared to26% in the south, 21% in Scotland and only 19% in London.
Ageis also very important to explain a decline in neighbourliness. Fully 44% ofover-60s would call their neighbours good friends and 46% have had neighboursround for a meal or drink. However, there is a significant difference betweenover-60s and the middle-aged generation. In fact, only 26% of 40-59-year oldswould call their neighbours good friends.Accordingto an article published on The Guardian website, in a survey and a follow-upsocial experiment carried out to mark the 50th anniversary of the NeighbourhoodWatch network, people were asked about their connection with their localcommunity. During this month-long experiment, the participants, who all livedon suburban Lingard Road in Manchester, had to smile at people in the street, offerhelp where they could and try to start a conversation. Although severalreported “strange looks” and some initial reserve, by the end of thefour weeks all the Lingard Road participants reported success.
One of theparticipants, Jay Crawford, said that this study was successful, because peoplenever met before have been a bit more sociable. KateFox, director at the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, believes thateven very small gestures such as a hello, can have a significant positiveeffect on a neighbourhood. Moreover, according to her, this social experimentconfirmed her own findings about the misleading stereotype of the Englishreserve. In fact, she thinks that English people are reserved, not in the senseof unsociable as they also have a need of belonging in a group, but they areonly a bit more socially awkward than others.
Nowlet’s talk about the rules of behaviour on public transport. According to KateFox’s book, Watching the English: thehidden rules of English behaviour (2004), the main mechanism on publictransport is called “denial”, which requires people to avoid talking tostrangers, or even making eye contact with them. It is considered entirelynormal for the English to make their morning and evening train journeys withthe same group of people for many years without ever exchanging a word. As theauthor explained, almost all of the commuters said that even a brief nod mightconstitute a drastic escalation of intimacy. Whenthe interviewer asked about a brief chat with a fellow commuter, he noticedthat the problem is that if you did it once you might be expected to exchangepolite words with them every day, and if you have nothing in common, theseconversations would be highly awkward and embarrassing.
Curiously, eye contactin public space in England is never more than a fraction of a second. If youmeet a stranger’s eyes, you must look away immediately, probably because tomaintain eye contact may be interpreted as flirtation or aggression.Subsequently,the author talks about “the moan exception”. The moan exception to the denialrule commonly happens when something goes wrong, such as a train delayed orcancelled. On these occasions, English passengers become aware of each other’slife, making eye contact or saying something.
They exchange smiles, shrugs, andbrief comments such as “Huh, typical!”, or “Oh, now what?”. However, commuters know that this is a temporarysuspension of the denial rule. They can have a brief exchange of words withoutbeing obligated to talk to their fellow the next morning. After that, silenceis resumed, and everyone can go back to ignoring each other. When issocially acceptable to talk to a stranger?Inall societies, places where people can meet to talk or have a drink togetherare part of social life. However, the English pub is more than that. It is aplace with an important social function and is frequently the focus ofcommunity life in villages and cities all over the nation. As a matter of fact,the primary function of drinking places is facilitating social bonding.
As KateFox states in her book, Watching theEnglish: the hidden rules of English behaviour (2004), the pub is the only place where English people are more likely tobegin a conversation with a stranger as it is a special environment wherenormal rules of privacy are suspended. To understand what a British pub is, itis important to look at its social rules. Onething that often surprises tourists is that there is no table service, and,like every other aspect of pub etiquette, the no waiter-service system is setto encourage sociability.
Indeed, having to go to the bar for your drinks,provides plenty of opportunities for social contact between customers. In fact,waiter service can confine people at separate tables, which makes it moreproblematic to socialize with others. It is much easier to have a casual chatwhile waiting at the bar, than trying to have a conversation with people seatedat another table, which is even considered rude.
Also, it is customary for oneor two people, on behalf of the whole group, to go to the bar to order drinks.Other members of the group should go and sit down at a table. Anyway, beforeyou can order, you must follow the correct bar counter etiquette. Thebar counter of the pub is the only place that seems to lack the typical Britishqueuing, but the queue is still there, as the bar staff are conscious of eachperson’s position in the “invisible” queue.
You need to attract their attentionin such a way that makes it obvious that you are waiting to be served, withoutmaking any noise or gesticulation. Instead, simply make eye contact with thebartender. Anotherimportant aspect is that there is no tipping in British pubs. The usualpractice is, instead, to offer the bar staff a drink.
The social structure ofthe pub is egalitarian: to give a tip is to treat them as “inferiors”, whereasto offer a drink is to treat them as equals. To understand this singular aspectof pub etiquette, you need to understand the British attitude towards money.The British tend to be embarrassed about money and an excessive interest inmoney is considered offensive.
Besidespubs, gardens play an important role in everyday British life. Britain is, infact, a nation of gardening and gardens are always well maintained. Accordingto an article written on The Telegraph by Debora Robertson, gardening is seenas escape from everyday life.
It is a good way to make time pass faster and, inaddition, gardening can also ease stress and benefit physical and mentalhealth. As a matter of fact, it’s prescribed by doctors for patients withcancer, dementia and depression. Asexplained by Kate Fox in her book, a typical British house often have a smallgarden at the front and a larger one at the back. While the backyard is oftendelimited by a high wall, in order to prevent neighbours from looking insideand is more private and casual, the front yard is characterized by a low walland is generally more cared. Nevertheless, British people prefer to spend theirtime in the back garden where no one can see them.
Conventionally, theyconsider a back garden as private to themselves.Onthe contrary the front is frequently developed as a display garden for othersto admire and enjoy. It is used to display elements such as garden gnomes.
These are not yards to sit and relax, and you would be considered odd if youstand there without looking busy. Furthermore, a person standing in the frontgarden is regarded as socially “available” and, therefore, more likely to bestopped for a chat by neighbours, who, otherwise, would never dare knock on thedoor since it is regarded as intrusion..