Watching the English – Kate Fox

9 April 2012
Introduction and Part 1, Conversation Codes
A lot of this is good fun, and Kate Fox’s descriptions of some situations seem totally accurate. She is ostensibly offering an anthropologist’s-eye-view of English behaviour and manners, calling it ‘pop-anthropology’ in that self-deprecating way she describes as typically English. She seems to have decided that this means thorough, within the parameters she sets herself, but with entertainment definitely ahead of scientific method: it isn’t always as universal as she is making out. She’s far more comfortable in the South-East, and at the heart of what she calls ‘the chattering classes’ – the educated middle classes like her and most of her readers, including me – than she is in the North and in the heartlands of working class life. I’ve only been bored once – during the section that should have been called ‘U and non-U revisited’, in which she seems not to be saying anything new at all – and there are plenty of entertaining moments. Often, what she’s describing is uncannily familiar.

The Introduction sets the tone. There’s a kind of mock-scientific thoroughness about it – it’s 22 pages long – in which she explains how she will avoid the pitfalls that abound when one is observing one’s own society. But she opens with a description of her in a bar, getting up some Dutch courage before she goes out to break some more English taboos: she’s going to keep it light. The other thing she establishes is that she is going to be searching for rules: patterns of behaviour which are more or less universal, whose exceptions are explicable – and which the English usually observe quite unconsciously. Forming orderly queues is the first one she mentions – it comes up as a touchstone quite often in Part 1 – and she’s chosen it because it is the rule that everybody knows marks out our Englishness. It’s also a bit quirky, and she can make jokes about it.

The Weather. Previous observers have got it wrong because ‘they assume that our conversations about the weather are conversations about the weather.’ Really it’s a ‘code, evolved to help us… talk to each other.’ Yep, I’ll buy that. She describes what she calls ‘English reserve’, an obstacle to opening conversations – I’ll buy that too, up to a point – which a safe, ever-changing topic like the weather can find a way through. There are rules she comes up with for ‘weather-speak’: the Reciprocity Rule, the Context Rule, the Agreement Rule… which show how we have to agree with the conversation opener, or demur only in highly stylised ways. And so on. She slips in a section about the Shipping Forecast, and is rather lazy, I feel, in asserting that ‘listen we do, religiously, mesmerised….’ She’s talking about Radio 4 listeners – and while there might, or might not, be ‘millions’ for whom it’s a national treasure, there are more for whom it means nothing. (My caveat about English reserve is that the carapace isn’t uniformly thick. There are parts of England – I think of them as beyond a 100-mile radius from London, although there are exceptions on both sides of the line – in which it is not difficult to strike up conversations in almost any context, often based on a joke of some kind. But Fox is going to cover humour in a later chapter.)

Grooming Talk is talk between strangers that is only there to pass the time. The context seems to be the party or dinner-party, and this is one of the chapters in which the observations only really work for certain strata of English society. The usual reserve, the ‘embarrassed confusion’ of introductions that aren’t quite introductions – see the No-Name Rule – the ‘Pleased to Meet You’ Problem…. One must appear ‘self-conscious, ill at ease, stiff’: she seems to be describing a Hugh Grant character on a bad day. Then some of the Gossip section could come straight out of a stand-up routine. (Fox references observational stand-up quite early on, and her descriptions of female gossip could be a cleaned-up Sarah Millican routine.) The names of the rules are even more tongue-in-cheek than for the Weather chapter: Privacy Rules, the Guessing-Game Rule, the Distance Rule – how far you are from the person spoken of, in terms of relationship or intimacy, determining how frank you can be in describing their misdemeanours – and the Reciprocal Disclosure Strategy. It’s ok, but that Kate Fox (lowers voice to a whisper), doesn’t she go on?

Other Grooming Talk is Bonding Talk – female compliment and counter-compliments, male Mine’s Better Than Yours Rules – and ‘finally… the Long Goodbye Rules’, which highlight ‘the importance of embarrassment and ineptitude’. In the closing summary Fox reiterates, quite seriously, the importance of privacy. Most of what has gone before is to do with speaking while a) keeping your own cards close to your chest and b) not prying into the other person’s life without extreme caution. Gossip is about breaking this rule, but only in ritualised, rule-bound ways. I’ll buy that.

I feel I’ve written more than enough about Kate Fox’s style. From now on I’ll concentrate on what I find interesting in what she says, or we’ll be here all day.

Humour Rules – which, as Fox says, could be a reduced form of ‘Humour rules, ok’. Basically, it’s about not being serious or, at least, about not appearing to be solemn. There’s the Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule, further tweaked into the ‘Oh, Come Off It!’ Rule; there are Irony Rules, refined further into the Understatement Rule and the Self-Deprecation Rule. So far, so self-explanatory and, yes, recognisable. Humour and Comedy is a short section about how many English stand-up comedians rely on ‘observations on the minutiae of human behaviour and social relations’ – not far removed, she admits, from what she’s doing in this book. Humour and Class: English humour transcends class barriers, she says. Well, maybe. In her concluding section Fox remarks that it is the ‘sheer extent’ of the use of these kinds of humour by the English that makes them different. Other nationalities use them, but not as much. Yep.

Linguistic Class Codes. This is what I earlier called ‘U and Non-U Revisited’, and it’s mainly focused on the hazy demarcation-lines between different strata among the middle classes. It’s largely about how accents, particular words – she rolls out all the old ‘serviette/napkin snobberies – and inter-class nicknames show how… I’m sorry, I can’t be bothered with this. Cut to her final paragraph: there’s a lot of unintentional – as in self-deceiving – hypocrisy surrounding class markers, a kind of ‘collective self-deception’ that might be a defining characteristic of Englishness. Well.

Emerging Talk Rules: the Mobile Phone. It’s too early to say – Fox, perhaps tongue-in-cheek (how should I know?) says she’d like to get funding to do more research. Is it a new technology fostering a return to over-the-garden-fence or village green chat? Might be, now the atrocities of ‘I’m on the train’ conversations don’t happen so much.

Pub Talk is the Shipping Forecast all over again: there are definitely recognisable things but, in fact, the vast majority of English people have no experience of what she’s describing. She uses the pub as a ‘social micro-climate’, an concept of her own invention in which a microcosm perfectly reflects bigger tendencies. (She doesn’t say perfectly, but that’s what she seems to be hoping we understand.) The Sociability Rule: near the bar means fewer social constraints, within certain parameters, than is usual; the further away, the more private. The Invisible Queue Rule… speaks for itself. Fox is right about it, but less so in town and city centre pubs. It’s subdivided into the Pantomime Rule, meaning the use of tiny visual signs to communicate with bar staff – the exceptions, i.e. those who are allowed to speak, being a pub’s regulars; the Rules of Ps and Qs, which Fox suggests are to do with the English pretence of equality between customer and server, further confirmed by the elaborate pseudo-courtesy of the ‘And One for Yourself?’ Rule, which she stretches out to three pages; the Rules of Regular-Speak, concerning the language codes of men (mainly) who know each other, but only in this context, and including Greeting Rules, the Rules of Coded Pub-Talk, the Rules of the Pub Argument and the Free-Association Rule. It’s all vaguely familiar and often plausible. And dull. In her long conclusion – it’s a long chapter – Fox suggests how much of English social behaviour is confirmed in Pub-Talk, complete with the ‘supreme importance’ of this, the ‘deviations from convention’, within bounds, of that.

This being the last of the ‘Conversation Codes’ chapters Kate Fox asserts that, yes, patterns of ‘Englishness’ are emerging. But will they still apply outside the boundaries of verbal interactions? I’m guessing that they will.

3 May
First three chapters of Part 2, Behaviour Codes
Those patterns of English behaviour – ‘Englishness’, for Fox, is exclusively a matter of behaviour – are emerging exactly as we knew they would. And, really, what Fox does with them is play a set of variations. Wherever English people are – the first three chapters of this section are based on the home, travelling around and the workplace – their behaviour is based on more or less the same codes we’ve already come across. It makes for repetitive reading. When Fox suggests that she might be starting to imagine a kind of diagram of English behaviour I guessed, rightly, that there really would be one somewhere in the book. It’s on page 410, six pages from the end – and over 200 pages further than I’ve managed to read so far. I’m sure I’ll come back to it, eventually, but for now I’ll try to be more succinct about what she does with the different behavioural contexts she’s chosen for herself. Otherwise, as I wrote earlier, we’ll be here all day.

The book continues to throw up those highly recognisable quirks of behaviour that we got used to in Part 1. Yes, we are like that with our gardens – anyone with a front garden will make it neat and tidy, but will never appear in it except to do some chore like weeding – and so on. It’s why Fox gets away with her outrageous generalisations: by making her ‘rules’ recognisable to her target audience she can add a few frills to make them apply to all regions and classes. Allegedly. And she has that ‘exceptions’ rule, with which she explains away any behaviour that doesn’t conform. A rain-soaked old sofa in the front garden? That’ll be the… etc. She never gives any details of where she’s done her research, so I’m guessing it’s mostly within 50 miles of where she lives. Of course, she can airily cite locations far outside this, but I get no sense of a cross-section. She does the same with the classes, is clearly most comfortable with her own. Sure, she will go into endless variation of what kind of car the ‘middles’ will buy, why this is different from the choices of the ‘upper middles’ and ‘lower middles’… and so what? She’s far less pinpoint-accurate about less measurable types of behaviour. (This might account for that ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ section in Part 1: class markers in some areas are like fish in a barrel.)

Home Rules cover things like the Moat and Drawbridge Rule, Nest-building rules… and so on. It’s all moderately engaging, like a particular kind of television stand-up (Michael McIntire springs to mind) who draws the audience’s attention to absurdities we recognise. Tell you what: I’ll cut to the synopsis that ends the chapter. In defining the extreme territoriality of ‘home rules’, Fox quotes Jeremy Paxman: ‘”Home” is what the English have instead of a Fatherland.’ But she links it with our privacy obsession and what she comes to call our ‘social dis-ease’: what better way to avoid contact with others than to shut them out? ‘I would suggest that home is what the English have instead of social skills.’ And, although she goes on for several more pages, it all comes down to these two: privacy and an avoidance of social interaction. (This is where she mentions the slow emergence of a diagram. She’s self-deprecating about it at first, obviously – it looks ‘like the webs produced by spiders on LSD’ – but we know she’s only being modest.)

Rules of the Road include all transport, private and public. On public transport the Denial Rule kicks in: we don’t admit the existence of other people, except for clearly-defined exceptions. There’s a long riff on the highly recognisable Moan Exception: how we manage to engage in conversation, usually with a wry/humorous twist, when there’s something to complain about. (Cue variations that people might come up with on the ‘wrong kind of leaves’ excuse.) A big section is on Courtesy Rules – like the way we say sorry when someone bumps into us, always use ‘Ps and Qs’. It isn’t courtesy, it’s embarrassment and dis-ease, an unwillingness to engage. Queuing rules: as you’d expect, with examples any English person would recognise. Car Rules: yawn… Cut to the synopsis. The Denial Rule is obvious; the apparent politeness is really ‘negative-politeness’, a set of avoidance tactics. Ok. As for complaints about how much bad behaviour there is: we only complain because there’s so little deviation from the norm that occasional examples seem extraordinary. Fox ends with a long paragraph pretending to fear the backlash when she offers such a positive, moan-free assessment. How we laughed.

Work to Rule: same. New (or re-introduced): the Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule, including Irony and Modesty Rules; the Money-Talk Taboo; the Moderation Rule, the Fair-Play Rule…. And I’m getting bored now. (I was when I read it.) Synopsis? At work it’s like everything else: don’t make a fuss, don’t rise above the muddled middle. Earnestness is met with ‘Oh, come off it!’ – as is anything that sounds too abstract, not immediately empirically verifiable.

Sorry. Half-way through this book I realise I’ve completely run out of steam. No, what I really mean is that I wish Kate Fox had made all her points, and got to her diagram, in the 200 pages I’ve read. When she’s aiming for lightness, why does it all have to be so bloody long-winded? Tell you what, why don’t I just have a quick look at the synopsis at the end of each chapter? Then I’ll be able to shut the book for ever. Yep.

9 May
The next two chapters (I’m struggling)
Rules of Play take in ‘humour, hypocrisy, class anxiety, fair play, modesty and so on.’ Empiricism gets a look in – and Fox affects amazement at our capacity for ‘collective self-deception’. Basically, we invent activities to do with ‘play’ – or hobbies, or whatever – in order to give ourselves the excuse to have a drink in the pub afterwards, where we can behave in a more disinhibited way than we would without going through the tedious stuff. Only after all the hyperactivity can we ‘get on with the pursuit of human warmth and intimacy in a neutral, straightforward fashion.’ She even pretends this is a kind of collective delusion and ‘social awkwardness bordering on a sort of sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia.’ Well, maybe – a phrase I realise I’ve used before with this writer.

Dress Codes are ‘another thing the English aren’t very good at’. Well, there’s a surprise. If we can’t rely on uniforms – real ones, or those imposed by conformity to unspoken rules – we get it all wrong. And eccentricity in dress is really a different kind of conformity. Thank goodness that English sense of humour means that we are able to laugh at ourselves. (I’m not making this up.)

19 May
To the end
Food Rules. This is fairly predictable stuff. (Isn’t it all, since Fox clearly established the parameters of what she considers Englishness by the end of Part 1?) We don’t like food so much as tolerate it. If we really do like food, or pretend to, we don’t really. We’re useless in our useless restaurants, tolerating them because we don’t know how to complain and because we expect it to be rubbish anyway. And, inevitably, there are class rules about what food to eat and how to eat it – a section that feels like a variation on the U and non-U vocabulary/pronunciation nonsense from Part 1.

Rules of Sex. I’m cutting straight to the synopsis at the end. English attitudes to sex are as you would expect – the ‘usual suspects’, she calls them, in quotes – but Fox alleges we should stop seeing the need to disperse embarrassment through humour and the other symptoms of social dis-ease as discrete principles, and see these instead as part of a system. (We’re only 50-odd pages from that diagram, so she needs to bring things together.) What she then does is explain how a particular element of sexual behaviour, say the embarrassment connected to speed-dating, is a combination of, say, social dis-ease and anti-earnestness. Other aspects of sexual behaviour derive from other combinations of rules we know about. Fox alleges that she feel a diagram coming on. Alleluia.

Rites of Passage… i.e. religion and its alternatives, including the things we might have to go to church for and religious holidays. I’ve just been skimming through this, and I’m deciding I really don’t like what Kate Fox is doing here. Her description of ‘Working-class Rites’ – tasteless, expensive weddings and funerals with ‘no expense spared’ wreaths and coffins is full of her usual generalisations and describes only some working class families’ behaviour at these times. For her it’s all My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Cut to the synopsis.

She refers to the usual suspects again, without quotes this time, but makes a special thing of English moderation and an apparent need for balance. I’ll buy that. Take her description of our attitude to the ‘Christmas moan-fest and bah-humbug rule’. She questions the (often media-led) clichés about how everybody hates it, looking instead real attitudes towards Christmas. She’s right in one respect: it’s never as enjoyable as it ought to be, considering the time and effort people put in – and, as she says, there’s sometimes some genuine affection shown. It’s a re-run of the Rules of Play section: we can’t go for the intimacy directly, we have to get through a lot of other stuff first.

Conclusion – Defining Englishness
As if. What she comes up with is what she allegedly promised: a ‘definitive list’ of characteristics. They are:
The Core: Social Dis-ease
Reflexes: Humour, Moderation, Hypocrisy
Outlooks: Empiricism, Eeyorishness, Class-consciousness
Values: Fair Play, Modesty, Courtesy
The diagram has the Core in a circle in the middle, with the other three, with their subdivisions, in circles surrounding it. All the circles are joined to all the others. The end…

…or not quite. Fox has a section consisting of speculations about the causes. Climate? History? Geography? Who knows? She’s inclined to believe ‘there is no simple answer.’ You don’t say. In an epilogue we find her, three years later, still pointing out to herself a classic English weather moan, a classic English response to a possible would-be queue-jumper – but her train is announced before she can see the end. Typical.

How we laughed, again.

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