society has its own hidden and unwritten rules, cultural restrictions and
taboos that can be easily understood and followed by its members, but need to
be explained to foreigners. As a matter of fact, these rules can be very different
from country to country and what seems normal to someone can be strange to
someone else. These differences are what create the so-called “cultural shock”
to travellers or to people moving to another country. The United Kingdom is not
an exception. British culture is indeed characterized by many unique rules that
guide the behaviour of its members.
Fox, a social anthropologist and co-director at the social issues research
centre in Oxford, in 2004 published Watching
the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. With this book, she
tries to determine the quintessence of Englishness and, therefore, discover all
the behavioural rules that make the English what they are and that distinguish
them from others. To do this, throughout her research, she followed a method
called “participant observation” which means that she participated in the life
and culture of English people to gain an insider’s perspective but, at the same
time, she observed them in a detached and objective way.
and weather-talk, for example, are two of the many rules she observed and for
which they are best known for. Indeed, according to many queuing is becoming a
past time for English people and as George Mikes, a British journalist, stated
in his book How to be an Alien
(1946), it can be defined as a national passion. Also, weather-talk is extremely
important for them as every conversation seems to begin with it and it is
described by Kate Fox as a social facilitator and, therefore, a way for them to
overcome their reserve and awkwardness and talk to each other.
The English social dis-ease and individuality
Kate Fox’s observations in her book Watching
the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour (2004), it seems clear
that one of the main characteristic of English people, or, at least, of the
majority of them, is being socially inhibited, excessively reserved and awkward
in building relationships.
a matter of fact, she concludes her work with a diagram showing which are the
defining characteristics of Englishness (English cultural identity) and,
according to her, its central core is what she calls “social dis-ease” that she
defines as 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 discomfort and 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 of showing emotions and feeling, which is known
as “English reserve”, and their obsession with privacy are two of the symptoms
of this social dis-ease.
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 and
interact with others and overcome their awkwardness by masking, at the same
time, their social incompetence (for example pubs, clubs, pets, weather-talk
etc.) or retreating in their houses.
fact, she connects their obsession with nestbuilding and
privacy sensitivity to their typical characteristics of social inhibition,
reticence and embarrassment as to compensate their lack in social skill,
English people love retreat to the protectiveness and security of their own
homes because behind the doors they do not have to worry about it. Therefore, the
English consider their houses as castles and, in fact, home
improvement is not a simple hobby, but it is, also, regarded as a necessary activity
for the destruction of any evidence of the previous owner and, in a sense, to
mark the house as theirs.
Also, English houses are characterized by a lack of indication as house
numbers are often hidden and follow an illogical order making it difficult,
especially for a foreigner, to find a house one is looking for and, probably,
even this characteristic has to do with their mania with privacy.
showed by Kate Fox’s research, the English are, indeed, very private people and
highly individualist. As a matter of fact, British culture is what is called a
low context culture as opposed to the high context ones. These two terms were first
introduced in 1976 with the publication of the book Beyond Culture by Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and
to Hall’s definitions of these concepts, a high context culture values
tradition, long lasting relationships and the group harmony and thus it is defined
as collectivistic because it emphasizes the belonging of individuals in a group
and encourages conformity while discouraging individuals from standing out. On
the other hand, a low context culture is characterized by valuing short-term
relationships and by being more individualistic, meaning that the individual needs
are considered to be more important than the group harmony. Therefore,
individualism is a dimension of a culture that has to do with whether people
regard themselves primarily as individuals than as a part of a group by
emphasizing personal freedom, accomplishment and every action that make an
individual stand out. As a matter of fact, in low context cultures, as the
United Kingdom, children are taught from an early age to think for themselves
as the route to happiness is only through personal fulfilment.
concepts of high and low context cultures refer, also, to the way people communicate.
In the case of high context cultures communication is implicit and very few
words are necessary as they are replaced by the use of contextual elements such
as body language, tone of voice etc. Instead, in low context cultures
communication has to be explicit and the message is communicated almost
entirely with words. This type of communication is typical of societies where
people tend to have many connection, but of a short duration.
Behaviour showing UK’s individuality
we have fully already discussed, English people are known to be more socially
reserved than other cultures; they do not talk to strangers or make friends
quickly and easily. Communication is often brief and limited. They are too busy
or too tired to visit relatives or friends, because they are regularly
unavailable. These factors probably cause a lack of communication with other
people or neighbours. British people are,
in fact, barely friends with them.
new YouGov research looks at the realities of neighbourhood life in Britain,
revealing that only one in four British people would call their neighbours good
friends. Few say they get on badly with
people who live near them, and the majority of British people say they speak to
them every week. However, the vast majority (65%) say they would not call any
of their neighbours ‘good friends’, and an even greater majority (67%) have not
invited any of them into their house for a meal or drink in the past year.
Obviously, this varies by location. Only 32% of people living in urban areas
know all five of their nearest neighbours’ names, while in rural areas 51% do,
and in town 47% do. Regarding the
different areas of Great Britain, Wales and the North are the most neighbourly
areas, with 32% and 31% respectively calling their neighbours good friends
compared to 26% in the south, 21% in Scotland and only 19% in London.
is also very important to explain a decline in neighbourliness. Fully 44% of
over-60s would call their neighbours good friends and 46% have had neighbours
round for a meal or drink. However, there is a significant difference between
over-60s and the middle-aged generation. In fact, only 26% of 40-59-year olds
would call their neighbours good friends.
to an article published on The Guardian website, in a survey and a follow-up
social experiment carried out to mark the 50th anniversary of the Neighbourhood
Watch network, people were asked about their connection with their local
community. During this month-long experiment, the participants, who all lived
on suburban Lingard Road in Manchester, had to smile at people in the street
and offer help where they could, and try to start a conversation. Although
several reported “strange looks” and some initial reserve, by the end
of the four weeks all the Lingard Road participants reported success. One of
the participants, Jay Crawford, said that this study was successful, because
people never met before have been a bit more sociable.
Fox , director at the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, believes that
even very small gestures such as an hello, can have a significant positive
effect on a neighborhood.
let’s talk about the rules of behaviour on public transport. According to a
book, Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour (2004),
written by Kate Fox, the main mechanism on public transport is called “denial”,
which requires people to avoid talking to strangers, or even making eye contact
with them. It is considered entirely normal for the English to make their
morning and evening train journeys with the same group of people for many years
without ever exchanging a word. As the author explained, almost all of the
commuters said that even a brief nod might constitute a drastic escalation of
intimacy. When the interviewer asked about a brief chat with a fellow commuter,
he noticed that the problem is that if you did it once, you might be expected
to exchange polite words with them every day, and if you have nothing in
common, these conversations would be highly awkward and embarrassing.
Curiously, eye contact in public space in England is never more than a fraction
of a second. If you meet a stranger’s, you must look away immediately, probably
because to maintain eye contact may be interpreted as flirtation or aggression.
the author talks about “the moan exception”. The moan exception to the denial
rule commonly happens when something goes wrong, such as a train delayed or
cancelled. On these occasions, English passengers become aware of each other’s
life, making eye contact or saying something. They exchange smiles, shrugs, and
brief comments such as “Huh, typical!”, or “Oh, now what?”. However, commuters know that this is a
temporary suspension of the denial rule. They can have a brief exchange of
words without being obligated to talk to their fellow the next morning. After
that, silence is resumed, and everyone can go back to ignoring each other.