Kate Fox is a well-known anthropologist who now turns her attention to the very strange behaviour of the English people. The book's chapters cover various aspects of this one by one, including mobile phone use, dress codes, food rules, rules of sex, driving and many other topics. Her basic conclusion is that the English are a buttoned-up race who use many displacements behaviours to cover up their essential embarassment in all social situations. Remove from us our dogs, our gardens, our pubs and our "weather talk" and you uncover a people who would run a mile rather than engage realistically with their fellow humans.
Kate Fox intersperses her study by telling the reader about the research she undertook and it is amusing to read of occasions when she deliberately bumped into many English people to see whether they would say "sorry" (the invariably did). Her visits to pubs result in some instantly recongisable behaviours which seem to have the force of law behind them for woe betide anyone who transgresses.
I enjoyed reading how humour suffuses all English social situations. It is impossible to interact with the English without making jokey, ironic comments, as anyone who works on a daily basis with English people will testify to.
The book is itself humorous and light-hearted but is by no means light-weight for it has some serious messages which will interest anyone who is English or who has to deal with the English in daily life. By the end I admired Kate Fox for providing us with what is really quite a scholarly study, but one which draws you on chapter by chapter, smiling at her insights as you read.
on 11 May 2004
When I heard there was a book coming out about English "quirks" I knew I had to get it. I love people-watching and love the idea that certain traits are inherent to the English tribe.
I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn't disappointed. This is a hefty book, and I'm not a "read-the-book-in-a-night" person, preferring to dip in and out whenever I get a chance, but I have found myself preferring to pick up the book rather than watch the TV. I've even missed breakfast a few mornings this week, preferring to sit with a cuppa and read so it must be good!
Have you ever wondered:
* Why we talk about the weather so much?
* Why we can't accept compliments without embarrassment?
* Why WE apologise when someone bumps into us?
* How we use humour/irony as a defence mechanism
And did you know, men gossip as much as women? The proof is in here!
The one that has made me laugh the loudest so far was the section on gossiping / bitching.
This is low-brow anthropology but don't get me wrong, it's not for stupid people! There's a lot of academic terminology, which can at times be confusing, but Kate follows this up with clear examples and definitions to clarify her points. The characteristics covered thus far, I have to admit, ring too true. Getting off the phone to realise I have just fulfilled so many "English" stereotypes is shocking but amusing. Kate’s style of writing is conversational, but not patronising. It’s intricate but not complicated. Her accurate observations are alarming, entertaining, and really quite fascinating.
I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in culture; tribalism; communications; sociology; or simply the English and our eccentricities.
on 10 November 2006
I started this book 3 days after returning from my first trip to America. Whilst in America I became aware of the huge cultural difference between the friendly people of the USA and traditional Brits amongst whom I've lived almost my whole life - I found much of American behaviour inexplicable and rather rude and personal towards someone they didn't know. I breathed a sigh of relief when returning to England, back amongst normal people who aren't continually nosy and telling you what they think about politics, religion and anything else the whole time.
I wish I'd read this book before I went. Not that I wouldn't have found a lot of American behaviour strange after reading it (I would still have done) but I would have been more aware of my cultural disabilities and how weird I must seem to them.
That's the power of this book - you can dip into almost any page, read a paragraph and say "that's me!" Kate Fox has studied the English for 10 years with remarkable acuity and she is able to identify behaviours that, to us, are entirely normal but are actually just part of our collective odd English behaviour patterns. When a man I had just been introduced to in America said "So, tell me all about yourself" I was left gaping at him in horror; `Watching The English' describes how people in the UK never share personal information unless they know someone particularly well - and in fact most people don't even introduce themselves to start with - my horror was expected and justified as I had never before been called upon to `blow my own trumpet' and it is completely counter to British reserve and our self-effacing nature. Her comments on ignoring other passengers on train journeys, on our national obsession with pets, on queuing, mobile phone use, class distinctions, dislike of fuss and bother and so many other areas rang completely true.
What I particularly liked about the book (and that I am English would of course confirm this) was that she wrote with a lot of humour and throw-away one-liners, she wasn't hugely pro-English or anti-English, she wasn't anti-American (despite them being so ODD!) and was able to illustrate her comments through the vast amount of research that she has done, including interviewing English people and foreigners and carrying out experiments herself (such as bumping into people in the street and seeing if they say `sorry' - the English generally do).
It's a surprisingly long book and not something you'd sit and read in one go. In fact I think it works best as something you dip into and that's how I've read it over a few days - opening it at random, reading a few pages, then flicking on. It's all subdivided into different headings and subheadings and doesn't really need to be read linearly to be understood. I found myself reading out vast tranches of it to anyone in earshot as it was so amusing and accurate. I read the introduction last of all, having read many comments by Amazon reviews that it was rather hard going - I found the introduction fine, but perhaps that was because by then I had enjoyed the book and found that I very much appreciated the author, her self-deprecating humour and her willingness to share her foibles and those of her family.
This book would make an ideal present for any English people out there who want to laugh at themselves (that's all of us), for anyone about to travel to a different culture (to avoid misunderstandings through others' behaviour) and particularly for those living in other countries who want to visit us without putting their foot in it at every conceivable opportunity.
on 18 July 2009
As a foreigner living in the UK this book helped me a lot.
Now, it's much easier to understand why English people behave in certain ways that differs from my culture.
I can now go to a pub with my colleagues, talk about the same subjects and also talk to strangers saying something like "nice weather, isn't it"? (Read the book and you'll understand why)
The very beginning of the book is boring because she repeats all the time her methods. After that the reading is very pleasant and I enjoyed it a lot.
I think it deserves 4 stars and I definitely recommend to all foreigners living in the UK.
on 21 June 2007
It all started well enough. An uncanny and well presented articulation of my own foibles was most amusing - in particular when on the train reading about commuters on trains, I did actually laugh out loud. But after about a third of the way through I started to feel slightly patronised and troubled by repetitive clichés and references to Jeremy Paxman. I felt the book lost its focus; lost the Social Science objectivity and appeared to be a little out of date. For example: clearly proud of her previously published Pub Etiquette book the observations presented did not appear to have moved on or reflect today's world of Wine Bars, Gastro Pubs and Mega Pubs. If I found the train/commute observations amusing it is that this activity, frustratingly, is or should be an out of date activity; one steps back in time every morning and evening - however once outside the confines of an uncomfortable crushed commuter train, a modern world takes over. If there had been more reflection on the changes and what has not changed, over the past 50-60 years; when do we eat: what we call our evening meal when it is not at any of the times suggested and based around commuting/what-time-the-Indian-is-open/when can, when home, when with family!!!!!!!! - I might have finished the book in better frame of mind. I am however left frustrated and disappointed. Perhaps I should have read Jeremy Paxman?
on 1 May 2006
This book starts out with a dose of political correctness and a tendency to over-qualify everything, in the usual manner of academics. At this, I groaned. But the author seems to have realised the danger, and once past the introduction the writing is ceaselessly fascinating, amusing and clever.
The previous reviewer who claims that the book is not really based on scientific study is, I'm sure, wrong. A stunning amount of research clearly went into this, even if the standard of proof is not (and cannot be) something a physicist would regard as acceptable. This is no mere collection of anecdotes, but of series of conclusions derived from painstaking observation.
If the conclusions seem like clichés, it's because much of what has been observed about the English over the years is, in fact, true, and continues to be so even today - when some might have us believe that we've become so diverse that no rules apply any more, a notion which Kate Fox exposes as nonsense. The genius of this book is that it scratches beneath the surface of "ethnographic dazzle" - the noisy chaos and diversity which causes us to believe that there are no patterns to our behaviour - and lays out the hidden rules for our perusal and amusement.
This book really is funny. Every few pages I had to laugh out loud at one of Fox's witty observations. Most of all, however, it's thought-provoking. I have a special interest in understanding the English because I no longer live in England; the experience of grappling with another culture makes you look more closely at your own. Reading this book made me think that we all need to make a collective visit to the psychiatrist. Much of the stuff about class is frighteningly spot-on, I fear, as are the observations about our social ineptness. Any English people who read this will find themselves constantly checking their own personalities for the litany of wacky behavioural traits Fox describes, and finding it all too close for comfort. But it's by no means all negative; casting aside all of those unpatriotic academic inhibitions, the author finds much to praise in the English character.
Read it. You'll be glad you did.
on 26 July 2004
There's something in me which means that I'm marginally embarrassed to have bought this book. I removed the book's outer jacket so that people on the train wouldn't see what I was reading. Maybe I have the 'dis-ease' which the author refers to in the book -- so innately private, I didn't like the thought of other people seeing what I was reading.
The book is humorous because it looks at the many obvious characteristics of the English. Things like not speaking to people on the train because you're worried that striking up a conversation will lead to awkwardness later is quite natural, but it seems that this isn't something that afflicts other nations.
She refers to Jeremy Paxman's book 'The English' heavily throughout, which is sensible, as it is a much more comprehensive book.
This book is simple social commentary, which is easy and enjoyable to read.
on 7 September 2007
I am an Englishman who hasn't lived in England for the past 13 years. I have always prided myself on the fact that I was different from the typical English person (though when I think about it, I'm not sure why this was a source of pride for me). Anyway, my (non-English) wife gave me this book, and I have been engrossed in it from start to finish. I have taken to sharing its findings with friends and colleagues as I realise how deeply ingrained certain aspects of my national character are in me. While there is a certain amount of repetition within the text, as observed by some of the other reviewers, Ms. Fox's self deprecating wit and engaging style kept me thoroughly engrossed.
It is true that much of what is observed is confirmation of things which I was subliminally aware of, but that is the point of the book - not to tell us things we don't know, but to raise our consciousness about things that we do, and how engaging or enraging they are to those around us. For an English person who is trying to relate to people from other countries and cultures, or for a non-Englsih person who is trying to understand what is going on with English friends, colleagues or business partners, this book is a fascinating insight into what is going on in our heads at a subliminal level.
Perhaps I am disappointed to discover that the fact that I make a joke out of everything that ever happens to me is not because I have a highly tuned sense of humour, but in fact just a result of my deeply-ingrained social dis-ease. But I'm sure I'll get over it.
Definitely worth a read.
on 22 April 2006
This is a brilliant bit of work. It's presented like a proper thesis, but is filled with such insight and humour that makes very, very entertaining reading.
I've been reading it on the train into work for the past week and have regularly had to hold myself back from guffawing out loud at some of the acutely observed "linguistic and behavioural codes" painstakingly catalogued by Ms Fox. Being English herself seems to pose no problem for the author's very objective dissection of the English as a people. There have been too many times I've thought to myself "That is SO true!" to pick out any single point to highlight the sheer genius this study is.
I doubt you'd be on this particular product page or reading this naff review (I can't do this book justice with words) if you weren't vaguely interested in the topic this book covers, and though I haven't read many books of this kind, I would thoroughly recommend it.
If you want to know what makes us tick as a nation, and snort yourself silly trying to contain your laughter as you enjoy the fruits of someone else's hard-earned research, then you need to read this.
"Really, I don't see why anthropologists feel they have to travel to remote corners of the world and get dysentery and malaria in order to study strange tribal cultures with bizarre beliefs and mysterious customs, when the weirdest, most puzzling tribe of all is right here on our doorstep." - Kate Fox
WATCHING THE ENGLISH, by social anthropologist Kate Fox, is an engaging, perceptive, informative, and entertaining treatise on English (as opposed to "British") behavior in all aspects of life. At times, the author's style seems tongue-in-cheek. However, as she herself is English, this is simply a manifestation of her tribe's trait not to be seen as being too earnest and, while the subject is to be taken seriously, not too seriously.
In what must have been a prodigious research effort (yielding 416 pages of small type), Fox characterizes English behavior and attitudes as they relate to weather, social small talk, humor, linguistics, pubs, mobile phones, home, queues, transportation, work, play, dress, food, sex, secondary education, marriage, funerals, religion, and recurring "calendrical rites" (e.g. birthdays and holidays). Within these categories, Kate addresses everything from the pets and jam to the furniture that the English favor. And, since class consciousness is irrevocably embedded in the national social fabric, all is explained relative to the various classes: lower- and upper-working, lower-, middle- and upper-middle, and upper. As an example, when it comes to one's automobile:
"A scrupulously tidy car indicates an upper-working to middle-middle owner, while a lot of rubbish, apple cores, biscuit crumbs, crumpled bits of paper and general disorder suggests an owner from either the top or the bottom of the social hierarchy. (Further,) the upper and upper-middle classes of both sexes have a high tolerance of dog-related dirt and disorder ... The interiors of their cars are often covered in dog hair, and the upholstery scratched to bits by scrabbling paws."
Kate's observations stress the importance of self-effacement, fair-play, moderation, compromise, courtesy, modesty, desire for privacy, polite egalitarianism, irony, ambiguity, and hypocrisy in English behavior. However, to me, the single most important concept to be absorbed from WATCHING THE ENGLISH is that of "negative politeness", which explains the notorious English reserve, and:
"... which is concerned with other people's need not to be intruded or imposed upon (as opposed to 'positive politeness', which is concerned with their need for inclusion and social approval). We judge others by ourselves, and assume that everyone shares our obsessive need for privacy - so we mind our own business and politely ignore them."
After all, one mustn't "make a fuss".
I myself was born in Milwaukee. My paternal grandfather emigrated from central Europe, and his family was German-speaking. Yet, as I read this book, my reaction was: "Wow! That describes me perfectly." Perhaps this is because I was an Englishman in a previous incarnation or, more plausibly, because English values persist in the core, WASP, sub-culture of the country descended from the thirteen, original, Anglo-American colonies.
WATCHING THE ENGLISH is a must-read for anyone who loves England, and is an obligatory duo with Jeremy Paxman's THE ENGLISH: A PORTRAIT OF A PEOPLE.