WATCHING THE ENGLISH
I am sitting in a café near Paddington station, drinking a delicious espresso. The coffee is
a real reward because I have just spent the whole morning accidentally-on-purpose bumping
into people and counting the number of those who said “Sorry”. This time I gave up my usual
method of getting an inconspicuous research assistant to break sacred social rules while
I watch the result from a safe distance. I have bravely decided that I must be my own guinea
pig. I don’t feel brave. I feel scared and exhausted. I want to abandon the whole “Englishness”
project here and now, go home and lead a normal life. Why am I doing this? Good question.
Perhaps I’d better explain. I am an anthropologist.
We are constantly being told that the English have lost their national identity – that there is no
longer such thing as “Englishness”. There has been a spate of books bemoaning this alleged
identity crisis, with titles ranging from the plaintive Anyone for England
? to the inconsolable
England: An Elegy
. However, having spent much of the past twelve years doing research on
various aspects of English culture and social behaviour – in pubs, at racecourses, on trains
and street corners – I am convinced that “Englishness” is not obsolete. In my book I examine
the hidden, unspoken codes of conduct governing English behaviour which cut across class,
age, sex, region, sub-cultures and other social boundaries.
The aim of my book is to describe a “grammar” of English behaviour. Native speakers can
rarely explain the grammatical rules of their own language. In the same way, those who are
most “fluent” in the rituals, customs and traditions of a particular culture generally lack
the detachment necessary to explain the “grammar” of these practices. This is why we have
anthropologists who can do this in an objective and coherent way.
Most people obey the unwritten rules of their society instinctively, without being conscious of
doing so. For example, you automatically get dressed in the morning without consciously
reminding yourself that there is an unspoken rule of etiquette that prohibits going to work in
one’s pyjamas. But if you had an anthropologist staying with you and studying your behaviour,
you would be asked: “Why are you changing your clothes?” “What would happen if you went
to work in pyjamas?” “What else can’t you wear to work?” And on, and on, until you were
heartily sick of it. Then other people from different groups of society would be watched and
interrogated, and hundreds of nosy questions and observations later, the “grammar” of clothing
and dress in your culture would eventually be deciphered.
The human species is addicted to rule-making. Every human activity, without exception,
including natural biological functions, is hedged about with complex sets of rules and
regulations, dictating precisely when, where, with whom, and in what manner the activity may
be performed. Animals just do things; they eat, mate, or play; humans make an almighty
song and dance about it
. This is known as “civilisation”. The rules may vary from culture to
culture, but they are there. Different foods may be prohibited in different societies, but every
society has food taboos. We have rules about everything. My focus on rules is therefore not
some strange personal whim, but the recognition of the importance of rule-making in
the human psyche.
adapted from Watching the English by Kate Fox