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.
Kate Fox’s observation 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.
The English social dis-ease and individuality
Fox concludes her book, Watching the
English: the hidden rules of English behaviour (2004), with a diagram
showing which are the defining characteristics of Englishness (English cultural
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 or retreating in their houses.
talk, for example, is one of the social facilitators the author describes along
with others such as pubs, clubs, pets etc. It is extremely important for the
English as every of their conversation seems to begin with it, helping them overcome
their embarrassment and reserve to start talking with each other.
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.
Moreover, 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 written by Edward T. Hall, an American
anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher.
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 easily.
Communication is often brief and limited. These factors are, probably, some of
the causes of their lack of communication with other people and, also, neighbours. British people are, in fact, barely friends
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 a drink in the past year.
Obviously, this varies by location. Only 32% of people living in urban areas
know all 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, 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 a hello, can have a significant positive
effect on a neighbourhood. Moreover, according to her, this social experiment
confirmed her own findings about the misleading stereotype of the English
reserve. In fact, she thinks that English people are reserved, not in the sense
of unsociable as they also have a need of belonging in a group, but they are only
a bit more socially awkward than others.
let’s talk about the rules of behaviour on public transport. According to Kate
Fox’s book, Watching the English: the
hidden rules of English behaviour (2004), 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.
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 eyes, 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.