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Englishness: the hidden rules of English Behaviour

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Sophie Helena Bannister

on 20 October 2014

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Transcript of Englishness: the hidden rules of English Behaviour

Sophie Bannister
Englishness: the hidden rules of
English Behaviour
Kate Fox´s book named
Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
– unofficial conduct codes that are common amongst all ages, genders, regions, classes, sub-cultures, etc and that define the English national identity and character.

Conversation codes -
divided into five sections: the weather, grooming -talk, humour rules, linguistic class codes and pub-talk.
The Weather
- Conversations about the weather are not really about the weather; they are a form of code that helps the English overcome their natural shyness and reserve. E.g: ‘Nice day, isn´t it?’;‘It´s cold, isn´t it?’

- Uncertainty:reason why there is always an appropriate comment to be made; choice of the weather as this code that helps the English engage in conversation isn´t random.
- Three specific contexts in which weather-speak can be used:
*as a simple greeting;
*as a ‘filler’ subject, when there is an awkward silence;
*as an ice-breaker which leads to conversation about other topics.

-A typical English conversation may start with a greeting about the weather, be followed by a bit more weather-speak ice-breaking, and also ‘default’ to the subject at regular intervals,reason why many foreigners think that the English are obsessed with the topic.
-'Rules' about weather-speak unconsciously followed by all English:

The reciprocity rule

-Consists on the other person replying to one´s comment about the weather.
-Importance of acknowledgement; minor breach of etiquette if this doesn´t happen.
-Comments about the weather are phrased as questions (or have an interrogative intonation).
The agreement rule:

-Reply must express agreement in order not to be considered a breach of etiquette. E.g: it would be rude to answer ‘isn´t it warm?’ with ‘no, actually it´s quite cold’.
-Exceptions to this rule: personal tastes or difference in weather-sensitivity. E.g: “Ohh, isn´t it cold?” /“Yes, but I don´t tend to feel the cold quite as much as other people” (even though the person disagreed, the response started with an expression of agreement).
The Weather Hierarchy Rule:

- Unofficial English weather hierarchy which most English tend to agree with.
-A sunny and warm/mild day is better than a sunny and cool/cold day, which in turn is better than a cloudy and warm/mild day. Nevertheless, a cloudy and warm/mild day is much better than a cloudy and cool/cold day, and so on.
-Even the television weather forecasters sometimes adopt apologetic tones when forecasting rain.
-Exceptions: some people have a preference for cold over warmth.
The Snow and Moderation rule:

-Rule that says that too much snow is to be deplored, just like too much sunshine or too much rain (too much anything).

- When the English get the same weather for more than a few days, they start to moan, for they are accustomed to its constant variability; besides, they also expect to be surprised by its constant changes.
The weather-as-a-family rule:

-The English may spend a long time complaining about their weather, but do not like it when foreigners criticize it.
-One could say that the English are very patriotic about it and do not like it when Americans say, for example: ‘you think this is hot? You should go to Texas if you wanna see hot!’.
Grooming talk (greetings, introductions, departures and gossip)

- Grooming-talk begins with greeting-talk, which is considered awkward by most English, since they never know what to say and many times appeal to weather-speak (also considered a form of ‘grooming-talk’).

- 'Rules' of introduction and greetings followed unconsciously by the English:

Awkwardness rules
-English introductions and greetings: uncomfortable and uneasy; one never knows whether a handshake or a kiss or a double kiss is required.
-In business introductions, handshakes are the -norm, and ironically, the first introduction is the easiest.
- As time goes by and business contacts start to know each other better, greetings start to become more complicated.
-For the English, over formality is embarrassing, but informality is inappropriate, causing such a simple thing as a greeting something clumsy and inelegant.
The ‘no-name rule’:
-Typical conversation between English strangers: starts by someone making a comment in a light, informal tone about the weather, or the party, or wherever they happen to be.
-None of them should express eargerness to introduce themselves, and after a long, friendly evening, one could say ‘ Goodbye, it was nice talking to you, er, oh- I didn´t catch your name?’, as if the omission has only then been noticed.
The Embarrassment rule:
-Introductions are made as quickly as possible and with inefficiency – smoothness and confidence are not ‘allowed’.
-An Englishman usually appears to be self-conscious, stiff, awkward, ill-at-ease and embarrassed in front of the other person.
-Another form of grooming-talk besides the awkward introductions, greetings and weather-speak is gossip.
- Gossip generally involves the expression of opinions and feelings, but the English, however, don´t generally state their opinions and feelings bluntly, but rather imply them.
- Gossip may be particularly important to the English because of their obsession with privacy.
- The English private rules enhance the value of gossip, meaning that private information isn´t given away easily.
When the British say hello they talk about the weather...
Due to the English obsession with privacy, there is such a thing as a 'guessing game rule'.

Guessing-game rule:
-Trying to guess someone´s profession, for example, from ‘clues’ in remarks made about other matters (to ask ‘what do you do’ would be considered rude).
-Most people tend to offer helpful ‘clues’ in order to speed the process up.
- It may be used in order to find out where someone lives and other private information.
- However, more interesting and personal information is considered ‘privileged’.
The distance rule:

-The more ‘distant’ the gossip is from the speaker, the wider the circle of people with whom he/she may discuss the subject.
- This ‘distance rule’ allows gossip to carry out its vital social functions (social bonding, clarification of position and status, etc).
The ‘Reciprocal Disclosure Strategy’:
- More or less universal rule.
- If you tell someone something about your private life, the other person will fell that it´s necessary to share something of his/her own personal life back.
Researchers have found that men gossip just as much as women do (sexist myth says men don´t gossip).
-Women adopt a particular high tone of voice (the
‘tone rule’
) and a quick pace of information when gossiping. They also give lots of details (
‘the detail rule’
) and expect the listener to give them positive and surprised feedback (
‘the feedback rule’
-Men maintain the same flat, unemotional tone of voice when telling a juicy piece of news, making it seem as if they do not gossip.
Female bonding

Counter-compliment rule:
-English female bonding-talk often starts with exchanges of compliments which follow the following pattern: the opening line could either be a straight compliment or a combination of a compliment with a self-critical remark, which, in turn, following the ‘counter-compliment rule’, will be answered with a self-deprecating denial, and so on.
Male bonding
-more competitive than female bonding

The Mine´s Better Than Yours Rule:
- Consists on a man saying something positive about their chosen ‘mine’ or challenging someone else´s statement.
-The rule is that one´s statement will always be challenged or countered and that earnest, zeal or boastfulness cannot be expressed.
-The conversation is always good-natured and friendly, for the differences in opinions should not be taken seriously.
The long goodbye rule:
-Just like greeting-talk, parting-talk is clumsy and awkward, but instead of being hurried, it tends to be tediously prolonged
-A big show has to be made expressing the participant´s reluctance to part, even though the parties have probably had enough already of each other.
Humour (humour rules)
- Humour permeates every aspect of English life and culture;
- It´s real “defining characteristic” is the value given to it in English culture and social interactions;
- Even though there may be something distinctive about English humour -perhaps its wit or irony- , there is a lot of nonsense and patriotic attempts to prove its uniqueness and superiority.
- There isn´t a specific time or place for humour (it is always everywhere).
Importance of not being earnest rule:
- Earnestness and self-importance are 'forbidden';
- Serious matters can be spoken is a serious way, but one must not take oneself too seriously;
- Ability to laugh about oneself is typically English.
- Many cringe and disdain Americans who give speeches in an earnest and pompous way, for example.
Irony rules:

- Irony, in the English culture, is a normal part of everyday talk and is the dominant part of English humour.
- Frequency and importance attached to irony is what makes it unique in the English Culture.
- English irony can sometimes be frustrating for foreigners,because they can never know if someone is joking or not.
- It´s a constant element of ordinary conversations. The English may not joke all the time, but they are always prepared for the possibility of irony.
A specific type of irony is the so called understatement - a restrained, refined and subtle kind of humour.

The understatement rule:
- It´s typically English to understate things due to their ‘prohibition’ of earnestness, emotion and boasting. E.g: A terribly painful chronic disease is described as ‘a bit of a nuisance’; a marvelous performance is described as ‘not bad’;
- This makes the life´s of foreigners very difficult, because they don´t know when ‘not bad’ means ‘OK’ or ‘absolutely brilliant’, for example.
English comedy is influenced by and transmits aspects of the English everyday humour, helping to maintain its rules – most English comedy involves the embarrassment rule, for example.
- The humour rules are subconsciously understood and accepted by all the English, regardless of their class. Kate Fox says that even though English humour may be classless, a big part of everyday English humour is related to class issues, due to the English obsession with class and humour.
- Unlike most people think, the defining characteristic of English humour is the value the English put on it and its frequency.
- Their huge intolerance to earnest and sentimentality and their strong defense of irony, including understatement and self-deprecation, however, do make the English humour somehow distinctive.
Another type of understated and quite imperceptible kind of irony is the English self-deprecation.

The Self - deprecation rule:
- The English are not naturally modest, but value the importance of it.
- The modesty usually demonstrated by the English is many times fake, ironic, and for that reason, humourous.
- E.g: history of what Kate Fox´s fiancé said when they first met each other.
- They all understand that the typical self-deprecation comment probably means the exact opposite of what was said, and are impressed by the other´s achievements and modesty.
Linguistic class codes

- It´s impossible to speak without revealing one´s own social class.
- It´s still very important for the English to know other people´s social class, and this may be discovered through the terminology and pronunciation they use/have when speaking.
The vowels versus consonants rule:
-The author says that upper classes tend to think that their way of speaking (dropping their vowels, among other things) is the correct one and that it is superior to the way the poorer classes tend to speak (dropping their consonants).
-The author recognizes that mispronunciation is more commonly a lower-class signal, (less access to education).
- There is a difference between the upper-class speech and the ‘educated speech’ (known as the BBC accent).
The English are in general still very class-conscious and this can be noticed thorough the “seven deadly sins”

The “seven deadly sins rule:
- The words 'pardon', 'toilet', 'serviette', 'dinner', 'settee', 'lounge' and 'sweet' are mostly used by the lower classes and make the upper classes flinch and immediately recognize the person who used one of them as belonging to the working class.
- Most English are embarrassed about their class-consciousness and do everything possible to disguise it (use of euphemisms).
- However, the upper classes and the working-classes are in general less class-conscious and embarrassed about the subject than the other classes which stand in the middle (middle-classes and upper-middles).
Class in England has little to do with money or occupation, and a lot to do speech;
- Someone with an upper-class accent who uses upper-class terminology will be recognized by others as belonging to the upper-class even if he/she is poor;
- The opposite also happens.
- There are also other class-indicators (one´s taste in cars,clothes, food, etc), but words, for the English, are the best means of signaling and recognizing someone´s social status.
- Pubs have an important role in the English culture
- More than three-quarters of the adult population visit them regularly
- Although they are an intrinsic part of the English Culture, they also have their own peculiarities, such as the suspension or relaxation of English social norms (‘Cultural remission’). The following ‘rules’ will testify this.
The sociability rule:
- As there are no waiters, people are forced to go up to the bar counter and ask for their drinks (this is something many foreigners don´t know; many simply walk into the pub, go straight to a table and wait for a waiter to appear), and whilst they are waiting, they have the opportunity to ‘accidentally’ start a conversation with a stranger.
- The no-waters service, therefore, is a system designed to promote sociability and overcome reserve.
- However,this doesn´t mean that the English completely forget all of their inhibitions.
- This suspension of normal privacy rules is limited to the bar counter (and sometimes, to those standing close to the pool-table or the dart-board).
An American in an English pub
The ‘Pantomine rule’:
-People standing around the counter waiting for the waiter to serve them will never (or almost never; some regulars might call out ‘Oi, any chance of a bloody drink?’) make use of gesticulation, noises or even words.
-The English client will instinctively adopt an expectant, hopeful expression, and once eye contact is made, will quickly lift his/her eyebrows or make an upward movement of the chin, and smile, while probably holding an empty glass or money.
- Possible explanation: precedence of etiquette over logic, along with a dislike of fuss, noise and drawing attention to oneself.
The please and thank you rule:
- It is vital for customers to say ‘please’ after asking for their drink, and also to say ‘thank you’, ‘cheers’, smile or nod when receiving it.
- This isn´t only the rule in English pubs, it is the norm when purchasing or ordering anything anywhere in England. This politeness is reciprocal: the shop assistant will also say her pleases and thank-yous.
-These politeness rules indicate that even though there are many social differences, the English culture is also egalitarian in many ways.
The ‘And One for Yourself?’rule

- and the principals of Polite Egalitarian:
-Consists on an English client offering to buy the bartender a drink, because to give him a tip would be to remind him of his ‘service’ role.
- To offer a drink is considered a demonstration of equality.
- If the offer is accepted, the bartender will then state the new total clearly.
- When consuming the drink, the bar staff will almost always raise his glass in the customer´s direction and say ‘cheers’ or ‘thanks’ whilst smiling or nodding.
There are many other ‘rules’ of Englishness in pubs, as well as everywhere else frequented by the English.

-In a nutshell, the pub-rules demonstrate again the English use of ‘facilitators’ to overcome reserve (the sociability rule); the precedence of etiquette over logic and fear of noise and fuss (the pantomime rule); the supreme importance of courtesy and fear of calling attention to class differences (the please and thank you rule); and the English ‘polite egalitarianism’ (the ‘And One for Yourself’ rule).
- Kate Fox concludes by saying that she does not know why the English are the way they are – they simply are!

- She also says that Englishness is not a matter of birth or race, it is a ‘behavioral grammar’, a set of unwritten codes/rules that anyone can decipher and apply.

FOX, Kate. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004.



Youtube videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEOHch-zW2Y(weather video)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XHyze2trng(pub video)

Full transcript