Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, by Kate Fox

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Grooming-talk starts with greeting-talk. Weather-speak is needed in this context partly because greetings and introductions are such an awkward business for the English. The problem has become particularly acute since the decline of ‘How do you do?’ as the standard, all-purpose greeting. The ‘How do you do?’ greeting – where the correct response is not to answer the question, but to repeat it back, ‘How do you do?’, like an echo or a well-trained parrot13 – is still in use in upper-class and upper-middle circles, but the rest are left floundering, never knowing quite what to say. Instead of sneering at the old-fashioned stuffiness of the ‘How do you do?’ ritual, we would do better to mount a campaign for its revival: it would solve so many problems.

“Grooming” here means the human equivalent of the behaviour of great apes, who groom each others’ fur by way of polite greeting. Fox wittily dissects the behaviour of the English in 400 pages of anthropology, concluding that it all comes down to social dis-ease, with reflexes of humour, moderation, and hypocrisy, an outlook based on empiricism, Eeyorishness and class-consciousness, and values including fair play, courtesy and modesty. She enlarges on her concept of social dis-ease:

It is our lack of ease, discomfort and incompetence in the field (minefield) of social interaction; our embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings.

Since the author herself is English, the book falls firmly into the acceptable discourse of being self-deprecatingly funny. The most enjoyable chapters are perhaps those on pets and hobbies – I now begin to understand DIY. She is even self-deprecating about her own discipline: “social science can sometimes almost be as insightful as good stand-up comedy.”

Of course, I am not English myself, but I am not unfamiliar with them (having married one), and as a close observer for several decades, I think Fox has nailed a number of characteristic behaviours beautifully. I would love to read a similarly sympathetic and close observation of the Irish or the Belgians. For now, well worth getting.