Two things i’ve read in the last two days:
1. From Kate Fox’s Watching the English:
‘After a while,’ one commuter told me, ‘if you see the same person every morning on the platform, and maybe quite often sit opposite them on the train, you might start to just nod to each other when you arrive, but that’s about as far as it goes. ‘How long is “a while”?’ I asked. ‘Oh, maybe a year or so – it depends; some people are more outgoing than others, you know?’ […] ‘So, a particularly “outgoing” person might start to greet you with a nod after seeing you every morning for say, what, a couple of months?’ ‘Mmm, well, maybe,’ my informant sounded doubtful, ‘but actually that would be a bit, um, forward – a bit pushy; that would make me a bit uncomfortable.’
The informant – a young women working as a secretary for a PR agency in London – was not an especially shy or retiring person. In fact, I would have described her as quite the opposite: friendly, lively and gregarious. I am quoting her here because her responses are typical – almost all of the communers I interviewed said that even a brief nod constituted a fairly drastic escalation of intimacy, and most were highly cautious about progressing to this stage, because, as another typical commuter explained, ‘Once you start greeting people like that – nodding, I mean – unless you’re very careful, you might end up starting to say “good morning” or something, and then you could end up actually having to talk to them.’ I recorded other commuters using expressions such as ‘tip of the iceberg’ and ‘slippery slope’ to explain their avoidance of premature nodding, or even making eye contact with other commuters (eye contact in public places in England is never more than a fraction of a second; if you do accidentally meet a stranger’s eye, you must look away immediately – to maintain eye contact for even a full second may be interpreted as either flirtation or aggression.
But what would be so awful, I asked each of my informants, about a brief friendly chat with a fellow commuter? This was clearly regarded as an exceptionally stupid question. Obviously, the problem with actually speaking to a fellow commuter was that if you did it once, you might be expected to do it again – and again, and again: having to acknowledge the person’s existence, you could not go back to pretending that they did not exist, and you could end up having to exchange polite words with them every day. You would almost certainly have nothing in common, so these conversations would be highly awkward and embarrassing. Or else you would have to find ways of avoiding the person – standing at the other end of the platform, for example, or hiding behind the coffee kiosk, and deliberately choosing a different compartment on the train, which would be rude and equally embarrassing. The whole thing would become a nightmare; it didn’t bear thinking about.
2. From Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur:
Fair damosel, said Sir Launcelot, I may not warn people to speak of me what it pleaseth them; but for to be a wedded man, I think it not; for then I must couch with her, and leave arms and tournaments, battles, and adventures; and as for to say for to take my pleasaunce with paramours, that will I refuse in principal for dread of God; for knights that be adventurous or lecherous shall not be happy nor fortunate unto the wars, for other they shall be overcome with a simpler knight than they be themselves, other else they shall by unhap and their cursedness slay better men than they be themselves. And so who that useth paramours shall be unhappy, and all thing is unhappy that is about them.
The rules of English culture are, for outsiders, bafflingly complex. English males typically express friendship with vile insults and denigration and scorn. It is indeed a sign of friendship, to be insulted. The males who treat you with formal politeness don’t like or trust you. One of the pleasing aspects of my relationship with Juniper (a German MILF) is that we have settled into a lighter version of this mutual flyting. i dare say her German friends would be horrified, and exhort her to dump me, if they heard only my side – and no doubt they would be further shocked to hear her side and would wonder if she hates or despises me. It is, rather, a means of expressing mutual understanding, that we won’t take things the wrong way – even if others would; this indeed makes it romantic and intimate, like a secret language though on the surface it just sounds like she’s calling me a hapless retarded buffoon.
It’s true that the English rarely say what we “mean”, or rather irony is so inwoven in our culture that we automatically “mean” with irony. It’s not that we think something is shit and then say “it’s a bit irritating”; we feel a negative emotion and then think and say “it’s a bit irritating.” If a foreigner demands to know if we really don’t mind, e.g. having our arms chopped off by a combine harvester, then we analyse the words and feeling and admit, irritatedly, that we do but when we say “it’s a bit irritating” this means we really dislike having our arms chopped off, very much.
Fox rightly, i judge, says that we tend to believe in “fair play”, so although there is corruption and cheating and so on, we react with outrage rather than an Italian shrug. Perhaps this is one reason for the popularity of chivalric romance in the Middle Ages: not merely knights riding about bashing giants & knaves, but there is a distinct sense that the perfect knight plays fair.
It’s not true that outsiders can’t understand the English; for example, Toddball and Hayes, two of the American teachers, have a very Englishly black sense of humour and specialise in ball breaking (or abuse, as Hayes calls it). They respond appropriately to understatement and are even capable of using it. i’ve spent enough time with Toddball to feel safer talking openly with him than most non-Brits. On Monday he came into McLingua in shorts and a t-shirt and drunkedly demanded i feel his legs, which he claimed were rock hard after a great deal of manly exercise. i poked his thigh and said: “that’s the most disgusting thing i’ve ever touched in my life.” He just chuckled in a satisfied, amused way.
On the other hand, the main reason i left Kassel is that most of the teachers turned against me as one – as if coordinated – the explicit cause being my ordinary & evidently friendly joshing with one of the English teachers, for which i was denounced as a complete and utter cunt, by the non-British. i became so paranoid that i begged the English teacher to be honest and tell me if i had offended him; he dismissed it as ordinary English humour and said that even intelligent foreigners often fail to get English humour, and can’t be trusted to understand tone.
i’m about halfway through Fox’s book. She often notes parallels between the Japanese and the English, both of us inhabiting an overcrowded island. Formality, reserve, embarrassment, rituals, tradition. i’m not sure how true these still are of England – from the late 90s on these seemed to almost visibly dwindle. Yet, perhaps there’s something about islands, that you are all in the same boat but also can’t so easily just wander east for Lebensraum; so it is necessary to develop highly elaborate coping rituals, to live with so many others.
i realise i’ve never been particularly English. My father being a deranged Indian who could barely speak English, and my mother white trash from Rotherham, masquerading as middle class, and having no real friends till i was 21, i grew up without absorbing an accent or many English customs. i’ve never had a local, i’ve never been interested in normal football, i don’t drink beer, and so on. i’ve always alternated between crippling shyness, to the point of intense agoraphobia, and direct garrulity and outright hectoring. i made my friends this way – they appreciated my unEnglish directness. But it naturally made me uncomfortable with the English.
In Germany, i’m more or less normal. i have learnt a professional, schmoozy manner as a teacher but drop it as soon as my students signal their readiness (generally by telling me personal semi-secrets). More and more, i feel i’m in the right place. In Germany, i am not merely an expat; i am actually a kind of übermensch and can’t walk down the street without children strewing rose petals in my path, women baring their breasts for my delectation, and men shaking their heads in stunned Germanic admiration.
Not bad for a half-caste mongrel from Huddersfield.