Watching the English by Kate Fox

This may seem an unusual book to class as a ‘cross-cultural resource’, given my position as a British person living in my home culture. However, I think it is an important one to include in my list of resources for two reasons:

  1. It is important for anyone involved in cross-cultural work to be aware of the traditions and quirks of their own culture as well as other cultures. There are many things we take for granted in our own culture that we don’t even realise are not true in any other culture; awareness of this means that we will better understand when someone commits a cultural faux-pas, and we can handle the situation with plenty of grace and minimal offense.
  2. It is a general helpful resource for understanding my culture a bit better, wherever you are from. If you are curious at all about British culture, then you might find this an interesting read.

Before I talk more about the book, I want to add that I’m recommending this book with two qualifications. Firstly, I don’t necessarily agree with 100% of Kate Fox’s comments in the book: as with any cross-cultural resource, she makes some big generalisations and it is important to be aware of that. Secondly, it is important to read her introductory chapter, entitled ‘Anthropology at Home’: here she explains in detail her reasoning behind some of the more controversial decisions in the book (such as titling it Watching the English rather than Watching the British – something I was very curious about).

Fox is an academic social anthropologist, but she states from the beginning that she did not want to present Watching the English as an academic paper. Instead, she writes with plenty of humour and using her own experience to provide an extremely readable analysis of British culture. Almost every person I have spoken to who has read this book has commented on the humorous nature of Fox’s writing, which is a testament to her statements about the English ability to laugh at ourselves and supports her claim that humour ‘permeates every aspect of English life and culture’ (p.61). Some reviews that I have read seem to take her comments a little too seriously, commenting that it is almost as though she is making fun of British culture: she is, of course, and that is the joy of the book. It is informative and helpful, but it never falls into the trap of assuming that British culture is the only culture that matters; instead, it pokes fun at parts of our culture we would usually take for granted with the aim of provoking serious thought as to how this might be difficult for those from other cultures to relate.

Fox divides the book into two sections: Conversation Codes and Behaviour Codes, with the larger portion of the book devoted to the latter section. The titling of these sections gives you a clue as to what the rest of the book will show: that British culture is all about code. Every word and action has the potential to mean something else entirely: maybe something about your mood, or your relationship, or your position in society. From chapters about ‘The Weather’ and ‘Humour Rules’ to ‘Home Rules’ and ‘Food Rules’, each point has an introduction followed by some generalised ‘rules’ which Fox uses to help explain the codes we use to relate to others. For me, reading these ‘rules’ mostly lead to laughs of recognition and thoughts of ‘yes, that’s true’. I imagine for someone from another culture, the reaction might be more laughter and ‘that makes no sense, how can it be true?’

Overall, this is a useful resource both for those from the UK and those from other cultures. As a British person reading this, I found it helpful to see the aspects of British culture that are those from other cultures would find strange or difficult. I’ve also had friends from other cultures read this and they have found it helpful in understanding why things happen in the way that they do in the UK.

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