English essence. A mini-guide to the English character
The English language is one of the most basic and indispensable agents of intellectual, scientific, business and artistic progress. It enables and facilitates exchange of thought, linking people of very different cultures and professional backgrounds. It might seem then that being so universal, English itself has ceased to require any cultural context. Or that is at least what some authors of English textbooks may think – when designing syllabuses, less and less space is given to cultural, historical and geographical characteristics of English speaking countries, to say nothing of people inhabiting them. But inasmuch as teaching the first three (during English classes) might prove a bit problematic due to some technical reasons (lack of time, insufficient teachers’ preparation, etc.), I think it is a rather good idea to never “discard” the people.
As a child I used to ask a lot of questions about other nations’ specific traits and, nothing to hide, I still happen to ponder over what features might be most typical of a given nation’s representatives. I have been also in time to realize that my curiosity in this subject is by no means exceptional. Some of my Italian acquaintances sooner or later asked me questions about typically Polish traits and I, finding the task extremely serious and important, struggled to give them the most accurate and reliable image of Poles. I did not feel comfortable, however, as I was never sure of how true my “reports” were.
One nation – one nature? Not so fast!
Today, after having heard and read this and that and being almost ten years older, I wouldn’t feel so much confused. I have gained some selfawareness which covers also my sense of being a Pole. The same process of awareness growing mature is probably manifest also at the level of whole nations. I don’t know when we, Poles, for the first time attempted defining our national character but after reading Peter Mandler’s “The English National Character” I know that in England it occurred no sooner than in the third decade of the 19 century. In those turbulent early Victorian times the English society started undergoing a series of considerable structural changes – masses of people moved to towns, workers began to unite in trade unions and the chartist campaign for universal manhood suffrage was launched. All that triggered a debate over what “the people” were and what it really meant to be members of one nation. English conservatives were proud of England’s achievements but did not like the idea of their compatriots possessing “the same” qualities. Admitting that they were part of some larger unity which could be characterized by a set of similar traits would necessarily lead to a drop in their sense of superiority.
Liberals and radicals, by contrast, were more inclined to accept the concept of the English national character. This way or that, the task of defining English national traits was swiftly and willingly undertaken by writers, thinkers and philosophers and it soon turned out to be no easy thing. To English people there was assigned a whole range of qualities, the most distinctive of which seemed individuality, love of freedom, self-reliability and industriousness. In general, however, the image of a typical Englishman was not homogeneous at all. Changeable or steady, unsociable or hospitable, proud and unemotional, generous and hypocritical – such a mixture of contradictory features must have been little encouraging for those who wished to reach some definite conclusions.
And yet, the aspiration to define characters of nations (not only the character of the English nation) has lost nothing of its strength – but this time “the right to a voice” is not limited to one particular social group.
Finding the subject quite pleasant and useful (from the educational point of view), I decided to broaden my perspective of whom the English are. To catch their most typical traits I reached for “Watching the English”, a book by Kate Fox, a social anthropologist from Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford. I also browsed Internet forums and asked my brother, who’s been living in England for ten years. Most of my sources listed several traits characterizing the English (supposedly), an exception being my brother who limited himself to only three. Luckily, what he thinks typically English makes a common denominator with features specified elsewhere.
Wouldn’t you mind if I asked you to pass me … the butter?
So in the first place, the English are thought to be very polite, apparently more polite than other nations. They say “sorry” when shoved by a passerby, they use somewhat complicated question formulas (Wouldn’t you mind if …?) when asking to pass them salt from the other side of the table, they load their interlocutors with compliments instead of getting to the point right away. The question is why are they so? Is that just a matter of convention or maybe a manifestation of some general friendliness; or maybe it is a bit of both? Without a doubt, much of English politeness assumes the form of conversational codes, one of whom is “an agreement rule”. Kate Fox described it in the context of weather-talking. However, before she came to define it, she had tried to breach it several times. If she heard a complaint, like “It’s so cold today, isn’t it?” she would oppose, saying, e.g., “Actually, I think it’s rather mild”. After such a rule infringement, a feeling of tenseness used to set in and Fox’s behaviour was irrevocably perceived as rude.
On the other hand, it would be perhaps too superficial to claim that English overly politeness is nothing more than a conversational convention. For many decades English mental world was framed by the concept of “civilization”. Civilization constituted the core of English pride and sense of superiority. So if some kind of subconscious collective memory within a nation really exists, then being polite would be just a way of behaving, seemly for those who once handed the torch of progress and civilization. In other words, politeness would be a form of complying with the tradition of ancestors – “civilized” conquerors of distant lands.
As it results from my little research, almost as distinctive for the English national character as politeness seems a kind of emotional “inhibition”. In many places I came over remarks about either inability to express one’s emotions or some uneasiness experienced when hearing other people talk about their true feelings. Apart from these explicit difficulties, many mention also looking embarrassed when greeting, saying bye or … on a dance floor. I was wondering whether English understatement (saying “nice” instead of “absolutely brilliant”) could also have anything to do with keeping emotions in check. The ability to understate things, as the English do, is often an object of envy and admiration; the more so as the English themselves claim that understatement is something one is born with. Kate Fox recalls rather painful efforts of her father’s Italian friends, who were almost falling over themselves to look English. They adopted English-like ways of behaving, dressing and eating but were incapable of understating things properly. Once, after a disappointing dinner, they let loose a whole chain of most sophisticated expressions to defame the restaurant in which it had been served. But to their despair, Fox’s father gave them a lesson of being truly English by remarking calmly: “So you wouldn’t recommend it?”
And yet, hilarious and enviable as it may seem, understatement require a more or less voluntary restraint. In this light then it supplies a set of features characterizing a cool-headed, reserved Englishman. It was a bit surprising for me to find out that English people aren’t very keen on giving their names when approached by a friendly stranger, e.g., in a pub. In comparison to Americans, who happen to start a conversation by saying, e.g., “Hi, I’m Joe”, the English expect a bigger grade of intimacy to be reached before they decide to reveal their names. On second thought, though, I must admit that it’s not very different from Polish ways of striking an acquaintance. We also start a conversation with exchanging a few sentences and only after we’re sufficiently reassured of each other, there come the names.
This certain English individuality and emotional distance is by no means a “modern” trait. Some 19th century writers deduced it from early (German) patterns of settlement, spread through misty forests – “each man, Kaiser and Pope in his own house”. But … nowadays, patterns of settlement changed and people feel even somewhat crammed. So an explanation may be more than trivial – social training. As anywhere in the world, children observe adults and are trained on the most desired forms of emotional expression.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees”
We have politeness and, let’s call it, emotional distance as two major components of the English national image. My brother did not hesitate before mentioning another typically English (in his opinion) feature, that is to say, a sort of materialistic approach to life. This apparently not very popular view is shared by a number of English Internet users who claim that their compatriots are “obsessed with property values” and “jealous of other people’s wealth and success”.
This being said, let us not be too hasty in our judgments because what in some circumstances could be seen as simple greediness, or in the best of cases, distorted proportions, in British, or rather, English context preoccupation with material goods may result from a combination of various factors, among which tradition, ideology, social training and history admixture. In most of protestant countries there is a special attitude toward work as a steady base of “healthy” social co-existence. In England traits such as industriousness, self-reliability and financial independence have always been much appreciated.
But apart from this protestant ethos of work (work inevitably bringing money and other goods), the English for quite long time raved over the idea of their Anglo-Saxon origins. Being strong and perseverant, independent and responsible, living in harmony with nature and taming nature to make use of its fruits – these Teutonic virtues used to arouse so much enthusiasm that Germany was for years the most popular holiday destination for upper middle class English people. Anglo-Saxonism, especially strong in the 19th century, became almost a national myth and, though much weakened by the arrival of Nazis philosophy, must have struck roots in the mentality of English society (but, of course, it was also “mentality” that sought and found its object of affection – Teutonic spirit).
A man walks into a bar…
Any attempt of discussing the English national character would be much incomplete if we made no mention of English humour. But to be exact – Kate Fox explains that it is not humour as such but the importance of it that is so distinctive of English image. The usage of humour in English society is governed by several rules, with some more important than others. The most basic one is about being able to laugh at oneself. Of course, when required, one can be also serious but never earnest – earnestness is strictly “forbidden”. I’ve already mentioned an “understatement rule” and now I’m even more prone to associate the whole of English humour (as a psychological trait) with some sort of English emotional “inhibition”. I see these two traits intertwine and complement, with humour being a clever distractor, aiming to draw one’s interlocutor’s attention from the embarrassing subject of true feelings. Apart from these few above-mentioned traits which might form the core of Englishness, I came across a number of other, very appealing ideas. Some English people think that as a nation they’re famous, e.g., for being unable not to comment on how other people bring up their children, or for being fond of how their lawn is mown or simply for getting drunk quickly and easily. Certainly, the English character can be hardly ever explored and described by a mere enumeration of particular traits. More than that! – when proceeding this way, one risks falling into dangerous generalizations which sooner or later will assume the form of stereotypes. Nevertheless, I dared to approach the concept of Englishness because I believe that even stereotypes, if taken with a pinch of salt, can be a useful tool of exploring reality. They are (and have always been) a framework for our mental bearings, our sense of direction in social space. So as far as it’s not very wise to let oneself be guided by stereotypes, it always seems useful to be conscious of them…