Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Breaking the Rules of Englishness

September 5, 2010 · 3 Comments

When people at home learned that I was going to be studying in Europe all year, many of them said something along the lines of, “Oh, watch out, they hate Americans.” The incredible sense of encouragment and support that I took from this statement aside, I was a bit worried and started reading Kate Fox like it was the Bible of Englishness. Now that we’ve been here for a bit, however, I’ve noticed some variations in English behavior and have witnessed some interesting responses to my American-ness.

It’s true that hardly anyone talks on the Tube and people rush by each other in the streets seemingly without giving notice of their fellow travelers. Kate Fox’s rules seem to be holding true. At the Hard Rock Cafe, however, all of those rules were thrown to the wind. We’ll start in the bar—the bartenders, two young men, were clearly showing off and attracting attention to themselves and their drink-pouring abilities. At one point, one of the waiters even jumped on a bartender’s back. They were *gasp* boasting. Granted, they had already had a few drinks themselves by this point, and one of them assured me that he was going to drink more later when I tried out the “And one for yourself?” rule. The rule-breaking then continued with our server, who had no problem at all pulling up a chair to our table, poking gentle fun at us, putting her arm around someone’s shoulders, etc… She was much more dynamic and got much more personal than I expected. I don’t know if Fox’s rules are more relaxed at Hard Rock because it’s such a tourist attraction, or if it’s because the atmosphere just attracts more outgoing people. I don’t believe that the fact that we were a large group of young Americans played a part in this interaction, though.

Most people whom I’ve interacted with simply nod and smile a bit when they hear my American accent, as if to say, “American–that’s why it’s taking her so long to count the proper change.” Two instances gave me a lot to think about, however. I was at a sandwich shop one night, and the cashier asked me where I was from. We started talking a bit, and it turns out that he not only knows where Pennsylvania is, but has the dream of traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast someday. He’s been working in England for seven years in order to save money to get to America. He’s originally from Brazil, but has lived and worked in most countries in Western Europe, making his way westward. He was so positive about the States, and he gave me a pound off of my sandwich for talking to him. I’m thinking that he was just excited to find someone who would talk to him about something other than the weather. I saw this need to reach out to a friendly stranger in the British Museum, as well. I was standing in front of the Rosetta Stone, listening to the podcast, when someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked where I was from. Completely un-English behavior! Woah. I said, “the States,” because most people who have asked me that have been British, but this guy looked at me like I was an idiot. “Which state?” he asked. He explained that he’s from Missouri and is here on his quarter-life crisis with his father, and was in need of something to do. His father’s contribution to the conversation consisted of, “New England! Ah!” It was a very odd interaction, and, being pretty shy, I was taken aback. But again, I think that they were just really excited to talk to someone who would have a conversation with them, and bonus! spoke in an American accent.

I’m interested to see if this kind of interaction continues as I’m here for longer, and I especially want to see if they continue in Norwich. I feel that they’re possible in London because there are so many tourists and a larger population of non-native Brits.

Categories: 2010 Holly

3 responses so far ↓

  •   maryc // Sep 5th 2010 at 06:22

    Holly, I’ve definitely noticed a fair bit of this “un-English” behavior myself. Of course I’ve witnessed the no-speaking on the Tube, the English people’s standoffishness, and so on. I agree though, that I have seen some rule breaking too!

    In the groups I’ve gone with to pubs, we’ve been denied the “and for yourself” rule for buying the bartender a drink (although in one instance, the bartender was pregnant). I’ve also witnessed a fair bit of queue jumping (!!), and like you, strangers being open and friendly!

    I think this may either be proof that Fox is not entirely correct in the rules of Englishness–she did admit they didn’t cover every English person individually–or that London is just a different sort of representation of English culture. It’s a growing international city, for one. Like you, I’m very curious to continue my people watching when we travel to Norwich. I wonder if the Fox’s rules of Englishness better apply to the smaller city.

  •   guya // Sep 6th 2010 at 18:29

    I would note that because London is a very touristy area, it is hard to define anything we see as undistilled “Englishness” like what Kate Fox tries to describe. Some of the people may be tourists, others may have adapted things based on seeing tourists, others might be trying to appeal to tourists by being more “American,” etc. I would second Mary in saying that it will be interesting to see if Kate Fox’s definitions hold true in Norwich…

  •   Karl // Sep 8th 2010 at 06:06

    Definitely keep Fox in mind as we travel north.
    Hard Rock is likely not representative of Englishness, but also Fox is making generalizations.
    Lastly, watch out for Missourians…we are a strange lot!

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