Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Cold-ish British

September 9, 2010 · 4 Comments

In her social analysis Watching the English, Kate Fox explains that, to the English, their car is their own private space, insulated from the entire world (169). The English also seek to “maintain as much privacy as possible, by pretending that… [others] do not exist” on the tube, bus, and other systems of transportation (139). Similarly, the strategic placing of a phone on a nearby table/counter in a pub can act as a social guard that makes an impenetrable magical barrier, protecting the user. Lastly, if the user holds the phone, they often feel connected to friends stored in the address book, reassuring them that they aren’t alone (86). I have noticed all these things in different locations, and I consider them all symptomatic of the “social dis-ease” that Fox discusses in her book. However, I have noticed similar results in many different other areas as well, in general and specifically on a long walk I took to try and find some famous street art.

Take, for instance, the incessant displays of public affection. People “snog” on the escalator going down to the subway, sitting at booths in pubs, at stoplights on scooters, on the street corner, on the tube, everywhere. There are also a superfluous amount of twenty-something couples holding hands, in a variety of social settings. Couples walking at five o’clock in suits and formal dresses hold hands. Couples drinking in pubs hold hands at or under the table. Holding hands, though in America generally limited to teens, is standard protocol for much older couples.

There are also an incredible amount of these young adults (23ish-35ish) waiting at tube stops for their significant others. Literally, people line the walls surrounding the stairs leading down to the tube. It’s amazing. They are so committed to their other (or at least want to appear so, or are afraid to ride the tube by themselves) that they are willing to sit there and wait, for a decent amount of time, for their significant other. Perhaps I’m just heartless, but I think this is silly. These are examples of two phenomenon mentioned in the first paragraph: both isolating oneself, as couples create mini-worlds in which only they exist (and make out), and a constant thirst for human connection, reinforcing that one matters/one is cared for.

This miniaturizing and need for affection is, in my opinion, because the rest of the culture is essentially cold. Walking down the street, I tried to look at people and give them friendly (yet not creepy) looks to see if they would be returned. I received a few quizzical looks, but people mostly either looked the complete opposite direction of me, or down at their shoes. Also, practically whenever we walk into pubs, we are either greeted by ominous stares or silence. Yes, this could just be because we’re Americans, but I’ve also noticed that when other Brits walk into pubs, they aren’t often greeted by bartenders or other patrons with smiles. When you drink at a pub, you do not mingle with other customers – you are there with your friends, and you stay within this microsphere. Talk too loudly on the tube, and you will be shunned, shushed, or yelled at. There are countless other examples of this similar type of behavior. No, Brits are not friendly people.

All of this makes me miss America in a small way. If you smile at someone on the street, they will usually smile back at you. Saying “hello” to a stranger will usually be reciprocated (and you won’t be considered a crazy person). Because of this social warmth, people do not feel the need to make out all the time in public spaces, reinforcing that they are together, that they are not isolated. The actual acknowledgement of others’ existence would also render excessive snogging a bit awkward. Twenty-five year old couples don’t hold hands nearly as often, because they don’t need to. American society is more open, and coordinately, people act less insecurely. Our expressions of love are privatized, as our society is, as a whole, more open.

Categories: 2010 ChristopherB
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4 responses so far ↓

  •   Mary Kate // Sep 10th 2010 at 08:23

    I’ve noticed the huge amount of PDA as well (the Goodge Street station lifts are a hot bed, though thankfully not literally). I wasn’t sure how to account for it, considering the supposedly cold nature of the English. But Chris, you’ve spent more time in cities than I have – you live so close to Philly – is being unfriendly on the street an urban characteristic or a specifically London characteristic? I’m used to friendly pedestrians because I’ve spent my whole life in small towns where it would be rude not to say hello. In any case, I definitely see your argument – that all the public snogging reflects a deeper social insecurity. I’d add that I’ve noticed plenty of noisy, drunken PDA, particularly on the Tube, on weekend nights. Fox did warn us that the English have been known to drink in order to lay down their social inhibitions – making it even easier to have these public displays.

  •   Karl // Sep 10th 2010 at 12:41

    I agree with some of your points, but let’s think about some of them a bit more. What would happen if you started staring at people in central NYC, LA, etc.? You might get ignored, but you might get hurt. The London snogfest could be generational (Fox clearly doesn’t get youth behavior), could show Fox is wrong, or could operate as you say as a compensation for a larger couple. That people wait for each other at the tube might simply be because of the lack of precision in public transport. Lastly, Fox didn’t write a novel. A novel is a particular genre of fiction.
    Keep up the observing; you are peeling back the layers of the onion. Excellent job of interacting with our text.

  •   bowmanc // Sep 10th 2010 at 15:39

    Perhaps I overstated the friendliness of American cities – not everyone is full of smiles, some will smile but some will ignore you (though I personally think that most won’t hurt you… unless you’re in really, really bad parts of town late at night). However, I do still think that American people are, as a whole, friendlier. Fox certainly doesn’t understand younger generations, and it will certainly be interesting to investigate this idea further at UEA. It will certainly be a smaller subset of British society age-wise, and out of the main city. Novel was the wrong word, my mistake, and has been changed accordingly.

  •   battilaj // Sep 11th 2010 at 21:10

    No, Chris, I think you hit it on the head with this spheres thing. The PDA is not generational; I’ve been seeing older couples and young couples kissing and holding hands in public. I think it’s the result of people placing themselves in false private spheres. Fox also talks about how people use the giant newspapers on the subway as a barrier from other people, and Dickens created Wemmick, a character so devoted to separate sphers that he has two personalities. They’re both hitting on themes of artificially separating oneself and privacy.

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