Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Fox-y England

September 21st, 2010 · 1 Comment

When I read Watching the English at home, I thought Kate Fox was mostly being funny. Now that I’ve spent a month here, I know she wasn’t. But there is one amendment I think she needs to make to her book: her analysis of the English seems to be mostly restricted to the older generation. I suspected this while I was reading the book, but I couldn’t be certain. It did seem strange to me, though, to imagine that young adults would be unwilling to tell people what they did for a living or to talk to people on the tube, for example. Even in America, it is rude for older generations to brag about how much money they make, but young people are allowed to compare notes about hourly wages and the like.

 A few weeks ago, Jesse and I overhead a young couple strike up a conversation with a similarly-aged man on the tube. Simply starting to talk to the man goes against the rules of Fox’s book. According to her, people just do not create conversation with strangers. Not only did the couple talk to the man, they wound up asking him what he does for a living. But some things Fox said still does apply to younger generations. The couple made sure to wait for the appropriate social cues before inquiring. The man mentioned his job and they reciprocated, asking him what he did.

But that isn’t to say that Kate Fox was wrong about everything. She helped me out of some right situations, making things less awkward for me. I would never have known, otherwise, that it is customary to buy your bartender a round instead of leaving a monetary tip, for example. And Kaitlin was astutely able to deduce that the neighborhood near Regent’s Park was upper class partly because of the unkempt gardens full of scattered lawn ornaments.

I’ve definitely enjoyed (and will keep enjoying) “watching the English” to compare my observations with those intimated by Fox in her book.

Tags: 2010 Jessica

Museum Visitors: A Behavioral Study

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Rather than spend another post discussing curating practices or the pros and cons of government subsidies for museums, I wanted to write about the behavior I’ve observed in visitors to museums because, as a psychology major, this is what interests me.  First, one can definitely tell the difference between English visitors to museums and tourists visiting museums.  Tourists walk around looking up or looking sideways, gawking and paying no particular attention to where they are going.  There was woman in the Map exhibit in the British Library yesterday who was wheeling around a suitcase behind her as she went through.  Madam really, you are currently taking up enough space for three people.  This doesn’t surprise me much, as I’m used to tourists in America being clueless and gawking as well.  What I find more fascinating is the behavior of British visitors.

First, English visitors seem to come to museums with a specific purpose in mind.  They seem to know exactly what they want to see and exactly what they want to learn or get out of their trip and proceed to the appropriate location efficiently.  I’ll admit that it’s true that British visitors, especially Londoners, are at a bit more leisure to do this, since they live here and can return as often as they like while we tourists need to cram in as much as possible in a short period of time.  In addition, some of these people are students with notebooks who must be on assignments concerning a certain painting or exhibit.  An interesting mission that I’ve seen English museum visitors pursuing is educating a child.  I’ve seen this several times, but I’ll share the example of a mother and son that I saw in the National Portrait Gallery.  The mother had a notebook and was trying to convince the son (who seemed about 4 or 6 years old) to choose a picture he liked and try to draw it to “show Daddy later.”  The son was reluctant and threw a few fits (as big of a fit as an English child would throw) but the mother was very persistent and kept telling her son, “We’ll look at just one more, one more picture.”  When I saw them again later on, the son seemed a bit more engaged, but I just thought it was interesting that parents would bring their children to museums with such a structured purpose.

The second behavior that I’ve observed seems to relate to the English privacy rules and the social dis-ease mentioned by Kate Fox.  I’ve noticed that if an English person is looking in a case or at a sign, and I walk up next to them to look at the same object, they will either apologize and leave, or give an embarrassed smile and leave.  I still don’t really understand what they are apologizing for, but it’s almost like they think more than one person cannot occupy the same object (or 3 foot radius) as another person, like each person needs their time alone with whatever sign they are reading.  I remember looking in the Museum of London at the Docklands at the hanging bird cage thing in which they would put pirates for birds to come eat them and a small child ran in front of me, pressing his nose on the glass, and asking his father to come look.  The case was rather large, the print on the sign rather large, and the child rather short.  He was not obstructing my view at all, but the father scolded him “Don’t stand there; the lady is trying to look.”  I protested and said something like “Oh don’t worry he’s fine” to which the father gave an embarrassed laugh and quickly walked away.  This behavior seems strange, awkward, and overly polite, but it makes some sense when we apply what we’ve read in Fox, and in light of other examples of social dis-ease that we’ve experienced in England.  I suppose I prefer it to the behavior of American tourists, who will actually obstruct your view of something, and run you over with a suitcase while they’re at it.

Tags: 2010 Kaitlin

The Accessibility and Britishness of British Theatre

September 19th, 2010 · 1 Comment

I have now seen a total of five shows here in London.  First, the Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre, followed by the Czech Philharmonic concert at Royal Albert Hall, Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theatre, The 39 Steps at the Criterion Theatre, and The Habit of Art at the National Theatre.  For this blog post, I will focus on The 39 Steps and The Habit of Art, because I think these shows have certain things in common that are a good demonstration of British culture.

Both shows were distinctly meta-theatrical.  In The 39 Steps, costume and set changes happened right on stage and Professor Jordan proclaims the show’s self-consciousness when he is shot by a bodiless arm at the end of the show and shouts “This is supposed to be a four person cast!”  The Habit of Art is a play within a play.  Better yet, the play within the play is being rehearsed at the National Theatre, where the play is being shown.  The rehearsal of Caliban’s Day is frequently interrupted by the actors, the stage manager, and the writer to talk about the trials and tribulations of acting, writing, and theatre.  I think that both of these shows’ use of meta-theatre demonstrates the British love of irony and humor, their tendency toward self-consciousness and self-deprecation, and the Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule as defined by Kate Fox.  Meta-theatre demonstrates that the show and the playwright are not taking themselves too seriously.  When some of the class was talking during intermission, I remember Matt wondering why there couldn’t have just been a play about Auden and Britton, and why they had to go to the trouble of adding all the extra characters and putting it in a frame.  He suggested that the playwright was too worried that a serious play about Auden and Britton would not go over well.  This theory may be exactly right.  A play just about Auden and Britton may have been reviewed with an “Oh come off it” rather than a “deeply and unexpectedly moving” and a “I can think of few plays that combine wild laughter, deep emotion, and technical ingenuity with such bravura” (Charles Spencer, Telegraph, 18 November 2009).

photo credit: Google Images

photo credit: Google Images

This is still just a theory.  As a sidenote, I do think the framing had its merits.  Caliban’s Day is about the pressure to create art, the artist’s consciousness of his role and reputation as an artist, and the contriving that goes on behind the scenes with the artist’s fear of biographical information seeping into or being read into his art.  The insecure actors and writer and the ever-comforting and conciliatory stage manager are a parallel story to Auden’s and Britton’s, allowing the themes to be developed more deeply and thoroughly, applying them to theatre as well as poetry and music.

We have talked about theatre in London as being a sort of equalizer.  Anyone who can afford even fifteen pounds can get a pretty good seat for a show.  In the National Theatre, there are no restricted view seats nor are there any boxes.  Everyone is on the same footing, and to demonstrate this, we got to sit in the same row as Sir Ian McKellen at The Habit of Art.  While all of this is true, I still felt like a bit of an outsider at both of these shows.  I really enjoyed The 39 Steps, but I still had some trouble catching all of the jokes, even after having read Fox and lived in London for a month.  Many of the jokes, such as the jokes about Welsh politics and the “sorry, sorry, sorry” sequence on the train are distinctly British, and not fully accessible to us foreigners.  The same held true with the humor in The Habit of Art.  I’m not complaining; I’m sure American movies and plays present the same problems to the British.  I do think I have a point though, in saying that the content in The Habit of Art was not accessible to just anyone.  I think in order to fully understand the play, you needed a reasonable understanding of theatre and its operations (in this respect our backstage tour helped a lot) and an understanding of Auden’s biography, his poetry and The Tempest.  It took me probably until close to intermission to grasp who all the characters were and the plotlines of both stories.  I think the play was rather intellectual, despite containing much crude humor, and perhaps did not quite match the humble and universally accessible National Theatre.

Tags: 2010 Kaitlin

Making a Fuss in the British Museum

September 18th, 2010 · 1 Comment

As Kate Fox says in Watching the English, there is nothing the English dislike more than “making a fuss.” We see evidence of this in the English propensity for dirty looks and harrumphing in incidences of queue jumping, rather than directly confronting the social deviant, and apologizing incessantly when asking anyone in the service industry for the tiniest bit of service, among other things. Why, just moments ago, as I was asking Pat a question about the unfortunate current state of the blog site in a very hushed whisper, I was given the disgruntled throat clear by the elderly man sitting a couple seats to my left here in the Humanities Reading Room in the British Library.

At the British Museum, which attracts a great deal of tourists, you would think the employees would be more accustomed to handling the directness of foreigners, but you would be wrong. I’ve been amassing quite a collection of postcards since I’ve been here in London, and in my opinion the British Museum gift shops offer some of the most attractive options. They are, however, rather pricey at 60p a pop, so I was delighted when I saw a significant amount of postcards available through the 10 for 1 pound deal. I was decidedly less delighted when I noticed that a few of the postcards I had paid full price for were included in the discounted selection. So I sifted through the postcards I had purchased and fished out the ones that were on sale, so that I could take them back to the counter to return them. The saleswoman I spoke to said they didn’t do returns, I then explained the issue to her and she said there was nothing she could do about it, with the faux-polite “so sorry” of course. Being a student on a budget, I was not about to resign to paying 60p for something being sold for 10p so I requested to speak to a manager. The look of complete befuddlement and horror that spread across her face when I didn’t simply sigh and walk away with my over-priced postcards was fantastically English. The manager did arrive, and he corrected the problem, but not without displaying that he was obviously annoyed with me, telling me how complicated of a process he was about to undertake. As other customers queued up behind me at the till, he would sigh and say to them, exasperated “There’s another till ‘round the corner, it is going to be quite awhile.” The whole scene was like something out of a bad sitcom.

This experience was the complete opposite of what would have happened in America, where quality customer service is something many businesses and institutions pride themselves on. The phrase “the customer is always right” is replaced here by something like “even if the customer is unhappy, they’re unlikely to say anything about it, so, all’s well then, carry on.”

Tags: 2010 Rachel

A Little Moaning: Traffic, Firewalls, and Football vs. Quiz Night

September 15th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Since I’ve been here, I’ve witnessed several English moans, all ranging from the fact that Community Support Officers aren’t “real” officers to the weather to the sound being muted during a football match. The moaning doesn’t always bother me (unless I’m surrounded by it and find myself the only one who can find a positive), but the unwillingness to do something, or admit that there is something that can be done, does at times.

My first “moan-on” encounter was not traditional in any sense. Standing at a light waiting to cross the street in Piccadilly Circus, an elderly woman walked around us and started mumbling. I assumed it was something about tourists or Americans not willing to cross without a light unlike a true Londoner (in this case, even the most expert street crosser would have been hesitant!). After a few seconds of waiting, the lady decided that we were also annoyed with traffic and decided to engage us (being Matt and myself) in a moan about the Mayor’s Sky Ride that day. She admitted it was great, but the traffic was so backed up! She also had a rather ambiguous statement about the children being out all day on their bikes: who knows if this was a moan about children being inconsiderate bikers, parents not supervising their children, or if the lady just had something against children and bikes. Since then, I’ve noticed that if traffic is crazy or people are (im)patiently waiting to cross the street, no one strikes up a conversation. This hasn’t caught me off guard; in the US we don’t normally start up conversations while waiting at a street light with a strange. But it has made me wonder why this lady decided to engage us in conversation. Did we look lost? (We weren’t!) Was she lonely? Was she an exception to Kate Fox? (A sort of the exception proves the rule?) Or, did she just say to herself, “my powers of identifying Americans say those two are American! I wonder what they’re doing here”?

My next noticeable one was Monday night when everyone was trying to help set-up for the alumni presentation. If there was ever a time to enact the “Keep Calm and Carry On” phrase, this was it. My mac didn’t have the right hook up; the cord that fit my mac didn’t fit the TV; the firewall didn’t allow us to access youtube or facebook (even if I could get it to upload); I couldn’t get wireless because my computer wasn’t Barclay’s approved; the internet at Claridge’s was slow; the new d-son email system didn’t like the attachment; the Barclays IT guys couldn’t download the right plug-in to play a file created on a mac because of the firewall; the only blank writable CD in the building wasn’t actually blank and the information wasn’t erasable.  (I think that’s all of the problems.) Henrietta, the event planner, was amazing, very helpful, and continuously did a combination of the traditional English moan and apology. “I told the them we were working from a Mac. (Shakes head) ” “I’m so sorry about your presentation. I bet it’s ruined now!” “I’m sorry. I hope we haven’t messed up your presentation.” Even in the moment, I wanted to laugh because here was a perfect example of some of the ideas Fox explores. After a few feeble attempts to return the moans about the IT guys and the firewalls, as well as a few (seemingly unsuccessful) attempts to ensure her that our presentation was indeed going to be fine as I was quite sure we would think of something, I gave up in the co-moaning and just started suggesting plans to fix the problem. I’d much rather spend time debating ideas than dwelling on the fact our original, or billionth, plan didn’t work. Despite the moaning, Henrietta was still quite proactive in trying to resolve the problem and acted, it seemed to be, in the opposite way of the passive, go around that some of us have experienced elsewhere. The main IT guy, however, seemed less proactive, but that could have been because I was mainly a few doors down with Henrietta trying to upload and email the presentation. I was left wondering if working for an American for so long had influenced her aggressiveness.  (I’m not even sure if I would have the guts to go to one of the smartest places in London and “ask” to borrow their internet because we were in a tight spot.)  At the end of the night, despite the moans and technical glitches, the presentation came off okay. Apparently keeping calm and carrying on does work (if enough apologies are spread around).

My most recent and most amusing encounter with English moaning was last night when I went to the One Tun to watch a football match. Because it was Tuesday and Tuesday is the pub’s traditional quiz night, the sound on the TVs was turned off so that contestants could hear the quiz master (not that hearing him made the questions easier. I sort of think we would have done just as well without the actual questions…), which meant no football commentary. No one made a seen, but there was a complaint here and there. The best of which was a quiz team’s name: Turn On the Sound. It was a great passive-aggressive moan that got a few laughs every time the team score was announced. The sound was turned on- after trivia ended. Yet, by then, the game was over. (An annoying 2-2 draw between Tottenham and Bremen.)

I’ve enjoyed hearing the odd moan and I’ve really enjoyed seeing what people do to address the issue, especially when they get creatively passive. While every one is relatively good at keeping calm, the carrying on could use some work.

Tags: 2010 Stephenie

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. A**hole that yelled at me on Tottenham Court

September 12th, 2010 · 3 Comments

I’ve been fascinated by the effects of alcohol ever since I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in my freshman year, the same time I was introduced to college drinking social norms. By day students go to class and make self-aware, well thought out comments and criticisms of society, and by night drink and do all manner of scandalous things to gossip about in the morning (obviously not everyone, but a sizeable portion). We’ve been talk about the British social dis-ease, but I wonder if American social customs are really all that different.

Kate Fox notes that our expectations of alcohol’s effects are cultural rather than purely biological (261). England is known for its aggressive drunks and that expectation, and possibly a little national pride, is a self fulfilling prophecy. As the drunk insane asylum manager from everyone’s favorite show, Bedlam, says as he stumbles around the stage, “We’re English. It’s what we do” to which the audience responded with a proud cheer. For whatever reason, boisterous drunkness is a major source of identity for England, even if it’s also a symptom of the inability to socialize without a lubricant to put you in a liminal state. As a result, while Latin American countries associate alcohol with more peaceful states, England gets bars in Covent Square Garden that forbid the wearing of football colors to prevent bar fights.

I’ve tried to visit a few different types of pubs, and I’ve found so far that no matter the atmosphere, the clientele, or even the level of drunkenness, when it comes to alcohol the Brits are not the friendliest bunch (You see what I did there? Understatement. I’m so assimilated). I’ve managed to get over the occasional obvious refusals of service when pubs close at an oddly specific time if they see a group of five Americans coming toward them. The slightly more expensive pubs I’ve gone to have not been as bad. I usually just get a server who refuses to make any form of polite small talk or eye contact with me, unless he is joining in the group glare that I often receive from everyone in the room when I speak, stand in the wrong place, or exist. The younger, louder pubs were pretty nice because fewer people could hear my accent and it was too loud for me to hear angry throat clears. Unfortunately, the minute I got outside, a few drunk men took it upon themselves to fix that by yelling obscenities and telling me to go back to America (In their defense, I think I might have offended them when I was praising the benefits of Razor Scooters as they walked past. Hot button issue).

During the day, besides the occasional angry glare when I use my 6 inch voice instead of my 4 inch voice in the library, people have been generally friendly, which leads me to believe that Fox is right about the British extremes in behavior.  They’re excessively mild and polite (Jekyll) until they drink a potion that makes them grow fur on their hands and have a strong desire to beat me to death with a cane.

Tags: 2010 Jesse

An Educational Shopping Trip

September 8th, 2010 · 2 Comments

On Sunday I journeyed with Sarah and Emily down to Oxford Street to replace my sorely missed Swatch.  I remembered passing the Swatch store on the Number 10 bus to Royal Albert Hall.  (Incidentally, Royal Albert Hall was where my watch went missing.)  With part of the Central Line closed for maintenance, we decided to take the same bus again.  It dropped us off right outside the Swatch store and I quickly found a new watch I really liked.  I was planning to post a picture of me wearing it with this blog, but one of the links broke today when I took it off to go through the metal detector at the Hindu Temple and I currently cannot wear it.  The city of London apparently does not want me to ever know what time it is.  Fortunately, Swatches come with a two year warranty, and I will get it fixed as soon as I get the chance.

We decided to explore some more of the shops on Oxford Street that afternoon.  There were some stores that I had not heard of in the U.S. and some that I had.  First, we went into Top Shop, a new store for me.  They do operate in the U.S., although it is a British chain, I had just never seen one.  The clothes were similar to what we would see at H&M or Forever 21, but significantly pricier.  Next, we went into H&M, a store I am familiar with in the U.S., although they are based in Sweden.  Although I am familiar with the store, the selection of clothing here was very different from what I am used to seeing in the U.S.  The most striking difference was the lack of color.  Where in the U.S. you can buy sweaters in a range of colors from bright red to royal purple, everything here seemed to come in the practical, muted colors of white, black, grey, beige, occasionally salmon or olive.  It seems that this must be reflecting the English preference for modesty, privacy, and stoicism mentioned by Fox.  Perhaps the English feel that wearing bright colors would draw attention to themselves in public, compromising their method of denying that they or the people surrounding them exist outside the privacy of their homes.  Wearing bright colors may also indicate earnestness, trying too hard, or taking oneself too seriously.  The Importance of Not Being Earnest is a cardinal rule, according to Fox.  I reviewed Fox’s chapter on dress codes, but I did not find it very helpful for understanding this; she mostly talks about street sub-cultures and determining class from dress.  She does say that the English have little style sense plus a lot of anxiety about dressing appropriately.  Perhaps they just sell muted colors to make it easier on themselves.

Another store we ventured into was Primark.  This store was not mentioned in Fox, but it seemed to us like it was the English equivalent of a Wal-Mart, with tables of plain t-shirts and sweaters for 3 or 5 pounds apiece and five pairs of fake pearl earrings for a pound.  The scene in there though, did not allow us much space or time to think about class.  People were dragging around huge mesh Primark bags and just piling clothes and towels into them, taking handfuls of jewelry and socks.  It was unlike any scene I have ever seen in Wal-Marts in the U.S.  It was insane.  There were 10-12 cash registers in each department, with the queues winding their way through the whole departments.  Let’s just say that if I ever go back to Oxford Street, it will not be on a Sunday, but a weekday at, say, 10 am.  Reflecting though, it seems that Primark might be the type of store that English lower classes shop out of necessity, upper classes shop in so they can show off their “great deals” and that the middle classes wouldn’t be caught dead in.

We felt just a little bit guilty at first going shopping on Oxford Street instead of visiting a museum or a park, but it turned out to be quite a London learning experience, and definitely something to blog about.

Tags: 2010 Kaitlin

First Week Observations and Thoughts

September 3rd, 2010 · 2 Comments

Reading Fox before I came to England  has definitely helped me a lot, not only because it prepared me for the behaviors and quirks of the English, and probably diffused some of the culture shock, but also because it has helped me to notice things that I might not otherwise have noticed and to think about these things critically when otherwise I might not have know what to do or to think.  During our first week in London, I have made a few observations about English culture and habits that were not specifically covered in Fox, but I have used Fox to help me think about these observations.  Here are a few:

Bathrooms/toilets/loos: In America, bathroom stall doors and walls are constructed with the least amount of material possible, with a lock that might be a hook through a loop, or a latch in a slot.  People check underneath the doors to see if the stall is occupied or gently poke the door, not without the danger of disengaging the flimsy lock.  In England, there are floor to ceiling doors with legitimate deadbolts.  In addition, the part of the lock on the outside of the door will show red when occupied, just so no one even tries to test the door of your occupied stall.  Not that you could look under the doors if you tried.    I probably would not have taken this much notice of the difference between the two countries I have now “lived in” had I not been thoroughly aware of the English obsession with and need for privacy through Fox.   However, I like this aspect of the English obsession with privacy.  Unlike some of the other privacy related quirks,  such as not asking someone’s name upon meeting them, this one actually seems adaptive.

On the tube: Although the English are obsessed with privacy, they do not share American qualms about sitting next to strangers.  If we were on a train in America, and the only seat open was next to a stranger, we would rather stand.  In England, people go for any available tube seat.  Do they acknowledge that they have a neighbor or make any attempt to talk to them?  No, but I have caught our group standing for a whole train ride unless there are seats where we can all sit next to each other.  We Americans have apparently not perfected Fox’s “denial rule” of pretending that we are alone, even in public.

Do not rush eating in England unless you are getting take-away: During our lunch break during class at the UEA London Centre, some of the group (perhaps foolishly, in denial about how much time we actually had) decided to go to a pub.  We all ordered sandwiches.   They were good, but we did not get our food until we only had like 10 minutes to eat before getting back to class.  We scarfed it as fast as we could (this felt rude), some of the group took their sandwiches in napkins back to the classroom (this also felt rude), and some of us left the remainder of our lunches on our plates (this also felt rude).  When people do get take away for lunch, they are always in a hurry.  You can see people power walking through the tube stations with briefcases and sandwiches from Pret a Manger.  Clearly the English have specific rules for the settings and circumstances in which you can hurry and not hurry your eating, and we are learning the rules as we go.  At most take away places, it even costs less to take away then to eat in.  I wasn’t quite sure how to interact with the English pub staff –  to apologize for rushing.  They didn’t say much other than “Oh well you seem to be in a hurry” but we know from Fox that they never would have told us if we were being rude.  I suspect they may have tut-tutted among themselves after we had left.

Well I’ll keep this relatively short for now.  I’m sure there will be more observations such as these as our time in London goes on, and as we get used to the customs and habits and begin to become part of them ourselves,  I wonder if we’ll start to read Fox in a different way.

Tags: 2010 Kaitlin