‘Watching the English’

I’ve been so interested in the British culture recently that I have decided to try and understand it better. The “Watching the English” book is the first step in my attempt to become a British citizen. Yes, I realise I will never fully be English (my Latin blood flows rapidly through my veins), but I do know I don’t want to judge the English without even trying to get their culture. I owe this much to them.

I am now going to list out some topics that have caught my attention. Hope you will like them as much as I do.


“Native speakers can rarely explain the grammatical rules of their own language.” They can’t really explain why they say: ‘Get in a car, but get on a bus’ – OK, this is not specific to this culture, but is so true. I love it.


“The principal effect of globalization has been an increase in nationalism and tribalism. The spread of globalization is undoubtedly bringing changes to the cultures it reaches, but these cultures were not static in the first place, and change does not necessarily mean the abolition of traditional values.” – again, a bit general, but kind of shares my opinion as well, as I believe that Coca Cola doesn’t affect my taste in “sarmale”, a Romanian popular dish.

The weather-speak

“English weather-speak is grooming talk. ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ is not a real question about the weather. Reciprocity is the point, not the content. There is a clear sense that these are ‘choreographed’ exchanges. It would be very rude to respond to ‘Ooh, isn’t it cold?’ with ‘No, actually, it’s quite mild’. These questions require a social response, not a rational answer.”

The moderation rule

“The English may have a capacity for infinite surprise at the weather. We like to be surprised, we expect to be surprised: we are accustomed to the variability of our weather, and we expect it to change quite frequently. If we get the same weather for more than a few days, we become uneasy: more than three days of rain, and we start worrying about floods; more than a day or two of snow, and disaster is declared, and the whole country slithers and skids to a halt.”

The weather-as-family rule

“While we may spend much of our time moaning about our weather, foreigners are not allowed to criticize it. We become extremely touchy and defensive at any suggestion that our weather is therefore inferior or uninteresting.”

The embarrassment rule

“To be impeccably English, one must perform the introductions and greetings badly. One must appear self-conscious, ill-at-ease, stiff, awkward and, above all, embarrassed. Smoothness, glibness and confidence are inappropriate and un-English. Hesitation, dithering and ineptness are, surprising as it may seem, correct behaviour.”

Privacy rules

“We are taught to mind our own business, not to pry, to keep ourselves to ourselves, not to make a scene or a fuss or draw attention to ourselves”.

“This is one of the reasons why foreigners often complain that the English are cold, reserved, unfriendly and stand-offish. In most other cultures, revealing basic personal data – your name, what you do for a living, whether you are married or have children – is no big deal. In England, extracting such apparently trivial information from a new acquaintance can be like pulling teeth.”

The guessing-game rule

“It is more acceptable to ask whether someone has children than to ask whether he or she is married, so the former question is generally used as a roundabout way of prompting clues that will provide the answer to the latter.”

Female bonding: the counter-compliment rules

“The pattern is as follows: the opening line may be either a straight compliment, such as ‘Oh, I like your new haircut!’ or a combination of a compliment and a self-critical remark: ‘Your hair look great; I wish I had gorgeous hair like you – mine is so boring and mousy! A counter-compliment is required.”

Male-bonding: the mine’s better than yours rule

“‘You’re such a good driver – I’m always stalling and mixing up the gears!’ ‘Me? No, I’m a terrible driver, honestly – and anyway your car is so much better than mine, more fast and powerful.’ Not very likely to happen… it would be unthinkable, an unprecedented violation of macho etiquette. English men are usually putting each other down, in a competitive ritual.”

The long goodbye rule

I’m not going to add any quotes here, but need to remind you of the Benny Hill show and the episode about the infinite number of goodbyes.


“The English may not always be joking, but they are always in a state of readiness for humour. When we ask someone a straightforward question (‘How are the children?’), we are equally prepared for either a straight-forward response (‘Fine, thanks.’) or an ironic one (‘Oh, they’re delightful – charming, helpful, tidy, studious…’ To which the reply is ‘Oh dear. Been one of those days, has it?’)”

The understatement rule

“This is not just a specialty of the English sense of humour; it is a way of life.”

“On one occasion, someone was describing a ghastly meal he had had at a local restaurant – the food was inedible, the place was disgustingly filthy, the service rude beyond belief etc. At the end of the tirade, his father said: ‘So, you wouldn’t recommend it, then?’…”

The self-deprecation rule

“My fiance is a brain surgeon. ‘My job is nowhere near as clever as it’s cracked up to be; to be honest, it’s actually a bit hit-or-miss. It’s just plumbing, really, plumbing with a microscope – except plumbing is rather more accurate.’ This is calculated “false” modesty. He was just being English.”