Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Required Reading: The UK And us

This NYT piece captures in a handful of paragraphs what Kate Fox so admirably tackles in Watching the English (also a recommended read and possibly the most fun you'll have with cultural anthropology - ever). The piece addresses the fundamental cultural differences between the US and England (England is more specific and proper here than using the terms "Britain" or "the UK" because the article is speaking to English ways, not necessarily Welsh or Scottish ways. Plus, the English know, to a certainty, that there is a difference) - our penchant for talking openly and vulgarly about money; our need to know what you do (as in, for employment); our unyielding need to take ourselves and everything about ourselves deathly seriously.

Also of note: the article's gentle jibe at the American tendency to endow the English with excess credibility and intelligence based solely on their cute and sexy accents.

Sarah Lyall frames the piece on the recent dust-up over allegedly misinterpreted comments from Gwyneth Paltrow praising the Brits for being more intelligent and civilized than Americans. She probably said something fairly close - and meant it - but it loses something in translation because of her rather poor diction. Though they seemingly value leisure and non-workplace pursuits less than the rest of Europe, the English still place most things above their careers. It isn't that they don't value hard work - they just don't devalue vacations or non-career interests and subjects - a subtle, but important key to understanding the English culture. The disinterest in (or at least, disinclination to) discussing money matters is, perhaps, a mark of civility, as it implies one needn't worry about the basics of life (food, shelter, etc) and can turn one's mind to loftier concerns.

The English cultural focus outside the workplace, then, isn't a mark of intelligence per se, but it is a mark of what I'd call smarts.

Lyall's piece lauds the English penchant for furious, fun, and quick debate - citing the witty and deadly-quick House of Commons debates that mark English statesmanship, noting that Tony Blair's erudite explanation of the need for action in Iraq certainly won over uncertain Americans because of his careful, artfully articulate presentation.

I would only disagree with Lyall on two points. First, she paints the English attitude towards alcohol as more European than American. While pub culture is certainly a hallmark of Englishness (so sayeth Ms. Fox), in England, as in America, drinking is still done for a reason - celebration, marking of some event, etc - rather than consumed because you should have something at the table to wash down all that pasta, etc. Certainly, the lubricated pub discussion is a sight to behold, but I associate leisurely, mid-week, wine-soaked dinners with Europe, not England. (There, see, I split you up - happy now, my .co.uk reading friends?)

Second - she closes with a quotation urging Gwynnie P to recognize the virtue of each culture. I say: Ms. Martin, if you like the English way of doing things more, then you go with it. I'm not sure I don't like many English methods better myself (with the glaring exception of English bacon). Watering down an otherwise fun exercise in cultural comparisons with "ah, but don't we all have fine points of which to boast" is boring and anathema to the thematic underpinnings of the article itself.

To clarify your assignment: read the article and, if it piques your interest, get Kate Fox's book and try to find someone capable of conversing about more than his job or income.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Because not everyone will register for and navigate to the actual article:

December 10, 2006
Well Done!
Talking the Yanks Under the Table

NO sooner had her words been reported in the British newspapers than she frantically took them back, saying that she had been misunderstood and misquoted. But the question remains: was Gwyneth Paltrow on to something when she noted (or didn’t) that “the British are much more intelligent and civilized than the Americans,” and that “people here don’t talk about work and money; they talk about interesting things at dinner”?

Whether Britons are objectively cleverer and more amusing than Americans, or whether they just sound that way, is one of the deep mysteries of British life for expatriates like Ms. Paltrow, who lives in London with her husband, the British rock star Chris Martin, and their children, Apple and Moses.

Britons seem to have the advantage of accent: their exotic pronunciation can make even dubious observation sound like unimpeachable truth. They are also experts at the art of speaking coherently and with authority on topics they know little or nothing about. “Every Englishman can talk for 15 minutes on any subject without a note,” Norman Mailer has been quoted as saying.

This somehow makes them seem more persuasive. When Tony Blair put the case for the Iraq war to Congress in 2003, his elegant fluency made him appear not only more articulate and intelligent, but also more credible, than President Bush. If silky-tongued Mr. Blair supports the war, some Americans felt at the time, then there must be something to it.

As for the dinner parties alluded to in Ms. Paltrow’s reputed quotes, they are indeed different here. For one thing, said Amelia Mendoza, a transplanted New Yorker, London dinner conversation is enhanced by the alcohol that Britons like to swig between remarks. At the end of dinner — which can be later than midnight, even during the week — it is considered a hospitality failure if there aren’t at least as many empty bottles of wine left on the table as there were guests.

“People are more relaxed and they’re not thinking, ‘I’ve got to get home because I’ve got to get up to work,’ ” Mrs. Mendoza said. “It’s looser here; there isn’t that grind.”

Unlike Americans, Britons think it is rude to ask a stranger what he does, in case the answer is “nothing.” They think it is rude to talk about the price of one’s possessions, the cost of one’s house or the angst one feels on account of one’s shrink’s incompetence, not that anyone would admit to having a shrink.

But curiously, they don’t think it is rude to be rude, said Mary Killen, who writes the “Your Problems Solved” column in The Spectator magazine.

“People who are good value do tend to be outrageous and indiscreet and fairly childish,” Ms. Killen said. “In this country, we’re still quite happy behind closed doors to be as offensive as we want.”

That can lead to violent shouting matches over the table, with guests readily contradicting and insulting each other. A similar robustness of exchange — a delight in the quality and originality of the insult — characterizes proceedings in the House of Commons, where debates are as quick and sharp as fencing moves, thrust-lunge-recover, so nimble that Congress seems worthy and dull by comparison. In Britain, prime ministers’ careers can rise and fall on their ability to slash their opponents with the perfect verbal put-down.

“The Brits, as far as I can tell, don’t take themselves as seriously as Americans do,” said Stephen Miller, an American essayist who is the author of “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art” (Yale University Press). But they are serious about conversation itself, treating it as an art form.

“The U.S. hasn’t historically had a strong respect for conversation, something both de Tocqueville and Mrs. Trollope mention in their writing,” he continued in an interview. “The Puritans looked down on conversation as an idle waste of time.”

But the British writer and editor Sir Harold Evans, who has lived in the United States for 20 years, made the case for American conversation, saying that “those of us who grew up speaking the Queen’s English get more credit than we deserve.” London parties, he said via e-mail, tend to be more eclectic because people from different spheres are all based here. “But U.S. politics, very much personality based, gives U.S. dinner tables plenty to talk about,” he said.

At the same time, with their layers of veiled signals, bluffs and counterbluffs, Britons are skilled at using willful buffoonery in conversation, as a way to appear modest. This can prove confusing to the American observer.

Called to the White House in the first season of “The West Wing” to advise the president on how to defuse an escalating conflict between India and Pakistan, the fictional British diplomat Lord John Marbury arrives drunk, insults the chief of staff and leers salaciously at every woman in sight. But then his idiocy melts away, as he delivers a brilliant off-the-cuff analysis of relations in the Indian subcontinent, alluding among other things to the religious wars of the 16th century and quoting, accurately, from the Book of Revelation.

“Americans would rather describe great transcendent truths than do anything else; Brits would rather carry off challenging polemic than do anything else,” Andrew Solomon, the American writer and self-described Anglophile, said via e-mail. “American speech is inflected with the patois of multiculturalism and its expressive imprecision; good debating skills are taught in England to excellent effect.”

Ms. Paltrow should “recognize the virtues of each culture,” Mr. Solomon said. “Each offers its particular pleasures.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company