I love to discuss stereotypes and observe people. Two years ago, when I moved to London, I had my own little baggage of stereotypes. English people are stuck up; the French are flirtatious and the German square. Here I am in London, very square and flirtatious indeed, because I am German and French. I started doing my share of participant observation on this strange island. One of my main research topics? How people are speaking English, and what it reveals about them. Although stereotypes are partly accurate, they also massively oversimplify. Do the English allow themselves to speak? Are they just stuck up, or is there more to it than that?
Speak your mind
I my humble opinion, English people rarely say what they think. They talk around the pot (a German idiom). They mask their genuine thoughts behind well-formed sentences shrouded in clouds of polite twists, euphemisms and irony. If you talk to a ‘stereotypical’ English person, you’ll need a decoder. Bear in mind: I allow myself to say this because I developed a deep fondness for this country, its people, and made many great friends. All of it despite communication obstacles!
Speaking English: a universal language
As a trilingual person, people often ask me if I think different situations in different languages. And I do! I count in German; swear and complain in French; preferably talk about the weather in English (oh sweet clichés). English is grammatically relatively simple and practical. Historically, English-speakers were merchants, therefore the goal of English language is to communicate efficiently.
Thanks to colonialism? Capitalism? Globalisation? It has imposed itself as a universal language, in business as well as in academics. Funnily enough, the French still think their language has the same status, which is not the case since the early 19th century. The English vocabulary is very rich. Often there are two words with different connotations which describe the same thing. The reason for this is the variety of roots of the English language, which include Latin and Germanic.
The stiff upper lip
So how is it that the English language, practical, diverse and on point as it is, is not enough for English people to express themselves? This is where I come back to my main stereotype: being stuck up. But you cannot dismiss English peculiarities with just that. Again, with lots of love and fondness, I don’t think it is just about being stuck up. It is also about inherent social awkwardness and constraints.
Here is why. As a continental European, I give a hug or kisses on the cheek to greet someone. Sometimes both if I’m confused about what to go for because of the constant gallo-germanic struggle inside me. This video exemplifies my dilemma quite well. To me, such a gesture acknowledges another person’s presence and engages contact. To an Englishman, it is an invasion of personal space. Even a simple “I like you!” triggers a chain of thoughts and emotions that are impossible to process. The result: plain awkwardness.
Awkwardness à l’Anglaise
I was prepared for people who struggle to express emotions or reaching a conversational level that goes beyond the weather (although a very controversial topic, I have to admit). But I was also told, and eventually experienced, that once English people put that behind them, they are genuinely loving and amazing friends. So why is awkwardness such a persistent pattern?
I explain it to myself through the fear of getting judged, which is even bigger than the historical fear of invasion by continental neighbours. I am not saying that the continental neighbours are never awkward or embarrassed. Some Germans give you a handshake to say hello and immediately create a distance through that gesture; the French rarely come to the point, maybe because deep inside they have nothing to say? But it seems that an English person is at greatest risk vis-à-vis another English person. Am I embarrassing myself? Am I socially conforming?
How speaking English reveals the class system and social conformity
Before I moved to England, the idea of social classes was quite foreign to me. I never felt that they were as present as they are here. Private schools are normal, and sentences like “I am working class” or “He is quite posh” (‘he’ because saying you yourself are posh is, of course, utterly non-posh…) are common. What seems almost irrelevant to me, is crucial in England, and it explains why people are as polite and conform. English people say “Pardon me” instead of “Bugger off”, “I rather not” instead of “No”.
Binge drinking therapy
But what to do with people who mask their genuine thoughts with cottony formulations of politeness? Live on in silent despair? No: binge drink. Drinking reveals your true self. The social barriers drop. People shout and cry, and replace the weather-talk with heated political discussions. Sometimes I wonder if these people are profoundly wasted or just jump at the occasion to let off some steam.
The need for binge drinking as pressure relief explains the ubiquity of pubs. To be fair, it is more convenient than therapy. And once the night (which began at 5 p.m.) finishes, everybody returns to the usual awkward politeness. In the morning, everybody conveniently forgets what happened. It is a way of cohabiting! Daytime politeness and night time drinking regulate English nature.
All of this said, the English people and their language are very enjoyable. Living in England is like an everyday riddle which becomes less and less mysterious as your experience as a non-English person in England grows. You might even (very probably) adhere to pub culture. You will become very skilled in talking about the weather. And one day, an English person will tell you that “You are quite alright”, and you will know that it is a great compliment. Cheers!