Free Resources for Students and Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in China - by Paul Sparks

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Paul Sparks, Sino-Canadian International College, Guangxi University, Online English Lesson Plans, Lesson Material and Ideas for Semester 2 Reading Lessons...



Reading: Xenophobe's Guide to the English - Part 2


The Family
Annual holidays apart, the English do not tend to spend much time with their families. Once the tiresome business of childhood is over, they set out on life's journey largely unhampered by considerations of siblings or parents. Free at last, they can apply themselves to cultivating that most English talent - not getting on with others - and to starting their own uncommunicative families.

Anyone who has tried to get lunch for a small child in a pub on Dartmoor in the depths of winter, will know the despair that clutches the heart at the sight of that notice - "No Children, No Dogs."

Although the two nuisances are lumped together in this instance, they are seldom mentioned in the same breath for while most English people like dogs, not many of them like children.

Children make them nervous. They are unpredictable. Where should they patted? On the head, perhaps: "Well, well, my little man - and what do you want to be when you grow up?"

The implication of the question is clear. An English childhood is something to be got over as quickly as possible. To be an English grown-up - that is the only really glorious thing. No wonder the English child is in such a hurry to be one.

English embarrassment about sex is nothing to the embarrassment they show about its consequences. Pregnancy is not considered a fit topic for conversation.

The sooner a mother is back on her feet (or back) after childbirth the better and, despite the best efforts of feminism, breast-feeding is still seen as almost as private a bodily function as the others.

Only when the baby is beautifully dressed in a christening robe will the English outside the immediate family deign to acknowledge its existence. Then they will tell it that it looks just like its mother or father - never like itself.

It is an English maxim that a person who likes animals cannot be all bad for the English adore animals - all kinds of animals. They keep them, not, as other nations do, primarily to guard their property, for scientific interest or for status, but for company.

For while they are not always very good at talking to each other, they excel in conversation with their animals. Although they are not often successful at forming tactile bonds with their children, they continually chuck the chins of their lap dogs and whisper sweet nothings into their hairy ears.

This is because, unlike people, the wretched things cannot answer back. If they could the English might learn quite a lot about themselves. As it is, they are assumed to be in total agreement with their masters and mistresses and consequently enjoy an unrivalled position in the English affection.

Pet owners' homes are shrines to their animals. The best seats, the warmest spots, the choicest morsels are handed over to these household gods as a matter of course.

Cats and dogs, parrots and guinea pigs are excused behaviour which if seen in the children of the household might well end in assault. They are deemed, by their owners, to be incapable of almost any misdemeanour. So when dog bites man, it is always man's fault, even if he is just a passer-by. Everyone in the vicinity will sympathize with the owner's disclaimer: "Fang wouldn't hurt a fly!"

The English, by and large, find their elderly as difficult to deal with as their children. An awkward minority group, they are often ignored by their families and, funds permitting, banged up in twilight homes. Every so often they will be visited by their relations who check that they are basically healthy and happy and that the security systems are in good order.

Other races find this attitude puzzling. To them the idea of the extended family with its inherent benefits for all generations is the norm. It is not for the English. With their children at school and their old people out of harm's way, they can get on with the real business of life, with which, they believe, neither youth nor old age is equipped to cope.

To the rest of the world the entire English race is eccentric. To the English themselves, the concept of eccentricity is a useful way of coping with the problem of anti-social or un-English behaviour in one of their own kind. Solidarity dictates that all the English, whether sane or not, are basically good eggs and worth any ten foreigners at twice the price.

So, to a certain extent, the English cultivate the idea of eccentricity as agreeable and even admirable.

The phenomenon of the eccentric does exist in its own right. Class and money have a lot to do with it. Mental affliction, usually described as lunacy in the poor, is grandly referred to as eccentricity in the rich.

It is all a question of scale. Thus non-threatening dotty behaviour, such as Lord Berners' predilection for travelling about the country in a motor-drawn horsebox filled with butterflies, and playing a grand piano, was met with a kind of admiration. He was, after all, a Lord.

The builders of batty follies and underground ballrooms are considered eccentric and applauded provided they spend enough money on their creations.

All these eccentrics are excused de facto from many of the conventions of correct English conduct.

However enjoyable they are, eccentrics do represent an element of danger to the English, for they flout convention. So to have a few is all very well, but only a few.

The English have always been among the first to accept refugees from less enlightened countries. But they do not see why any immigrant should expect to become part of the community within a matter of days, months or even years of their arrival. Any such ease of assimilation would, after all, fly in the face of the thousands of years it has taken to produce England and the English proper.

They are, however, generally a tolerant people, their attitude to minority groups being kindly if condescending. Anyone visiting an English town cannot fail to be aware of the rich mix of nationalities on view. This is because the English are better hosts to foreigners than most other nations. They are used to having aliens about the place and usually accord them just enough civility to make their lives bearable.

In many ways foreigners are treated rather like English children. That is to say they are seen, but not heard.

Manners and Etiquette
It is generally believed that the English are more formal than they really are. In fact, in day-to-day contact with each other they are less inclined to formality than the French or the Germans.

Perhaps it is the awesome spectacle of their state occasions that has given rise to the popularly held belief that even husbands and wives call each other by their titles and surnames. In reality, first names are commonly used among colleagues, and the American habit of using these on the telephone even before the names have met is how widespread.

The custom of men deferring to women is now some-what on the wane, thanks to the strenuous efforts of the apostles of political correctness who see it more as condescension than consideration. You will, however, probably still get away with opening a door or giving up a seat for all but the most strident of feminists. But it is no longer de rigueur to jump to your feet when a woman enters the room, whether or not there are enough chairs.

Do Not Touch
However informal they are in their manner or address, when it comes to physical contact, the English are still deeply reserved.

They are not a tactile people. When greeting each other, men will shake hands on a first meeting but probably avoid doing so on subsequent ones. The preferred English handshake is a brief, vigorous affair with no hint of lingering. The cue question, "How do you do?" and the answer "How do you do?" signal the end of the ritual and hands should be crisply withdrawn from contact. Any deviation from the above procedure can cause all sorts of problems and suspicions of freemasonry, or worse.

Women may kiss on one or both cheeks; if they do, the miss-kiss is preferred - the kisser making a kissing gesture with appropriate sound-effects in the air in the general region of the recipient's ear or ears.

Men may kiss women in greeting, but only on the cheek. Trying to get a kiss on both cheeks can be risky as most women only expect the one, do not turn their heads for the second and receive it full frontally, which can result in the worst being feared - i.e. that it was an intentional ploy - an oscillatory rape.

Most Englishmen never hug or (perish the thought) kiss other men. They leave that to football players and foreigners.

In public places, the English make strenuous efforts not to touch strangers even by accident. If such an accident should occur, apologies are fulsome but should never be used as an excuse for further conversation. On crowded public transport where it is sometimes unavoidable, physical contact with a stranger is permitted, but in such circumstances, eye contact should be avoided at all costs.

Intimacy between consenting adults is recognised as involving more touching. But that takes place behind closed doors usually with the lights out. Displays of affection in all relationships are kept to a minimum.

Ps and Qs
English children have their own particular catechism of accepted conduct to learn. The first rule they come across at an early age is "Mind your Ps and Qs". These have nothing to do with waiting politely to use the lavatory. Ps and Qs are short for "Pleases" and "Thank Yous". Supplication, gratitude and, most important of all, apology are central to English social intercourse, which is why English people seem to express them endlessly as if to the hard of hearing.

It is difficult for the foreigner to learn how to wield the small vocabulary necessary, but the starting point is to understand that it is almost impossible linguistically to be over grateful, over apologetic or over polite when it comes to the point. Thus, the English man or woman whose toe you tread on will be "so sorry" presumably for not having had the offending digit amputated earlier. He or she will thank you "so much" when you stop treading on it or, if you do not, ask you to with a routine of pleases and thank yous that would last any other national half a lifetime. It's just the English way.

A lack of profusion in the gratitude or apology department will certainly land anyone in such a situation in the "not very nice" camp from which there is little chance of escape.

Foreigners look with amazement at the English queue. It is not their way of doing things at all. But for the English, queuing is a way of life.

Many still consider that one of the few plus points of the last war was the proliferation of queues. There were queues for everything. People would join one and then ask the person in front what the queue was for.

And that is the secret of English queue-mania. A queue is the one place where it is not considered bad manners to talk to a stranger without being introduced.

Such an enjoyable custom should, to the English way of thinking, commend itself naturally to all peoples. They are amazed when it does not, and do not take kindly to aliens who fail to recognise a queue when they see one ("There is a queue, you know!"), or to join in and play the queue game nicely.

Sense of Humour
The English appear to be a deeply serious people, which, by and large, they are. This gives an added piquancy to the English sense of humour. For it comes as a surprise to foreigners to find that it exists at all.

English humour, like the will-o'-the-wisp, refuses to be caught and examined and just when you think you have cracked it, you realise that you have been duped once again. For example:

Two men in a club are reading their newspapers when one says: "It says here there's a fellow in Devon who plays his cello to the seals." "Oh really", says the other. "Yes", says the first, "Of course, they don't take a blind bit of notice."

Since the English never say what they mean, often the exact opposite, and tend towards reticence and understatement, their humour is partly based on an exaggeration of this facet of their own character. So, while in conversation they avoid confrontation, in their humour they mock that avoidance.

Tact and diplomacy are held up to ridicule in a way that would appear to give the lie to all that the English actually seem to hold dear. Thus in a popular television situation comedy, Yes, Minister, we are encouraged to laugh at the elaborate verbal subterfuge of die civil servant who can turn black into white and convince everyone that they were one and the same thing all the time. English humour is as much about recognition as it is about their ability to laugh at themselves, e.g:

During a television programme on sex the audience was asked "How many people here have sex more than three times a week?" There was a weak show of hands. "And how many have sex once a month?" A sea of hands shot up. "Anyone less than that?" One man waved his arm surprisingly enthusiastically. "Once a year," he said. The audience was stunned and the interviewer observed incredulously, "You don't look very upset about it." "No," said the man, "Tonight's the night!"

Cruelty, a mainstay of German humour, has no place in its English equivalent. Not for them the acid satire of the Berlin cabarets. They prefer a gentler corrective, cleverer and more subtle.

The wry smile that greets the well-judged understatement is a characteristic English expression. They love irony and expect others to appreciate it too. In this, they are all too often disappointed as foreigners take umbrage at what appears to them to be unbearable rudeness. This, of course, merely confirms what the English have always secretly suspected - that foreigners cannot take a joke.

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