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 5


Crime and Punishment
The English policeman (or woman) on the beat who can be asked the way or the time and who will always give a civil answer really does exist.

To a world that is more used to gun-toting law enforcement officers who might know the way to the nearest park but are certainly not about to tell you, the English police person is a curiosity.

Serried ranks of them attend every open air occasion and provide a comforting sense of continuity. They are always on hand everywhere except, as the English observe, when you really need one.

Unlike their European and transatlantic counterparts, they will never fine you on the spot and will seldom use unnecessary violence. They will just caution or arrest you and turn up in court to tell the judge and full supporting cast exactly why you should be fined, imprisoned or deported.

The English expect their police to be beyond reproach and are shocked to the core when charges of brutality or corruption come to light, despite the fact that such behaviour is the stuff of many police dramas on television. As far as the English are concerned, life should never imitate art. They seem to have no difficulty accepting the one while rejecting the other and go on to be shocked all over again when yet another ugly truth is revealed.

English prisons are, by common consent, overcrowded and ill-equipped. Prisoners quickly learn what crime is really all about and reformed characters are pretty thin on the ground.

The English are becoming increasingly aware of the shortcomings of their prison system and are looking closely at other countries' practices and performances.

Meanwhile one ex-public schoolboy, imprisoned for fraud, is on record as having observed that his school education turned out to have been a perfect preparation for the rigours of prison life, except that in prison he was marginally more comfortable.

English law, like many aspects of English life, is based on precedence.

Loosely constructed on the principles of right and wrong the system is impenetrable to the average citizen and quite alien to most foreigners.

It is acted out in real-life drama in period costume as the judiciary, the guilty and the innocent juggle with truth and falsehood in a courageous attempt to find either. And then, if a prisoner's guilt is established, to make the punishment fit the crime. It is the proud boast of the English legal system that this sometimes happens.

Government and Bureaucracy
The English like to believe they are ruled by consent. They have a well-developed sense of personal freedom and, whatever the realities of the situation, have to feel that they are the masters of their own fate. They do not take kindly to control of any sort and insist on the fiction that they do so only on a voluntary basis.

When it comes to bureaucracy, the English view it as a necessary evil. Their innate concern that "things are done properly" inclines them to accept yards and yards of red tape whilst their natural instinct for directness as well as their love of complaining incline them to reject it.

English bureaucracy and English red tape, like everything else English, are perceived as being the best of their kind in the world and definitely boulevards ahead of anything Europe has to offer.

Politics for the English is largely a gentle game: a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Not for them the unseemly riots and histrionics of foreign parliaments.

To the English, politicians are not to be trusted. They are out for their own ends and only there to be despised. Only when compared to the politicians of other countries, and those of Brussels in particular, do they have any saving graces.

Nevertheless, when it comes to General Elections, many English men and women turn out to vote as a matter of course. Most of them vote according to family traditions but a few occasionally change horses which keeps everyone in government on their toes for a few weeks.

Deep down the English are a conservative bunch and do not like change, which is just as well because they seldom get it.

In the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster (in a building designed in the last century to look five hundred years old) English politicians carry on their business with much historical pageantry and partially in period costume. Continuity and pugnacity mingle here too as witness the recent reincarnation of Boadicea - Warrior Queen of the Iceni - who made the fatal mistake of going one confrontation too far. For, as every English person knows, it is not only "all for one" but also "one for all". English solidarity finally finds the English back-to-back looking outwards. Rather like musical chairs, you must not risk ending up outside the circle.

When it comes to the home front they recognise the overwhelming danger from outside which always threatens to destroy their way of life. Cold shoulder is fundamentally to cold shoulder even across political divides.

It is this common sense of the threat from over the sea that has been responsible for the fact that there has never been a unified English revolution. Even when everyone else in the world was having one, the English resisted it. Revolution, then as now, would have meant backs being turned on the Channel with the certainty of their being stabbed by the wily French.

This dearth of any real social upheaval has resulted in a staggering lack of change in the English way of life.

Typically the English have made a virtue out of even that necessity and it is reflected in their politics. It is no accident that the political scene in England is dominated by two political parties called not Republicans, Democrats, Christian Democrats, Solidarity or any other namby-pamby names but Conservative and Labour. The former echoes the unchanging quality of English life. The latter, the Puritan work ethic with its dignification of labour for its own sake.

There is, of course, a third political group - the Liberals. They just chose completely the wrong name on both counts and start with a crippling disadvantage. Changing it to Liberal Democrats was yet another step in the wrong direction. They may never achieve power.

To the rest of the world English business people still have a somewhat amateur air. They seem to prefer to rely on an instinctive approach to business, mistrusting foreign methods of analysis and working. This makes them slightly out of their depth in the global business arena.

Some of the more courageous members of the English business community are trying to push their colleagues forward with fighting talk about not being left behind. You can recognise these brave souls by their personal fax machines, portable telephones and lapel badges at international exhibitions. Not for them the horror of isolation.

They are in touch with everyone at all times and in all time zones. How long it will take for them to get the rest of their compatriots connected remains to be seen.

The English have been characteristically cautious when dealing with Europe. Some small comfort was afforded by the community's original appellation "the Common Market" with its implication of "common-ness", and therefore, dismissability. Subsequent re-christenings of itself have been predictably slow to catch on in England where the idea of a European Union is still considered with deep suspicion and undisguised distaste. Few are prepared to jump into the water. Like timorous bathers, they prefer to hover on the brink until someone they can really trust tells them that "It's lovely once you're in". The problem is, whom can they believe?

Getting By
In English business practice operations are characterised by an unusual devotion to democracy. Since individual decision making is considered dangerous, almost every decision is taken by committee. So much so, that whenever you try to get hold of an English business man or woman, you will invariably be told that he or she is "in a meeting". Here they will sit trying to reach consensus in preference to a decision.

The popularly held belief that the English work harder than other people took a hammering when a report showed that, on average, the Germans work 44.9 hours a week, the Italians 42.4 and the English 42. The English, of course, pointed out that both the Germans and the Italians have more holidays and that anyhow, it is not the quantity but the quality of work that counts.

They also pride themselves fiercely on their ability to "muddle through", that is to act without too much worry about discipline or planning. In the past this attitude has served them well, and the past holds all the lessons the English wish to learn.

In Good Company
English companies are still largely organised on traditional lines. That is to say, they are based on the concept of a many layered pyramid - a vertical chain of command from the Chairman and Managing Director at the top to the humblest employee at the bottom.

This mirrors the class structure at the heart of the English way of life and indeed many of the tenets of "well-bred" behaviour still subsist in business etiquette. For although the English are naturally distrustful and suspicious when it comes to business, they appear to be prepared to put their faith and indeed their money into a bargain sealed with nothing more than a handshake. Stranger still, it seems to work.

Just Obeying Orders
The English do not like being told what to do. Any order has to be given with a degree of politeness which many other nations find incomprehensible.

Should you follow custom and express an order as a request, you will achieve the desired effect. Express it simply as an order, with no hint of personal choice, and the English will invariably break for tea.

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