THE MODESTY RULE – AND ADVERTISING
The English have a number of unwritten rules prescribing at least the appearance of modesty. And advertising, and by extension all forms of marketing and selling, is almost by definition boastful – and therefore fundamentally at odds with one of the guiding principles of English culture.
What Americans call marketing, English call boasting, and there is a near-universal distaste for the ‘hard sell’, for ‘pushiness’, for the sort of brash, in-your-face approach to advertising and marketing that the English invariably describe, in contemptuous tones, as ‘American’, although it’s a stereotype, of course.
Many English people find such types of advertisement embarrassing. And it’s a feature of the educated middle- and upper-middle classes as well as workers at the bottom of the social scale.
Rules of modesty and advertisement become a topic for exaggerating and jokes. The English tried to develop a form of advertising that allows to comply them with the modesty rule. One of the example is a series of television advertisements for Marmite in which people were shown reacting with utter revulsion to even the faintest trace of a Marmite taste or smell.
One American informant says: ‘You couldn’t get away with that anywhere else, I mean, yes, I get it. People either love Marmite or find it disgusting, and as you’re never going to convert the ones who find it disgusting, you might as well make a joke out of it. But an ad with the message “some people eat this stuff but a lot of people can’t even bear the smell of it”? Only in England!’
ENGLISHMEN, WEALTH AND SOCIAL SYSTEM
There might be historical reasons a prejudice against ‘trade’, which the English have. It was left over from the days when the aristocracy and landed gentry – and any gentleman lived off the rents from their land and estates, and did not engage in anything so vulgar as the making and selling of goods.
Making of goods has become significantly more acceptable than the selling of them. Although of course the two are often inextricably connected, it seems to be the pushy, undignified, money-focused selling of things that we find most distasteful, and most untrustworthy.
In England, money will buy you a lot of things, including access to power and influence, but it will not buy you any respect – quite the opposite, in fact: there seems to be almost as much of a taboo on making money as there is on talking about it. When the English describe someone as ‘rich’ or ‘wealthy’, they almost always do so with a slight sneer, and those who can be so described will rarely use these terms of themselves: they will admit, reluctantly, to being ‘quite well off’.
In England social class is completely independent of material wealth. The English tend to have a greater sense of social responsibility, more compassion towards those less privileged than themselves, that is why the system of social status based on class (that is, birth) is more respectful and preferable. On the other hand, in America there is ‘meritocracy’ system, because the rich and powerful believe that they deserve their wealth and power, because they are more talented and complacent.
The English are less litigious than the Americans when they feel cheated or dissatisfied with what we are sold (our tendency is still to complain indignantly to each other). The English are no less naturally ambitious, greedy, selfish or avaricious than any other nation – they just have more and stricter rules requiring them to hide, deny and repress these tendencies.
ENGLISHMEN AND CONVERSATIONS ABOUT SEX
When Kate Fox wrote the chapter about sex and the English she often heard responses like: ‘So, that’ll be twenty blank pages, then?’ ‘That’ll be a short chapter!’ ‘Oh, that’s easy: “No Sex Please, We’re British!”’ ‘But we don’t have sex, we have hot water bottles!’ ‘Lie back and think of England, you mean?’ ‘Will you explain the mystery of how the English manage to reproduce?’.
Humour is the English standard way of dealing with anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. And thus most Englishmen start to use knee-joke humour when asked about sex.
The most stunning fact is that despite such attitude towards the topic, the English have the highest rates of teenage sexual activity in the industrialized world, with 86 per cent of unmarried girls sexually active by the age of nineteen (even the US comes second, with 75 per cent). Unlike English, Americans try to neutralize potential embarrassment by sexual topic with po-faced, earnest political correctness.
In England there is an unwritten rule prescribing a special form of ‘safe’ flirting so-called ‘courtesy flirting’. This is mainly practised by men, who engage in mild flirtation with women as a form of politeness. (Women do it to some extent as well, but tend to be more cautious, knowing that men are a bit inclined to misread the signals.) Courtesy flirting is common throughout Continental Europe as well as in England, but there are some subtle differences: English men tend more towards playful teasing, Continental Europeans towards gallant compliments.
Both forms can be confusing for Americans, who often mistake courtesy flirting for the real thing.
MOANING AND COMPLAINING RULES
The English have three different ways of dealing with such situations, all more or less equally ineffective and unsatisfying.
The Silent Complaint
Most English people, faced with unappetizing or even inedible food, are too embarrassed to complain at all. Complaining would be ‘making a scene’, ‘making a fuss’ or ‘drawing attention to oneself’ in public – all forbidden by the unwritten rules. English customers may moan indignantly to their companions, push the offending food to the side of their plate and pull disgusted faces at each other, but when the waiter asks if everything is all right they smile politely, avoiding eye contact, and mutter, ‘Yes, fine, thanks.’ Standing in a slow queue at a pub or café food counter, they sigh heavily, fold their arms, tap their feet and look pointedly at their watches, but never actually complain.
The Apologetic Complaint
Some slightly braver souls will use the apologetic complaint. ‘Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry, um, but, er, this soup seems to be rather, well, not very hot – a bit cold, really . . .’ ‘Sorry to be a nuisance, but, um, I ordered the steak and this looks like, er, well, fish . . .’ ‘Sorry, but do you think we could order soon? [this after a twenty-minute wait with no sign of any service] It’s just that we’re in a bit of a hurry, sorry.’ Sometimes these complaints are so hesitant and timid, so oblique, and so carefully disguised as apologies, that the staff could be forgiven for failing to grasp the fact that the customers are dissatisfied.
The Loud, Aggressive, Obnoxious Complaint
This kind of complaint is just the other side of the same medal. The thing is that the symptoms of the English social dis-ease involve opposite extremes: when we feel uncomfortable or embarrassed in social situations, we become either over-polite and awkwardly restrained, or loud, loutish, aggressive and insufferable.
The ‘Typical!’ Rule Revisited
Our reluctance to complain in restaurants is, however, only partly due to congenital social dis-ease. There is also a wider issue of low expectations. Englishmen don’t really expect the meals they are served to be particularly good.
Unlike Englishmen, Americans expect good service, value for money, products that do what they’re supposed to do – and if their expectations are not met they get pissed off and sue somebody. They accuse Englishmen of ineffectiveness of their complaints. English people mostly don’t expect particularly good service or products, and when their pessimistic assumptions are confirmed they say, “Huh! Typical!”’
When the English say ‘Typical!’ they express annoyance and resentment, but they are also, in some strange way, pleased that our gloomy predictions and cynical assumptions about the ways of the world have been proved accurate.
That’s the way things are. Cars are ‘temperamental’; boilers are ‘a bit unpredictable’; washing machines ‘have off days’; toasters, kettles and doorknobs ‘have a bit of tendency to play up’; you always choose the slowest queue; deliveries are always late; builders never finish a job properly; you always wait for ages for a bus and then three come along at once; nothing ever works properly; and on top of that it’s bound to rain.
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