London Internship Program 2016

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July 2016

Location and Navigation

Just another street in London.
Just another street in London.

In contradiction with Watching the English, I have found the streets here wonderfully easy to navigate. The street names sometimes blend into the wall, but they are never too difficult to find and the numbering of buildings is always present. I have noticed that people in the countryside are more likely to give names to their property, but this appears to be a similar phenomenon in the US. Some English apartments and homes have the name of the occupants next to the door bell. I find this rather peculiar, because we have come to understand the country as a nation who loves privacy with people who rarely introduces themselves by name. London does not have the city grids that many American cities have and conversely, American cities don’t have all the roundabouts (or circuses) that the English do. Despite the presence of the grid system in the US, I have sometimes found it more difficult to locate places. This is probably because English streets are short and change names upon an intersection, but American streets can be very long and the house numbers are much more hidden.

One thing that helps with navigating around London is that we either walk or talk public transportation everywhere. Since we’re travelling at a slower pace and need to know how we’re getting places, we are more aware of out surroundings. Yet in the US, if you’re driving by an area you are unfamiliar with, it is easy to drive past the place you are looking for. Furthermore, the roads and highways in the US have more lanes than the ones here, which also makes it more difficult to slow down and locate yourself.



High-Class Humor

In one sense, Kate Fox’s discussion on humor in British society can be seen as a rough outline of the rules that dictate the UK’s unique brand of humor. In another sense, it can be interpreted as a discussion of the fact that humor itself rules British society. Since my first day in London, I’ve picked up on the peculiar sense of humor of the British, and noticed that its a staple in their daily interactions. Its fair to say that aside from the accents and driving habits of the British people, their humor was one of the first things that I noticed about their culture. Perhaps the reason that its stuck out to me so much is the fact that it’s much different than American humor. To illustrate this point, I’ve compiled a brief list of some of the defining features of British humor that I’ve picked up on; some of these observations reiterate Fox’s points, while others are those that may be limited to my experiences in this country.

What I’ve noticed about the Brits and their humor is:

1.) An almost uncomfortable dryness. Often, Brits will make jokes mid-converstaion, without any change in inflection of their voice nor any visual signals to suggest that they might be making a joke. At first, I had a hard time deciphering when a local was joking with me, or if I was just failing to pick up on unfamiliar social cues. After spending a few weeks here, however, I realize that this must stem from my second point…

2.) Sarcasm is the go-to form of humor. Such sarcasm can take many different forms, including (but not limited to) “banter, teasing, irony, [and] understatement,” (25). Put simply, when all else fails and you feel the need to make a joke, be sarcastic. The Brits will understand.

3.) A sensitivity towards being politically correct. Though Brits are constantly joking, they are careful not to be offensive. In my opinion, this differs greatly from American humor, where poking fun at different groups based on characteristics like religion, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference is, regrettably, a common practice. Just yesterday, I watched a video of a popular American stand-up comedian on Youtube, and then watched another of a popular English comedian. Though both were hilarious, the material from which they drew their jokes could not be more different. The American made dirty jokes about about men and alcohol, while the Brit made dry jokes about working in an office.

And finally,

4.) Americans are the Brits’ easiest and most popular target for the butt-end of a joke. Fox admits this to be true, and it’s hard not to pick up on when living in Britain. Joking about Americans is always in good taste. I’ve even found good use for this area of humor – there have been a few times in my office where I’ve made a mistake, and rather than apologize or be embarrassed, I’ve simply blamed it on me being a “dumb American.” My coworkers seem to love when I do this (it is, after all, a form of “humorous self-depreciation”), and they quickly forget about whatever mistake I’ve made.

Though British humor is quite different in substance and style than that of Americans, I still enjoy it. I find Ricky Gervais to be absolutely hysterical, and feel as if he is a pretty good personification of what British humor is all about. Dryness, wittiness, and irony are the central features of humor in the UK, and I’ve gotta say I really like it.

 



Lord of the Castle: Home Rules

In the United States, it is considered part of the “American Dream” that one should own their own home. This idea became mainstream in the post-war period with the construction of uniform neighborhoods like Levitt Town. Despite the the abundance of affordable homes, the circumstances of their construction did not allow for a particularly strong tradition of individuality in the field of internal and external decoration. In Britain, the concept of home ownership has developed differently given the more clustered and urbanized environment in which the majority of people in the UK reside.

In Britain, “a man’s house is his castle” and homeowners take great pride in the maintenance of their dwelling places while also seeking privacy. Kate Fox suggests that British homeowners tend to name their estates rather prominently display their numbers. This is done to minimize attention and preserve privacy. Conversely, many Americans would find the naming of one’s home to be extremely pretentious and prefer to clearly display their addresses. Indeed, the practice of naming one’s home has frustrated me tremendously as some of my work for my internship has necessitated the securing of full addresses. Fox further suggests that the vast majority of British homeowners tend to improve their homes through do-it-yourself projects as opposed to private contractors. This comes in stark contrast to the American tradition, at least in the cosmopolitan part of the nation where logistics can often prohibit personal home improvement. Such practice is more common in the suburbs and rural areas of the United States.

Humorously, it seems that British society may adhere to the similarly fussy rules about matching furniture sets and general decoration. Fox specifically chooses to cite the necessity of a matching bath and toilet within one’s restroom. While I have not made a habit of observing the layouts and color schemes of the many bathrooms of which I have made use on this trip, I can attest to my own home. All of our bathrooms have white toilets and bathtubs. The same is true for the flat in which I currently reside. It seems, to violate this arrangement is considered a cardinal sin of British home decoration.

Yesterday, I was watching a sketch-comedy television series called That Mitchell and Webb Look. In the episode, British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb made fun of this exact phenomenon. The sketch depicts a real-estate agent showing a couple a new house while filming them for a reality show. The agent shows the young couple the bathroom which the find satisfactory. Though he tries to apologize for the state of the bath, the couple doesn’t understand, to the agent’s disgust. He demands that they take another look to see what is wrong with the bath. When the couple again find nothing wrong, the real-estate berates them for being fine with a avocado bathtub, sink, and toilet insisting that white is the only appropriate color. He continues to insult them when the female interrupts and declares her partiality towards the color scheme. At this point, the male prospective buyer, her husband, strangles her saying that it is for her own good. Sobbing, the man declares that he just “couldn’t live with it” to which the real-estate agent replies that he did the wright thing.

I have to say that, while I completely agree about the absurdity surrounding a colored bathtub, sink, and toilet scheme, the extent to which the British prize their home decoration rules does seem a tad odd.

 



Home Rules

I found Fox’s chapter on “Home-Rules” to be interesting, but think the ideas she outlines are fairly similar to American culture. In my experience, people want their home to be private, an expression of themselves and spend a lot of time doing so. Even if it is a dorm room you lease for a year, college students spend money on posters and things to make it their own. While this is very much the same, I think the distinction of what people find comforting interesting. Fox explains drink coasters are for the “middle-middle” class, which I think is unique because they are an item that serves a purpose and are not purely for decoration. In the U.S. people’s wealth is bound to reflect how they furnish their house, but seemingly not to this extent. This reminds me of the unwritten rules in British culture and how they have far more history than us, which has lead to all sorts of traditions. This view is confirmed when Fox describes how tricky gift-giving can be because of this. When I give a gift, typically one of the last things to come to my mind would be social class: my approach is to simply find something they might enjoy. I think overall, manners and etiquette are more important to British society than in the United States. I think “Home-Rules” is just one category where this proves to be true. This is also not to say that they are important in the United States, I just believe if you were to write down all of the unwritten rules for both countries, England’s book would be a bit longer.

Hudson really drives home her point when she explains that the front garden is for show, while the back garden is meant to be lived in and enjoyed. In the U.S. in my experience, you use whatever yard is available, front, back or side and don’t think twice about it. The idea of not using a good open space is just unthinkable. From a family of four boys, I can’t imagine our mother telling us we could not play in our front yard because it was socially unacceptable. Not only would this have made playing in the front yard way more fun for young boys, it would just seem like a silly waste to us rather than a social statement. Four grammar school children playing football in their front yard are not hippies in the United States, they are simply four energetic kids. In England, Fox explains anyone using their front yard like this is “counter-culture”. While I think people understand kids are kids everywhere, I think English parents would teach them to play in the backyard, while American parents would not.

 

Here is a picture of my older brother Mike at two years old, when my family lived in London before I was born.

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While English people may frown on this poor showing of culture, my family saw an opportunity. My parents took this opportunity to make some fun out of the cultural difference Fox explains.



House Talk and Rules Broken

While reading what has to be my favorite chapter of Watching the English so far—“Home Rules,” I realized a few more of the Brits’ unspoken social codes I’ve violated while being here. I thought back to our dinner at Sara’s house at the end of our first week and grimaced as I read each word about “House-talk rules.” In America, especially in the South, while at a dinner party or other gathering, it’s customary to compliment your host or hostess on his home. In England, however, this is not the case. The English find it horribly impolite to be too precise when complimenting someone on his possessions or home. Instead, Brits prefer to stick to broader terms like “lovely,” or “quite nice,” when they wish to compliment each other and their things. While I can’t remember if I used something along the lines of the southern parting phrase, “thank you for having us; you have a beautiful home,” I do know I committed the even larger faux pas of enquiring about a specific possession.

Professor Oliver mentioned to a couple of us that Sara’s father was an art collector. She had a wonderful collection of art in her sitting room, and we were told that one of her pieces was a 14th century Italian oil painting. Eager to learn more, Hayley and I told Sara later on in the evening that we loved art and art history. Sara commented on her father and pointed out which one it was, but didn’t tell us anything about the painting! A bit disappointed, we left not understanding why she didn’t go into any detail on the piece. But now, we finally know why our conversation ended so quickly.
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Home Rules: Acorn Does Not

First arriving at 16 Bedford Place, I was greeted with a smile and a clean flat with two kitchens located in the heart of central London. The shower may have been a little small, but that was easily overlooked because of the great location, appliances and room sizes. It only took a week to see that this was merely a façade hiding the dysfunctional business located at 19 Bedford Place.

We first faced the problem of the bathroom light going out about 2 minutes into my shower. Luckily, Acorn quickly changed the light and the problem was forgotten. Next, our washers and dryers made our clothes smell worse than before we put them in, a problem Acorn still refuses to recognize. From there an avalanche of issues arose and Acorn has not shown the slightest indication of fixing any of them. We faced broken lights, broken washers and dryers, lopsided beds, a sporadic alarm, mice and an incompetent security guard. Some say it is a bonding experience, I see their point, but I don’t know how I feel about bonding with mice…

Kate Fox’s chapter Home Rules describes the English obsession with “home improvements and DIY.” Maybe she is right, but I have yet to meet anyone at Acorn who seems too keen on the idea. Fox talks about a survey of males and females involved in DIY and apparently only 2% of English males and 12% of females don’t ever do any DIY. If this is true, we need to find these people ASAP. We could use their skills to improving our flat because our current rodent tenants definitely aren’t doing their share of the work (despite what you would expect after watching any Disney princess movie).

 



First Impressions: Sticking Out like a Sore Thumb

Prior to landing in London, I had never visited a city bigger than my hometown in Dallas, Texas. I was expecting the British culture to be not much different than the southern America culture I know so well, considering our shared language and similarly heterogeneous religions. Right off the bat, however, I realized that English wouldn’t be a seamless bridge between my cultural background and my new environment. The driver who picked me up from the airport had an accent so thick with English and African influences that I couldn’t understand a word he said, making my hour-long ride into the city an unusually quiet one. Even when I arrived and began speaking to native British people, I found myself having to sift through their accents in order to understand what they were actually telling me. Over the course of the next week, I gradually overcame this slight language barrier, but the shock I experienced when I couldn’t understand people in an English-speaking country is still fresh in my mind.

Another shocking revelation I had within the first week was the fact that I stuck out like a sore thumb. It only took a few days for me to learn how to find my way around my neighborhood without looking at a map and navigate the public transportation system with ease. Yet surprisingly, I still looked totally out of place no matter where I went. I could generally identify who was a native British person and who was a tourist by looking at their clothes and the way they carried themselves, and unfortunately, I definitely looked like just another tourist. My bright and former Lilly Pulitzer clothes stood out among a sea of more relaxed black and grey attire. My little black wallets and tiny clutches guaranteed that I was not carrying any real work materials with me, even during weekday rush hours. My accent made me “just another American” who was susceptible to being yelled at by crotchety old men at McDonalds, as some of my classmates were for being American tourists. And so, on the first day I was available to go shopping, I headed straight for the trendy British store H&M to shop for more relaxed grey and black clothes, and stopped on the way home to buy a bigger tote bag. As for my accent — well, there’s nothing I can change about that. But hopefully, the longer I stay here, the more I will pick up on the subtle mannerisms that make the English truly English.



Sunday June 5th – Landing and Unpacking

Today I landed at Heathrow around 11AM. I was lucky to have slept soundly on my long flight from Dallas, as it made adjusting to the time difference much easier than I remembered it being when I first flew to France in 2011. As I waited possibly 45 minutes for both of my checked bags to be delivered via a tiny conveyor belt, I realized that London was going to be much hotter than I previously expected. The baggage claim area was stuffy and hot, with no A/C – a luxury I have taken for granted as a Texas native. After picking up my luggage, I walked out of the airport to find my driver waiting for me with my name on a sign. Though he seemed nice, the 50 minute drive to my apartment was a long and silent one because I could not understand a word he said. It never occurred to me that I would have a difficult time understanding people in a country where English is the official language. Nevertheless, I felt my anticipation growing the closer we got to London. By the time we finally arrived at 19 Bedford Place, I thought I was going to burst with excitement! My 1PM arrival left me an hour to kill before I could check into my flat, so I set off to find the closest EE store with the help of some questionable directions given by the Bedford Place concierge. I was delighted to see just how central the location of my flat is as I passed Russell Square (which sits directly at the end of Bedford Place), the British Museum (just half a block away!), and many cute cafés and shops. After getting more accurate directions from a few locals, I made it to the EE store within 20 minutes and was greeted by a cheerful employee who sold me a generous cell phone plan with plenty of data for me to burn through. Because the trip was so quick and easy, I still had time left to grab lunch, so I decided to eat at the most British-sounding place that I saw on my route: Ale & Pie! After a quick lunch of steak pie and mash, I headed back to Bedford Place to move in. The apartment is very spacious, with plenty of kitchen utensils for me to cook with. After unpacking, the crew over for a quick chat over biscuits and digestives and then split up for dinner. Hermione and I went to Punjab, one of the three oldest Indian restaurants in London that was absolutely amazing – thanks, Yelp! By the time we got home, we were absolutely exhausted and hit the hay.

 



Humor in the UK

Throughout my time in London, the questions I have asked myself the most are: What is the EU? How is the queen so damn funny? and Is this person joking with me or not? After reading through Fox’s chapter on british humour, I’ve realized that the answer to the last question is for the most part joking. Fox discusses how intertwined humour is with everyday conversation as well as how dry it often can be. Both of these distinctions can make it hard for an outsider to pick up on when someone is joking or not. What helped me the most to make this distinction is the fact that despite their pride, Brits are pretty opposed to taking one’s self too seriously in colloquial situations. So chances are, if you pick up on irony, understating, or self-deprivation the person is being chummy rather than offensive. Immediately after reading this chapter, I went and watched a few episodes of the British Office and understood their intentions and humour better. Although there is a difference between humour and comedy, I believe that the British version of the Office depicts everyday humour rather than a comedic production. The scenes I found awkward, forced, or underwhelming before, I found much funnier. In my own office, I was witness to an exchanging of gifts last week between office members. I originally found their remarks towards one another awkward, unnatural, and sometimes flat out rude. However, after reading through this chapter, I have realized that those weren’t just pity laughs I was hearing, but this British humour in full form.



Humo(u)r Rules

I personally have been really interested by British humor because I think it says a lot about culture- What do they think is funny, how often do they joke, what is acceptable to joke about etc. When I first found out I was going to be going to London this summer, my friends all made jokes about how much trouble I was going to have fitting in with how loud and sarcastic I am. While I am definitely not fitting in, I have been surprised at how much I enjoy British humor. From our first day at Channel Syndicate of Lloyds, when Rupert managed to fit in a quick shot about how “America really was one of our finer colonies” to Dr. Blick’s quick wit, I now have a better understanding of humor here. I also have learned what is NOT funny. In the U.S, say what you will about us, but we are a kinder group that has engrained a mercy rule in our culture- the pity laugh. I do not care how bad of a joke someone told, you force a smile and take two light high pitched breaths out. Everyone knows you didn’t actually find it funny, but it is a way to avoid an awkward silence and a necessary gesture. The British, however, do not show any weakness. They stare into the back of your skull and make you want to apologize for wasting their time. Not that this has happened to me, though.

While I know this is a sweeping generalization, they seem to be much more polite and politically correct as a whole. I think the best example of this is tickets for the broadway show, “The Book of Mormon, written by the creators of the crude comedy series, “South Park”, sell for a fraction of the price they do in the U.S. English humor, to me, seems much more reserved, where as americans often try to go for a home run, knee-slapper type. The kind of humor where you would miss it if you were not on your toes. I would love to see an English comedian, I have to wonder if their stand-up would have to start with the weather. Overall, they seem to always be in the mood to joke, but it is a competitive sort of joking as it is often a quick back and forth. Another thing I would like to comment on about humor, is I have noticed British people trying to mock Americans. I noticed someone say, “Cheers, bro!” to me at a pub recently and I think he was just testing the waters to see what he could get away with. It was as much of a foreign experience for him as it was to me. He saw his shot to have some fun. I think he found it ironic to try and use American jargon to fit in, which made for a really strange situation. This is because I was doing the same to him by saying “Cheers”. I wonder if he realized that I was messing with him.

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View from the top of the London Eye




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