London Internship Program 2016

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July 2016

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I have always assumed that talking about the weather was a fairly universal matter and everywhere the weather can be rather unpredictable. In Florida, we deal with hurricanes, tornados, and flooding, but I learned in the weather chapter of Kate Fox’s Watching the English that the English do not want to hear about how everything is bigger in the States. This was helpful knowledge for me to have because I could easily see an English person making a comment about how much it was raining and I would respond about how this was nothing compared to Hurricane Frances and Jean in ‘04.

So, what I have gleaned based on the book and my interactions with the Brits is that they are probably the most non-straightforward people I have ever met and the weather is an excuse to talk to other people that they want to talk to. My first day of work, I experienced just this. Every person I met at the office made a comment about the weather and how I would always need an umbrella, sunglasses, and gloves in my purse to deal with the unpredictability of England’s weather. To them, talking about the weather is something to talk about with the American girl that “doesn’t really have an accent.” The CEO of the company even made a comment to me about how this must be nothing compared to the hurricanes in Florida, but I was prepared and brushed it off like hurricanes were not that big of a deal (a slight lie).

 

 



Weather Talk

London-Weather

After reading “Weather Talk” in Kate Fox’s Watching the English I grew a bit skeptical of her claims on the unusual extent to which people in England talk about the weather. I’m from Houston where people talk (or rather complain) about the weather at least as much as people talk about the weather here in London. People in Houston are constantly complaining about the heat- during the summer it can easily get over 100 degrees, and it was even 90 degrees on Christmas this year. People in Houston also complain about the rain- it might not rain as constantly throughout the day as it does here in London; however, torrential down pouring is common in Houston. Both this summer and last summer Houston has suffered from flash flooding. I’ve been in Europe and haven’t been home yet this summer; however, I have seen many snap chats and pictures of friends from home in inner tubes floating down their streets that have turned into rivers due to the immense amount of rain.

I didn’t understand how “weather talk” in London was different from anywhere else until this past week. While people complain about the weather a lot in Houston, it does not serve the same social function that it does here in England. A few days ago at work my boss had a guest in to interview for the video portion of the company’s website. His cameraman used me as a stand-in to test the camera angles, and he also asked me to test out the sound equipment. Handing me one of the microphones on set, he told me to “start talking.” I stood there awkwardly for a few seconds holding the microphone in my hand unsure of what to immediately start talking about. The cameraman could tell I was caught off guard and saved me from my awkward silence my jumping into conversation about the weather despite the fact that the weather that day was only slightly drizzly- nothing out of the ordinary for a summer afternoon in London. As Kate Fox discusses in Watching the English, the English use the weather as a conversation starter. They jump to talking about the weather in those awkward lulls in conversation, just like the cameraman did with me. The next morning on my walk to work from the tube station, I ran into my boss on the street. We were forced to make awkward small talk with each other, and my boss immediately delved into conversation about the weather, further reinforcing Kate Fox’s claim that the English use the weather as a conversation starter. So while the English might complain about the weather to a similar extent as many other cultures, I have come to realize the distinctive social purpose that it serves here in England.

Photo courtesy of Google Images



Weather

In Watching the English Kate Fox describes English people as using the weather as a tool that has evolved to help them start a conversation. In general she describes it as a way to start small talk and create a conversation. I didn’t really understand what she meant by this but after spending 4 weeks in the UK I realized it’s the immediate go to subject for English people when talking to someone new. During our first week of visits to the workplace of W&L alumnus I had the impression that our group had arrived during the greatest period of weather that England had ever witnessed. Every person we met at each site chimed about how the past three days of sun were immaculate and that we were so lucky. Since I had been there for only a week I assumed we were just really lucky and paid little attention to it.
Once I started work the weather was still brought up even though these couple weeks had some small scattered showers. Each time however I went into work the weather almost always seemed to come up if people didn’t know exactly what to say but wanted to continue or create a conversation. It was classic small talk etiquette but it seemed that everyone in England had mastered this specific form of small talk.
But I realized why they paid so much attention to the weather when I went to Wimbledon. After camping out on a lovely Thursday night to get in the queue for cheap tickets for Friday’s matches I realized how quickly the weather can change. On Thursday we looked and saw that Friday was supposed to be cloudy but warm. But throughout the day we witnessed everything from howling winds, overcast skies, bright summer sun with no clouds in sight, torrential downpours, and multiple tennis matches who became victim to rain delays caused by light pours for 4 minutes. It was baffling and all I could talk about for that day was the weather and the tennis matches that I had watched. It was so unpredictable and terrible at some points that it was just fun to talk about how much it shifted, how bad it could get, and how amazing the moments were when the sun came out. In summary the English weather is so unpredictable that it makes one of the best small talk topics because everyone has an experience with it that they could go and talk about for at least a couple minutes



A 4th of July Abroad

While today is just another regular Monday morning for our British peers, for us American students abroad it is a day of patriotism and celebration. Back home in the States, our Independence Day is usually spent with family and friends celebrating our freedom through lighting fireworks, eating barbecue, and drinking beer. While it is no guarantee we will be able to replicate that celebration in London this year, one thing is for certain: our earnest patriotism exhibited today will cross the British.

In the “Humour Rules” section of Watching the English, author Kate Fox describes a rule in British culture about the importance of not being earnest. “Seriousness is allowed, earnestness is strictly forbidden,” Fox says. “…One must never take oneself too seriously. The ability to laugh at ourselves… is one of the more endearing characteristics of the English.” She juxtaposes English frivolity and self-deprecation with the attitude of Americans: “The sentimental patriotism of leaders and the portentous earnestness of writers, artists, actors, musicians, pundits and other public figures of all nations are treated with equal derision and disdain by the English.”

English cynicism or apathy has manifested itself throughout our time here. In the Euro Round of 16 football match, when Iceland scored what would prove to be the game winning goal against England, the onlooking fans in the pub did not respond with jeers, but self-deprecating laughter. In daily conversation, the British constantly bemoan their dreary weather. The political earnestness of the LEAVE campaign ultimately led to a Brexit — would Britain still be in the EU if the seemingly majority, status quo REMAIN camp had the same mentality?

The English can scoff all they want, but I prefer earnest idealism of the American dream to the “muddling along” of the British reality.



Brexit as a new wave of open British patriotism?

In the chapter of Watching the English titled “Humour Rules,” author Kate Fox goes into detail about what she calls “The Importance of Not Being Earnest,” especially in relation to matters of national pride. Considering the results of the recent referendum vote in the UK, I found this subject particularly interesting, as I feel as if the winning party displayed blatant violations of this rule throughout their campaign. At as an American looking into the whole ordeal, it seemed as if the pro-Brexit voting population was largely motivated by an emotionally charged sense of patriotism promoted by politicians like Boris Johnson. I even heard many people describe Brexit as the UK’s chance to break away from a large, controlling, oppressive force and assert its independence, as the United States did to Britain in 1776. Yet according to Kate Fox, the British have a rather closeted sense of patriotism that really only shines through in brief periods of “cultural remission” like royal events. In the words of Fox, “the sentimental patriotism of leaders and the portentous earnestness of writers…and other public figures of all nations are treated with equal derision and disdain by the English, who can spot the slightest hint of self-importance at twenty paces, even on a grainy television picture and in a language we don’t understand.” If this is true, then how did the pro-Brexit group win the vote? How were politicians like Johnson able to convince the masses to make such a drastic decision with overtly patriotic sentiments? Is Britain in the process of cultivating its own sense of patriotism, or did pro-Brexit voters truly believe that leaving the EU would bring them genuine economic benefits (despite the fact that there still is no actual plan to bring about these benefits)?



Pub Talk

As we all know, W&L has a speaking tradition that encourages people to greet and acknowledge other students on campus throughout the day.  Hence, when I first arrived in London, I found the lack of social interaction between people on the streets to be a bit odd.  People on the London streets often avoid eye contact and interaction with strangers, as this is the cultural norm.  Privacy is deemed very important in English society, leading people to be quiet and reserved in public places.  However, pubs in England are one place where this social etiquette does not hold, and the sociability rule deems it acceptable for people to talk to strangers.  The pub scene in London is a mixing pot of all ages, personalities, and perspectives, in which people meet with friends and strangers in order to socialize over libations.  Once inside a pub, it is clear that there is a distinct social dynamic that has its own micro-culture.  People tend to surround themselves with people of similar demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds, but there is much more integration than one would see on the streets.  The division of the pub into ‘public’ and ‘private’ zones is very apparent.  The rule of thumb for pubs is that social interaction with strangers is common at the bar counter, as this is a public area that indicates a willingness to engage in conversation.  People sitting close by the bar or at open tables are open to speak about topics relevant to English culture with strangers, where people sitting at tables on the outskirts of the room want to be left alone.

I have spoken to a variety of people at pubs, and conversations are often sporadic and somewhat random.  The free-association principle applies to pub talk, as staying on a particular topic for a few minutes indicates excessive seriousness, which goes against the sarcastic and light-hearted manner of British interactions.  My conversations often start with football discussions, and quickly bounce around other prominent topics in English culture such as Brexit, the economy, the weather, and places to eat.  In conclusion, sociability is acceptable and encouraged in pubs due to the amicable atmosphere that arises from drinking with people that have a shared culture.



Pub-Talk

After a few weeks in London and a Scotland pub-crawl it’s safe to say our group has frequented a few pubs. When I began reading Kate Fox’s chapter on pub-talk I assumed the chapter covered a pretty self-explanatory topic. (Plus hands-on experience probably taught us more about the subject anyway, right?) She opens the chapter discussing the sociability aspect of the pub, which seemed like a pretty obvious statement. Most places that draw large crowds and have alcohol as a central theme tend to promote sociability. After I read more, I realized the uniqueness of the British pub from say an American bar is not the atmosphere but the nature of the people who frequent them.

The notion that British citizens are more closed off is somewhat of a stereotype, but holds true in a lot of cases, after all almost all their conversations open with a comment on the weather and don’t get much more personal. Unlike many Americans, especially Southerners,  who strike up a conversation about just about anything, people here tend to mind their own business and don’t see the need to make small-talk with complete strangers. All this changes the minute they enter the pub.

Waiting for a bartender to notice you with the lack of a queue, a person on your left may ask you about your opinion on Brexit and another on your right may comment on the football game. The common courtesy of addressing the weather immediately disappears once inside the pub. I first saw an example of this in Scotland. Making my way through the crowded room, I tripped and knocked my drink into a large man sitting on a barstool. Expecting a rude look or comment I quickly apologized. Instead of a negative reaction, the man shouts “You are American! Where are you from?” Within five minutes I learned that he studied in Atlanta, we shared a favorite restaurant and he moved back to Scotland a few years ago. This interaction shows the reason the Brits pride themselves on their beloved pubs. They are the only place that forces them to let their walls down and meet strangers of all ages and backgrounds.

 



American Disorder and “Pub-Talk”

During our second week here in London, we all decided to go to a pub together after our first class visit to City Hall. We remembered a spot Dean Jensen pointed out to us during London week next to Borough Market and headed that way. While reading “Pub-Talk” in Watching the English, I didn’t get more than a few pages in when I remembered this time and realized some of the many unspoken social codes we’d violated. Almost all 17 of us walked into the pub and immediately started looking for a table big enough to fit the group. After drawing the attention of the few people and staff in the quiet pub, we finally found a table in the back corner and sat down—mistake number one. As we quickly realized, a waiter or waitress does not come to the table and serve you at an English pub. I think we may have all been aware of this rule, but our customer-service American subconscious took over in our excitement to start experiencing “pub-culture.” Mistake number two—if we really wanted the full experience, we shouldn’t have sat down at this table in the corner, far away from the bar. Sitting at and standing near tables by the bar is where the friendly “pub-talk” occurs. Here, conversations with strangers are customary—unlike most other places in England, where striking up a conversation with a stranger is wildly uncommon. This crowded area around the bar is one of the few places in English society where disorder is accepted, and is actually organized to some degree. Although there isn’t a physical one of the English beloved queues, bar tenders and visitors understand an unspoken order in which everyone should be served. When the 17, or so, of us approached the bar, things didn’t feel quite so orderly. For Americans, it seems getting a drink at the bar is much more hectic. This chapter helped me understand the “orderly nature of English disorder,” and our ignorance of it. Our time at the pub shows just how disorderly American disorder can be.



Subtle Hints of Disapproval

Even the weather expresses stormy disapproval!
Even the weather expresses stormy disapproval!

Despite the UK and US sharing a common language, communication can still be difficult. Over the past four weeks, I have found that one of my challenges in the UK is trying to discern when disapproval is being expressed.

Watching the English was published when cell phone, or as they call it, ‘mobile phone,’ ownership was still relatively new. But the etiquette rules observed then still stand today, especially the one of not talking loudly about personal affairs in public. (Keep in mind that privacy is highly valued in the UK.) While this is a universally accepted rule, the English reaction is very subtle. I was on the bus when a man boarded while speaking loudly on his mobile phone. He was visibly upset with the person he was talking with and kept half-yelling “I’m on the bus, we can talk later!” It took me a while to catch onto the annoyance of my fellow passengers. Some were giving him very slight side-glances with stern disapproval in their eyes. Other smiled indulgently at their friends, displaying the peculiar sense of English humor. Had I not been warned about the British tendency of not confronting uncomfortable situations, I would have thought no one cared about how loud the man was on his phone.

Another instance of English disapproval is in a translation guide we received in our internship packets. Supposedly, “quite good” actually means “a bit disappointing” and “very interesting” can be “that is clearly nonsense.” Since being informed of these hidden meanings, I have been carefully interpreting things my supervisor says, just to be sure I catch all the hints. However, it can be difficult at times and paranoia is definitely real if you are trying to find the secret meaning in conversations that probably don’t have one. All these indirect and subtle ways of expressing disapproval reflect the English tendency to avoid confrontation. Despite appreciating the respect and politeness of such customs, I feel that there are moments when a lot more can be accomplished in far less time if people are tactfully straightforward. Then again, I’m just an oblivious foreigner trying to blend in.



Dionysian Labyrinths: Pub-Talk

After gallivanting  about London for nearly a month, I feel it is a safe assumption that I have frequented enough public houses to constitute an adequate sample size for assessment. While naturally each establishment is home to its own unique charm and atmosphere, the consistent nature of the social dynamic experienced myself seems to validate many of the assertions made by the anthropologist Kate Fox regarding the “Byzantine” nature of the appropriate social etiquette.

As the initial thoughts of an entrant pub-goer tend to primarily be concerned with the procuring of a drink, it only makes sense that the etiquette of the counter would be the first foreign atmosphere encountered by the prospective reveler. Fox discusses what she calls a “pantomime rule” in force when attempting to signal the bartender. Essentially, one has to effectively convey their need for service without resorting to verbal utterances or obvious physical gestures. This was one of the first strange customs I observed upon my arrival in the United Kingdom. At a crowded bar, the patrons are oddly silent unless already served and conversing with others in a similar situation. Those who are waiting tend to either swirl their empty glasses for all to see or make awkward eye contact with every bartender who passes their way. I’ve often found the best way to hail for service is to make a brief point of eye contact and to motion with my eyes towards my outstretched hand holding money.

Moreover, the order in which one is served seems to be based on an acknowledged, unspoken custom. It seems one simply has to trust that the bartender has noted the in order in which all patrons has arrived to the counter and is doing his best to serve them accordingly. Fox insists that the English bartenders tend to be particularly good at this though I personally have had mixed results. Sometimes I have witnessed several individuals come and go well before I have even been acknowledged. In such cases, I have no qualms about violating the “pantomime rule” and establishing my position in the queue. It’s also likely true that the adherence to these rigidly defined rules fluctuates depending on the level of business currently experienced by the bar staff. A crowded or understaffed establishment is more likely to see violations of these rules as the logistical burden caused by the larger number of patrons will affect the bartender’s ability to formulate a mental queue.

Nevertheless, Fox does seem to be accurate at least when it comes to the general social dynamic of pubs. They do seem to be places where normal rules of social etiquette tend to be relaxed. She notes that a pub may be the one place where it is considered socially acceptable to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger and even to proffer one’s own name with liberality. Indeed, on a recent trip to Edinburgh, our entourage went on a pub crawl and were actually engaged in conversation by two locals on the merits of gun control and the likeliness of a Brexit. While I am certain that they introduced themselves, I must confess that their names have since escaped me. Thus far, the pub does seem to be the venue that offers the most colorful of experiences.




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