London Internship Program 2016

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Rules of the Road

TaxiReading Fox’s chapter on “Rules of the Road,” I noticed some big differences between English and American culture, especially with regard to to the part of the States where I’m from. Fox observes that interaction between English commuters on the train or Underground is almost nonexistent, with a few interesting exceptions. While I haven’t spent much time on public transportation (there’re no underground lines in Kennett, Missouri or Memphis, Tennessee or Lexington), I feel that I talk to people when I am taking a shuttle, bus, or train. I’ll usually try to find common ground by inspecting them. For example, when I see someone in an Ole Miss shirt, I’ll drop a subtle “Hotty Toddy” and ask them what they think about the Rebels’ chances next season. If they are reading a book I’ve read, I’ll ask them what they think about a particular chapter or section. I find that the ride is much easier and less awkward when you recognize each other’s presence and acquaint yourselves.

Fox mentions that English people commonly open up to one another and ignore the “denial rule” when they can moan and complain together. This was one thing I do think is common in the US. When I’ve been at an airport gate and the flight is delayed, everyone will say “Delta does it again” or “this happens every time when I connect through Atlanta” (people complain about the Atlanta airport a lot). While this is a great icebreaker, I don’t find that Americans then follow the complaint with a strong fear of continued conversation. If anything, it’s an easy way to get to know someone.

“Oh, do you fly through here often?”

“The same thing happened to me just last week when I was headed to…..”

I also found the car rules to be different. For me, this difference applies more to small town America than bigger cities in the US. Growing up, I always found it common to wave and nod from the car to people passing through town. I would even honk when passing a friend or pull up next to someone to wave hello if I recognized their vehicle. This is a change from the “invisibility” of the car “castle” that Fox discusses.

I think I prefer our way of interacting when traveling. It’s a small world, and you never know when you’ll run into a friend of a friend or someone with an interesting story to tell.

Car wave



Home Rules

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At W&L, there is no privacy. Everyone knows everyone, we see each other all the time, and there are no secrets. While W&L might represent an extreme due to its small size, I imagine that most other colleges in America are the same way. As a generally private person, one of the things I look forward to on breaks is the ability to go back to Houston and relax in the privacy of my own home. Relative to college life, my home is incredibly private. However, after reading “Home Rules” in Kate Fox’s Watching the English, I discovered the extreme extent to which the English appreciate privacy in their homes. Kate Fox describes the fact that English streets are windy and change names often and house numbers are very obscure making it incredibly hard to find people’s homes. While I consider my home private, it is easily traceable on a map. Fox calls this difficulty in locating English homes the “Moat and Drawbridge Rule”- the English treat their homes like their personal castles, and the convoluted street names and numbers are their effective moat and drawbridge.

Other characteristics of English households that Fox describes further reiterate the importance of privacy to the English in their homes. According to Fox’s “Nest-Building Rule,” the English take great pride in implementing DIY work in their households. I did not find the implementation of DIY work in English homes any different from American homes- my father insists on building everything in our home himself, fixing everything that breaks himself, painting all the walls himself and so on. While the DIY rule itself does not differ much from the culture of American households, the class rules surrounding showing off not just DIY work in the household but general household décor differs between American and English society. According to Fox, showing visitors around the household is characteristic of the lower and middle-middles class. From the upper-middles and above, showing off the household is disapproved of, and it is considered improper to notice one’s surroundings when visiting someone else at their home. These class rules struck me as unique from American culture. Whenever my dad builds something new, redesigns part of the house, or redecorates, he is eager to show other people. This eagerness to show off the home is not just unique to my father and is characteristic of many other families of every class in Houston as well, including the wealthy ones. In driving through some of the incredibly upper-class neighborhoods in Houston, it becomes obvious that many wealthy families build their homes for the sake of showing off to others. They welcome visitors by hosting dinner parties and various other functions just for the sake of showing off their homes. The difference in American and English attitudes towards showing off their homes further demonstrates the intense English desire for privacy in the household that we lack in America.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.



Mastering the Rules of the Road

As I was reading the “Rules of the Road” chapter of Kate Fox’s Watching the English, I felt like I was reading a summary of everything I’ve learned on public transportation since arriving in London. As soon as London Week, I realized that whenever we all travelled on the tube as a group, we were typically the only ones talking. That’s right, not just the only ones talking loudly – the only ones talking at all. For fear of being the stereotypically obnoxious American tourist disrupting the locals on their daily commute, I almost immediately learned to avoid eye contact, remain silent and keep all of my limbs and personal belongings confined to my own little box. I learned these rules by simply looking at the Englishmen and women all around me who were taking their tube ride in a similar fashion, being extremely respectful of each others’ comfort and respecting the “box” of space dedicated to each person (similar to the boxes mentioned in the “Home Rules” chapter, except instead of house and garden boxes, the boxes on tubes and busses can be seen as confined to a single seat or standing area just large enough for one person and perhaps a small bag). While it was rather easy to pick up these unspoken rules and even easier to follow them, I think doing so has actually been one of the wisest things I’ve done on this trip. Understanding and following through with these Rules of the Road have allowed me to camouflage my “outsider” status and further immerse myself in British culture.



The Weather

When I saw Watching the English began with a chapter on talking about the weather, I was not enthused. From my perspective, talking about the weather seemed to be a universal small talking point – it certainly is in the United States. However, as I read further I see it is a much more nuanced topic of conversations.

When I think about our interactions with local tour guides and Sara, some mention of the weather almost always starts off their spiel. At work, a comment is made either to me or out loud on multiple occasions. Most strikingly, I had a ten minute walk to the tube station with a coworker and our conversation only covered the weather in London, the weather back home, the weather in Florida, and the weather in different countries in Europe he had been to.

I thought the weather as a member of the family was a particularly astute observation. The weather as a family rule speaks to the subtleties of English culture in contrast with the volume focus of American culture.

Fox is correct in saying English weather-speak is a form of code, used to overcome our natural reservations, but that does not explain why it is so prevalent here. I disagree with her dismissal of Jeremy Paxmann’s theory. He says that the English fixation with the weather is a product of the variation in weather. I think to a certain extent talking about the weather’s popularity is certainly related to the volatility. I can’t imagine the consistent sunshine of the beaches of Spain is a popular talking point. London is by no means a tropical paradise and the fluctuations must contribute to their propensity to bring up the weather.



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).

 




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