London Internship Program 2016

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June 2016

Drinks after Work ft. Toby Keith

Two years in to my college run at W&L, and there is one thing I know all generals have learned. Our school has mastered the work hard, play hard mentality. Washington and Lee is full of incredibly intelligent students and professors, but they are all more than just book-smart. We are a social lot that, when our work is finished, love to have a good time. This culture we all live at school does a great job of preparing us for the adult world, where both brains and social skills are vital for success. What I didn’t think we would find in London, however, is a culture that embraces drinking even more than Lexington.

Here, drinking is not a means for an end. It’s a social norm. Even more, it’s not strictly an evening and night activity. Beers after work is not only common; it’s a staple event in the work environment. One of the biggest culture shocks I have enjoyed learning is the merging of drinking and work. After a long day of work (or even a short one), the entire staff moves on from the office towards the corner pub for a pint or two before heading home. Relationships with your coworkers don’t end at the office door. The culture here is so much more relaxed. Even in stressful workplaces like the Parliament, the work day is rarely finished without a trip to the pub to blow off some steam with a round of beer.

During futbol season, all bets are off. When England is playing a 2 o’clock game, the streets of London will suddenly go mysteriously quiet around quarter ‘til, and the pubs will be at capacity. My internship in the House of Commons was no exception. At kickoff, it seemed like the entire Parliamentary Estate was slammed into the local pub and drinking like the weekend had started. And when the final whistle blew, everybody finished their drinks and headed back in to finish the work day. It is an exciting mix of work and play, and unlike anything I anticipated. I still proudly claim W&L as the epitome of the work hard, play hard mentality, but as we’re all coming to learn, the Brits enjoy a drink after work just as much as us Gennies.

British Humour from Broadway to the West End

Four years ago I went to visit my sister, Emily, and her British boyfriend, Hamish, in New York City. Upon Hamish’s recommendation, we went to see “One Man, Two Guvnors”, a British comedy that originally debuted on the West End and then opened on Broadway. I was 16 years old, had just flown back from a study abroad trip in Italy, and the very first thing my sister wanted to do was take me to see this play. In addition to the fact that I was incredibly jet lagged, the British humor made the play much harder to understand than any other typical Broadway show I had ever seen.

“One Man, Two Guvnors” is about Francis Henshall, a man who in attempting to make money takes on employment with two men- Roscoe Crabbe, a small time gangster, and Stanley Stubbers, an upper-class criminal. Francis attempts to keep his two employers (or “guvnors”) from finding out about each other. However, unbeknownst to Francis, Roscoe is actually Rachel Crabbe (Roscoe’s twin sister) in disguise, and Rachel’s lover (who killed her twin brother Roscoe) is none other than Francis’ second employer Stanley Stubbers. While the confusing plot line was hard enough for me to follow, the British humor confused me even further. I could not understand why everyone in the theater was laughing so hard until I read the chapter on humor in Kate Fox’s Watching the English. Satire, understatement, and irony pervaded every moment of “One Man, Two Guvnors”. The play is built around dramatic irony with the audience constantly aware of things of which the characters are not aware.

Going to see “The Play That Goes Wrong” further portrayed to me the importance of irony and understatement in British humor. While at the beginning of the play I found the humor a bit forced and predictable, after the first few scenes I was cracking up along with everyone else in the theater. I understood the British appreciation for understatement when the narrator at intermission commented that they had “hit a few snags” in the first part of the play but that it “was nothing out of the ordinary for any play” when things had been flying off the walls and characters were getting knocked out by doors. Our visit to the West End helped me further understand British humor not only in plays but in everyday life as well.

'The Play That Goes Wrong' Play performed at the Duchess Theatre. London, Britain...The Play That Goes Wrong performed at the Duchess Theatre Henry Lewis as Robert, Greg Tannahill as Jonathan, Jonathan Burke as Dennis Alastair Muir
Photo Courtesy of Google Images.

Pub Talk and Social Interaction

In the beginning of Watching the English’s chapter on “Pub Talk” Kate Fox points out the fact that the pub “is designed to promote sociability”. Which at first sounded very odd but when she broke down certain aspects of how pubs work it made a lot of things clear. After spending a week or two walking around London I began to wonder why every stranger would turn their gaze away from mine when walking on the streets and almost no one would acknowledge my customary “Hello” or “Hey”. But almost every time I would go to the counter of a pub to order a pint I almost always had a conversation with the person ordering next to me about some trivial topic, whether it was soccer, the Brexit, or the weather. But once I had grabbed my pint and walked back to my table the conversation would only ever be with people at my table, never anyone at a nearby table. Fox attributes this occurrence and the lack of social interaction on the streets to the English valuing their privacy to an almost religious level. But they created pubs, or more specifically the bar counter of a pub, as an exception where anyone could talk with anyone. Sadly, as you got farther and farther away from the pub counter the less likely you are to be able to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and the more likely you are to get a cold response similar to the one I would receive on the streets.
The beauty of the pub is how ordering works. In order to get your drinks or food at most pubs you have to order at the pub counter. By making people congregate around the counter to order it makes it so there is always a valid reason to accidentally drift your way into a conversation. Conversations at the counter never seem forced and are almost always an acknowledgment of something that happened and then a conversation is born. I’ve grown to really enjoy this hub of social interaction. I get to only be social when I truly want to be social and if the conversation meets a sudden demise, terrible topic, or I don’t like the stranger I’ve started a conversation with I can simply pick up my pint, give them a friendly “Cheers”, and walk back to the safety of my table. The pub has been, for me at least, a wonderful English design that allows social interaction in a way that negates all the negative possibilities or outcomes of a conversation with a stranger.

Linguistic Class Codes

While it may not be my favorite chapter, I thought that the Fox’s chapter on linguistic class codes was quite interesting. She notes that “one cannot talk at all without immediately revealing one’s own social class.” This is probably true in many parts of the world, but it seems like the English care about said social class much more than we do. Not only do the English socially rank those they’re talking to, they’re “class-obsessed.” I was surprised by this phenomenon. Maybe we subconsciously do this in the United States, but I’ve never really thought about it before. In England, it’s a different story. Fox mentions a “scandal” in which Kate Middleton’s mother used the words “toilet” and “pardon” in front of the Queen. The English people couldn’t believe she’d do such a thing, and the story made headlines. It wasn’t like the news broke in a tabloid either; the BBC reported on the “allegations” against Kate’s mother. This struck me as absolutely goofy. What does it matter if someone uses the word toilet. “Pardon” even seems polite in my mind (ridiculous, I know).


After reading this chapter, I started thinking about how I’ve probably (not unreasonably) used every tabooed word in the book since we’ve been in London. Maybe I’ll think twice about my choice of words going forward. However, I see this status-driven cultural trend as a mark against the English. Now that I know the speaking do’s and don’ts, I’m interested to stop and listen to the way people talk around London.

British Bonding Talk: Obnoxious or Traditional?

After reading Fox’s dissection of both female and male “bonding talk”, I was left with many questions. She explains that it is customary for women to barrage one another with “counter-compliments” to start a conversation and show friendliness. A counter-compliment being a compliment that simultaneously insults one self. For example: “Oh my gosh, Becky your hair looks so fab, mine is always so frizzy. I could never get mine to look that good”. This seems like a beyond obnoxious conversation to be a fly on the wall for, but if its intention is well understood by both parties, then I am sure it is a useful technique of showing friendly intentions. On the other hand, male bonding talk deals with one upping one another rather than self put-downs. I’ve noticed this banter around the office between male colleagues. It’s always a chummy argument over something arbitrary in which both parties insist that theirs is the better option. I enjoy hearing some of these witty and snarky remarks shot back and forth during one of these discussion, but realize not to get carried away with one’s insults. If done inappropriately or with someone to whom you should show respect (i.e. boss or professor) I can see this becoming very obnoxious and border-line insulting. However, when joking around with friends I am sure this tradition is as long standing as the pride the Bits carry around with them at all times. While I have notices that British men are very respectful and considerate for the most part, humility is not their strong suit, which in turn does provide a very driven and competitive (don’t get me started on soccer fans) environment here.



Also on a unrelated note. Here is a picture of David Cameron after he announced his resignation this week.


Watching English Football: A Crucible of British-Speak

Football is the national sport of choice in England, and nothing stokes the nationalistic embers of the British like the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament. Three UK teams (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) have all played three games apiece since we have been in London, and all three have now advanced to the Round of 16. Every time it is match day for the English national team, London streets are empty and London pubs are full of fans cheering on their beloved Three Lions.

My first week of work, I was able to experience firsthand what it is like to watch an English game with the locals in a pub. The game, England vs. UK neighbor Wales, was on a Thursday afternoon. So my company rented out the bottom floor of a nearby pub in the financial district and threw a watch-party to woo insurance brokers to do business with Channel.

As the young intern there, I was surrounded by people I did not know or had just met the day before, so it was the perfect opportunity to observe British pub talk and conversation codes from a third party perspective. Similar to American sports teams, the English football team is a vehicle for unification among its fans, and the pub is the venue that facilitates social bonds with its integrative environment. In talking with my coworkers and insurance brokers during the game, in retrospect I now see how the Pub-Talk Sociability and Free-Association rule are used by British people to meet new people and direct conversations. The subjects ranged from the weather to the upcoming Brexit referendum, and when Daniel Sturridge scored the go-ahead goal in stoppage time, to the dramatic English 2-1 win over Wales.

My pub etiquette learning curve

When it comes to this week’s readings, I think I definitely identified the most with the section on Pub-talk and general pub etiquette. At the very beginning of this trip, I made sure that visiting a pub was the first thing I did after touching down in Heathrow and dropped off my bags in the Acorn office. Unfortunately, the events that unfolded due to my lack of familiarity with British pub customs was, looking back on it, the tragically typical tourist pub experience. As described in Watching the English, “Foreign visitors often find it hard to come to terms with the fact that there is no waiter service in English pubs. Indeed, one of the most poignant sights of the English summer (or the funniest, depending on your sense of humour) is the group of thirsty tourists sitting patiently at a pub table, waiting for someone to come and take their order.” Yes, I immediately fell victim to the complex British pub customs, in which a customer is supposed to make the bartender keenly aware their presence and desire for a drink, without being boorish and rudely overbearing about it. The more I frequented pubs, however, the more I picked up on the importance of what the author calls “The Pantomime Rule,” which involves simply making eye contact with the bartender, perhaps while holding an empty glass only slightly above the countertop, and waiting for them to come to you at their convenience. Another rule mentioned in Watching the English I have noticed from firsthand experience is “The Pantomime Rule.” Thankfully, this rule already came quite naturally to me, and always has – even in preschool, I was always the kid to respect the power of the queue, even if it wasn’t necessarily formed in a straight line. On my last visit to a pub, someone actually cut me in the invisible queue. In return, I simply made eye contact with the person in a very plain manner (read: not sassy side-eye, just a simple acknowledgement), and the person immediately began apologizing profusely. Overall, I’m just glad I learned how to order a drink here!

Mixed Results: Is Grooming-talk Real?

When one visits a foreign country for an extended period of time, it is only natural that one will eventually have to go through the ordeal of meeting new people in this unfamiliar environment. Customs may different. Behavior that, to an American, may seem entirely appropriate and indeed, even polite, may seem unkempt or merely strange to the observant Briton. Kate Fox describes a societal concept prevalent in England which she calls “Grooming Talk” as a means of obtaining information about another person in a circumlocutious manner.

Fox asserts that, to the British, it is something of a breech of etiquette to offer up one’s personal information to quickly, including one’s name. As she would tell you, explicitly asking for one’s name or inquiring as to their profession, place of residence, marital status, or any other piece of personal data is evidently impolite. She suggests using “grooming talk” to gradually accumulate modest amounts of information and then to make the inquiry in the form of an interrogative statement. This is allegedly British social orthodoxy.

My experiences thus far in meeting new people lead me to question this assertion as a universally-held social point. Depending on the context in which I’ve met various individuals, this concept of “grooming talk” has and hasn’t been prevalent. When first arriving at my internship for example, the context was slightly different as my name was already known to the staff. I was greeted with a form a “grooming talk” as the interrogative statement made an appearance. “I assume you’re Ben, the new intern correct?” was my welcome to the office. In a change of direction however, the pretense of this grooming talk was dropped in favor of very direct questions about my background including my areas of  study, personal interests, and experiences in London thus far. This was certainly a far cry from the mandatory bashfulness and awkward disposition demanded by Fox.

Outside of work, the use of this “grooming talk” seems to vary with age. While as an initial means of beginning a conversation, grooming talk seems to quick disappear from the conversation with younger individuals in favor of a less subtle frankness. An early excursion to a pub in the first week saw a table of local college-aged girls engage me in conversation, initially on the pretense of my evident foreign status which they inferred from hearing my accent. Quickly however, they dropped all subtlety and simply asked a flurry of direct questions while freely offering up their own personal information.

Mirroring this disuse of “grooming talk” amongst the young, is its prevalence amongst older individuals. While touring Scotland, our tour guide seemed intent on following Fox’s guidelines to the letter. Fascinated by the abundance of historical knowledge in his possession, I spoke with him at length regarding the Scottish Wars of independence and exercise tact just to learn where he studied at University. While perhaps my sample populations may be skewed in that, in the case of the tour guide and my supervisor, names were presented earlier, it does seem to me that there exists a clear dichotomy between the social practices of the younger and previous generations with regards to “grooming talk”.

Funny or Not?

The Play that Goes Wrong
The Play that Goes Wrong

According to Watching the English, English humor tends to be focused on irony, self-depreciation and used in all situations, but it is different to English comedy. While I was a little dubious of the differences and the quirkiness of English humor, experiencing it first hand helped me understand what Kate Fox meant in her book.

I received my dose of English humor on the train from London to Lancaster. Having received my ticket electronically through a QR code on my phone, I had assumed that it would be scanned when the staff asked for my ticket. Yet when I showed the man the QR code, his reply was a muttered “I have a university degree, but I can’t read that.” Eventually, I figured out what he needed to see, but his response threw me for a loop. But then I recalled the section of Watching the English on humor and spent the next half hour of my trip analyzing his statement (nerdy, yes, I know). It really ticks all the boxes for ‘standard’ English humor – satirical, some what modest and self depreciating and also used in an everyday situation. Looking back, I wish I was more prepared to engage in conversation and respond to the witty statement.

English comedy was a more recent experience, when we went to see “The Play that Goes Wrong.” Fortunately, comedy translates better to foreigners. The characteristic of the play that stood out was that the comedy was based upon all the things that did not go according to plan and would have been an embarrassment to any other play. This is supposedly typical of English comedy, where it is all about embarrassment. Fox mentions that the English are harder to amuse, which results in a lot of comedy and some of that definitely came through in the play. There were very few times when a minute would go by without a comedic scene and the audience could observe both comedy on the main stage, but also where the “sound controller” (who is actually another actor) was sitting. Hopefully, I’ll be just as fluent in English humor as English comedy by the end of the trip.

British Humor, British Patriotism, and British Brexit

UnknownMyself and my classmates are fortunate to be in London during what should be a milestone in both British and European History: The British Brexit. Today I saw many British citizens out and about donning red and blue ribbons supporting the cause to either stay in the European Union or become an independent nation. Even in the wake of the death of Jo Cox for her views on the Brexit situation, many citizens appear to take the matter very seriously. The bottom floor of my internship’s office was designated as a voting area, and I saw enthusiastic voters donning their ribbon color of choice each time I walked in and out of my building. Strong opinions regarding Brexit led me to believe there must be a strong feeling of British national pride. Consequently, I was surprised to read some of the statistics in Kate Fox’s chapter covering British Humor in Watching the English. For example, at least two thirds of England’s population reported they were unaware of their national holiday, St. George’s Day, and only 22 percent stated they always felt proud to be British. These statistics were supported by observations I’ve picked up on the street, such as hearing citizens grumble over their “useless” healthcare system or “annoying” tax system. Because of this contrast, I wondered where these strong opinions on Brexit were coming from if British citizens were as unenthusiastic about their nationality as they appeared to be.

Some of the response to this question appeared to be obvious. After researching why some of the British wanted to leave the European Union, I found economic arguments that explained wanting to distance the British government from the euro and EU economic policies. These reasons made sense because they very little to do with national pride. However, the Vox article I used as reference ( listed threats to British sovereignty within the European Union as the top argument behind the argument to leave. This reason didn’t make sense to me; as did many of the other arguments that seemed to build on some sense of British pride. Fox’s chapter on humor in Watching the English explained some of this difference in opinion; that “Not being earnest,” a key element of British humor, encourages Brits to denounce patriotism even when they feel pride for their country. In fact, despite the primary statistics Fox gave that denounced British patriotism, she found 83 percent of the population she surveyed felt some sort of pride towards being a UK citizen. As a result, many of the Brexit “leaver’s” point of view made sense after reading Watching the English. It will be interesting to see what the final result of Brexit is tomorrow morning.


Image Source: via Google Images.