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What makes English people so typically English?

About the author: Maciamo Hay is a Belgian-born historian, population geneticist, and travel writer. His interests also include economics, philosophy, evolutionary biology, bioengineering, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, cultural studies and linguistics. He has travelled in over 50 countries and spent at least a few months in 10 countries, including England, during which time he attentively studied the language, customs and cultural traits of the locals. He has learnt 10 languages and achieved fluency in six of them in addition to his native French.

After describing the French and the Belgians, let's tackle the English national character.

I will start with a humorous description of my favourite travel writer, Bill Bryson, an American who has lived for over 20 years in England. This is an excerpt from his excellent and hilarious book, Notes from a Small Island (p. 52 in the 2001 Perennial edition). He is writing about the British, but this seems all the truer when confined to the English.

It has long seemed to me unfortunate - and I am taking a global view here - that such an important experiment in social organization [communism] was left to the Russians when the British clearly would have managed it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets, and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread in a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs. Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorship. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent, muttered jokes about authority without ever actually challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those above the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right.

The traits captured here by Bill Bryson are patience, tolerance, politeness, consideration, humour and frugality.

Here is another abstract (p. 79-80) :

And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. That is why so many of their treats - tea cakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsbury- are so cautiously flavorful. They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting - a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box - and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly. "Oh, I shouldn't really," they say. "Oh, go on," you prod encouragingly "Well, just a small one then," they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one's mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright. You may well say "Oh, I shouldn't really" if someone tells you to take a deep breath. I used to be puzzled by the curious attitude of the British to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies - "Mustn't grumble," "It makes a change," "You could do worse," "It's not much, but it's cheap and cheerful," "Well, it was quite nice" - but gradually I came around to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier.

British moderation and unrelenting optimism. This must have something to do with the weather; it must be a natural adaptation to cope with the grim, nearly constantly overcast sky. I wouldn't say that most Belgians are like that too, but several of my Belgian relatives certainly are just as Bill Bryson describes here.

Having lived, studied and worked in England myself for a while, and having travelled all around the country, if I had to choose the 10 adjectives that best qualify the national character of the English people (excluding the Scots and the Welsh), I would go with the following.

  • Independent-minded (sometimes to the point of eccentricity)
  • Polite (but hypocritical)
  • Critical (both in the positive and negative way)
  • Moody
  • Class-conscious (and people actually do look and behave quite distinctly according to their social class)
  • Polarised (could be formal yet easy-going; traditionalist yet eccentric)
  • Practical-minded
  • Entrepreneurial
  • Humorous (often in a sarcastic, ironic or self-deprecating manner)
  • Reserved


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