Monday, 29 February 2016

Cross Cultural Studies

In Brussels at the moment, I keep meeting people - well-meaning Swedes and earnest Germans, cheerful Italians and concerned Luxembourgeois - who express themselves surprised, a little hurt and above all mystified by the British and their apparent lack of total infatuation with "the project" (that is, the whole set of bureaucratic contraptions that are the engine of the Brussels economy - and contribute fairly generously to that of Strasbourg as well).

Generally speaking, when these kinds of foreigners find the inhabitants of the British Isles puzzling, they turn for guidance to a book called Watching the English, by Kate Fox.  However, if any of them asks me for a good handbook to Anglo-Saxon attitudes, I recommend Lost Worlds by Michael Bywater instead. Apart from anything else, it is so much more amusing than Watching the English. Actually it is one of my very favourite books.

To give just one example of what it offers, here, in a mere two or three paragraphs, while explaining the use of the phrase "old chap", Bywater provides so much insight into the English (British?  Oh lord, let's not even think about plunging into that) character:

"Chap, Old

An oddity, Old Chap; a curiously English construction, suggesting intimacy without actually suggesting intimacy. You can see why the English would need such an honorific.

To call a man 'old chap' was shorthand for what would otherwise take far too long to express. But we can try. What it, at least in part, meant was:

'What I am about to say presumes upon our acquaintance to the extent that to address you as Mister whatever-it-is would be unbecomingly stuffy. Yet I do not wish to embarrass you with a self-conscious use of your first name. The matter that I am about to raise also temporarily (it may even be permanently, but I do not want to assume that) obliterates any fine gradations of rank or differences in income between us, yet although I am addressing you as what might, to Johnny Foreigner, appear to be an equal, I am nevertheless retaining the upper hand in the conversation which is to follow. I am probably going to give you some advice, which you may find unpalatable; alternatively, I may be about to make light of something which you find serious to the point of being unbearable; or it may be that I am about to give you bad news and my old-chappery is an indication that, while I am obviously sympathetic to your plight, I most certainly do not feel your pain, and I would be frightfully obliged if you could at least give the impression of not feeling it either, or we may face the possibility of embarrassment."

I suppose it is worth pointing out, in case anyone is in any doubt, that embarrassment is an English person's very greatest fear.

Anyway, Bywater goes on to bemoan the decline of "old chap" in common usage, thus:

"How the hell can we say that, now that 'old chap' has been forever lost? We can't. And so we don't. Instead we go in for all sorts of un-Englishness - first names, sharing, emotional honesty, hugging, stuff bordering on intimacy - and then we wonder why Johnny Foreigner no longer looks up to us and the world is going to hell. Bad show. Blame the women. And that dashed Viennese fellow, said everyone wanted to have a pop at his mother, you know the fellow, trick cyclist, jabber jabber, dreams, cigars, face dropped off, won't do, old chap; won't do at all. Thin end of the wedge. Do you know what I think, old chap ... hello? Hello? Are you there? Hello ...?"

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