Sunday, March 03, 2013

On the history of English awkwardness

If you are English, you've probably had the experience of being a conversation with a European – say a French or German person – and beginning to feel uncomfortable that it was going on just a bit too long. The 'are we still talking about this?' feeling. If you are the European, you may have had the opposite experience in a conversation with an English person; you are just get warmed up when they change the subject. Probably by making a little joke.

I've been the English person, and for twenty years I've been aware that English people need to change the subject of conversation more quickly than Europeans. I've also noticed that even among themselves English people seem to need to change the subject of a conversation quite often. Talking about the same thing for any length of time is considered 'getting heavy'. Perhaps I'm not quite as English as I ought to be, because I also have a bit of a tendency to grind away at a theme after others would like to switch – or just because I've noticed this. Most of the Europeans with whom I've discussed this understand what I'm talking about straight away, though they hadn't been consciously aware of it.

Why should this be? Here is a hypothesis. English people don't like talking about anything for long because it might lead to a disagreement, which might in turn lead to an argument. An argument would involve some sort of emotional engagement, which would be uncomfortable and unseemly. The avoidance of confrontation of any kind seems to be pretty fundamental to English conversation patterns. Of course there are rows, and disagreements, and there is verbal aggression – quite a lot of it. But much of the time English conversational sparring takes the form of banter – jokey teasing – rather than argument of any kind.

I suspect that this might be related to the Restoration Settlement after the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. I know this seems a bit of a long shot, but hear me out.

In the Civil Wars the English got very serious about religion. They had massive arguments about doctrine and ritual. For a while they tortured, massacred and executed each other for believing, or affirming, or preaching the wrong thing. They smashed up churches and destroyed images in a way that was deliberately and self-consciously sacrilegious.  By the end of the seventeenth century they were traumatised and exhausted, and the settlement that they reached was that a wide variety of doctrinal positions and liturgical practices could co-exist within the same established church.

I think that this was quite unique in Europe. In other countries the church ended up following the 'cuius regio' principle, and those who didn't like it could adapt or leave. But the churches themselves were much more doctrinally homogeneous.  I don't want to hold England up as some utopia of religious tolerance; the Netherlands were much more tolerant, and the English still excluded both Catholics and Dissenters from acceptability. Nevertheless, the English church included both people who thought of themselves as Protestants and people who didn't – and it still does. I don't think this happened in any reformed churches in Europe.

I think the price that the English paid for this was an agreement not to discuss matters of religion, or rather to transmute them into matters of personal taste, about which there can be no right and wrong. This conversational convention has gradually spread to other areas of public discourse (try disagreeing with something that someone says about the weather, or try getting someone to disagree with you by saying something that's obviously not true). This might also explain why the English intellectual tradition is so resolutely anti-theoretical, in matters of philosophy and politics and even science. As Marx observed, "If the Englishman transforms men into hats, the German transforms hats into ideas."

Remember this next time the French guy you are talking with seems to be worrying a subject to death like a dog with a bone. It's not him that's got a problem, it's you.

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