The Royal family, the English pound and driving on the left, none of these British characteristics seem to be in synch with the rest of the world. However, the British don’t particularly care what others might think. Their traditions have a special meaning for them. They are the most complicated, most contradictory, and most interesting people on earth.
Let’s start at the beginning -- with queuing. It is a feature of life that seems to offer a particular kind of pleasure for the British. They line up and wait quietly, showing their respect both for others as well as their trust of this queuing culture itself. I used to believe that all the people from the developed world behaved this way until a British friend told me, jokingly, that “Perhaps it’s because the Brits don’t have much imagination that they don’t know how to take advantage…” Then he pointed out that the Italians are certainly not like this. In comparison to the noisy southern Europeans, the British demonstrate a cold sense of order, while at the same time revealing their character and its innate sense of distance.
Privacy, clearly correlated with the sense of distance, is a commonly used term. It’s as if the word has been created for the British. Jeremy Paxman, the famous journalist-author called it the “castle in every Englishman’s heart.”
The British, for example, don’t talk about money directly, even among close friends. It is almost like they are afraid to be infected with the stench. Similar attitudes apply to their relationship with religion. With its rich history of freedom, any religion’s believer can find their spiritual sustenance. In London, Christian churches, Islamic mosques and Buddhist temples live side-by-side, whereas the Museum of natural science offers a place for the atheists to confirm their beliefs.
Yet rarely do the British inquire about each other’s religious orientation, because religion relates to one’s faith and faith is about one’s soul. To talk about such things would be considered as extreme vulgarity.
Likewise, one’s political orientation is another taboo topic. Though the English are famous for being particularly caustic about their government, politicians and public figures, it is nonetheless inappropriate to inquire about other people’s political inclinations, which would be like asking them about their sexual orientation.
With its long aristocratic tradition, this country has also transmitted the profound appreciation of chivalry and gentlemanliness to its people. We can define this as the courage to take responsibility, to take the lead.
In the various wars of British history, the death toll of the aristocrats was often proportionally higher than that of the commoners. It is precisely the embodiment of such a spirit. Britain’s heroic performance in World War II was also derived from this kind of spirit of sacrifice.
One can even say that the fact that the Royal Family hasn’t fallen apart after suffering a series of crises is thanks to their great perseverance and the desperate resistance of its people during the War.
Though the aristocracy and chivalry have declined, gentlemanly manners are passed on, and are expressed through clothing and graceful behavior, appropriate conversation and care towards women.
In English literature, the character that best reflects these traits is Sherlock Holmes. He is knowledgeable pragmatic, calm, attentive, brave, good at analysis and at self-deprecating wit.
Arrogance & self-deprecation
Arrogance and self-deprecation are the most peculiar and interesting conflicting characteristics of the British. The coexistence of the two opposing personalities can be expressed as the British character, or British charm.
The British do have enough reasons to be proud. As an old civilization, it possesses a unique culture and artistic tradition and it has long been a world leader. It is also where modern science and the industrial revolution originated.
However, the British’s deep sense of pride doesn’t have much to do with their country’s glory. As an island nation, though the British were bold in developing trade overseas and had colonies all over the world, British subjects care about their own life more than about what’s happening in other parts of the world. Their narcissism and arrogance might be rooted at this.
Yet there is much more to the British: they can parse their own character and shortcomings in equal measure, and often it is expressed in a humorous manner.
Mr. Bean, the sweepingly successful comedy series, is the classic of British self-analysis. Mr. Bean is always preoccupied. He loves competition. He is self-righteous and neglects others’ feelings. Meanwhile he is good-hearted and loves mischief. As social anthropologist and author Kate Fox, describes it, “British humor contains at least a bit of teasing, mockery, irony, or pretentious understatement. It is also self-deprecating. It is to laugh at oneself or just to play the fool.” Like Mr. Bean. She adds, “For the British, the rule of humor is the law of nature in the culture. We follow automatically the rules of humor just as we are obliged to follow the rule of gravity.”
The self-deprecating spirit is most obvious when facing Americans. The two nations share much mutual respect, and yet are not entirely convinced about each other. Though a small number of English look at the people of their former colony with superiority, and despise the Americans for being naïve and unsophisticated, even they are keenly aware of the fact that the U.S. has replaced Britain as the world hegemony.
Stiff upper lip
That very English expression of the “stiff upper lip” captures the particular personality of perseverance, calm and composure, of never showing emotion. Not to allow one’s upper lip to wobble unconsciously when in fear or weakness is what a determined Englishman is supposed to be. Think: James Bond.
The British used to be the world’s overlord. They once had an empire. But when the hegemony was lost, they returned home and now attempt to influence the world with design, music and new ways of thinking. Though their hierarchical society shapes their law-abiding behavior, their thinking has a unique vibrancy and flexibility.
It makes for a high level of inclusiveness. Ironically perhaps, this particular British quality can today even be seen in the most exclusive of positions: the current Queen Elisabeth. Born of the Royal family, she represents tradition, kindness, perseverance, and even the sense of humor. She also has woman’s finesse and gentleness. In short, she is Britain’s most excellent calling card.
The author lived in the UK between 2003 to 2011
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