When I arrived in England, my partner gave me a book.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour would become my bible.
Kate Fox’s book is a marvellous addition to any expat’s research on England. I read it, but like so many things about culture, it didn’t really sink in until I’d experienced the things I read about.
My now wife and I met at a conference, a death conference to be precise.
As you do…
We sat next to each other the first night at dinner and the rest, as they say is history.
But it seems I only made it by the skin of my teeth, or rather the teeth on my fork.
Unbeknown to me and outside of the rules of English behaviour, I had no idea that on that first night, I held my knife and fork correctly. We’ve joked about it ever since. Held it wrongly and we wouldn’t be married…
The Knife Holding Rule
Page 316 talks about the knife holding rule, whether the handle goes under your palm or rests like a pencil between your thumb and index finger.
I jest about whether I would have passed the test to marriage. But it gets more extreme. When we met, Angie ate a pot of yogurt with a fork, because she didn’t want to move away from me to get a spoon. Sweet huh, but oh so wrong!
I jest, but these social rules about eating utensils are the key to opening up the whole world to English social history – the history of class. It’s certainly a fascinating insight into a country when you understand where it’s come from culturally and socially.
In one sentence, whether your midday meal is lunch or dinner, or whether your evening meal is supper or tea tells someone exactly what your social standing is.
I don’t say this to judge. I’m not judging.
This is historically how England operated. Your social behaviour, the words you used, the tone of your voice, your mannerisms – so much was and is revealed.
This history of class was part of shaping the nation. Your social status defined what you could achieve, what doors opened to you and how others viewed you.
The influence of class on identity
As an outsider arriving newly to a country you observe in ways that you might not as an insider.
I’ve often wondered about the infamous English reserve and where it comes from.
I still don’t know, but I can’t help but think about the impact of class. I may be wrong, but historically, if the minute you open your mouth you’re judged, then you’re going to keep it shut aren’t you? Whilst there are many other signs, your behaviour is also going to be more measured to not let out any hints.
Is this where English reserve comes from? I wonder?
The outsider’s view
Whilst time has evolved English society considerably, its history remains present and influential.
When I arrived in the UK, I worked in the field of heritage management. All my experience was Australian history and so I was a little concerned about how I might fit in working with English history, of which I knew very little.
But being an outsider was my genius zone!
It put me in a powerful position that I hadn’t considered.
I could get to the heart of things.
Someone said to me, “As an outsider, you’re in a really powerful position. You’re not part of our social history or class system. You can ask the questions we know we’re not allowed to ask.”
That blew my mind and I suddenly realised that I didn’t need to fit. My value and strength was precisely that I was different.
So, I asked away. It enabled me to have conversations that locals couldn’t in normal work settings. Professionally, it became my asset. People hear my Australian accent and I’m allowed a space that others aren’t. My accent attracts other comments, sometimes not friendly, but that’s their shit not mine.
The longer I’ve lived and worked here, the more I knew what I couldn’t ask, but with my accent I was still given open access.
Make the most of how you don’t fit
For all the people out there who are struggling to find a sense of belonging where you live, remember that your difference is your asset.
Whether you’re an expat, relocated 100 miles down the road, or maybe moved to another State or region, you will experience a period of adjustment. It’s easy to fit in because it feels safer.
However, my advice?
Don’t try to fit.
As I stated in the American Express magazine, AMEX Essentials, belonging comes from within
And the best bit?
You really want to know?
Your ability to not fit is your superpower.