Wednesday, 1 April 2009
Embarrassment 2 - Guest post from James Hamilton
I wonder if what is now seen as English embarrassment isn't fearfully modern. Emotional reticence, yes, but the updated version, stripped of the scaffolding of etiquette that once made it manageable. I agree with Kate Fox here that if your culture moves from a relatively formal mode to an informal (shorthand: if the '60s happen) then cultural preferences about emotional display either change along with it or become excruciating. I think we're going through an excruciating period, but becoming increasingly comfortable with a looser, louder way of being that sidesteps the awkwardness lack of etiquette generates.
So you can still meet a business-related roomful of English (or, I find, Scottish) strangers, and find the exercise of shaking hands embarrassing and farcical (it was once understood that you shook hands and said "how do you do?" and had done with it - there's a generation now who never owned that easy, comfortable formula and have nothing to put in its place). But you can, that same evening, walk into a pub and find your friends whooping and cheering you in from their table. Yo!
A lot of things went with Empire, or at the same time at any rate (I think other changes had a far greater impact on national psyche than the loss of Empire e.g. going from a world in which we'd invented everything that mattered - the post, the railways, the telephone, much of medicine, the telegraph system, tarmacked roads, a proper police force, the tank - to one in which we were compelled to impose American, German and Japanese innovations onto our increasingly irrelevant infrastructure) - the idea of how men of all classes aspired to dress - the polite codes I've just mentioned - expectations about work and about government.
My guess here, that English embarrassment has more to do with the period when the empire was returned to its real owners than when it was at its height, also has to do with the oft-forgotten fact that we weren't the only imperialists around. Embarrassment is not something associated with the Dutch, French, Germans, Portuguese, Spanish and Italians, and very much not with the stretching-a-point-when-talking-imperialism Americans. I don't think embarrassment in whatever form or expression can be simply empire, or principally empire, or even significantly empire, but I think it can be to do with the still-spreading meme that politeness is old-fashioned, alienating and - horrified intake of breath - posh.