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.

1 comment:

Background Artist said...

The etymology of embaressment comes from the late 17C, 1665-75, of obscure origin but routes to the Frech, Spanish and Italian words for obstacle and to hamper.

Class and the English form of cultural embaressment, does I think, ultimately lead (though the route may not be immediately if at all visible) to the crown who sits atop a pyramid of class. S/he the crown is the one person whose presence would inspire in the vast majority of English people, the largest potential for an embaressing encounter to occur.

The slightest verbal fluff as one stood in line, which would cause a Majesty to react in such a way that one imagined or knew, they had committed a monumental faux pas. Some incredibly minor fluff or mistake on our part, which in any other circumstance would be of little or no concern or consequence to us - yet in the presence of the highest bred blue blood, would live with us as the most grave moment of embaressment and shame. And for the Majesty, instantly forgotten.

This disparity between us, between them and us, were we who are not the Majesty, are but a miniscule contributing 60 millionth of the blue blooded royal *we* that is the England, not of a dissapeared yore, but now perhaps?

The England which invented *the idea of how men of all classes aspired to dress...and expectations about work and government* - could it still be with us in a different, dilluted. but essentially the same form of cultural behaviour, where there is not three classes, but one crown class, a Highness all English people, history and culture has inculcated to think of themselves as below? Though the terms are more fluid and less applicable, the *working* class for example - the old proliteriat, the huddled mass, can now move with greater ease, meeting less resistance than before from the *middle class* above them.

This class itself having a *lower middle class* to differentiate between the competing citizens self-policing (unaware perhaps) keeping the orders in check, making sure no one gets to above themselves, by the powerful regulating tool of invoking embaressment in the people with ideas beyond their station, below them, using ones accent and dress as a weapon, speaking coldly in a voice whose elocution is of a superior standard to one with an inferior standard of elocution, putting them in their place, below us.

Appropriating a mythological perfection of prior times before we were here, using the fictions and facts, blending them into a coherent and confident picture which seeks to personify reasonable, civilised and desirable states of being - ultimately, with language, English, one's own version offerred as the collective we, the low key affable and prone to embaressment we English speakers.