Saturday, 28 June 2008

Watching the English

This is an extract from 'Watching the English' by Kate Fox - a great example of how we can take on cultural behaviour rules without realising it ...
"... In our drinking places, however, we do not form an orderly queue at all: we gather haphazardly along the bar counter. At first, this struck me as contrary to all English instincts, rules and customs, until I realised that there is in fact a queue, an invisible queue, and that both the bar staff and the customers are aware of each person's position in this queue ...

... Bar staff do their best to ensure that everyone is served in proper turn, but it is still necessary to attract their attention and make them aware that one is waiting to be served. There is, however, a strict etiquette involved in attracting the attention of bar staff: this must be done without speaking, without making any noise and without resorting to the vulgarity of obvious gesticulation.

The prescribed approach is best described as a sort of subtle pantomime - not the kind of pantomime we see on stage at Christmas, but more like an Ingmar Bergman film in which the twitch of an eyebrow speaks volumes. The object is to make eye contact with the barman. But calling out to him is not permitted, and almost all other obvious means of attracting attention, such as tapping coins on the counter, snapping fingers or waving are equally frowned upon.

It is acceptable to let bar staff know one is waiting to be served by holding money or an empty glass in one's hand. The pantomime rule allows us to tilt the empty glass, or perhaps turn it slowly in a circular motion. The etiquette here is frighteningly precise: it is permitted to perch one's elbow on the bar, for example, with either money or an empty glass in one's hand, but not to raise one's whole arm and wave the glass or notes around.

The pantomime rule requires the adoption of an expectant, hopeful, even slightly anxious expression. If a customer looks too contented, bar staff may assume that he or she is already being served. Those waiting to be served must stay alert and keep their eye on the bar staff at all times. Once eye contact is made, a quick lift of the eyebrows, sometimes accompanied by an upward jerk of the chin, and a hopeful smile, lets the staff know you are waiting.

The English perform this pantomime sequence instinctively, without being aware that they are following a rigid etiquette, and never question the extraordinary handicaps (no speaking, no waving, no noise, constant alertness to subtle non-verbal signals) imposed by the rule. Foreigners find the eyebrow-twitching pantomime ritual baffling - incredulous tourists often told me that they could not understand how the English ever managed to buy themselves a drink - but it is surprisingly effective. Everyone gets served, usually in the right order, and without undue fuss, noise or argument."

Wednesday, 11 June 2008


One of the things I'm interested in is science and how it relates to our lives in the 21st century.

This Time article called How Much Sleep Do You Really Need? relates to that theme - it turns out 8 hours per night might not be so good after all. Daniel Kripke of the Scripps Clinic Sleep Center in California, says:
Studies show that people who sleep between 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours a night, as they report, live the longest. And people who sleep 8 hours or more, or less than 6.5 hours, they don't live quite as long. There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short ... One of the reasons I like to publicize these facts is that I think we can prevent a lot of insomnia and distress just by telling people that short sleep is OK. We've all been told you ought to sleep eight hours, but there was never any evidence.
As Scott Adams points out:
Add the "eight hours of sleep" myth to the eight 8-ounce glasses of water you were supposed to drink per day, the food you weren't supposed to eat before swimming, and the huge amounts of bread you were supposed to eat for a healthy diet.

Seriously, is there ANYTHING I learned when I was a kid that is true?