Rhyme and Reason: February 1, 2014

Which brings me to the bumping experiments. I spent several amusing afternoons in busy, crowded public places (train stations, tube stations, bus stations, shopping centres, street corners, etc.) accidentally-on-purpose bumping into people to see if they would say ‘sorry’. A number of my informants, both natives and visitors, had cited this ‘reflex apology’ as a particularly striking example of English courtesy, and I was fairly sure I had experienced it myself – but I felt obliged to do the proper scientific thing and actually test the theory in a field-experiment or two.

My bumping got off to a rather poor start. The first few bumps were technically successful, in that I managed to make them seem convincingly accidental, but I kept messing up the experiment by blurting out an apology before the other person had a chance to speak. As usual, this turned out to be a test of my own Englishness: I found that I could not bump into someone, however gently, without automatically saying ‘sorry’. After several of these false starts, I finally managed to control my knee-jerk apologies by biting my lip – firmly and rather painfully – as I did the bumps. Having perfected the technique, I tried to make my experiments as scientific as possible by bumping into a representative cross-section of the English population, in a representative sample of locations. Somewhat to my surprise, the English lived up to their reputation: about 80 per cent of my victims said ‘sorry’ when I lurched into them, even though the collisions were clearly my fault.

George Orwell said that the English are ‘inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes and use probably the foulest language in the world’, but he nevertheless concluded, without contradiction, that ‘The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.’ As evidence of this, along with the good-temperedness of bus-conductors and unarmed policemen, he cited the fact that ‘In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement’. Quite so, and if your shove appears to be genuinely accidental, they might even apologize as they stumble into the gutter.

Kate Fox, Watching The English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

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