The issue of “Britishness”

When I moved to London, people often told me things like “Oh you’re so lucky, London is such a multicultural city that you’ll blend in perfectly. No one cares if you have green hair or if you’re wearing your shirt inside out!” A friend of mine from university recently posted this as her Facebook status: “Number of times I laughed to myself on the long walk home from Angel: 34. Number of times people stopped to stare at the strange Asian girl laughing to herself: 0. Another reason to love London.” But this hasn’t always been the stereotype.

For a long time, the English were seen as people who thought very highly of themselves, while the others were just “foreigners” (well, whenever I start speaking a language other than English, some friends of mine still say “Wow, that was NOT English” or “Nevermind, it’s foreigner”…). Cecil Rhodes once said that “to be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life.” Andreas Trevisano, the Venetian Ambassador visiting London in 1497, thought that the English “do not believe that there are any other people than themselves, or any other world than England”.

My mother offered me the book “Xenophobe’s Guide to the English” a few months ago. I thanked her and discreetly placed it on my shelf and only really looked at it, well, today. Shouldn’t I know by now that “mum knows best”? This book is a hilarious list of stereotypes about the English, which obviously should not be taken too seriously, but from a “foreigner” point of view, it might actually have some good (but mainly funny) points.

For example, it explains that what many years ago could have been mistaken for xenophobia, is actually xenopili – “pity for foreigners for having the misfortune to be, well, NOT English”.

The reason why the majority remain “innately mistrustful of abroad”? “Dodgy food, dodgy water, dodgy plumbing, funny cooking smells, unfamiliar clothes and peculiar accents”. Even their weather, which is globally seen as, for lack of a better word, ghastly, “is far more interesting than anyone else’s, and is always full of surprises.”

What about how they see the foreigners? “Germans are far too serious; the Italians,  too emotional; the Spanish are cruel to bulls; the Russians are gloomy; the Dutch solid and sensible; the Scandinavians, Belgians and Swiss, dull, and all oriental peoples are inscrutable and dangerous.”

And for all fellow journalists or Journalism students out there, let’s just say that “nobody would ever question the aptness of the newspaper headline: ‘Fog in the Channel – Continent cut off‘.”

As humorous and entertaining as this might be (which it IS), it obviously isn’t (completely) true and no country can or should be reduced to a list of stereotypes. However, it is true, in my opinion, that the English society is a more closed one compared to other countries. This constitutes quite a contradiction, as Britain is becoming a nation of immigrants: 8% of its total population, and 26% of London’s, was born outside the UK. 

London is especially affected by immigration; I am an immigrant myself, and know dozens of other people who have moved either here or elsewhere in the UK in the last couple of years. I for one believe the culture of contemporary Britain is being constructed collectively; we are all building a multicultural society, which might become more and more distant from its usual stereotype of not appreciating foreigners. Who knows?

Picture: Courtesy of Mrs. Black’s Media



Filed under Living in London

10 responses to “The issue of “Britishness”

  1. I just want to say I am just new to blogging and truly savored you’re web site. Likely I’m planning to bookmark your site . You amazingly come with incredible articles. Regards for sharing your web page.

  2. Julien

    Just thought that this could be related to the topic.

    Map number six is the one we are interested in… but honestly the others are worth reading…


  3. FC

    que começo tão auspicioso!
    posts bem informados, com “espírito”, com qb de estudo e qb de intuição…
    conselhos não tenho. deixo-te as palavras de um dos filhos da grande Sophia:
    “A mim, todavia, ensinou-me o mais importante de tudo: ensinou-me a olhar. Ensinou-me a olhar para as coisas e para as pessoas, ensinou-me a olhar para o tempo, para a noite, para as manhãs. Ensinou-me a abrir os olhos no mar, debaixo de água, para perceber a consistência das rochas, das algas, da areia, de cada gota de água. Ensinou-me a olhar longamente, eternamente, cada pedra da Piazza Navone, em Roma, sentados num café, escutando o silêncio da passagem do tempo. Fez-me mergulhador e viajante, ensinou-me que só o olhar não mente e que todo o real é verdadeiro. Quem ler com atenção, verá que esta é a moral que atravessa toda a sua escrita”. (in Público)
    ps: inês, um livro giro sobre os ingleses que li recentemente é o “A kingdom by the sea” do paul theroux.

    • Inês Azevedo

      Obrigada pelo comentário e pela sugestão do livro! 🙂 Gostei muito da citação.

  4. nsdogss

    “All oriental peoples are inscrutable and dangerous.”


  5. LR

    A Portuguese who was born in Luxembourg, attended European School, took piano lessons with a French and art lessons with a Bulgarian, has an Italian “uncle” and friends from different parts of the world… What else? Plus she has a real sense of humour!

  6. vaf

    Extremely clever, witty and thought-provoking introduction to one of the most troublesome and socially divisive concepts of contemporary culture! I was just wondering whether you might like to read Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” (1983 – a classic) and Anthony D. Smith’s “Cultural Foundations of Nations” (2008) to have a more in-depth (but certainly not as funny!) insight on the subject…

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