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Stiff Upper Lips

The image of the English gentleman is famous across the world and, truth be told, there still exists a special kind of refined etiquette in English culture. Not that everyone holds open doors, averts his eyes while a lady dresses and lay down his coat over a muddy puddle – but there’s a strong, unspoken sense of how things ought to be done.

The English never quite recovered from the Victorian age when it was considered in poor taste to show emotion. The concept of the ‘stiff British upper lip’ probably evolved in this time and since then it’s been a core value to endure adversity stoically.

So in olden times, when your loved one died under the wheels of a train, one must not tear out one’s hair, nag one’s head against a wall and scream blue murder. Instead one should frown slightly and exclaim:

‘Dash it, that was rather a blow.’

In a desperate bid to avoid emotion, the English have developed an entire language around the evasion of embarrassing situations:

‘I don’t suppose you could possibly..’

‘I’m terribly sorry…’

‘Would it be too much trouble to…’

And so on. The point, it would seem, is to avoid any tricky scene or confrontation. Aftter all, ‘ one mustn’t make a scene’.

The English sense of shame is perhaps second only to that of the Japanese. Embarrassment causes almost physical pain to the English, a phenomenon which explains the success of Mr Bean – Rowan Atkinson engineered all the social nightmares of the English psyche and brought them out into the open.

The English, over all, give themselves quite a hard time and berate themselves miserably when they fail to live up to their own high expectations. Their sense of ethics is about as refined as the rules of cricket – and neither is all that explicable to foreigners.

Even when it comes to talking about the weather the English will hide behind a litany of clichés that are sure not to evoke any disagreement:

‘Looks like rain again.’

‘It never rains but it pours.’

In the latter we can see the essential English pessimism and masochistic longing for ill fortune. With a shrug and a satisfied grimace that things are indeed getting worse, the English will say things like:

“Typical. I might have known.’

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’

‘Still mustn’t grumble…’

And in this last comment we see that the English also censor their right to complain which, if you watch an episode of Eastenders, is the English raison d’etre.