Stereotyping the English

In response to “An update on search terms,” Drewdog 2060 wrote, “I am finding it difficult to comment as my collar, freshly starched by my butler this morning, is restricting my air supply. Too many good dinners at the gentleman’s club in Pal Mal. I do not, of course subscribe to stereotypes.”

Which got me thinking about stereotypes a bit more—okay, I’m not going to say seriously, since I try not to take my seriousness too seriously here, but a bit more than I had been. Even though I was the one to raise the topic.

When I was a kid, my father would sometimes give voice to a character he called the Constipated Englishman. The CE was a kind of Colonel Blimp figure (more about him in a minute) who never managed any real words but harrumphed a lot and made my brother and me giggle.

Irrelevant photo: Field patterns, late winter

Irrelevant photo: Field patterns, late winter

Ah for those innocent days when you could insult an entire nationality and not have to wonder if it was a good idea. I offer you a verbal wince on my father’s behalf, because wasn’t a person to go in for stereotypes. He never made racist jokes and, with this exception, didn’t make jokes about entire nationalities either. But the English had been winners in the global poker game for so long, even though by then they were losing their chips, that they must’ve struck him as fair game. Besides, he had two giggling kids begging him to do the voice again, on top of which he probably saw the CE not as representative of the entire country but of a particular type of person it had given rise to.

I was too young to understand anything that subtle, so for years I more or less believed the entire English nation was male and upper class and constipated. And yes, if I’d stopped to think about that I’d have known it defied the laws of physics or probability or something else scientific, but that’s the thing with stereotypes—most of the time you don’t stop and think about them. They just drift around in your head like wisps of fog, obscuring one thing and leaving the rest clear. You can stop noticing that they’re there at all.

And here we should get back to Colonel Blimp, who was a cartoon character created by David Low as a result of overhearing two military men in a Turkish bath arguing that cavalry officers should be allowed to wear their spurs inside their tanks.

Um, yes indeed they should. Not to mention their swords. We can discuss the horses another time. I want measure the tanks they used back then before I give a definitive opinion.

Unlike the CE, who never even had a name, Colonel Blimp encapsulated the officers Low overheard so well that the entire type is now named after him. He was a character—particular and individual, even when he stood in for a group. You might want to argue that he was a stereotype, but it would be a harder argument to make.

All this is on my mind because when you write about the differences between cultures—and especially when you try to be funny about it—it’s easy to slide into using stereotypes and being, basically, a shithead. So if I cross the line here, I invite you to throw a rock. Or a cavalry officer’s spurs or a tank—whatever’s handy. Or better yet, a comment. It’ll annoy the hell out of me, and I’ll be grateful.

And in case you’re interested, the profound sociological, nonjudgmental reason that stereotypes are wrong is because they make the person who broadcasts them into a shithead.

Aren’t you glad I’m around to present these things dispassionately?

60 thoughts on “Stereotyping the English

  1. Delightful read this morning! I can imagine your dad and his CE impression… And although stereotypes are not true of all, I even poke fun at myself and my NY accent and attitude…!
    Cheers and greetings from your home town!

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    • Ah, that New York accent. I’m regularly told that I don’t have one, although never by people from New York. What I have is a New York accent, but since it’s not the one people hear in films or on TV there’s always someone who’s sure they know all about it.

      Were we talking about stereotypes?

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      • Hi Ellen, I’m actually from New York but living in California since 8 years old. Rarely, people say they hear my New York accent, but it does happen. Did you lose yours when you moved to England?

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        • For reasons I can’t explain, I don’t pick up accents easily in English, although I’m pretty good at it in other languages. I lived in Minnesota for 40 years without picking up anything more than (I’m told) something slightly Upper Midwesternish about the O. So no, as far as I can tell, I still sound unreconstructedly American. I’m surprised that at 8 you were held onto any part of your original accent.

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  2. Thank you for the mention. The English do, I think have views of themselves which can be construed as stereotypical, (well some of them do). I have happy memories of sitting in a dark library at boarding school, with wooden floors and high bookcases. Somehow this image strikes me as being very English although, of course such libraries exxist throughout the world! Being blind I come across quite a few stereotypes regarding blind people. We all (blind people) have fantastic hearing – “pardon, can you speak up please, what was that you said?”! Some stereotypes can be downright dangerous, for example blind people can not use computers. People (particularly employers who entertain this view can discriminate against blind people by not employing them on the erroneous assumption they can not use IT). Kevin

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    • I’d guess that all groups–nationalities and otherwise–have stereotypes of themselves, or at least images of themselves that could easily tip over into stereotypes, and that we sometimes make jokes about or complain about. Maybe this goes back to Karen’s comment about the difference between what a member of the group says about the group and what an outsider says. It’s different, and it’s heard differently/

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      • You are, I think right that there are certain stereotypes and (I would
        add) words which a particular group may use about itself but which, if
        used by someone not a part of that community might be construed as
        offensive. Having said that it is, in a free society important that we
        allow people to voice views as regards stereotypes etc which many may
        not like (provided of course that they don’t descend into advocy of
        violence). I wouldn’t want to live in a society where people are
        terrified to speak for fear of offending someone.
        I wasn’t being “a shithead”. I was being ironic about the English. I
        think the ability to laugh at oneself is important. Without humour “we
        are all doomed Captain Mannering”! Kevin > Howdy,

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        • I agree completely. You are officially a complete non-shithead.

          I don’t want to live with laws that forbid offensive words, but I also want to retain my right to tell someone off when they use them. As long as people are willing to hear about it when they’re offensive, that’s fine, but I sometimes get the impression that some folks want freedom for themselves to offend other people, then get offended when they’re called out about it. In other words, they seem to want to dominate the conversation. In my experience, when there’s a social price to pay, the incidence of insulting behavior goes down.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I agree completely. Everyone is entitled to their point of view (however unpleasant it may be), however we have the right to call them out about it and they shouldn’t be surprised when that happens. I was recently in a pub and a man kept insisting on his “right” to use the “N” word to describe black people and I am not speaking of the word negro. I could feel my temper fraying and all I could do was to tell him that I (as a white person) found the word offensive and he shouldn’t be at all surprised if black people become extremely irate if he uses it in their presence. Kevin

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            • Years ago, I knew someone who insisted on saying it–an otherwise personable woman, from a very, very white part of the world–and after going through an assortment of discussions on the subject, none of which had the least impact, I finally lost it and said, “You can’t say that here.” (I can’t remember where we were, but somehow it was the here-ness of it that tipped me over the edge from discussion to fiat.) And the funny thing was that she stopped–at least in my presence.

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  3. Ellen,
    This is a very intelligent way of writing what you want to say and asking for comments to boot. I am amazed at the dexterity with which you use words and convey meanings, with your tongue in your cheek.
    Great writing- looking forward to reading more.
    I have stereotyped people as well but do not have the guts to put it in a public forum, so I confess I am guilty but have no evidence to prove it.

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    • This is all going straight to my head. It’s a good thing I don’t have to drive afterwards.

      We’ve all done it. So much of it floats around our culture, all we have to do is breathe in to have it become part of us. What matters is to see it, and as much as possible to change.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like the line ‘they just drift around in your head like wisps of fog, obscuring one thing and leaving the rest clear’. What a poetic way of describing a stereotype! We’re all guilty of it in various degrees. The question is how often do we take it out and polish it in public for the purpose of being insulting or derogatory?
    In the very short time I’ve been following your blog, I would say you have never crossed that line :)

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  5. Hang on–so is Drewdog’s comment funny, or is he being a shithead? Is he “broadcasting the stereotype” or is he satirizing it? I guess I’m confused about what you mean by “broadcasting the stereotype,” but I think you hit the nail on the head when you write “the English had been winners in the global poker game for so long, even though by then they were losing their chips, that they must’ve struck him as fair game.” There are acceptable targets for humor that relies on stereotypes–the British (still), the Americans (always) and it works (mostly, although not always) if you are a member of the group of which you are making fun.

    I once discussed acceptable and unacceptable topics for humor with another (male) blogger here–he bemoaned the fact that he could not make fun of feminists, for example. I replied, “Of course you can’t make fun of feminists! They have no sense of humor!”

    Satire, or was I “broadcasting the stereotype”?

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    • I thought Drewdog’s comment was great. If someone wants to argue that he was being a shithead, I’m willing to argue, but it’s not a position I really expect anyone to take.

      I do think there are jokes that only work if you’re one of the group being poked fun at, and as a member of a variety of minority groups I find I sometimes have to pick my audience for those carefully, because some people mistake them for an invitation to wade in and be, in my elegant phrasing, shitheads. I think where my father went awry with his Constipated Englishman was in his choice of audience. Adults might have recognized that he was making fun of a narrow, pompous group that could do with a bit of deflating. I can’t speak for my brother, but I at least didn’t get that part of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Like us Canadians being so polite. And good beer drinkers. And living in igloos (never saw a real one in my life). And saying “eh” all the time… to name but a few stereotypes associated with the “Great White North”!

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  7. It takes a good mix of humility and courage to face hurdling tanks, spurs and comments!

    Good on ya (it’s St-Patty’s day, I’m pretending to be Irish) for being vigilant about the risk of sacrificing good manners (by stereotyping) for humor!

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  8. I half overheard a couple of American girls the other day and one was saying ‘but she dresses so stereotypically Britishly’ but I didn’t hear anymore and have been pondering since then the stereotypical British look for a woman, it’s easy for me to draw to mind men in bowler hats or outdated Colonial uniforms if we’re talking about British men but no idea what the equivalent is for women. If you can enlighten me at all I’ll endeavour to live up to it immediately!

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    • I’m not the best person to tackle the question. Basically, I’m dyslexic about fashion. I’m guessing lots of prints. Flowery stuff. Ruffles. Or else wellies and a quilted jacket. I should find some people I can kick the question around with. It’d be fun.

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  9. I say old chap. Bally funny little posting there. Had me and ones mater in jolly old stitches, what! Plums! That’s the problem, old girl. Plums! Jolly difficult to make much sense when taliking with ones mouth full of plums! Keep up the good work! Chortle, chortle!

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  10. Whenever someone’s out of their region or country, they have an accent. I never realized I had an American accent until I came to India. Some people have difficulty understanding my English because of my American accent. :)

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  11. As an immigrant, I know that it’s been difficult to balance my two cultures. Both American and Asian culture has influenced me immensely, and I do what I can to live the best of each culture, each world, because there’s something beautiful in each of them.

    However, being an immigrant doesn’t mean I’m not prejudiced, and though I do my best to remain impartial, I don’t think I’m as infallible as I think I am.
    …I hope that makes sense. Thanks for listening.

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    • It makes perfect sense to me.

      One of the things that makes me furious about the immigration debate is that one thread of the discussion focuses on “making sure immigrants acculturate,” as if we were all raised by wolves and bring nothing from our home cultures to contribute. I’m with you: Celebrate them both, living the best of each.

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  12. Hi Ellen! I’m here in my official capacity as Inspire Me Monday Linky party hostess. LOL. Anyway, it’s great to see you here. Look at how many comments and Likes you got on this post. I’m really happy for you. I found a lot of what you wrote relatable, and I commented on one of them. Your 3/21 comment about the grammar, I hear Americans have fallen into such a rut when it comes to proper grammar, lapses are now optional. However, I’m a licensed English teacher, so I’m with you. People should make an informed choice. Thanks for coming to the Linky party.

    Liked by 1 person

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