Share this article Share Indeed, during the course of my research, I was continually struck by the difficulty of having any sort of sensible conversation about sex. The mere mention of the word seemed to trigger a quip, or a witticism or a crude nudge-nudge remark. Why do we find sex so funny?
We don't, not really: In other parts of the world, sex may be regarded as a sin, an art form, a healthy leisure activity, a commodity, a political issue or a problem requiring years of therapy. In England, it's a joke. The average English male may be highly sexed, but he's not, it must be said, an accomplished flirt Courtship rituals In a study I did on flirting among the English, only one per cent of respondents — aged 18 to 40 — said that they 'never flirted', and over a third had flirted with someone 'today' or 'within the past week'.
So, the English are genetically programmed to flirt. It's just that we don't do it with the same degree of skill or assurance as most other nationalities. Or, rather, about 50 per cent of us are noticeably deficient in these qualities. The average English male may be highly sexed, but he's not, it must be said, an accomplished flirt. All too often, he's reticent, tongue-tied and awkward. To help him shed his inhibitions, he tends to consume large quantities of alcohol: From the perspective of the unfortunate English female, this isn't much of an improvement — unless her own judgment is severely impaired, as it often is, by a similar quantity of alcohol.
The role of alcohol in the passing on of English DNA should never be underestimated. English males are particularly squeamish about the idea of dating. Going on a 'date' is just a bit too explicit, too official and unambiguous — the sort of embarrassing cards-on-the-table declaration of intent that the naturally cautious, indirect Englishman prefers to avoid.
It's just that the modesty that we actually display is generally false — or, to put it more charitably, ironic. To show how it works, let me tell you about a conversation with my husband, who happens to be a brain surgeon. When we first met, I asked what had led him to choose this profession.
This gave him a further opportunity for self-deprecation. To be honest, it's actually a bit hit-or-miss. So was he being truly modest? No, but neither could his humorously self-deprecating responses really be described as calculated false modesty. He was simply playing by the rules, dealing with the embarrassment of success and prestige by making a self-denigrating joke. And this is the point: He was just being English.
Among ourselves, this system works perfectly well: And everyone is duly impressed, both by one's achievements and by one's reluctance to trumpet them. Even when he's genuinely interested in a female, he may often be reluctant to convey his interest in a straight-forward fashion. Ideally, he'd rather not issue any definite invitation at all, preferring to achieve his goal through a series of subtle hints and oblique manoeuvres. Often, these are non-verbal, or so understated as to be almost undetectable.
Alternatively, his invitation may be so sexually explicit that it can easily be dismissed as a meaningless drunken joke if it backfires. All of which has a number of advantages for the English male. He's not required to exhibit any emotions; he avoids entangling himself too soon in anything that could possibly be described as a relationship; he doesn't have to do or say anything 'soppy', so he maintains his masculine dignity; and he avoids the humiliation of a verbal rejection.
Somehow, being shoved away or even slapped during a vague beery lunge at a female is regarded as less humiliating than having one's invitation to coffee politely turned down. It's all about the post-mortem with his mates the next day. English females are accustomed to this rather ambivalent form of courtship. Sometimes, however, we find it hard to read the signals accurately, and spend inordinate amounts of time discussing the possible meaning of some obscure hint or ambiguous gesture with our female friends.
Our uncertainty about a man's intentions is not entirely a bad thing, either. It allows us time to gauge the suitability of a prospective mate. Plus we can reject unwanted suitors without having to tell them we're simply not interested. Essentially, English courtship is an elaborate face-saving game, in which the primary object is not so much to find a sexual partner as to avoid embarrassment.
Flirting rules In most other cultures, flirtation and courtship involve exchanges of compliments. Among the English, you're more likely to hear exchanges of mock-insults.
The key ingredients are all very English: And banter specifically excludes all the things that make us uncomfortable: Banter allows courting couples to communicate their feelings without ever saying what they really mean, which would be embarrassing.
Instead, they must say the opposite of what they intend to convey — something at which the English excel. English teenagers, I've observed, sometimes conduct a special form of group courtship, in which a small group of males will exchange sexually charged insults with a small group of females.
Among older adults, flirtatious banter is less overtly abusive, but the same basic rules of irony, teasing and mock-insults apply.
English females may well prefer a more chivalrous form of courtship, but we're used to complying with the rules — and generally do so unconsciously. We know that banter is the emotionally constipated English male's most comfortable form of intimacy.
We also know that when a man persistently taunts and teases us, it usually means he likes us — and that if the sentiment is reciprocated, taunting and teasing back is the best way to express this. Sometimes, I find myself having to explain to foreign females that 'silly cow' really can be a term of endearment.
Or that 'You're just not my type', uttered in the right tone and in the context of banter, can be tantamount to a proposal of marriage. I'm not saying that English men never pay straightforward compliments or formally ask women out on dates. They do both of these things, albeit rather awkwardly, and they even propose marriage.
It's just that if they can possibly find a more vague or circuitous way of achieving the same end, they will. And so to bed. But what about sex? Actually, it's good news. Bed is the one place where we seem to shed almost all of our debilitating inhibitions; where we're temporarily cured of our social unease. Shut the curtains, dim the lights, take our clothes off, and you'll find we suddenly become quite human.
We can, after all, engage emotionally with other humans. We can be passionate, open, warm, affectionate, excitable and impulsive. For a relatively brief period, our actions aren't governed by any particular, distinctively English set of rules.
The morning after The next day, howvever, we revert to the usual state of awkward Englishness. We don't eat the nice lady's bra! What will she think of us? Male and female bonding A ritual exchange of compliments can be observed at almost every social gathering of two or more English female friends. And, as I know from eavesdropping everywhere from pubs to office canteens, the compliments tend to follow a distinctive pattern. The opening line may be either a straight compliment, such as: I wish I had gorgeous hair like you.
For example, you may say: It gets so frizzy —I wish I could have it short like you, but I just don't have the bone structure. You've got such good cheekbones. There can almost be an element of competitiveness in two women's one-downmanship. But the essence of the ritual is that few compliments are ever wholeheartedly accepted; and no self-denigrating remark ever goes unchallenged. So how would English counter-complimenters feel about someone who just accepted a compliment, without qualification, and didn't offer one in return?
The typical response was that this would be regarded as rather impolite and unfriendly, possibly even arrogant — and one woman told me that it would be 'almost as bad as boasting'.
Another woman actually said: Indeed, it's hard to imagine English men having the following exchange: No, I'm a terrible driver, honestly — and, anyway, your car is so much better than mine, faster and more powerful.
The truth is that while English women are busy paying each other compliments, English men are usually putting each other down — in a competitive ritual that I call the Mine's Better Than Yours game. English men can turn almost any conversation, on any topic, into a Mine's Better Than Yours game. I once listened to a minute Mine's Better Than Yours conversation yes, I timed it on the merits of wet-shaving versus electric razors.
The rules are as follows. You start either by making a statement in praise of your chosen 'Mine' electric razors, Manchester United, German cars, whatever or by challenging someone else's assertion that his 'Mine' is the best. Your statement will always be countered or challenged, even if the other male secretly agrees with you. It would, for example, be an unprecedented violation of macho etiquette to agree with a man who told you: Swearing, sneering and insults are allowed, even expected, but storming off in a huff is not.
However strongly you may feel about the product, team, theory or shaving method you're defending, you must not allow these feelings to show. Any signs of earnestness or zeal are un-English and will invite ridicule. The merits of your car, razor, politics or school of literary theory can be glowingly extolled and explained in minute detail, but your own good taste or judgement must be subtly implied, rather than directly stated.
Any hint of self-aggrandisement or ostentation is severely frowned upon, unless it's done ironically. It's also universally understood that there's no way of actually winning the game. In short, no one ever capitulates, or recognises the other's point of view.