quality of the British, and in particular of the English, is “reserved.” A reserved person is one who does not talk very much to strangers, does not show much emotion, and seldom gets excited. It is difficult to get to know a reserved person: he never tells you anything about himself, and you may work with him for years without ever knowing where he lives, how many children he has, and what his interests are. English people tend to be like that.
If they are making a journey by bus they will do their best to find an empty seat; if by train, an empty compartment. If they have to share the compartment with a stranger, they may travel many miles without starting a conversation. If a conversation does start, personal questions like “How old are you?” or even “What is your name?” are not easily asked.
This reluctance to communicate with others is an unfortunate quality in some ways since it tends to give the impression of coldness, and it is true that the English (except perhaps in the North) are not noted for their generosity and hospitality. On the other hands, they are perfectly human behind their barrier of reserve, and may be quite pleased when a friendly strange or foreigner succeeds for a time in breaking the barrier down. We may also mention at this point that the people of the North and West, especially the Welsh, are much less reserved than those of the South and East.
Closely related to English reserve is English modesty. Within their hearts, the English are perhaps no less conceited than anybody else, but in their relations with others they value at least a show of modesty. Self-praise is felt to be impolite. If a person is, let us say, very good at tennis and someone asks him if he is a good player, he will seldom reply “Yes,” because people will think him conceited. He will probably give an answer like, “I’m not bad,” or “I think I’m very good,” or “Well, I’m very keen on tennis.” (i.e. I’m very fond of it.) even if he had managed to reach the finals in last year’s local championships, he would say it in such a way as to suggest that it was only due to a piece of good luck.
The famous English sense of humor is similar. Its starting-point is self-dispraise, and its great enemy is conceit. Its object is the ability to laugh at oneself---at one’s own faults, one’s own failure, even at one’s own ideals. The criticism, “He has no sense of humor” is very commonly heard in Britain, where humor is highly prized. A sense of humor is an attitude to life rather than the mere ability to laugh at jokes. This attitude is never cruel or disrespectful or malicious. The English do not laugh at a cripple of a madman, or a tragedy or an honorable failure.
Since reserve, a show of modesty and a sense of humor are part of his own nature, the typical Englishman tends to expect them in others. He secretly looks down on more excitable nations, and likes to think of himself as more reliable than they. He doesn’t trust big promises and open shows of feelings, especially if they are expressed in flowery language. He doesn’t trust self-praise of any kind. This applies not only to what other people may tell him about themselves orally, but to the letters they may write to him. To those who are fond of flowery expressions, the Englishman may appear uncomfortably cold.
Finally, sportsmanship. Like a sense of humor, this is an English ideal which not all Englishmen live up to. It must be realized that sport in this modern form is almost entirely a British invention. Boxing, rugby, football, hockey, tennis and cricket were all first organized and given rules in Britain. Rules are the essence of sport, and sportsmanship is the ability to practice a sport according to its rules, while also showing generosity to one’s opponent and good temper in defeat. The high pressure of modern international sport makes these ideals difficult to keep, but they are at least highly valued in Britain and are certainly achieved there more commonly than among more excitable peoples. Moreover, sportsmanship as an ideal is applied to life in general this is proved by the number of sporting terms used in ordinary speech. Everybody talks of “fair play” and “playing the game” or “playing fair.” Borrowed from boxing, “straight from the shoulder” is used to describe a well-aimed, strong criticism and “below the belt” is used to describe an unfair one. One of the most elementary rules of life is “never hit a man when he’s down”---in other words, never take advantage of a person’s misfortune. English schoolboys often show this sense of sportsmanship to a surprisingly high degree in their relations with each other.
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