Cross-cultural Observations: Dear Oxbridge

I spent my entire Sunday morning in bed reading the book Dear Oxbridge: Love Letter to England by Nele Pollatscheck that a friend of mine sent me from Germany. I was actually going to be smug about ‘pre-reading’ for #GermanLitMonth for once, but in fact I’ll review it right away, because it says much more about the English than the Germans (yes, mainly the English rather than the British in general).

Photo by Sidharth Bhatia on Unsplash
Instead of filling it with post-it notes while reading, like I usually do, I’ve quote-tweeted extensive passages from the book, because I found it so amusing. I viewed it of course with a wary anthropologist’s eye, so I found it equally revealing about the author and the Germans, as well as often quite spot-on about privilege at Oxbridge, a certain class of Englishman (and it is most often the men she mentions). Bad housing standards and drains, tiny rooms, unmixed taps all make their appearance here, as do private schools, the red trouser brigade of toffs, the stiff upper lip and the constant obsession with the war.  
Of course, it’s fair to say that during her five years of studying first in Cambridge and then in Oxford, the author was living in a bit of a bubble, so it would be difficult to extrapolate her observations to all of Britain or even all of England.
For example, she says at some point that the upper classes tend to be more direct in their speech: they call a spade a spade and a toilet a toilet, while the working classes try to avoid sounding vulgar by calling it a cloakroom. Which may be somewhat true, but then she goes on to say that it’s mainly gentlemen who swear and cuss, and I thought to myself that she clearly can’t have been exposed very much to a pub in an average English town on a Friday night, where everyone is at it hammer and tongs.
I’m also rather unsure about her observation that the NHS oversubscribes anti-depressives because they are the cheapest form of therapy and that so many people use them almost routinely. I found that, on the contrary, the GP tends to push you into the direction of CBT rather than pills, even when there are long waiting lists to see anyone and you get only a small number of appointments on prescription anyway. But perhaps this has changed since she was living in the UK before 2016. (Also, it tends to be a bit of a postcode lottery as to how mental health is viewed and treated.)
These are minor issues, however, and on the whole I think she feels a lot of affection for the British, but is still capable of casting cold, clear eyes upon them. Unlike me after my year in Cambridge, when I returned to Romania for a year, saw everything British through rose-tinted glasses and couldn’t wait to plot, plan and arrange to get back to my studies in England. 
What struck me most about the book was how much your own cultural background influences what you seek (and find) in another culture. In the final chapter, the author muses about how she discovered she was more German than she had expected (in terms of punctuality, being quite direct and wanting to complain about things), and that what she admired most about the English was ‘kindness’, an almost untranslatable term in German. The Germans, she speculates, are disciplined and correct, they are even kind, but it tends to be more within the inner circle of family and friends. Perhaps the fact that there is no distinction between ‘Sie’ and ‘Du’ when the English say ‘you’, that most people address each other by their first names, makes it easier to add people to your inner circle.
To me, coming from a Latin and Balkanic culture, kindness and generosity were not the traits that most struck me about the English. On the contrary, I struggled with the coldness, with what I perceived as lack of hospitality, neighbourliness and genuine willingness to help (I have lived mainly in the South-East, I should say in my defence, and have generally met with much more kindness in other parts of the country.) However, what I did admire was the calm, the wit, the ability to laugh at oneself, the politeness, the non-escalation of conflict – all of the things which I felt were lacking in my own culture.
Dear Oxbridge is a farewell letter to Britain and an attempt to explain Brexit to the Germans. Given how critical the author is about Etonians, politicians, the privileged elite and how the British put up with far too much from their ruling classes, I don’t think it will be translated here any time soon.

27 thoughts on “Cross-cultural Observations: Dear Oxbridge”

  1. Sounds fascinating, Marina Sofia. The one point you make that really struck me was how one’s own culture influences perceptions. There is a lot of evidence for that, as you know, and I think it’s so integral to how we think that it’s easy to forget the impact. That, to me, is one advantage of reading books written by members of very different cultures. It keeps me from assuming anything about my own viewpoint.

    1. However, the one thing that all foreigners who come to Britain can agree on (regardless where they’re coming from) is that unmixed taps are the work of the devil!

      1. Hah! Unmixed taps in public toilets are always a lottery, either one or the other works efficiently, the hot tap may be either scalding or not hot at all — in fact, they’re possibly a metaphor for the British temperament! (We have an assortment in our house of mixer taps and separate H&C ‘faucets’.)

        Enjoyed the quotes I saw that you’d tweeted, but I wouldn’t say old Etonians (and Harrovians, Salopians etc) are at all typical of the majority of Brits, even if we’re at the mercy of too many of them at present.

        1. No, they really aren’t, and she points out that they weren’t even the majority at Oxbridge… but they do seem to dominate current politics (and business and media and so on).

  2. Interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book! I grew up in the South East (and still live there albeit in a different area), and find that culture seems to vary strongly depending on what kind of environment you’re living in. I grew up on two council estates where everyone was living in each other’s pockets. In that environment I found the helpfulness, neighbourliness, and hospitality that the author talks about – but not the politeness or lack of conflict escalation that you mention. In the more middle class and/or studenty areas where I’ve lived subsequently, people are politer but more standoffish. I’m now living back on a council estate in a different town. Although I moved in right at the start of the pandemic so haven’t really met people yet, I’m finding it much friendlier (but more argumentative) than anywhere I’ve lived in years!

    1. It most certainly is a class thing, and I remember a classic anthropology text that I studied Family and Kinship in East London, also Elizabeth Roberts’ work on women and families via oral histories.

  3. One thing the last couple of years has done is made it impossible for me to view Oxbridge (esp. Oxford) through admittedly rose-tinted glasses any more. The advantage of distance from the reality has gone thanks to Johnson and cohorts, but maybe that’s for the best.

    1. Exactly! I cringe a little bit now when my son says he wants to go to Cambridge and have to remind myself that I made some lifelong, really nice friends there.

  4. Interesting post and comments. I spent four years in Cambridge, and found my immediate neighbours, in a fairly downmarket part of town, fairly friendly and open; the central and university areas were like a Disney image of British upper class life in the thirties. It’s more than the town v gown divide – as someone earlier commented, it’s more to do with the class/cultural nature of the locality that’s important. I don’t subscribe to the notion either that ‘the north’ is a friendlier, more spontaneous part of the country. I’ve lived there, too; it’s a myth.

    1. I’ve heard mixed reports about the north too. Certainly, whenever I’ve visited there, I found people very pleasant and willing to help. But I’ve never stayed there for longer than a week.

  5. I guess knowing that Boris Johnson went to Oxbridge really tears off any glamorous idea I still had about the place. He’s a poor ambassador of the British elite, I’m afraid.

    We certainly are influenced by our own culture and perception.

    I’d love to read what she thinks about French people. It would be entertaining and she’d spare us the croissant, baguette, béret, lavender, men-are-lovers clichés. How refreshing it would be.

    1. I’ve heard the recent Emily in Paris series really uses ALL of the clichés, so I didn’t waste my time watching it. Interestingly, my French friends thought it was terrible, while my expat friends living in France thought it was charming. Hmmm…

  6. I agree, ‘kindness’ is definitely not something I associate with the English. It’s no surprise that ‘manners maketh man’ is an English saying, it is still at an upper class level dominant as a way of presenting to the world. Definitely South East is worst. It was used as a measure for me when I met my first landlady in Geneva. She said to me ‘The Swiss are more English than the English’, expanding on that to explain that I would make no Swiss friends there, which was certainly true. Pretty much the same as the UK.

    Is there no mention in the book of the way in which Brits don’t really understand that they don’t have an empire any more? I think that has a large impact on their behaviour and (obviously) their world view too.

    1. I rather liked English politeness, felt it was a good substitute for genuine kindness (and less interfering on many an occasion – oh, how I wished random old Romanian ladies wouldn’t start giving me advice about how to wrap up my baby warmly on public transport!). I do believe this politeness is decreasing at the moment, certainly in public discourse. I suppose if the political and media elites lose their politeness (sometimes in the misguided belief that they are ‘down with the people’ when they do so), it emboldens people everywhere to be rude and confrontational.

  7. I certainly found the English standoffish when I lived in London, but I put it down to them feeling a bit overwhelmed at the massive number of incomers to their city. It happens in a much smaller degree in Edinburgh, where a relatively small “indigenous” population is vastly outnumbered by marauding hordes of transitory incomers! However once I got through their reserve, I did find them warm and kind-hearted on the whole, and they don’t swear much more than Glaswegians… 😉

    1. Residents of any large capital city have the reputation for not being the ‘nicest’ representatives of their country (think about France and Parisians, or Italy and the Romans). I would certainly say people in Bucharest are the least welcoming of any Romanians. That’s what urban proximity, overcrowding and trying to survive in the business world do to people.

  8. It’s so interesting to hear your reflections on the limited capacity for kindness and generosity amongst the people you’ve encountered in the South East. Back in the 1980s, I spent six years studying at Nottingham University, and the vast majority of locals I met in the city and surrounding suburbs were kind, cheerful and very willing to help. The sense of community was palpable – much stronger than it is here in the home counties where I’ve lived for the past 30 years. There’s something about the Midlands in particular, a feeling of unity and togetherness – although I’m sure there are always exceptions to these generalisations, irrespective of the location!

    1. One huge difference is the level of child-friendliness: I remember I was utterly and totally spoilt when I travelled with my children in Southern Europe (in which I include Romania, Greece, Italy). Meanwhile, in Northern Europe, children are most certainly perceived as nuisances in public spaces (and that is the case in Germany and Austria as well, and in the US), regardless of how well treated they might be at home.

  9. “What struck me most about the book was how much your own cultural background influences what you seek (and find) in another culture.”
    Very true, Marina

  10. Gosh, I put this aside to read later and find I have only just done so. It’s interesting, isn’t it that when we’ve lived abroad we often generalise about the country we’re living in, whereas the characteristics may be regional? In France, living in ‘le fin fond’, in the rural south, we were made constantly aware of how different life was from up north, and those whom our neighbours saw as the Metropolitan Elite. As an English person from the north, of course I think we’re friendlier! And am then surprised to find how friendly my son’s London street is too. Mind you, when we were in France, I felt the English were so much less racist, so much more open to multi-culturalism than the French. And then came Brexit …..

    1. Goodness, yes, you are so right! The better we know a country and its inhabitants, the harder it is to generalise. And, just as we think we have started to know a group of people (or even one person), they surprise us. Still, it’s always fun to read these sort of things, although with a pinch of salt.

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