We British are not renowned for what is called ‘emotional availability’, a term made popular by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 bestseller, Emotional Intelligence. In fact, we are rather more famous for our stiff upper lip. We can be ‘upset’ or ‘cross,’ but that is about all we are really comfortable with. We certainly mustn’t be passionate or someone will make fun of us somewhere.
But are these clichés still relevant?
But there is one category of emotions that we British seem to be pretty proficient at. We do seem to be on fairly intimate terms with a kind of anger – shall we call it exasperation? – that is often misdirected, strangely regulated and excessively expressed. Unfortunately, this group of emotions, sometimes called emotionality by psychotherapists, would be better repressed. They do not help in making good judgments or calming our autonomic nervous systems – quite the reverse. Hardly worthy of the name of feelings, these very base level emotions do not encourage much awareness and choice, but rater stimulate defensiveness and isolation. Many Britons are literally dripping with exasperation, frustration and irritation.
Personal experience of driving over the channel in France leads me to value the safety-oriented courtesy of British road users. But I’d rather drive in France than this side of the channel – at least outside of Paris – because I know that if I make a mistake on British roads someone is far more likely to give me ‘the finger,’ or hoot impatiently, barrage me with aggressive looks than over in France, where they’d simply want to overtake me.
Food writer and professional wit, A. A. Gill suggests that the English inhabit an “Angry Island.” Here’s how he puts it:
The English are naturally, congenitally, collectively and singularly, livid much of the time. In between the incoherent bellowing of the terraces and the pursed, rigid eye-rolling of the commuter carriage, they reach the end of their tethers and the thin end of their wedges. They’re incensed, incandescent, splenetic, prickly, touchy and fractious. They sit apart on their half of a damply disappointing little island, nursing and picking at their irritations.
Hang on Gill, that’s not very British of you? Gill, however, excuses himself by being born north of the border, a Scot, and so he continues:
Perhaps aware that they’re living on top of a keg of fulminating fury, the English have, throughout their history, come up with hundreds of ingenious and bizarre ways to diffuse anger or transform it into something benign. Good manners and queues, roundabouts and garden sheds, and almost every game ever invented from tennis to bridge. They’ve built things, discovered stuff, made puddings, written hymns and novels, and for people who don’t like to talk much, they have come up with the most minutely nuanced and replete language ever spoken – just so there’ll be no misunderstandings
Those who have been educated in hyper-rational attachment-deficit also tend not to get very openly angry, though readers might think they have every right to. But when they get scared, they can become very angry and frequently hostile. I have been there myself, sadly. Be that as it may, should we not expect our leaders, who have been to the finest schools and who represent us to be more in charge of their feelings than the rest of us, , even while we do not expect them to have completely repressed all their emotions? Readers may wonder how good are our leaders at dealing with their own “kegs of fulminating fury.”
Consider the so-called ‘Plebgate’ affair of September 2012. International Development Minister and Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, got very ‘upset’ with police officers who made him get off his bicycle at the gates to Downing Street. Some reports claim he called them ‘morons’ and ‘f*****g plebs, although the whole affair is currently shrouded in mystery and deceit and reveals just how divided a society our culture of elitism maintains. Why was the Minister so stressed, so frustrated, or “cross” as Nick Robinson, the BBC’s chief political correspondent put it? In fact he had just been promoted: would expect him to be “at the thin end of his wedge?”
One of the things that struck me in this extraordinary affair was the time of year: mid-September. It is back-to-school time for the public schools – state schools go earlier – and ex-boarders’ bodies tend to remember the rhythms of their 10-year institutionalisation, even if they have split off their feelings about it. Many ex-boarders do report sensing an unaccountable misery at that time of year. Some, when they feel safe enough, will say they feel very stressed then. Perhaps Rugby educated Mitchell had those kind of unallowable feelings going on when he was running late, stuck in Downing Street with his pushbike. We will never know.