The Whoop Gene

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m giving fair warning in advance that I’m about to have a little snigger at the expense of the English nation. Don’t get me wrong – I admire the English people group for many and sundry things. Their mallow tea cakes for instance. But for all their admirable qualities, they act downright strange when they are collected together in a crowd. I would go so far as to say they don’t know how to behave as a crowd at all.

Last year, Oxfordshire was having a celebration of 1000 years as a county of something. So in Broad Street in the middle of Oxford they had set up Luminox – a really unbelievable amount of “fire installations.” There was a terrificly huge chandelier, dangling from a crane and hanging out right over the street, and it was holding an outrageous number of fire pots. In what I thought was a little dubious taste, it was hanging almost directly over the spot in the street where Cranmer, Ridley, and Lattimer were burnt at the stake in the sixteenth century.

However, that is not the point. The point is that this huge chandelier hung over the street and there were flaming pots strung from wires all around the Bodleian Library. Large bonfires were raging away all over the road. The crazy firelight and shadows in front of the huge beautiful buildings created a truly amazing spectacle. But I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was giving the whole evening such a creepy and ominous feeling until I realized that it was the crowd itself.

We were packed into the road like sardines – absolutely shoulder to shoulder. You had to literally shove your way through the group to move anywhere . . . . and yet the whole road was eerily quiet. People were talking to one another, but not loudly. Some people might have said, “ooh!” in a hushed tone as they looked at the displays but no one whooped, no one was yelling, no one was calling to their friends over other people’s heads. They just quietly walked around and admired the fires. But, I told myself, this was an unusual situation. These fire pots were not just fire pots, they were “fire installations” and they had been done by some team or other of French artists that took themselves entirely too seriously. Maybe, I thought, everyone was using their art museum manners in order to admire these fires with the full reverence and respect that they thought they deserved.

But no. Last night proved my theory wrong. It turns out that’s just what the English people do when they are all together in a crowd. Sometime coming up soon is Guy Fawkes day (tomorrow maybe?) and so there have been fireworks all over town for weeks. But last night there was an official, big fireworks display over the South Parks. As it happened, we were stuck at a red light right in the middle of the whole thing – crowds lining the sidewalks on our left, crowds covering the parks on our right, fireworks blazing away overhead. And yet, was anyone cheering? Clapping? Whooping? Music pumping? Absolutely nothing. Completely deadpan. They all stood looking in a sort of pleased way at the sky but that was it. There was even a carnival going off to one side . . . rides and everything . . . and not one scream.

It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever not heard. It’s terribly worrisome really. It makes me feel like something has gone horribly wrong and the crowd’s about to do something dreadful. I would feel so much better if someone, anyone, had their hands in the air . . . if anyone was running, or hollering, or cheering for something. But instead they all just stand coyly with their hands in their pockets and look vaguely pleased.

This is a little English quirk that I find highly amusing. But perhaps we’re actually the funny ones. When you look at it from a slightly different angle, do we Americans have some gene somewhere that gives us a terrible urge to whoop when we get around other people?

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11 thoughts on “The Whoop Gene

  1. LOL at this entry. We once went to a baseball game in Toronto. We cheered. We were looked at as if we were complete barbarians. I am not certain anymore (it’s been 25 years) but I think they *applauded by clapping* for great plays.

    I am not a huge baseball fan but it was just wrong.

  2. I think it’s the Yanks that a weird!! But maybe you should take in a soccer match before you reach a final conclusion? Or (my favourite) a cricket match?

  3. That’s hilarious–but maybe it’s a European thing and not just British. When my husband and I went to France for our honeymoon I remember getting the same freaky feeling at the airport. I had never been in a crowd of so many people–and heard so little. Just a soft, underlying near-whisper of nasally accents. You could barely even hear it unless you were really paying attention.

  4. Katherine – oh loads of things! The English people as a whole have produced all kinds of things I love – cast iron everything, stone houses, hedgerows, PG Wodehouse . . . plus they’re much more articulate as a rule and I like the dry sense of humor . . . clotted cream is fun, and garden centers are nifty. Some of the dress shops are to die for, and the men’s blazers are just way cooler . . . plus the scarf wearing fixation is kinda pizzazzy actually. Liberty fabrics, Aga stoves, Minis . . . and some really great curtains . . . the list goes on . . .

  5. When I was overseas, I lived with a British lady for five years. She would tell me that she could take Americans one at a time, but not in bulk. They were entirely too loud. I was supposed to feel honored that she would put up with my loudness.

    I was also going to recommend that you check out a ‘football’ match to get a peek at some loud Britishers.

  6. I am from Canada, but usually whenever we are at some public event (such as the Tattoo or the Maritime Fall Fair) there are a few whoopers in the crowd (probably American tourists, eh?). I have always wondered what makes them feel compelled to make such noise. How interesting to hear the other perspective!

  7. When we were over in Europe we were constantly told by the team leaders to be quieter. It is the way of things over there, except if you are in France during the world cup and the French just happen to win. In that case, WATCH OUT!!!!!!!!

  8. For almost two decades my husband and I, Americans, have been working for an international organization that is based in England — although we live in Asia. We have British co-workers, leaders, and many good British friends. While traveling in England, we learned to really appreciate their reserve, their willingness not to say what is on their mind, which to us Americans seems somewhat coy. But to be honest, I find it much more pleasant to guess at what people are thinking if it is not complimentary than to read it all over their faces or hear their annoyance or disapproval in their words. I find their general courtesy and quietness refreshing. I have heard from Americans that there is a degree of “cultural shock” that comes with moving to England. I think it comes from expecting that the British are more like Americans than they are. When Americans move to an island in Polynesia, they come as learners ready to be surprised by the culture and realizing it is very different. But when Americans move to England, they often come with a different set of expectations because we speak the same language and usually come from the same stock. I have a question that I am dying to ask… have you and Ben come up against the creation vs. evolution question among the Christian community at Oxford? I just heard recently from a believing student, Lincoln College, that came for a short-term trip to Asia, that anyone accepting a literal interpretation of Genesis is put in the category of American tele-evangelist — or their listeners (i.e. simple, gullible, intellectually challenged)

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