Is There Really Such A Thing As National Character?

I found myself asking this question after reading GE’s thought-provoking essay in Notting Hill Editions. In it, James contrasts what he sees as different national traits of America with those of his homeland. He arrives at the conclusion that the positives of America outweigh the many negatives he sees in Britain. Everyone go have a look, then come back here as I’ve got a poser for you…

So, does some sort of aggregate “national character” really exist? A few years ago, I would have answered undoubtedly yes. But since I’ve started blogging, and been in daily contact with people from around the world, I’m no longer so sure. How many Irish do you know who fit the cap-and-pipe, slightly-thick “to be sure, to be sure” movie stereotype? Or Americans who shout “howdy, pardner” at all and sundry? Even my family in Texas don’t do that (though they do manage to insert y’all into every other sentence). Or Aussies who carry giant knives, or…

You get the idea.

No, people are as you find them. And the more I look, the more they’re the same all over the world. Personally, I think the divide between city and country is a greater one than national boundaries. I suppose you could cite historical reasons for a certain world-weary cynicism in Britain, pathological optimism in America and brash iconoclasm down here; but it sometimes seems to me as if you only see these things when you go out looking for them.

So I’m in two minds here. Crown, Amanda and others of you who have lived extensively in two or more countries, I’d be particularly interested in your take on this. Is the premise of James’ essay correct? Are there really differences in character between countries? Or is it a convenient fiction that enables us to make sense of what to most of us online must often feel like information overload?

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23 Responses to Is There Really Such A Thing As National Character?

  1. Dr. Dave says:

    Before I dig into this further…I found this little news article re: Kitler.

  2. farmerbraun says:

    Farmer Brown , never having left the country of his birth, cannot possibly comment. On the other hand, he has travelled extensively in the world of music over many decades; so he defers to another:

  3. meltemian says:

    Well that really is a poser – I’m off to do a load of ironing and think hard.
    My first thoughts are that a nation’s characteristics are moulded by the climate and weather of their country, but that’s far too simplistic…. I’ll go and ponder and come back later.

  4. farmerbraun says:

    You might have something there Mel. Are N.Z. ers a reflection of their isolation, and in what way? We have a reputation for being improvisers, because it used to take a hell of a long time to send to England for some needed item, so we would come up with something ( the No. 8 wire syndrome). Is such a characteristic , if it once existed, likely to be enduring?
    Today there is still a lot of sea between us, but Farmer Brown feels in no way isolated, but takes some satisfaction in knowing that he is far from the madding crowd ( or at least, most of them).
    But if you had to define a Kiwi national character, which should be easy given how few we are, I don’t think that you could come up with anything more than a stereotype, which Farmer Brown probably wouldn’t fit anyway.

    FB, Mel – climate and isolation are probably big factors, if a national character does in fact exist. Australian historian Geoffery Blainey made this very point in his 1967 book The Tyranny of Distance.

    Any other factors? – Oz

  5. farmerbraun says:

    I think that the residents of Godzone really do believe that they have achieved something enviable, but if they have, it is a result of decisions taken many decades ago. Things like being the first country to give women the vote; signing a treaty with the indigenous population; welfare provisions.
    None of that is attributable to current generations.
    A popular meme here is ” NZ punching above its weight”. This suggests that NZ ers believe that we should be taken more notice of; perhaps a little of an inferiority complex.
    Who knows?. It’s hard for me to tell.

  6. Kitler says:

    Here in the USA I would say there are maybe three maybe five distinct identity’s. Since we live on a large continent. I would say the Canadians have definitely two one French one English identity.
    The UK has many more, Cornish, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and of course two in England which is down to Viking settlement patterns. With the Northern English being “harder” in nature emotionally and physically, with Southern England being inhabited by the opposite or Poofters as refer to them. Whether that is actually true is open to debate.
    Well here is your typical southern Englishman….

    And these are your northerners, right? – Oz 😀

  7. Kitler says:

    James Delingpole’s hypothetical what if I move to the USA is based on his few trips to the USA. This is actually a mistake on his part while the language is similar culturally there is a chasm in attitudes and he may not adjust well some people don’t and return home. I remember going into a kind of culture shock for 6 months when I had to learn to assimilate myself the worst part was relearning the Nouns for a lot of common everyday objects. Fortunately the Scots-Irish based Southern USA culture was similar to my own so I adjusted, JD would not adjust well in this area.
    Ironically he would be most comfortable in New England which is full of lefty’s.

    Hmmm. Maybe you should tell him all that when he returns. Or maybe it’s just one of his momentary existential crises, to which God-emperors appear unusually prone – Oz 😉

  8. Kitler says:

    Ozboy as for the Northerners yep that’s about it spot on.

  9. Kitler says:

    Here is the South I know and Love….

  10. Dr. Dave says:


    Here’s a little tune that combines the south you know and love with your effete south England lads:

  11. Kitler says:

    Dr Dave ah memory’s of my teenage years I still remember the number of people who would have given one (whatever that means) to the young lady on Top of the Pops last night. Oh how to point their latent homosexual leanings to them was fun.
    I believe Boy George or chubby as he should be known is doing time for imprisoning a rent boy at his house in London. At least prison should improve his dating opportunity’s.

  12. meltemian says:

    Ha!! Culture Club & Soft Cell representing Southerners?
    This is more like it!

  13. Kitler says:

    meltemian ah those be West country folk who can’t be classed as Southerners who can not be said to be half bad as they have created a drink that rots your teeth and makes you go blind.

  14. Kitler says:

    The Scots….

    Caution bad language.

  15. Ozboy says:

    God Bless America.

    And furthermore…

  16. Amanda says:

    Hello Oz, and hello everyone. Howdy y’all :^)

    I am just back down from the mountains and full of the mist and moonshine (more of the mist: we could hardly stir early this morning, we could see so little of the road). So, having been without the Internet in my last cabin for nearly two weeks, I want to give Oz a big ‘yes sir’ and say he’s right: people are the same the world over.

    I have two thoughts that might qualify that, however. First, Oz is in contact with English-speakers, those of us that belong to Churchill’s ‘English-speaking

  17. Amanda says:

    Peoples’*. Crown and I are expats, as is CommonSenseMajority on JD’s blog, as are a number of others in countries around the world. Britain is essentially our mother. Without her, we would be unrecognizable.

    *Sorry: my laptop cursor refused to move and I could only break the impasse by posting!

  18. Amanda says:

    Having said that, you may (or may not!) be interested, mildly, in what I posted this evening to James’s lastest blog (on trolls). I went into some detail because I’m treating him as I would any friend that was weighing the question, ‘Britain or America?’


    About your article in Notting Hill Editions: Wrong about Marmite. Most ordinary supermarkets here (and I’ve lived in several of these united states in the past decade) have Marmite on their ‘British’ shelves (which are often located next to the specialty Mexican: British is exotic, you see). Even in the old days it wasn’t hopeless: New York and Chicago and no doubt all the other big cities and towns had English food shops for the expats and curious Americans.

    Also, I drink Typhoo tea with wanton abandon. Typically English in that way: I get my kicks where I can!

    But the fact is, when I am in England and when I am in America, I eat differently. England is better for fruits, the ones I like: redcurrants and blackcurrants and gooseberries and rhubarb. The first three are hard or impossible to find anywhere in America and the fourth is not part of the national awareness, as pumpkin is (me: not interested) or cranberries (not a patch on redcurrants). The apples are different (and not always as good); the pears and plums are different, and so on. You will not eat the same food in America. You will not have fish and chips here. You will rarely have chips (what they call ‘steak fries’). They do not see the importance of malt vinegar or HP sauce or [hot] custard (if you still like it, as I do, even though it’s no longer fashionable for some reason). Americans have no idea what a pavlova is. Or a Bakewell tart. For their part, American expats have been known to regret the fact that they can’t get Oreo cookies in England: the mind simply boggles.

    So what does it all come down to? The important point is about aesthetics, and I know a lot about this because
    a) I was born in London but spent my early childhood in the gorgeous Sussex Downs — beneath the sight of Jack and Jill, two Victorian windmills, funnily enough (hence my insistence on the profound difference between windmills and turbines; Jack and Jill are to me old friends, and I have a photo I took of them on my bedroom wall in Florida);
    b) I was taken to live in Qatar for a year;
    c) I was then taken back to Sussex;
    d) I was then taken to Toronto, Canada;
    e) I then married a New Yorker;
    f) We then went to New York;
    g) We went to England;
    h) The rest is New York – England – Florida – England – Chicago – England -New Jersey/New York – Virginia – Florida – Texas – Florida, with a handful of highly memorable excursions to the Adirondack Mountains (NY State) and California (Sonoma and Napa in the north, San Diego/La Jolla in the south). In addition, there were many long driving trips through the Midwest (bald eagles spotted over forest rivers in Wisconsin, etc.) on which I accompanied my husband, who travelled for a living (finance industry). I’ve seen America, exciting and dull and peculiar. I spend my summers lately in the Smoky Mountains, from which I have just returned.

    I say this not to bore you with my itinerary but to show that I have a fair basis of comparison (I have three citizenships: British, American and Canadian). I fell in love with the English countryside in childhood: I loved it as much or possibly more than I loved my family. (Certainly the love of the country has outlived my love of many of my relatives.) I don’t just mean the look of a particular landscape, I mean any and all British landscapes (I include especially the Welsh, having only been to Scotland once). I also mean the feel of the towns, the look of any given High Street, the feel of cobbles, the experience of ordering food in the butcher’s or fishmonger’s (they don’t exist in America, whatever Americans might tell you), the enjoyment of pubs (which also don’t exist in America, ditto).

    Even the air in England smells different to me. Mysterious, captivating, like a lover’s scent (no, I am not sloshed). I notice it the moment I step off the plane, and have done so every time I’ve returned. England has a sound, a feel, a pace, a social dynamic, a gentility by day (yes, I’ve read Anthony Daniels lots on the appalling drunkenness: see e.g. June’s New Criterion), and I have had to wander the streets at 2 a.m. in Bath in search of a police personage, but that is not the point. The point is that England represents an inimitable, lovely, heartbreaking version of Western Civilization that I would be shattered to live without — even though I do live at a great distance from it, here in Florida. There is much that makes me joyous about America — the actual experience of living here, not just fine words and fine ideals — and when I became a citizen it was a very serious thing for me. I had always been Little Miss Expat English Girl. Now I was swearing off allegiances to foreign princes. In my heart, 90 per cent, I really meant it. But ten per cent knew that the percentages were all mixed up because to be a good modern serious English girl was totally compatible with being a good modern serious American girl, and anyway Great Britain would continue to acknowledge my citizenship and my passport.

    The architecture in Britain — where the Le Corbusier epigones have not been allowed to swing the wrecking ball, in distressingly few locations — is generally superior to American architecture outside of, e.g., Washington, D. C. Anyway, it’s friendlier and more lovable. (Washington was built in consciously grand, classical style.)

    New York is wonderful so long as you can avoid a) the screamers, b) the muggers, c) surly taxi drivers, d) chippy ‘public servants’/bureaucrats, e) employment bureau personnel (*the* most insulting on the planet), f) hobos blocking the entrance to your supermarket when you want to shop g) thugs blocking the entrance to your apartment in your extremely expensive lower Manhattan apartment block, h) dog turds on the pavement. I speak from experience.

    I’m afraid I’m greedy. When I’m in England — walking home from the pub over sheepy cowy fields by a beautiful starlit sky with oaks dotting the fields, smelling the woodsmoke, with a pub meal of Indian or whatever warming me, I don’t miss America. Until the morning, when the latest outrageous letter from TVL arrives, or someone has been arrested for being free (e.g. entertaining the customers with ‘Kung Fu Fighting’). The bovine cluelessness of Brits drives me bonkers (though they are not all like that: some even admit to being inspired or bolstered by American example). But then again, when I am in America, the dreary waste of uninteresting land that takes up millions of its acres, the vulgarity of much of its popular culture — especially its television, which I find usually unwatchable — the lack of refinement and imagination in its speech (‘this sucks!’ say the youth ad nauseam), make me remember England with affection.

    In America, too, the place is so big that you rarely have the sense of concentric circles of urban and rural life, one touching the other (like Brighton and Tunbridge Wells, my old towns, which were both about six miles away by car from the villages I lived in, with countryside surrounding my villages). In America it is much more ‘pick your poison’: you are ruthlessly urban, or ruthlessly suburban, or ruthlessly, cut-off-ingly rural. Most Americans don’t know the meaning of ‘village’. It is simply outside their experience.

    Customs and culture high and low; friendly, decent manners of acquaintances and strangers; the towns and villages and country that all fit like a glove but still manage to stimulate me: these are the highlights of living in England. (As opposed to English achievements in history, which I have also admired since the days of my first Ladybird books.)

    I hope this helps you, perhaps, in thinking about the choice between America and Britain.

  19. Amanda says:

    P. S. I notice that the italics of my original post, emphasizing certain phrases, is missing here. They are present on James’s blog, fwiw. They strengthen/clarify what I’m trying to say.


    G’day Amanda, welcome back to the land of the living – Oz

  20. Amanda says:

    G’day, Oz :^)

    I guess one can’t be in the mountains forever. Real life beckons!

  21. Amanda says:

    P. S. Thanks for fixing!

  22. fenbeagle says:

    People are as you find them. But it’s nice to have something to joke about…..And that’s the joke.

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