No one ever talked to me for more than a minute

About appearing Normal, and being different (or not), and independence – Patricia Churchland has a telling little illustrative story in Braintrust. In a section of chapter 6, “Skills for a Social Life,” she discusses mimicry as a social capacity – it’s reassuring because it makes prediction easier.

As social sizing up develops over a few minutes, assuming I got the preliminary signals I needed, I may be motivated to reassure you. So I play my part in mimicry so that you do not start anxiously watching me, making me even more uncomfortable. [p 160]

There’s an endnote there. It’s the illustrative story. When she was a grad student in Oxford she was expected to go to the sherry parties

that my tutor at Balliol College held for his male undergraduates. I was always uncomfortable, because as a colonial, and a country bumpkin to boot, I did not have the slightest idea how I should behave. Trying to assimilate the ways of young Englishmen educated at British “public” (private) schools was, quite simply, beyond me. Needless to say, with the exception of a very awkward Irish lad who was comparably handicapped socially, no one ever talked to me for more than a minute. [p 230]

It’s a depressing little tale, because surely the tutor could have and should have managed things better. The English do love to play their little exclusion games though.


  1. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I’ve been to those parties. There’s the in-crowd who all know each other, even if they’ve never met before. They have the same background, they speak the same language, they know the same jokes, and they’re united in staring down their noses at the out-group.

  2. Paul says

    Aw, we’re not all assholes. Okay, the people in Oxford university probably are, but they come from a pretty much bygone age of wood-panelled walls, sherry parties, and tweed.

    Speaking of exclusion games, generalising the behaviour of people in one sherry party in a book to the whole of this Sceptred Isle, starts to look a tad xenophobic itself. I’m sure snobbery and exclusion never, ever happens in the land of opportunity.

  3. Seriously? says

    Wow, tielserrath, that’s a bit uncalled for, unless you’re being ironic.

    As for the post itself, only a very, very tiny minority of English people go to exclusive colleges or are obsessed with class and to tar us all with the same brush is just ignorant. It would be like us saying that all Americans are stupid rednecks.
    Most English people couldn’t give a stuff about class or exclusivity.
    I’ve encountered snobbery and exclusion in Australia, the US and other places, it isn’t limited to England despite what people may like to think.

  4. Dave says

    Within English universities, the sense that there is an indisputable hierarchy of excellence, which exists and is real despite, and in the face of, any evidence that might suggest merit was more widely and unevenly dispersed, is utterly unconquerable. It’s effin’ depressing sometimes, because the very existence of such a stupid idea serves to disprove itself.

  5. daveau says


    I totally read tielserrath as ironic. Or sarcastic. Or maybe part ironic and part sarcastic…

    Anyway, I agree that it happens everywhere. It’s just another form of in group / out group discrimination, Although, unfortunately, the author is a member of several out groups at the same time.

  6. sailor1031 says

    One suspects that few, if any, of those young english gentlemen at Balliol have had so successful a career as Patricia Churchland.
    However, as a canadian who spent much time in England over the decades, that pejorative “colonial” still irks.

  7. marta says

    I would love to go to one of those parties. That I would never be invited is completely beside the point.

    At parties, I’m the one in the back, balancing the small plate with the plastic cup of wine, telegraphing how interesting I am to people who are failing to notice. I’m dressed too casually and indifferently, and when I slip out the door an hour later, the knots of people who never knew I was there close the hole I leave in seconds.

  8. Didaktylos says

    To be fair – many of those undergraduates were probably just as nervous as Churchland was. Remember – snobbery and shyness look very similar to an outside observer; one reason why they would have wanted to stick together is that they would haqve had little experience of dealing with people from outside their own background. The male products of the English Public School system are notorious for their awkwardness with females even of their own class.

  9. says

    Oh honestly – have any of you aggrieved ones ever noticed the way people [many people] in the UK generalize about Americans?

    I’d have thought it was obvious that I don’t think all English people are public school alumni.

    But come on – England is riddled with hierarchy and opportunities for snobbery. Yes of course so are other places; yes of course so is the US; but all the same.

    sailor @ 8 – quite so. Her endnote doesn’t give a sense of self-pity at all. (It may seem to in isolation, but read as an endnote, it’s just an interesting dispassionate illustration.) Mind you the odds are good that many of those undergraduates are civil servants or judges or in the Cabinet etc etc.

  10. says

    Didaktylos @ 10 – right, but that’s the point; that’s what she’s talking about. They know how to give each other the right, reassuring social cues – the right mimicry – and she didn’t. It’s a dry, unemotional sort of thing, but then in practice it becomes exclusion. (Which motivates people to learn the right social cues so they can stop feeling excluded or “uncomfortable.” At least that’s what Churchland is arguing.)

  11. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    However, as a canadian who spent much time in England over the decades, that pejorative “colonial” still irks.

    A friend of mine is from Alabama. He goes to England fairly frequently. He’s given up trying to explain why he isn’t a “yank.”

  12. says

    The story illustrates what I think is one of the most important lessons of the book: how much *work* people do to be social, and how many people are just not aware of it. Unfortunately, the people who would most benefit from that insight are unlikely to read philosophy or neuroscience books.

  13. latsot says

    But come on – England is riddled with hierarchy and opportunities for snobbery.

    Ah yes, the because-I-say-so argument.

  14. RJW says

    #8 sailor1031,

    Interesting,I thought that the English only picked on Australians.
    Some English immigrants in Australia(much to the annoyance of the colonists)tried to play the same snob’s game,amazing.


    Actually, he is a ‘Yank’ from a non-American’s perspective,”When in Rome”.

  15. says

    Yeh – “Yank” just does mean US-ian in the UK. Yank, not Yankee. Leftover from WW2, I think.

    latsot – so are you arguing that England isn’t riddled with hierarchy and opportunities for snobbery?

    And I notice you ignored the first part of my reply. Given what many many many many educated right-on liberal hip ok cosmopolitan people in the UK allow themselves to assert about “Americans,” I don’t feel very guilty about that one sentence.

  16. latsot says

    latsot – so are you arguing that England isn’t riddled with hierarchy and opportunities for snobbery?

    Um….no. I didn’t say anything of the sort.

    I rolled my eyes at your use of “but come on” for obvious reasons, but that’s all.

    I can certainly think of many examples of snobbery in England but I’m not convinced we deserve to be especially singled out as playing exclusion games. I see the same games wherever I look. I’d be mildly surprised if it turned out we’re especially guilty of that, but I guess it could be the case.

    And I notice you ignored the first part of my reply. Given what many many many many educated right-on liberal hip ok cosmopolitan people in the UK allow themselves to assert about “Americans,” I don’t feel very guilty about that one sentence.

    I didn’t ignore it. I just didn’t have anything in particular to say about it in the same way that I wasn’t actually trying to defend the English and wasn’t specifically objecting to your accusation.

    All I objected to was the use of “but come on” as a kind of justification. It got my goat a bit because it was an unjustified assertion. No big deal and no need to put words in my mouth.

  17. says

    Oh; I didn’t get that.

    Fair point, it is rather obnoxious. It can be all right when said, and I meant it that way – but it doesn’t necessarily read that way. Withdrawn.

  18. sailor1031 says

    @RJW: nah we get them in Canada too! Not so much anymore because there are more immigrants from other cultures. I’m sure most brits just melted into the background (except for their accents)after arrival but I do remember quite a few being very patronizing and critical about Canada. Interesting though, quite a few went back dis-satisfied to the UK and within six months or so were back in Canada. It used to be called the “50,000 dollar cure”….

  19. RJW says

    #20 sailor1031,

    Very similar story here and we had “boomerang” immigrants as well. The snobby English immigrants are almost extinct for much the same reasons as in Canada,changes in immigration patterns. They seemed to believe we ‘colonials’ should be grateful for ‘all that Britain had done for us’.I suspect that they thought that they had moved up the class ladder after emigrating. That said,there are also many English people who assimilated readily.

    We used to call them “Whinging(complaining)Poms”. The term ‘Pom’ is used in Aust/NZ to refer to the English,it’s not necessarily offensive-depends on the adjective used with the term.

    It’s very interesting to compare notes,Oz and Canada seem to have a lot in common,apart from average temperatures.

  20. sailor1031 says

    for ‘whinging pom’ substitute ‘whining limey’ and you’ve got it.I think there was, in earlier times, an undercurrent of hostility towards english immigrants because so many earlier immigrants were of scots and irish extraction plus a large french-speaking minority. Anyway, whatever the cause (and proximity to you-know-where is a big factor too), Canada became a country quite different culturally from England and I think that some brits found that hard to handle. One thing that brits can’t get their heads around for a long time is the sheer size of the country…..

  21. 24fps says

    As a Canadian, I’ve had condescending comments made to me by both Brits and Americans. I’m in media, so our industry is quite a bit smaller than either the UK or the US, and that’s generally pointed out until I bring up subsidies. Then they like me a LOT better. 😉

    Actually, I’ve found the Americans worse than the British for being rude. I’ve never had a Brit tell me I’d be speaking Russian or German if it wasn’t for their country, nor have they ever told me I was lucky they didn’t just decide to annex us for the heck or it. I also find that I can get nearly anyone to talk to me despite my lack of pedigree. Eye contact, big grin, ask a lot of questions. Everyone loves talking about themselves to an engaged listener.


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