How the Brexit Debate killed off a Great Institution of British Anger Management
I’m Irish and live in the UK. I’ve become very interested in a classic British way of dealing anger, which is hiding and suppressing it. I call it the Art of Seething. But this great British tradition is in danger of being wiped out overnight — by Brexit and social media. Let me explain how it works.
The British are brilliant at being annoyed while not letting it show. When someone does something that really annoys you — like bumping into you in the pub, parking in the space outside your home, or growing their Leylandii hedge too tall, the idea is that you show no outward sign of your feelings. If you’re properly British, you seeth instead: you quietly let your rage build up inside, like a volcano. Then you wait for something else to tip you over the edge into explosive apoplexy. This trigger may well involve another party entirely, and usually a more trivial infringement: someone talking to you on public transport, eating popcorn next to you in the cinema or reading your newspaper over your shoulder. You unleash a tsunami of fury, and the unwitting perpetrator thinks “What did I do?” It’s very confusing to the uninitiated.
The English are world leaders in the Art of Seething — way ahead of the competition. If seething were an Olympic sport England would win gold every time — and silver and bronze too. And they wouldn’t win just for the usual short period before the rest of the world learns how to play the newly invented game and become better at it; England would be the best for ever.
Seething, however, doesn’t always result in an explosive outburst, because one of the main points of seething at someone is that they mustn’t know what you’re seething about. This means they often don’t notice that you’re seething, which makes you seethe even more. It’s all about not giving anything away, withholding the slightest clue as to what you’re pissed off about. The person at the other end is supposed to be psychic and work out for themselves what they’ve done that is so awful. So when they haven’t a clue what you’ve done, that ramps up the seether’s annoyance, because you SHOULD know what you’ve done, because “Well, it’s ‘OBVIOUS isn’t it?”
The British are a nation of mind-readers. What the seether assumes you can do is to read the sub-text, the subtle hidden content of communication, which is another great British art form. If things get to the seething phase, the seethee will clearly have missed many of these virtually undetectable signals and cues. However, there are one or two helpful indicators you can watch out for.
Glaring is the classic signal that you’ve done something really bad. Obviously the glarer will give no clue as to what the glaring is about; you’re supposed to know that, and if you don’t, then stage two seething will immediately commence.
The next signal is huffing and/or tutting. Surely now, the seether thinks, there can be no mistake; I have been silently annoyed, then I’ve glared, and now I’ve huffed and tutted; surely now the seethee can be in no doubt as to why I am so justifiably upset. The seethee, meanwhile, is still clueless.
On occasion, words may be resorted to by the seether, but they must never explain the mystery of causation. The phrases used are masterworks of passive aggressive hidden messaging. One of the most potent is the phrase “Excuse me”, more properly pronounced “Excuse me!” Upon hearing this, the seethee might be forgiven for thinking it an expression of apology for something the seether has been done. Do not be fooled; “Excuse me!” really means “How dare you… (your offence inserted here)…?” Your misdeed is so enormous that the seether cannot quite believe that it has happened. The sub-text might be something like “How dare you spill my drink!” or “Get out of my way, I’m more important than you” or “I’m getting very close to physically assaulting you”. The expression “I’m sorry” (pronounced “I’m sorry?”) can be substituted for “Excuse me”.
Overall, though, the less said the better; the epitome of passive aggressive hostility is to say nothing at all. This is exemplified daily on British trains, where you’re not meant to talk to anyone anyway. A common usage of hostile silence is when you approach someone whose baggage is on the seat where you want to sit. What you don’t do is say “Do you mind if I sit here?” or “Is this seat free?” No; the correct procedure is to stand there silently, waiting for the other party to make space for you. Ideally, you glare as well.
When I’m the person in the seat with the baggage, I confess that I like to pretend I don’t see the silent glarer; I just carry on studiously reading my book or checking my phone, and force them to speak, which of course is even more annoying. I’ve also enjoyed seeing two passive aggressive people facing each other in this very situation; one is annoyed that the other is occupying an extra seat, while the latter is annoyed because they want the two seats to themselves. Neither wants to give in — or say anything. It’s a joy to encounter.
But the bad news is that the traditional craft of seething is a dying art. Today, more and more British people are expressing their annoyance and making it very clear what they are annoyed about. I refer, of course to the influence of social media, where the British and everyone else have no qualms about directly express unmitigated vitriol — especially over the small matter of Brexit. Sadly, silent seething may soon be a thing of the past.