Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is it eccentricity that unites Britons?

Yesterday I received notice from British bank First Direct of an amusing survey they'd done of 1,000 Britons that claims one in 10 Brits is an "eccentric" -- that is, a person who's creative, individualistic, and free-spirited -- and that more than 32 million Brits exhibit eccentric traits. Famous Britons they deemed eccentric include Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London, above), Stephen Fry (actor/author), Vivienne Westwood (fashion designer), Boy George, Russell Brand, and the Osbournes.

I do tend to think of the British as being more eccentric than Americans; I assume it's because the long-standing English class system encouraged the (mostly) upper-classes to develop charmingly bizarre personal habits that had to be tolerated by the classes below them. I can't think of many American eccentrics, maybe because we tend to label anyone who marches to the beat of a different drummer as OCD or simply crazy. I came up with Andy Warhol, Hunter Thompson, J.D. Salinger, Julia Child, Michael Jackson, Pee Wee Herman, and Tim Burton, the latter who now lives in Britain, so go figure. I couldn't think of one American fashion designer or figure who could be called eccentric, but the UK has (or had) Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and Isabella Blow. Even Anna Wintour is a little "off."

This trait is probably why I'm so fond of the British. What about you?


  1. I think that Britain (and perhaps Europe in general) tends to celebrate eccentricity a bit more than in the States. I think the very fact that it is an island nation contributes to this. Japan is another good example. There is a rather insular quality to both, to a certain extent, and that in turn can be cited as another possible contributing factor to their "eccentric" qualities. This is of course subjective.

    In the US, there is a certain degree of stigma attached to those who go against the grain, as you observe, and while prejudice exists everywhere, (probably not wise for a man dressed in ladies' clothing to start a conversation with a chav, for example) I think there's more tolerance for those who are a bit more quirky and unusual in Britain. One only needs to compare UK television to its US counterpart to note the more "colourful" qualities endemic to the former.

    Granted, these are sweeping generalisations, but nevertheless there is perhaps a bit of truth to them.

  2. Well said, Bysshe, and interesting point about Britain being an island nation. Yes, Europe does have its share of eccentrics -- I tend to think of German and Italian aristos here -- but UK eccentrics seem to be more, for lack of a better word, lovable to me. Less "dangerous." Maybe because I can understand what they're saying. ;-)

  3. Well as an anglophile, naturally. I'm quite fond of certain British eccentrics myself, such as two of those mentioned, Stephen Fry and Russell Brand.

  4. Just came across your blog and shall be following it regularly from now on. Love it!

    Yes, I'm afraid it is true. Not only are many of us Brits eccentric but we embrace those that are. The worst thing for any of us is to be described as 'ordinary' or 'normal'.

    I've been working through my list of friends and I should think at least half of them are eccentric at least half of the time!

    As for Boris, I met him once and he is very dotty - until he starts to speak politics when the eccentricity is switched off. A sort of bi-lingual version of eccentricity, I suppose!


  5. I think Americans only tolerate eccentricity if it seems genuine. They hate false fronts or personalities that are perceived as 'put on' (see Lady Gaga). Typically a person must be perceived as a genius if his eccentricity is to be accepted or celebrated. Being different for the sake of being different seems much less celebrated in America than it does in Britain and I suspect it has something to do with Britain's long-term love affair with the theater.

  6. EH, West Midlands, EngandJanuary 14, 2011 at 6:27 AM

    Yet, what most Americans don't realise, is that the VAST MAJORITY of Brits HATE those 'upper classes' for their robbing, thieving money from the rest of us, skimming of our public services, finding ways to exclude us from the top jobs and best schools.

    Maybe when you Americans visit England, you should get out of London and visit the REAL BRITAIN of the council estates, and struggling lower middle class areas, where we are being strangled and kept down in poverty by those 'eccentric upper classes' you love so much.

    And when I say "poverty", I don't mean having a less expensive car or house... I mean poverty where we have to choose between HEATING and FOOD.


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