Being English


I began by scolding my friend. I told him that he had been wrong to feel and display so much emotion upon so slight an occasion; that it was inappropriate. The word “inappropriate” roused him to fury. “What?” he cried. “Do you measure out your emotions as if they were potatoes?” I did not like the simile of the potatoes, but after a moment’s reflection I said, “Yes, I do; and what’s more I think I ought to. A small occasion demands a little emotion, just as a large emotion demands a great one. I would like my emotions to be appropriate. This may be measuring them like potatoes, but it is better than slopping them about like water from a pail, which is what you did.” He did not like the simile of the pail. “If those are your opinions, they part us forever,” he cried, and left the room. Returning immediately, he added: “No—but your whole attitude toward emotion is wrong. Emotion has nothing to do with appropriateness. It matters only that it shall be sincere. I happened to feel deeply. I showed it. It doesn’t matter whether I ought to have felt deeply or not.”

This remark impressed me very much. Yet I could not agree with it, and said that I valued emotion as much as he did, but used it differently; if I poured it out on small occasions I was afraid of having none left for the great ones, and of being bankrupt at the crises of life. Note the word “bankrupt.” I spoke as a member of a prudent middle-class nation, always anxious to meet my liabilities.


The English character is incomplete in a way that is particularly annoying to the foreign observer. It has a bad surface—self-complacent, unsympathetic, and reserved. There is plenty of emotion further down, but it never gets used. There is plenty of brain power, but it is more often used to confirm prejudices than to dispel them. With such an equipment the Englishman cannot be popular. Only I would repeat: there is little vice in him and no real coldness. It is the machinery that is wrong.

—E.M. Forster, Notes on the English Character