Just finished reading Watching the English by Kate Fox. It's an excellent read and explains a lot - why the English moan about everything, how we use humour to defuse potential social conflict and deflect attempts at earnestness, and how we are never direct about anything and have to understate everything, even hiding things from ourselves, like our acute class consciousness, which we pretend doesn't exist by invoking the polite egalitarianism rule. At least we do have some redeeming features apparently - courtesy being one of them. But then there's our inability to assert ourselves, resulting in either passive or aggressive modes of interaction, and our obsession with privacy. It seems we are completely mad, in a moderate and understated way, of course. Mustn't make a fuss or be too conspicuous.
Consider for example the following exchange as an example of understatement:
French friend: "It's freezing in here."
Me: "Yes, it is rather chilly."
The question is, how did we turn into that strange species, the English? Was it our climate, geography, history, or a combination of these? Kate Fox is not sure but thinks a combination of all of them is the most likely.
My personal theory is that it was the Norman invasion that did it.