Viewpoint: Is cheekiness a truly British concept?

Prince Charles meets the Spice Girls in 1997

Cheekiness is a defining British characteristic and a valuable check on power, says Farrah Jarral.

Picture the scene. I am a doctor in a clinic, seeing an elderly patient whose last urine sample sent to the lab to check for infection has come back contaminated. We need to repeat the test - but this time with a proper mid-stream sample. He has white hair, leathery skin, twinkly eyes. He is a little hard of hearing, and English is not his first language.

So, slowly and clearly I explain how to perform this task, simple and yet easy to get wrong. I ask him to repeat the instructions back to me just to make sure he understands - a consultation tool I've been trained to use.

He says: "OK, so, first I start peeing." Yes, that's right. "And then halfway through I open the pot?"

Mm hmm, mm hmm.

"I pee into the pot." He pauses for effect. I nod earnestly and vigorously.

About the author

Farrah Jarral

Farrah Jarral is a GP in London, and recently completed a masters in medical anthropology at Harvard University, focusing on cross-cultural encounters. She performed at Glastonbury this year.

Hear more on Radio 4's Four Thought on Wednesday 16 October at 20:45 BST or download the podcast.

"And then... I drink it?"

In these three words, this gentleman had burst the bubble of order in that consultation. My seasoned, medical poker face didn't manage to get through that one. His urine-quaffing suggestion dispensed with decorum and smashed the usual doctor-patient power gradient, and I surrendered willingly.

Although I quite rightly don't often have the chance to be cheeky myself in my rather serious day job, I am a great lover of cheekiness and my experiences of such behaviour, particularly in my patients, have convinced me that there is far greater depth to this arguably very British concept than meets the eye.

So what is it exactly? Well, maybe it's easier to define what it's not. It's not quite the same as audacity - it takes itself less seriously than that. And it's not as rude as impudence because cheekiness never sets out to truly offend. Cheekiness, then, is neither high-minded nor aggressive. Its hallmark is good-hearted humour, a certain cheeriness of spirit.

Often it is loud - think of the effectiveness of the whoopee cushion left on the unsuspecting teacher's chair. But it can be just as deadly when silent, or even sartorial.

Cheekiness isn't just funny, though. It has the power to deflate pomposity faster than any whoopee cushion.

And no cultural form exemplifies this irreverence quite like British political satire. In what other country would Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell get away with casually encasing our prime minister's head in a condom in all his drawings? These moments of absolute bare-faced cheek could quite literally get you killed in many parts of the world, and yet they form a robust part of our political self-expression.

Frankie Howerd

Translating cheekiness to someone unfamiliar with the concept in Britain can be tricky. Could it be that cheekiness as a concept is untranslatable, unique to the UK?

I looked at two of the cheekiest languages on earth - Yiddish and Punjabi - to see if they had any equivalents. In Yiddish, chutzpah does embody perhaps 90% of what it means to be cheeky. But the flexibility of cheekiness somehow outdoes the necessary boldness of chutzpah. Cheeky can be subtle.

Punjabi, too, is also a highly cheeky language, which is full of words to call people who are a bit forward. Paada is someone precocious, a chatty kind of character, jigr aala literally means she or he who has liver, the organ of courage, and maacha describes a blagger, a chancer. But none of them quite captures the essence of cheekiness correctly.

Even across nations that speak the same language, it's unclear. I asked several American friends if the term had a US equivalent, but some told me that the concept doesn't even exist in the same way. Meanwhile the internet turned up the frankly inexcusable translation of "cheeky monkey" as "zesty little chipmunk".

'Cheeky monkey'

Capuchin monkey
  • The Capuchin monkey is native to central and southern America
  • Intelligent and dexterous, they use tools such as stones to crack open nuts
  • Named by explorers for their resemblance to an order of Catholic friars

I can't comment on the cultural nuances of zesty chipmunks, but science has suggested that cheeky monkeys really do exist. The primatologist Franz de Waal famously showed the world a piece of footage of an outraged Capuchin monkey reacting to inequality. When its monkey friend received better food - a delicious succulent, sweet grape rather than the pedestrian cucumber they had both been enjoying previously - the cheeky monkey threw the piece of cucumber back into the face of the researcher who fed him.

Monkeys are cheeky because they are intelligent enough to be aware not only of complex social rules and expectations of behaviour, but also of the ways in which they can deliberately break these rules and thus express their refusal to accept the way things are.

So cheekiness can be a serious matter - and not just for monkeys. Despite the chances of social humiliation, it is a low-risk way of breaking the rules and protesting. It says, in a gentle way, that you do not consent to something - some dynamic, some power structure, some constraint imposed on you by a bigger force.

Cheekiness is a way of creatively, often playfully, injecting resistance into the quotidian. It creates a space in which to push back against inequality, against commoditisation, colonisation, against the rules that say who you can talk to, what you are allowed to talk about, and how you talk, what your aspirations can be, what constitutes success or beauty, or how you are supposed to wear your masculinity or femininity. Scratch the surface, and you will find that beneath the silliest acts of cheekiness, there is often a deeply important matter that is being negotiated.

Some people may argue that cheekiness, in its very smallness and apparent harmlessness, is an ineffective form of resistance that simply serves to reinforce the very power structures that it wants to challenge.

The original 'cheeky chappie'

Max Miller on stage in 1938
  • Musical hall comedian Max Miller, who died 50 years ago, was known as the Cheeky Chappie
  • Renowned for dressing in a flower-patterned suit with plus fours and a tilted trilby hat
  • Reportedly banned from the BBC for telling an unscripted joke deemed too risque

But even the anarchist James C Scott, champion of "non-revolutionary resistance", suggested breaking the odd trivial law here and there as a form of "anarchist calisthenics" to prepare for a broader struggle. And the people that threaten, imprison or kill Iranian cartoonists, naked Egyptian bloggers or Burmese stand-up comedians certainly don't think that cheekiness is a trifling matter.

Is it too much to imagine that cheekiness as part of the national character is one of the reasons the UK has largely avoided a bloody revolution like so many other democracies?

Could it be that expressing bubbling dissent and resistance through humour has been like letting off steam through a pressure valve, thus avoiding a full-blown explosion?

Cheekiness is the checking of power - and power needs checking. It is the individual or group giving the machine a bit of backchat. It's a reclaiming of dignity, a playful subversion of the status quo, however briefly, a challenge to authority.

The fact that no glamorous, perfect Hollywood star is ever safe from having a ridiculous moustache drawn on their face on London Underground posters is resistance. And when my twinkly-eyed joker wryly suggested a sip of his own frothy amber nectar, poking fun at my unwittingly disempowering manner, he demonstrated with elegance and panache how cheekiness can rebalance an ancient power asymmetry - in a way that all my earnest medical-school attempts could not.

Our lives are monitored, constrained and pressured both explicitly and implicitly in almost every waking minute of our existence. Open protest, staring down tanks, self-immolation, is hard, but if we can't bring ourselves to mount a full-scale rebellion, we can still exercise our right to cheekiness in little everyday ways - loudly, quietly, in song, art, or style, jokes or poems, to push back for the things that deep down, do mean something to us.

So if we aren't going to break out and take over, the very least we can do is practice our anarchist calisthenics and fling back those cucumber chunks from inside the cage.

This is an edited version of Farrah Jarral's Four Thought, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20:45 BST on 16 October 2013.

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