British culture studies
A Guide to British Culture
When you first move into a new cultural context, it can be quite difficult to know what to say and how to behave. We hope this manual will help you to adapt more quickly and more easily by giving you some basic guidance on what and what not to do in Britain. We have also included some first-hand experiences from visitors to Britain, which we hope you will find useful. One way to speed up how quickly you learn about a new culture is to observe closely what goes on around you, so at various points throughout the manual you will find key questions to guide your observations.
The UK has a population of about 60 million, with 7 ½ million of those living in London. Older people account for an increasing proportion of the UK’s population, with more than 30% being over 50.
In 2001, the size of the ethnic minority population of the UK was 4.6 million (7.9% of the total population). 45% of non-white people live in London . People of Indian heritage are the largest minority group, followed then by those from Pakistan, those of mixed ethnic backgrounds, and Black Caribbeans. With all this diversity, we need to be careful when making generalisations about "British culture". Here are a few things to get you thinking: The United Kingdom (UK) is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Its full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the name given to the island containing England, Scotland and Wales, and it is the largest island in the British Isles. Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic (Eire) form the second largest.
A brief history of the British flag
The British flag or Union Flag, more commonly known as the Union Jack marks two major constitutional changes. First, after England and Scotland were united under James VI of Scotland / James I of England. Second, when Northern Ireland was joined to the United Kingdom in 1800. The new flag included the diagonal red and white cross of St. Patrick.
The UK is a predominantly Christian society. Of every 100 people in the UK, 72 class themselves as Christian. However, only about 4 out of every 100 attend church every Sunday. Britain also has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, estimated to be about 1.5 million people, and has over 600 mosques and prayer centres! The other main religions in the UK are Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism. In 2001, the percentage of the population that held no religious belief was around 16%.
Around 30% of British households are made up of only one person. Most parents only have one or two children. Grandparents often live separately to the 'nuclear' family (nuclear meaning just parents and their children). It is estimated that about 1 in 3 British marriages end in divorce, though this rate has slowed down over the years. Many people remarry and therefore it is not uncommon for children to be brought up by step-parents or by one parent. Many British families also own pets. They are often seen as 'part of the family' and are kept inside the house. People may be offended if you don’t treat their pet kindly. Like most of the world, Dogs and cats are the usual pets, but some people may keep other animals - anything from a snake to a rat!
Relationships & Gender
Women and men have similar roles in UK society. Households vary, of course, but it is not unusual to find men, especially the younger generations, sharing many chores that were traditionally female such as childcare, cleaning and cooking duties. This reflects the fact that increasing numbers of British women now work outside of the home. Most women in the UK work outside the home even if just part-time. Fewer men work part-time. This is one of the major reasons why women earn less than men.
There are two laws in the UK that aim to prevent discrimination against women in the workplace: the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and 1970 Equal Pay Act. On average, however, women still earn about 20% less than the average hourly earnings of male full-time employees.
You may see what some people call ‘public displays of affection’ while you are in the UK. It is not socially unacceptable for people of the opposite sex to hold hands and kiss in public. However, it is very unusual for people of the same sex to hold hands in public, especially men. Some people might think you are gay. Though much prejudice against the LGBT community still exists, many gay, lesbian or bisexual people are open about their sexuality. There is legislation that protects the rights of LGBT people not to be discriminated against or victimised.
People may seem very informal. Teachers want students to call them by their first names, and he/she may go to the pub with the students. Style of dress depends more on personal choice than on position or rank.
Personal space and privacy
"An Englishman’s home is his castle" - You may not have heard of this term before but you may hear it in the UK. British people do like to spend some time by themselves and may feel uncomfortable if they are always surrounded by other people. This does not mean they don’t like being with others; just that sometimes they feel the need to do something alone, like go for a walk or read a book. To say you need to have some time for yourself in British culture is not seen as impolite. In many British houses you may also notice that the house is divided into small rooms and gardens tend to have fences or hedges around them. Some would argue this is because people like to have some privacy. Some people think this love of privacy comes from the fact that we have 59 million people packed into a very small space, and that this is needed if we are to keep the peace!
Although the British are generally seen as being quite reserved and like keeping 'themselves to themselves', you will find that people are usually quite friendly and are willing to help if you ask for assistance. They may not be so willing to talk to you if you ask too many personal questions, however. What might seem like a normal question - “Where are you from?” - may be considered nosey. Terry Tan in 'Culture Shock Britain' recommends, “When you get one word answers, stop asking questions, and return to the safe ice-breaking subjects such as the weather, pets, gardens, children and their antics, and community welfare”. British people can be interested in foreign cultures and lifestyles, but often their sense of privacy and a fear of invading yours stops them being too curious.
Conversing with strangers
It is common, and considered entirely normal, for English commuters to make their morning and evening train journeys with the same group of people for many years without ever exchanging a word.
From Fox, in 2004:
"After a while," one commuter told me, "if you see the same person every morning on the platform, and maybe quite often sit opposite them on the train, you might start to just nod to each other when you arrive, but that’s about as far as it goes."
"How long is 'a while'?" I asked.
"Oh, maybe a year or so – it depends; some people are more outgoing than others, you know?"
“Time waits for no man.” “Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today.”
What does this say about the way the British see time?
Time is seen as a precious ‘resource’ that you can easily run out of. You will often hear people talking about ‘saving time’ or ‘not having enough hours in the day’. If you are late for an appointment without a reason, it may be perceived that you value your time more than someone else’s and you may seem disrespectful of that person. It is unusual to turn up to someone’s office without an appointment and expect them to be able to see you. Appointments are not only made at work, but often also in people’s free time when they are meeting someone.
You may find UK culture is very ‘task-focused’. People are expected to stick closely to agreed deadlines. If you miss them, people may begin to think you are disorganised and unprofessional!
Time in the UK: A different perspective
One evening, shortly after I moved to London, I was on my way to someone’s house for a meeting and as I didn’t know my way very well, I missed the right train. When I called to say that I would have to be half-an-hour late, my host told me that it was probably best not to bother as by the time I would get there, it would be too late to do what we had planned. Although I didn’t let on, I was perplexed and hurt. In Romania, people would get all concerned and would probably offer to pick you up at the station to help you get there quicker. Was I not welcome?
Much later I realised how highly English people value their time and that it may have seemed impolite for my host to expect me to make the long journey to her house so late at night. I learned that if you cannot get to a meeting on time, you try to make alternative arrangements so as not to run into a person’s next appointment, which may be just as important as the previous one.
When I left Romania, nobody had even heard of diaries and people were frequently held up on their way to meetings, by a chat with the neighbour or by the tram not working, etc. Over here, I only have only one friend without a diary. He often tends to forget our meetings or my phone number but I love him – he reminds me of home…
-Violeta Vadja, Romania.
Greetings and Goodbyes
The British are a culture of quick 'Hi's and short, sharp handshakes. Some people, however, have adopted the European approach and kiss people on one or both cheeks. Friends and family may hug and kiss when they meet each other. 'Hi!', 'Hello!', 'Good morning!', 'Good afternoon!' and 'Good Evening!' are all ways of greeting people. 'Goodbye!', 'See you soon!', and 'Take Care' are ways of saying goodbye.
The British have a reputation for coolness, so you may be surprised if you find yourself being called ‘dear’, ‘love ‘and ‘darling’, even by strangers. Bill Bryson in “Notes from a Small Island” comments, “the tea lady called me love. All the shop ladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn’t been here twelve hours and already everybody loved me”. The best response to such familiarity is a pleasant smile.
As in many languages, British people use a lot of slang in their everyday language. Here are a few words and sayings that you may hear:
What’s up? - Are you OK?
Fancy a sarnie? – Would you like a sandwich?
Can I push the door to? – Can I close the door?
This is a bit dodgy – This isn’t very good
I’m pulling your leg – I’m joking
Body language is not as universal as some people might think! Here are a few things to be aware of while you are in Britain.
Showing someone two fingers (the ‘v’ sign) or your middle finger is very rude.
Eye contact is expected when you are talking to someone. If you don’t look people in the eye when they are talking to you, they may think you aren't listening or aren’t interested in what they're saying!
Research has shown that people in the UK like to be about 0.5-1 metre away from each other when talking, so don’t stand too close!
The British sometimes wink at each other. This can mean someone is joking or that they like you in a sexual way! The context will usually give you the meaning.
British people like short, semi-firm handshakes – not too hard (seen as aggressive), not too soft (can be perceived as weak, or even may make them question your sexuality). It shouldn’t go on for too long, either!
Humour & Understatement
Humour is an important part of the British society.
It is used in many different ways: to set a positive atmosphere, to create a sense of togetherness, to bridge differences, to introduce risky ideas, to criticise, to show appreciation or contempt of a person. British people joke about everything including the Queen, politicians, religion, themselves and you!- VSO, 2003
British people have a fairly specific sense of humour, which includes sarcasm and irony. Humour is often combined with understatement. Depending on the tone, "Not bad" can actually mean "Very good". "Not bad at all" might be the highest praise you ever get from a British person!
I used to be puzzled by the curious British attitude to pleasure, and that tireless dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies – ‘well it makes a change’, ‘mustn’t grumble’, ‘could do worse’, ‘it’s not much, but it's cheap and cheerful’, ‘it was quite nice really’ – but gradually I came around to their way of thinking. I remember finding myself in wet clothes in a cold café on a dreary seaside promenade, being presented with a cup of tea and a teacake and going ‘ooh lovely’ and I knew then that the process had started. - Bill Bryson, 1995.
British people don’t like complaining. They will accept bad service in a hotel, poor food at a restaurant and faulty goods from a shop because they don't want to cause trouble. Making a fuss draws attention to yourself, which British people don’t like. They might therefore become very nervous if you complain. British people usually voice criticism in an indirect way and may be offended by overly direct feedback.
‘It's more than having a drink – it’s a national pastime.’ - Terry Tan.
You will probably find that the pub plays an important part in many British peoples' social lives. Although many people will go the pub to drink alcohol, the pub is also a kind of social centre for catching up with your friends, and in the countryside especially, with other people from your community.
British people generally like to drink alcohol and it doesn’t have to be with a meal. You may be shocked by how much they drink and how quickly. If you do not drink alcohol people may be surprised and ask if you are not well. People may pressure you to drink. However, they will not think you are rude if you refuse, but may expect an explanation.
If you go to the pub, it is customary to buy drinks for everyone in your group. This is known as a ‘round’.
Clubbing in the UK is very popular, especially among younger people, as it offers an opportunity for late-night drinking (after the pubs have closed) and for dancing. Most clubs are open until 2am or later. You may be shocked by how little some people wear to go clubbing. Even in the middle of winter, it is not uncommon to see young women in short tops showing their waists and shoulders, and mini skirts with bare legs.
Visits to friend’s houses are often quite informal. If you are invited over, especially during the day, you will most often be offered a drink (usually a cup of tea!) but not a meal, unless it was specifically mentioned. If invited to dinner, most people would take a gift, e.g. flowers, chocolates or a bottle of wine to go with the meal. It is polite for guests to offer to help out with aspects of preparation, including laying the table, helping prepare the food and clearing up after, though again this is not always the case. Whether you actually help out or not is less important than making the offer.
Despite the Starbucks invasion of the high street, tea is still the most popular breakfast drink. A survey today shows that the British are far from adopting the Continental coffee and croissant culture and have little truck with the New York-style ‘deskfasting’. Nearly two-thirds of breakfasts are still eaten at in the kitchen and only one in ten is taken to work. Even in London, 63 percent manage to squeeze in breakfast at home. More than twice as many cups of tea are drunk than coffee, and that uniquely British staple – marmalade – was named as favourite topping on a slice of toast by 35 percent of people surveyed at Waitrose Food Illustrated Magazine.
Breakfast is often a very fast and simple meal for most British families, especially during the week. Breakfast cereal and toast is the most common breakfast. On the weekends, families might take a little longer with their breakfast.
You may hear people talking about a full English breakfast. This includes things like sausages, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, fried tomatoes and toast. Most British people tend to have a small breakfast, a middle sized lunch and a larger evening meal.
The British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. That is why, I suppose so many of their treats – teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits - are so cautiously flavourful. They are the only people in the world who think jam and currants are thrilling constituents of a pudding or a cake. Offer then something genuinely tempting – a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box, and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it is unwarranted and excessive. ”Oh no, I shouldn’t, really,” they say. “Oh, go on,” you prod encouragingly. “Well, just a small one then!” they say and then look as if they have done something terribly devilish. - Bryson, 1995.
During the week most people who work outside the home or who study will have a ‘packed lunch’ or will buy a sandwich. Packed lunches are not just for school children in the UK! You might find you get a little tired of bread and potatoes. British people eat them a lot! Rice, pasta and other staples are also readily available though so you can find some variety. You may find it strange that British people spend so little time preparing their food. You may find British people eat more ‘processed’ food than you are used to. Takeaways are also popular.
The thing that continuously takes my attention is the fast-food lifestyle the people here live on. You name what you want to eat and it’s on the supermarket shelf already prepared. All you have got to do is heat it up or throw it into the microwave for at least two minutes and it's ready. I’m talking about already prepared pizzas, curry chicken, beef stew, vegetable salad, roasted chicken with potatoes, chow-mein with rice – all canned or packed in air-tight containers. And if you want to make your own meal, but don’t have the time to cut, shred, dice or slice – pop into the supermarket and your ingredients, vegetables and meat are there, already chopped just the way you like it.
In different parts of the country, meals can be called different names so it is always good to check what someone means. In some northern parts of the UK dinner is a midday meal whereas in the south it can mean an evening meal. Don’t worry about this as even British people get confused at times!
Some visitors can be surprised at the unsocial way that British people eat. Some families, for example, eat their evening meal in front of the television.
My husband comes from a working class family in the North of England. When we first started living together in Romania, I was shocked to find that he didn’t sit down at the table to eat his dinner, but preferred to put it on his lap and watch TV while he was eating. (My mother always thought he had no manners!) Only later, when we came to live in England did I understand that people in his family come home at different times in the evening, not all at once around mid-day like we do in Romania. Apart from Sunday and Christmas dinner, they eat separately with only the TV to keep them company. Now I knew that lunch in England would be a sandwich rather than a three-course meal from my English language lessons, but even so the small amount of time that people devoted to preparing and serving food in the UK was a big surprise. In Romania, a large part of my childhood was spent in the kitchen helping my mum or grandma chop vegetables or make conserves for the winter. I discovered that when Johnny was little, his mum would open cans of beans and spaghetti hoops in tomato sauce and pour their contents on pieces of toast – this was ‘tea’. - Violeta Vadja, Romania.
Follow the rules! When being asked about things that have surprised me of the British culture along the times I’ve been there or spent with British, I laugh myself as things begin to come to my mind... food culture, drinking culture (“drinking behaviour” I’d rather say!), politeness, timing, how private privacy is (except in the tabloids!), and many many others that have led me to more than one misunderstanding!... But if asked just for one that could be a good example of cultural shock, I would say, with no doubts... the rules!
... God save the rules!
Maybe is because I come from a Latin culture, or maybe because we are still a “developing” country, who knows. But for God sake, am never tired of being surprised at how good British are at following rules! Or how good we are at breaking them! Queuing, waiting whatever the time it takes to get an answer back, being silent and polite when the train breaks down, following all and each of the procedures, even if they are a bit nonsense, reading the manuals before using a new machine... gosh, amazing!
“It is what makes the country and society be what it is, especially as there are such a lot of us,” a granny once told me... And she might be right... But is still so interesting to me to see how little people question the rules sometimes, how difficult it becomes to simply jump over some steps, how naturally people organise in queues waiting for their time, and above all... how proud people feel about being that tidy! A whole value! Funny as I am used to an environment where proud comes when you find the shortcuts, as it makes you feel more intelligent than the system! - Andrea Gabriel, a Chilean studying in the UK
The British are usually very polite. They use the word “Thank-you” and “Sorry” a lot! People say "Excuse me" if they want to pass someone and "I'm sorry" if they accidentally touch someone. British people even say sorry if you stand on their toes!
The Importance of Pleases and Queues
The rules governing ordering drinks apply to everyone. The ‘please’ is very important: foreigners or novices will be forgiven mistakes, but omitting the ‘please’ is a serious offence. It is also vital to say thank-you (or thanks, or cheers, or at the very least the non-verbal equivalent – eye contact, nod and smile), when the drinks are handed over, and again when the change is given. This rule applies not just in pubs, but when ordering or purchasing anything in England; in shops, restaurants, trains, buses and hotels, staff expect to be treated politely, and this means saying please and thank-you. The politeness is reciprocal: a bartender or shop assistant will say, ‘That’ll be four pounds and fifty, then, please’, and will usually say ‘Thank-you’, or equivalent, when you hand over the money. The generic rule is that every request (by either staff or customer) must end with ‘please’ and every fulfilment of a request requires a ‘thank-you’
The simple purchase of a drink and a packet of crisps in a pub typically requires two pleases and three thank-yous! - Fox, 2004.
British people will queue for everything from getting on a bus to being served at the Post Office. If you want to get served it is best to copy this behaviour and join the back of the queue. If you try to rush in or hurry someone, you are likely to annoy people.
Rules of Queuing!
The English expect each other to observe the rules of queuing, feel highly offended when these rules are violated, but lack the confidence or social skills to express their annoyance in a straightforward manner. In other countries, this is not a problem: in America, where a queue-jumper has committed a misdemeanour rather than a cardinal sin, the response is loud and prescriptive: the offender is simply told ‘Hey, you, get back in line!’ or words to that effect. In Europe, the reaction tends to be loud and argumentative; in some other parts of the world, queue-jumpers may simply be unceremoniously pushed and shoved back in to line – but the end result is much the same. Paradoxically, it is only in England, where queue-jumping is regarded as deeply immoral, that the queue-jumper is likely to get away with the offence. We huff and puff and scowl and mutter and seethe with righteous indignation, but only rarely do we actually speak up and tell the jumper to go back in the queue. - Fox, 2004.
When you leave what is a familiar environment and move to a new environment, you are bound to experience a whole range of feelings. Many of these emotions will be unexpected and sometimes very strong, perhaps making you feel a little out of control or confused. This is what is commonly called “culture shock.” No matter how much preparation you have done beforehand or how good your English is, there will still be parts of UK life that may still seem foreign and disorienting. Just try to remind yourself that you will feel less and less uncomfortable as you become more involved in your new culture. While some elements of culture shock may not completely disappear, differences that seem overwhelming when you first arrive will probably become smaller the longer you stay.
One thing I found a tremendous challenge as a student while I was studying my Masters course at the University of London was the different teaching styles. In the UK system, professors encourage students to discuss and express their views, opinions and thoughts, and sometimes even encourage them to criticise each other's view. Most of the time the discussion was led by native students and the speed of the discussion is very fast, and hot - sometimes the classroom is more like a war zone! In these circumstances we, as foreign students, could not follow the discussion due to the language barriers and most of the time, we did not want our teams to lag behind by taking an amount of time thinking and understanding the discussion and then translating our view into English and sometimes, it was difficult to speak in front of the many native speakers. For these reasons, we did not always join in the discussion, sitting in the corner of the classroom, feeling stupid. The hardest part was to criticize the professor's or supervisor's views and ideas. Being brought up in an Asian culture, we were taught always to respect our teachers and never criticise them, even if you do not agree with their views; if you criticize someone's views and thoughts, then you criticise the person. It is very, very difficult for a student, especially from an Asian country, to disagree with their professor and course providers in the classroom, and here, I would like to advise professors and tutors at universities, that we foreign 'students' are not stupid, just because we do not join in the discussion and please be patient with us, we need more time thinking and understanding, and then to argue with the native students. On the other hand, I would also like to advise all foreign students do not ever give up, do not be shy and take as long as you want to think and argue with your opponents, and to express your views. Do remember you have paid three times more student fees than native students, so you have the right to speak. Looking back, I really appreciate the UK teaching style, as I have learnt a lot of skills from tutorials, such as problem solving, team working, strategy planning, decision making, communications from group discussions and being a solicitor now, in to my work, have brought them into my work. Last but not least, I would like to say to all my fellow foreign students, when in Rome do as the Romans do. - Xiaomei Qin, China
Bibliography: Tan. T., 1992, ‘Culture Shock Britain’, Kuperard, London VSO, 2003, ‘A Practical Guide to Living and Working in the UK’, VSO, London Bryson. B., 1995. ‘Notes From a Small Island’, Doubleday, London Fox, K, 2004. ‘Watching the English’, Hodder and Stoughton, London www.statistic.gov.uk www.news.bbc.co.uk Evening Standard newspaper Further Information If you would like to read more about British culture and cross-cultural working here are some books and websites you might like to check out: UK specific: Ford & Legon, 2003, ‘The How to be British collection’, Lee Gone, East Sussex James. C., 1995, ‘Falling towards England’, Jonathan Cape, London www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/europe/england www.i-ukcom Cross-cultural working: A. Boden, 1997 “The Cultural Gaffes Pocketbook”, Management Pocketbooks Ltd, Hampshire E. Marx, 1999 “Breaking Through Culture Shock”, Nicholas Brealey, London C.Storti, 1989 “The Art of Crossing Cultures, Intercultural Press Compiled by Thinking People
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