Introduction to British Culture
- Life in the UK may seem quite different. Perhaps you’re already missing your family and friends. Maybe you find British culture unusual and confusing at times.
- We hope this guide will help you learn how life works here. Many British habits or actions may seem strange compared to your own culture. This guide has been put together to help you better understand the British!
- It may not cover everything, so please leave a comment for more information; we’d be happy to help.
Getting to Know British Culture
- The British are often reserved and tend not to communicate much during initial meetings. This is called being “reserved.” You’ll see that many local people don’t talk to foreigners while shopping, on a bus, train, or in a queue. While this may seem strange to you, it shouldn’t be interpreted as unfriendly. In such situations, unless the other person clearly expects it, you should not engage in extended or lengthy conversations.
- When meeting someone for the first time, try to ask general questions, and personal questions may be seen as rude. Questions like “What’s your name?” “Where do you live?” or “What do you do?” are acceptable, but questions like “How old are you?” “How much do you earn?” or “How much did you pay for this?” can be considered impolite. If you’re not sure, try talking about yourself: what you do and where you’re from. Many British people know very little about other countries and cultures, even if they’ve traveled abroad. Tourist travels are quite different from actually living in another country.
- The UK is quite strict about keeping time. Life revolves around schedules and punctuality. Being late, even if it’s just a few minutes, can be perceived as rude. Your teacher or supervisor may not accept your lateness for a seminar or class, no matter the reason. For example, if a meeting or class is scheduled during lunchtime, there might be a plan to talk first and then have lunch, or vice versa. If you’re late, you might miss the part you were supposed to attend.
- The British are naturally reserved and generally selective in showing their emotions. Unlike other cultures, people typically don’t pat each other on the back or make physical contact during conversations. Some of the British behaviors might be misinterpreted as aggressive or overly emotional.
- During conversations, keeping a certain distance from the other person may seem ordinary to you. In the UK, people often leave 60-110 cm of space, so don’t be surprised if a Brit moves away from you during a conversation!
- The British often greet you with “Hello, How are you?” This is a simple way of saying “Hello” or “Welcome,” and they expect a response like “Quite well, thank you.” “Hello, How are you?” is not a question meant to gather detailed information about your health.
- In formal situations (e.g., when meeting a teacher or host for the first time), it’s common to shake hands with the right hand. It doesn’t matter who initiates the handshake; it doesn’t signify anything. Kissing and hugging are not usual during initial meetings in the UK, and you should avoid these actions.
Hands and Eye Contact
- There is no particular significance attached to the right or left hand in the UK; both can be used when giving or receiving gifts. However, when shaking hands, it’s customary to use the right hand.
- Avoiding eye contact might be seen as a sign of respect towards an older person or authority figure. In the UK, avoiding eye contact is not perceived as insincere or deceitful. During conversations, try looking at people, but note that avoiding eye contact with strangers is common (e.g., when sitting next to someone on a train).
Regardless of what people might think of you, many Brits will smile when they meet you.
Gender and Equality
- It’s important to be aware that in the UK, female and male members of the workforce are considered equal and respected.
How to Address People
- Many members and staff prefer to be addressed by their first names. If you address someone as Mr., Miss, Mrs., Dr., or Professor, it’s considered very formal. Pay attention to how people introduce themselves and how other students address them.
“Will you come for coffee?”
- People often use the question “Will you come for coffee?” to mean “Would you like to come around for a short while and chat?” Normally, drinks like tea, hot chocolate, or orange juice are suitable for drinking, similar to coffee, and you will be asked what you’d like. If your host suggests “coffee,” it usually doesn’t mean “alcohol.” If you want to go, accept the invitation at the first offer. If you initially decline an invitation, a Brit may think it’s your final decision and not ask again.
- Queueing is the norm in the UK, whether at a bus stop, in a shop, or a similar situation where waiting for your turn is the standard practice. If you’re unsure whether someone is waiting in line or not, always ask before proceeding. Cutting ahead in a queue is considered a significant breach of etiquette.
- If English is your second or third language, you might find some local accents, dialects, and expressions difficult to understand. Inflections, sarcasm, and pronunciation can all change the meaning of an expression.
Expecting Indirect Answers
- Answers that contain “yes” often include the word “yes” itself. However, things with a negative meaning may be expressed indirectly. For example, if you ask a friend if they’d like to come for tea, they might say, “Well, it would be nice to see you today for tea, but we are rather busy, so I will let you know.” In this case, your friend might actually mean, “I’d prefer to meet for tea another day.”
- Don’t worry about saying “no.” In the UK, saying “no” is not considered rude. Honesty is generally preferred, so people will understand what you mean. If you don’t want to do something, don’t hesitate to say “no.”
- Never hesitate to ask questions to your host, teacher, or tutor. Asking questions or looking at things from a different perspective is not considered impolite in this country. Students are expected to think critically and have a curious mind, so asking questions is encouraged. Don’t think of it as asking too many questions in every conversation.
Improving Your English
- The best way to improve your English is to use it! Try to find someone you can regularly converse with. The most suitable people for conversations are young people with spare time and retired individuals. If there are words you’ve used incorrectly or mispronounced, ask them to point it out. You can also find English classes at your college or adult education centers in your city. If you’re struggling with written English, you can find helpful books. There are many excellent books on written English; if you’re having trouble finding them, here are two recommendations:
- “The Complete Plain Words” by Ernest Gowers
- “One hundred per cent Report Writing” by RA Ward