What comes to mind when you think of British culture? Probably quite differing traditional stereotypes. On the one hand, you might think of James Bond ordering a sophisticated Martini or of stylish celebs attending Wimbledon. While on the other, you might think of the eccentric capers of Mr. Bean. The UK is a multi-nation, multi-ethnic land of diversity and contrast. And yet you’ll find it hard to meet a Brit who doesn’t love a good cup of tea with a nice chocolate biscuit.
This blog post looks at some of the most characteristic customs shared by the British. I feel it necessary to point out that I myself am from southern Ireland and am therefore not a Brit, even though we share many quirks. I have, however, lived in the UK and now spend my days surrounded by many wonderful Brits at British Council Barcelona. In the interests of objectivity (and of course, to avoid controversy), I have consulted British friends and colleagues to ask them what customs they would define as specifically British, for better or worse. Read on for their eye-opening responses.
1. Awkward greetings
Our first respondent, Tamsin from Leicester, suggests that there are no strict rules for greeting somebody in the UK, the only essential element is that it’s awkward. In a country like Spain, the social rules for handshakes or giving two kisses are quite clear. In the UK, greetings can range from a formal handshake to a hug to a nod of the head or perhaps just a simple “Hello”. Such lack of guidance spells social disaster, as one person goes in for a hug while the other is offering a reserved head nod. The result is embarrassment for everybody, and thus a typical British interaction has begun! Try to minimise the awkwardness by at least having some greeting expressions up your sleeve. Click here for some typical expressions in English.
2. Tea (and biscuits, obviously)
It’s not just a stereotype. When asked about quintessentially British customs, almost all respondents to my question immediately mentioned drinking a nice cuppa. The word “cuppa” (/ˈkʌpə/) is a common way to refer to a cup of tea, as when you pronounce the expression “cup of tea”, it sounds more like “cuppa tea”. And it’s true that the humble cup of tea forms the basis of many British social interactions. Most Brits drink tea for breakfast, more tea during work breaks, tea before bed, tea when the neighbours visit, tea during a meeting, tea to help decide how to solve a crisis … you get the idea. And let’s not forget the great British art of “dunking”: this means dipping sugary biscuits into tea before eating them. In fact, one source of national debate is which brand of biscuit is best for dunking purposes.
3. Going to the pub
Like many other respondents, Simon from Essex says that the main British tradition for him is going to the pub. Many people have their “local”, meaning the pub that they go to most regularly and where they know the staff and the other customers. I remember working in an office in London and how our entire team of about 50 people had the fun habit of going to the pub together every Friday after work (sometimes on Thursdays too!). It’s not all about drinking though. A trip to the pub can involve playing darts, watching sports on TV, eating some “pub grub” (that’s the name for food served in a pub), or maybe even taking part in a challenging pub quiz. If you’re in the mood for a fun night out, keep an eye out (or Google) for a typical British pub quiz right here in Portugal.
4. Paying for drinks in rounds
Several respondents pointed out that if you decide to try out British pub culture, you need to be aware of the other British tradition of buying drinks in rounds. This means that rather than ordering your drink individually, it’s much more common to order (and pay) for the entire group. Your fellow drinkers will return the favour when they buy your next drink, and the next after that, depending on how many people are in the group. Just be careful: if you’re not as used to alcohol as your colleagues, going out with a big group could lead to a pretty bad hangover the following day! Or if you’ve had enough, you can feel free to go home. The people who owe you drinks will (usually) remember to buy you one the next time you’re in the pub together. Click here for more about British pub etiquette.
5. Saying sorry
Another custom which many respondents thought was particularly British was excessive apologising. Jane from London suggests that in any situation that goes wrong, it is the automatic reaction of most Brits to say sorry, regardless of whether they are at fault. Jane says that if she’s getting off the tube and a man bumps into her while he rushes into the carriage, her instinctive reaction is to exclaim “Oooh, sorry!”, even though she clearly hasn’t done anything wrong. Things get even more bizarre than that. People in office corridors walk past each other and whisper “sorry!” even when there is plenty of room for them both to pass; my ex-flatmate in London once unthinkingly apologised to a dog which had run into her leg.
6. Identifying accent
A suggestion from various colleagues was the British custom of trying to place a person based on their accent. Of course, this tendency exists in every country but it’s true that the UK seems to have a particular wealth of distinguishable regional accents. So when one Londoner meets another, it’s quite possible that they will automatically know which general part of the city the other is from, just from accent. This phenomenon is not limited to big cities, with many rural areas having their own distinct accents. This means that Brits often talk about accents to break the ice in social gatherings, for example:
Jeff: So, would I be right in guessing that you’re from Cornwall, Harold?
Harold: Oh, close enough. I’m actually from Devon.
7. Identifying class
In several responses to my question about British quirks, people mentioned the UK’s obsession with class. One important factor in this sphere is, again, accent. For example, if somebody has attended a public school (this is - confusingly - the name for an expensive private school in the UK), they have a very recognisable accent. I have had many conversations with British friends, along the lines of “Well, my grandparents were working class but they saved money to send one of their kids to public school so that he’d get a posh accent and become a lawyer”. Often, a person’s class is assumed by their accent or family connections rather than their actual bank balance. The British tend to speak about class quite openly and even consider certain supermarkets, newspapers, or social activities to be dictated by a person’s class. All of this means that silently guessing a person’s class is one of Brits’ favourite hobbies.
8. Sunbathing, wherever, whenever
A final custom, suggested by Sandra from London, is the British tendency to sunbathe at any sight of sun. Perhaps this is a biological necessity, a behaviour common to all people from sun-deprived nations. Any sunny day in the UK with a temperature of over 18 degrees leads to mass delirium. That means people unbuttoning their shirts, rolling up their trousers and stopping everything to sit in the sun, whether they’re in a park, in a city square, at a bus stop, literally anywhere outdoors. And who could blame them for making the most of the British sunshine? Perhaps less healthy is when Brits do the same while on holiday in a hot country like Spain and instead of a sun-kissed glow, end up with an unfortunate “gamba” red!
Thanks to all my British friends and colleagues for explaining just a few of their most representative customs. Of course, there are many more that we could add to the list. Any suggestions? Why not add them to the Facebook comments for this post? Don’t forget to click here for more blog posts about life in the UK.