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  1. 1. Explore SeriesA Guide to British Culture
  2. 2. Getting the most from your time in the UKWhen you first move into a new cultural context it can be quite difficult to know whatto say and how to behave. We hope this manual will help you to adapt more quicklyand more easily by giving you some basic guidance on what to do and what not do toin 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 abouta new culture is to observe closely what goes on around you, so at various pointsthroughout the manual you will find key questions to guide your observations. 2
  3. 3. IntroductionThe UK has a population of about 60 million, with 7 ½ million of those living inLondon ( Older people account for an increasing proportion ofthe 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% ofthe total population) ( 45% of non-white people live in London( People of Indian heritage are the largest minority group,followed by those from Pakistan, those of mixed ethnic background and BlackCaribbeans. With all this diversity we need to be careful when making generalisationsabout ‘British culture”…however here are a few things to get you thinking!The United Kingdom (UK) is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and NorthernIreland. 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 Walesand 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 flagThe British flag or Union Flag, more popularly known as the Union Jack marks twomajor constitutional changes.first: after England and Scotland were united under James VI of Scotland / James Iof England.second: when Northern Ireland was joined to the United Kingdom in 1800. The newflag included the diagonal red and white cross of St Patrick.Religion The UK is a predominantly Christian-based society. Of every 100 people in the UK72 class themselves as Christian ( However, only 4 out ofevery 100 would attend church every Sunday. Britain has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, estimated to beabout 1.5 million people, and has over 600 mosques and prayer centres( The other main religions in the UK are Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism( Around 30% of British households are made up of only one person( Most parents only have one or two children. Grandparentsoften live separately to the ‘nuclear’ family (nuclear meaning just parents and theirchildren). It is estimated that about 1 in 3 British marriages end in divorce (however this ratehas slowed down over the last 20 years – Many people re- 3
  4. 4. marry and therefore it is not uncommon for children to be brought up by step-parentsor by one parent. Many British families also own pets. They are often seen as ‘part of the family’ andare kept inside the house. People may be offended if you don’t treat their pet kindly.Dogs and cats are the usual pets but some people may keep other animals, anythingfrom 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 younger men sharing many chores thatwere traditionally female such as child-care, cleaning and cooking duties. Thisreflects the fact that increasing numbers of British women now work outside of thehome. However, most of the domestic work is till done so real equality is yet to beachieved. Most women in the UK work outside the home even if just part-time. Fewer menwork part-time. This is one of the major reason why women earn less than men.There are two laws in the UK that aim to prevent discrimination against womenin the workplace: the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and 1970 Equal Pay Act. Womenon average however still earn about 20% less than the average hourly earnings ofmale full time employees (You may see what some people call ‘public displays of affection’ while you are inthe UK. It is not socially unacceptable for people of the opposite sex to hold handsand kiss in public. It is very unusual for people of the same sex to hold hands in public, especiallymen. Some people might think you are gay.A lot of prejudice still exists in the UK against those who are gay, lesbian orbisexual. Many gay, lesbian or bisexual people are, however, open about theirsexuality. There is legislation that protects the rights of gay, lesbian or bisexualpeople not to be discriminated against or victimised.In Britain, people may seem very informal. Lecturers want students to call themby their first names, and he/she may ‘go drinking’ (to the pub) with the students. Styleof dress depends more on personal choice than on position or rank.  How do people interact? How do people relate to their superiors? How do superiors relate to those at a lower level? Do people work closely together or more independently? Are women treated differently from men? If so, in what way?Personal space and privacy ”An Englishman’s home is his castle” - You may not have heard of this term beforebut you may hear it in the UK. British people do like to spend some time bythemselves and may feel uncomfortable if they are always surrounded by otherpeople. This does not mean they don’t like being with others just that sometimes theyfeel the need to do something alone eg. go for a walk or read a book. To say youneed 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 smallrooms and gardens tend to have fences or hedges around them. Again some wouldargue this is because people like to have some privacy. Some people think this love 4
  5. 5. of privacy comes from the fact that we have 59 million people packed into a verysmall 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 arewilling to help if you ask for assistance. They may not be so willing to talk to you ifyou ask too many personal questions, however. What might seem like a normalquestion - “Where are you from?”, may be considered nosey. Terry Tan in ‘CultureShock Britain’ recommends “When you get one word answers, stop askingquestions, and return to the safe ice-breaking subjects such as the weather, pets,gardens, children and their antics and community welfare”. British people can beinterested in foreign cultures and lifestyles, but often their sense of privacy and a fearof invading yours stops them being too curious. Conversing with strangers!It is common, and considered entirely normal, for English commuters to make theirmorning and evening train journeys with the same group of people for many yearswithout ever exchanging a word.‘After a while’ one commuter told me, ‘if you see the same person every morning onthe platform, and maybe quite often sit opposite them on the train, you might start tojust 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 moreoutgoing than others, you know?’ Fox, 2004Time “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 oftenhear people talking about ‘saving time’ or ‘not having enough hours in the day’. If youare late for an appointment without a reason it may be perceived that you value yourtime more than someone else’s and you may be seen to be disrespectful of thatperson. It is unusual to turn up to someone’s office without an appointment and expectthem to be able to see you. Appointments are not only made at work, but often alsoin people’s free time when they are meeting someone. You may find UK culture is very ‘task-focussed’. People are expected to stickclosely to agreed deadlines. If you miss them people may begin to think you aredisorganised and unprofessional! Time in the UK: A different perspectiveOne 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 wasprobably best not to bother as by the time I would get there, it would be too late to dowhat we had planned. Although I didn’t let on, I was perplexed and hurt. In Romania, 5
  6. 6. 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 haveseemed 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 notworking, etc. Over here, I only have only one friend without a diary. He often tends toforget our meetings or my phone number but I love him – he reminds me of home… Violeta Vadja, Romania  Do meetings/appointments start on time? How long do people with appointments have to wait?CommunicationGreetings and Goodbyes The British are a culture of quick ‘Hi!’s” and short, sharp handshakes. Somepeople however have adopted the European approach and kiss people on one orboth cheeks. Friends and family may hug and kiss when they meet each other. ‘Hi!’, ‘Hello!’, ‘Good morning!’, ‘Good afternoon!’ and ‘Good Evening!’ are all waysof greeting people ‘Goodbye!’, ‘See you soon!’, ‘Take Care’ are ways of saying goodbye. The British have a reputation for coolness, so you may be surprised if you findyourself 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 shopladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn’t been here twelvehours and already everybody loved me”. The best response to such familiarity is apleasant smile. Getting with it! (Know what is going on!)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 6
  7. 7.  How do people greet each other? What is the protocol for going in and out of someone’s office? Do people maintain eye contact when they talk? How far apart do people stand? What does a third person do when approaching two others who are already in conversation?Are people generally direct or indirect in conversation? Do they say what they mean or do they only arrive at the point after some time? How is conflict handled? How is disagreement expressed? How important does saving face seem to be? Body TalkBody language is not as universal as some people might think! Here are a few thingsto 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 peoplein the eye when they are talking to you they may think you are not listening or aren’tinterested in what they are saying! Research has shown that people in the UK like to be about 0.5-1 metre away fromeach other when talking, so don’t stand too close! People in the UK sometimes wink at each other. This can mean someone is jokingor 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 asaggressive), not too soft (can be perceived as weak or even may make themquestion your sexuality) and shouldn’t go on for too long!Humour & Understatement“Humour is an important part of the British society. “It is used in many differentways: to set a positive atmosphere, to create a sense of togetherness, to bridgedifferences, to introduce risky ideas, to criticise, to show appreciation or contempt ofa 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 andirony. Sarcasm is when you say the opposite of what you mean, which some peoplefind funny! Humour is often combined with understatement. Depending on the tone "Not bad"can actually mean "Very good" and "Not bad at all" might be the highest praise youever get from a British person. Ever optimistic!I used to be puzzled by the curious British attitude to pleasure, and that tirelessdogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to thedirest inadequacies – ‘well it makes a change’, ‘mustn’t grumble’, ‘could do worse’,‘it’s not much, but its cheap and cheerful’, ‘it was quite nice really’ – but gradually Icame around to their way of thinking. I remember finding myself in wet clothes in a 7
  8. 8. cold café on a dreary seaside promenade being presented with a cup of tea and ateacake and going ‘ooh lovely’ and I knew then that the process had started. Bill Bryson, 1995Don’t make a fuss!British people don’t like complaining. They will accept bad service in a hotel, poorfood at a restaurant and faulty goods from a shop because they dont want to ‘makea fuss’ (cause trouble). Making a fuss draws attention to yourself, which Britishpeople don’t like. They might therefore become very nervous if you complain. Britishpeople usually voice criticism in an indirect way and may be offended by overly directfeedback.SocialisingThe Pub ‘Its 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 people’ssocial lives. Although many people will go the pub to drink alcohol, the pub is also akind of social centre for catching up with your friends, and in the countrysideespecially, 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 drinkalcohol people may be surprised and ask if you are not well. People may pressureyou to drink. However they will not think you are rude if you refuse, but may expectan explanation.If you go to the pub it is usual to buy drinks for everyone in your group. This isknown as a ‘round’.ClubbingClubbing in the UK is very popular, especially among younger people, as it offersan 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 themiddle of winter is not uncommon to see young women in short tops showing theirwaists and shoulders, and mini skirts with bare legs.Visits to friend’s Houses Visits to friend’s houses are often quite informal. If you are invited over, especiallyduring the day, you will probably be offered a drink (usually a cup of tea!) but willprobably not be offered a meal, unless it was specifically mentioned. If you are invited to dinner most people will take something eg. 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, includinglaying the table, helping prepare the food and clearing up after, though again this isnot always the case. Whether you actually help out or not is less important thanmaking the offer. 8
  9. 9. Food Tea and breakfastDespite the Starbucks invasion of the high street, tea is still the most popularbreakfast drink. A survey today shows that Britons are far from adopting theContinental 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 istaken 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 Britishstaple – marmalade – was named as favourite topping on a slice of toast’ by 35percent of people surveyed at Waitrose Food Illustrated Magazine. Evening Standard, 24th August 2005 Breakfast is often a very fast and simple meal for most British families, especiallyduring the week. Breakfast cereal and toast is the most common breakfast. At theweekends families might take a little longer with their breakfast You may hear people talking about a full English breakfast. This includes thingslike sausages, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, fried tomatoes and toast. Most British people tend to have a small breakfast, a middle sized lunch and alarger evening meal. Small PleasuresThe British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually liketheir pleasures small. That is why, I suppose so many of their treats – teacakes,scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits - are so cautiously flavourful. Theyare the only people in the world who think jam and currants are thrilling constituentsof a pudding or a cake. Offer then something genuinely tempting – a slice of gateauor a choice of chocolates from a box, and they will nearly always hesitate and beginto 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 thenlook 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 childrenin the UK! You might find you get a little tired of bread and potatoes. British people eat thema lot! Rice, pasta and other staples are also readily available though so you can findsome 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. 9
  10. 10. Hello! Where’s the fresh balanced meal?The thing that continuously takes my attention is the fast-food lifestyle the peoplehere live on. You name what you want to eat and it’s on the supermarket shelfalready prepared. All you have got to do is heat it up or throw it into the microwavefor at least two minutes and its ready. I’m talking about already prepared pizzas,curry chicken, beef stew, vegetable salad, roasted chicken with potatoes, chowmeinwith 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 orslice – pop into the supermarket and your ingredients, vegetables and meat arethere, already chopped just the way you like it’ Vasemaca Rarabi, Fiji In different parts of the country meals can be called different names so it is alwaysgood to check what someone means. In some northern parts of the UK dinner is amidday meal whereas in the south it can mean an evening meal. Don’t worry aboutthis as even British people get confused at times! Some visitors can be surprised at the unsocial way that British people eat. Somefamilies, for example, eat their evening meal in front of the television. And you call that dinner!‘My husband comes from a working class family in the North of England. When wefirst started living together in Romania, I was shocked to find that he didn’t sit down atthe table to eat his dinner, but preferred to put it on his lap and watch TV while hewas 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 familycome home at different times in the evening, not all at once around mid-day like wedo in Romania. Apart from Sunday and Christmas dinner, they eat separately withonly the TV to keep them company.Now I knew that lunch in England would be a sandwich rather than a three-coursemeal from my English language lessons, but even so the small amount of time thatpeople devoted to preparing and serving food in the UK was a big surprise. InRomania, a large part of my childhood was spent in the kitchen helping my mum orgrandma chop vegetables or make conserves for the winter. I discovered that whenJohnny was little, his mum would open cans of beans and spaghetti hoops in tomatosauce and pour their contents on pieces of toast – this was ‘tea’. Violeta Vadja, Romania 10
  11. 11. Rules Follow the rules!When being asked about things that have surprised me of the British culture alongthe times I’ve been there or spent with British, I laugh myself as things begin to cometo my mind... food culture, drinking culture (“drinking behaviour” I’d rather say!),politeness, timing, how private privacy is (except in the tabloids!), and many manyothers that have led me to more than one misunderstanding!... But if asked just forone that could be a good example of cultural shock, I would say, with no doubts... therules!... 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 beingsurprised at how good British are at following rules! Or how good we are at breakingthem!!!. Queuing, waiting whatever the time it takes to get an answer back, beingsilent and polite when the train brakes down, following all and each of theprocedures, even if they are a bit nonsense, reading the manuals before using a newmachine... gosh, amazing!“It is what makes the country and society be what it is, especially as there are such alot of us” a granny once told me... And she might be right... But is still so interestingto me to see how little people question the rules sometimes, how difficult it becomesto simply jump over some steps, how naturally people organises in queues waitingfor their time, and above all... how proud people feel about being that tidy!! A wholevalue! Funny as I am used to an environment where proud comes when you find theshortcuts, as it makes you feel more intelligent than the system! Andrea Gabriel, a Chilean studying in the UKA culture of queues and thank-you’s! The British are usually very polite. They use the word “Thank-you” and “Sorry” alot! People say "Excuse me" if they want to pass someone and "Im sorry" if theyaccidentally touch someone. British people even say sorry if you stand on their toes! The importance of Ps and QsThe 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 seriousoffence. It is also vital to say thank-you (or thanks, or cheers, or at the very least thenon-verbal equivalent – eye contact, nod and smile), when the drinks are handedover, and again when the change is given.This rule applies not just in pubs, but when ordering or purchasing anything inEngland; in shops, restaurants, trains, buses and hotels, staff expect to be treatedpolitely, and this means saying please and thank-you. The politeness is reciprocal: abartender 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. Thegeneric rule is that every request (by either staff or customer) must end with ‘please’and every fulfilment of a request requires a ‘thank-you’ 11
  12. 12. The simple purchase of a drink and a packet of crisps in a pub typically requires twopleases and three thank-yous! Fox, 2004 British people will queue for everything from getting on a bus to being served atthe Post Office. If you want to get served it is best to copy this behaviour and join theback of the queue. If you try to rush in or hurry someone, you are likely to annoypeople Rules of Queuing!The English expect each other to observe the rules of queuing, feel highly offendedwhen these rules are violated, but lack the confidence or social skills to express theirannoyance in a straightforward manner. In other countries, this is not a problem: inAmerica, where a queue-jumper has committed a misdemeanour rather than acardinal 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 loudand argumentative; in some other parts of the world, queue-jumpers may simply beunceremoniously pushed and shoved back in to line – but the end result is much thesame. Paradoxically, it is only in England, where queue-jumping is regarded asdeeply immoral, that the queue-jumper is likely to get away with the offence. We huffand puff and scowl and mutter and seethe with righteous indignation, but only rarelydo we actually speak up and tell the jumper to go back in the queue. Fox, 2004Culture ShockWhen you leave what is a familiar environment and move to a new environment, youare bound to experience a whole range of feelings. Many of these emotions will beunexpected and sometimes very strong, perhaps making you feel a little out ofcontrol or confused. This is what is commonly called “culture shock.” No matter howmuch preparation you have done beforehand or how good your English is, there willstill 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 youbecome more involved in your new culture. While some elements of culture shockmay not completely disappear, differences that seem overwhelming when you firstarrive will probably become smaller the longer you stay. War Zone!One thing I found a tremendous challenge as a student while I was studying myMasters course at the University of London was the different teaching styles. In theUK system, professors encourage students to discuss and express their views,opinions and thoughts, and sometimes even encourage them to criticise each othersview. Most of the time the discussion was led by native students and the speed ofthe discussion is very fast, and hot - sometimes the classroom is more like a warzone!In these circumstances we, as foreign students, could not follow the discussion dueto the language barriers and most of the time, we did not want our teams to lag 12
  13. 13. behind by taking an amount of time thinking and understanding the discussion andthen translating our view into English and sometimes, it was difficult to speak in frontof the many native speakers. For these reasons, we did not always join in thediscussion, sitting in the corner of the classroom, feeling stupid. The hardest part wasto criticize the professors or supervisors views and ideas. Being brought up in anAsian culture, we were taught always to respect our teachers and never criticisethem, even if you do not agree with their views; if you criticize someones views andthoughts, then you criticise the person. It is very, very difficult for a student,especially from an Asian country, to disagree with their professor and courseproviders in the classroom, and here, I would like to advise professors and tutors atuniversities, that we foreign students are not stupid, just because we do not join inthe discussion and please be patient with us, we need more time thinking andunderstanding, 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 studentfees 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 skillsfrom tutorials, such as problem solving, team working, strategy planning, decisionmaking, communications from group discussions and being a solicitor now, in to mywork, have brought them into my work. Last but not least, I would like to say to all myfellow foreign students, when in Rome do as the Romans do. Xiaomei Qin, ChinaBibliography: 13
  14. 14. 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Evening Standard newspaperFurther InformationIf you would like to read more about British culture and cross-cultural working hereare 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.i-ukcomCross-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 14