We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in United Kingdom
It’s acceptable to address someone by their first name in most social situations. In very formal or business situations first names are not commonly used until people are better acquainted. The best strategy is to use what they introduced themselves with. Officials, however, (like policemen or doctors) will invariably call you by your title and surname, for example “Mr Smith”, or “Sir”. Sometimes, strangers and friends address each other by “mate” informally, but this should not be used to people with higher status than you, and should be avoided in formal contexts.
If you travel to different regions in Britain, you will find a variety of British accents, such as Liverpool accent (“Scouse” [rhymes with “mouse”]), Newcastle (“Geordie”) accent and even “cockney” accent in London. Provided you talk as you normally do, you will not have a problem, especially if your first language is not English; people may well modify their accent and if they use dialect will modify their speech accordingly. While it may be tempting to do, do not try to copy people’s accents or dialect, as they will either think you are “taking the mick” or laughing at them, or you could find yourself being laughed at. In particular avoid trying to use local idiom such as Cockney rhyming slang in London, or the use of the word “gan” instead of “go” in the north east.
The British are said to be reserved and reluctant to communicate with strangers. This is a misconception. You will find that most people are happy to talk to strangers for small talk such as where you come from, if you’re enjoying your visit, etc. The weather and football (more amongst men) are easy conversation starters. However, as in many other countries, it is best to avoid sensitive topics such as politics. Show some appreciation to something British such as “I like the Beatles”, which should go down well.
One thing worth noticing is that the British value privacy a lot, probably more than any other countries. When meeting with them for the first few times, avoid asking personal questions. Age is an obvious one (same for most other countries), but also martial status or if they have a girlfriend/boyfriend. Some questions considered ordinary in other countries are considered “too personal” in Britain, such as where do you live and what is your job.
It is not uncommon for an British person not to know what their neighbours’ jobs are for many years. A good tip for foreigners is to use the mirroring rule if they ask you a personal question, it is safe to ask the same question back (but answer their question first!). When you find yourself in a restaurant or being invited to someone’s home for a meal, just general table manners apply (unless it is a top-class restaurant). Normally when visiting a house, the host will ask if you would like a cup of tea or coffee. You should do the same when you invite an British person to your house when you live in Britain.
It is fine to let your host know if you are vegetarian or any dietary needs. On the other hand, it is rude to specify exactly what you would like to eat. Likewise, when you invite an British person to your house, besides finding out if they are vegetarians, you should also ask them if they are allergic to anything as many British people have different sorts of “allergy” such as nut allergy, wheat allergy and so on. There are many traditional table manners rules but these rules are becoming less and less important and may just apply at a formal event or around older British citizens, otherwise no one will be concerned about these rules. However, there are a couple of rules which are worth bearing in mind.
First, do not start eating when others have not yet started. Second, when eating with other people do not constantly use your phone such as texting or on facebook. When you eat in a mid-range or high-end restaurant, the server may ask you “how is the food?”. Just say “fine, thanks”, even if you think the food is awful. When you find yourself in a pub or bar with your British friends, be aware that there is an unspoken convention of “buying rounds” from each person. This normally works OK if it is a small group. However if the group is large, the “round” could be costly and that could lead to “binge drinking”.
It is absolutely fine to have non-alcoholic drinks though, or to avoid joining the round, especially if you are female or have to leave early. Even better, arrange to meet your friends in a restaurant or cafés (which have been increasing popular in Britain). The British can be extremely indirect when requesting things from people they do not know. It is common for Britons to “ask around” questions when requesting something: for example, one would be more likely to say something along the lines of “Where can I find the changing room?” when in a clothes shop, rather than “Where’s the changing room?”. Similarly, saying ‘What?’ when not understanding something can be considered rude around authority figures or people you don’t know, so ‘Pardon?’ or “Sorry?” is more appropriate to use in situations with a stranger or a superior. British people apologise a lot, even when there is absolutely no need to do so. For example, if someone trod on someone else’s toe by accident, both people would normally apologise.
You should do the same even for little things. Allow some personal space between you and others in queues and elsewhere. It is said that the British invented queueing, and they become very annoyed if anyone jumps the line although it is not very “gentleman” for them to make noise about that.
When someone is right behind you when you open the door, hold the door for a second or two for the other person. This may not be a common practice for other countries but this is quite common here. If you are that person behind, say thanks or cheers to the one holding the door for you.
Greetings are dependent upon the situation. In anything but a business situation, a verbal greeting (such as ‘hello, ‘Hi,’ ‘Hiya,’ or ‘Hey’ ‘You all right?’ or ‘All right?’) Etiquette for a hug is somewhat complicated, so the best advice is to accept a hug (regardless of the gender offering it) if it is offered, otherwise a handshake is appropriate. Kisses on both cheeks are not common but that could happen, so be prepared. For more details on unwritten rules concerning greetings, addressing others, small-talk etc, read Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox.
The Scottish are Scottish, the Welsh are Welsh, and the English are English. Referring to all of them as “English” will probably offend. It’s a potential minefield but “British” will always be safer than “English”. Anyone who doesn’t wish to be referred to as British will understand that you didn’t mean any offence and will politely correct you (“I prefer to be called Scottish”).
Your safest bet is to ask them how they would like to be called. Never refer to the Falklands as being Argentinian, even if you are an Argentinian. Unless you are Argentinian this subject is unlikely to be mentioned, and if you are Argentinian, the British sense of politeness could result in the subject being avoided. Same-sex displays of affection is acceptable to most people apart from some rural areas and in rougher parts of many cities (see Stay Safe above). On the respect side, if you see a pair of same-sex couple displaying affection, do not stare at them like animals in a zoo.
This kind of affection is no problem, and most British people are liberal, tolerant and accepting. A majority of people in Britain support same-sex marriage and gay rights. Even if you don’t like gay people, do not openly condemn or criticise them as you will be unwelcomed by others and seen as backward. Despite the reputation, drunken behaviours are not acceptable in the UK and could get you arrested.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about United Kingdom, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on United Kingdom food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in United Kingdom? Please comment below.