British culture

Flag of the UK

Here are some of the things that struck me as a Dutch citizen who lived in the UK for about four years. I do not claim to give a correct, complete and comprehensive picture of the British culture. Regardless of your nationality, however, you may find some of these observations useful.

Please note: In May 2001 I moved from the University of Bradford, UK, to the University of Melbourne, Australia, and this page will no longer be updated. However, you may still find the information useful if you plan to study in the United Kingdom.

Humour and understatement

Humour is the cornerstone of the British society. It is used in numerous ways: to establish 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! You'd better get used to that. 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 you ever get from a Brit.

[Added 5 September 2013: The following table has been floating around on various blogs, without clear attribution. We reproduce it here because it neatly lists useful examples.]

What the British say What the British mean What foreigners understand
I hear what you say I disagree and do not want to discuss it further He accepts my point of view
With the greatest respect You are an idiot He is listening to me
That's not bad That's good That's poor
That is a very brave proposal You are insane He thinks I have courage
Quite good A bit disappointing Quite good
I would suggest Do it or be prepared to justify yourself Think about the idea, but do what you like
Oh, incidentally/by the way The primary purpose of our discussion is That is not very important
I was a bit disappointed that I am annoyed that It doesn't really matter
Very interesting That is clearly nonsense They are impressed
I'll bear it in mind I've forgotten it already They will probably do it
I'm sure it's my fault It's your fault Why do they think it was their fault?
You must come for dinner It's not an invitation, I'm just being polite I will get an invitation soon
I almost agree I don't agree at all He's not far from agreement
I only have a few minor comments Please rewrite completely He has found a few typos
Could we consider some other options I don't like your idea They have not yet decided

Indirect communication

Communications?

In contrast to for instance Americans, Germans and Dutch, British people have a quite indirect communication style. They will not usually "tell you just the way it is to get things in the open." You will have to read between the lines to understand what they really mean. This can be very frustrating if you come from a culture, which has the motto "if you don't like it/me, why don't you just say so". Like the Japanese and the Chinese culture, the British culture is a high context culture. Words are not enough, you have to know the background and context to understand the message and interpret tone, expression and non-verbal behaviour.

Informality

In spite of the fact that Britain is still well known for its class society, relationships in the workplace and in an educational setting are very informal. Most people call their boss and other colleagues by their first names and tutors usually expect students to address them by their first names as well. In general, tutors, are very approachable and will often join you for a coffee in the break. Style of dress depends more on personal preference than on position or rank: don't be surprised to find lecturers in jeans or sweaters.

"No complaints" & patient

Patient...

Unlike the Dutch, who are professional naggers, British people are not very likely to complain. They will swallow bad service or bad food at a restaurant, because they don't want to make a scene. They might therefore become very nervous if you try to voice your dissatisfaction. Criticism should also preferably be voiced in an indirect way. Otherwise it will only make your British counterpart very hostile and defensive and your criticism is unlikely to have any effect. The Brits are usually very patient and will queue for everything. It is best to imitate this behaviour. If you try to rush in or hurry someone, you will have to wait even longer.

Friendly

Although the British are generally seen as being reserved, you will find that in the North of England (where I used to live), people are usually quite friendly. They will appreciate it if you make a chat about the weather or take an interest in local affairs. Especially as a man, you might have to get used to the fact that many (older) people address you as "Love". Don't worry, they don't have amorous intentions.

Polite & "quiet"

Polite people

British are very polite. In a restaurant, you will have to say thank you when you get the menu, thank you when you place the order, thank you when get your dishes, thank you when the waiter takes away the plates and even thank you when you pay! You'll have to say "excuse me" if you want to pass someone and "I'm sorry" if you accidentally touch someone. British people even say sorry if you stand on their toes! They are also very "quiet" and keep to themselves. This can be hard if you want to make friends with them. It is a boon, however, if you are out with your own group or don't like noisy people.