Culture Shocks on Arriving in England and the United Kingdom

Visiting an interestingly different country and meeting another culture is always an adventure. Looking at how others deal with life is part of the fascination of travel and meeting people from other cultures.

Modern communications and Britain's cultural exports of music, film, TV and literature, mean that you will probably already have some idea of what to expect. To broadly generalize, Britain is culturally very close to Europe other than the language. Australia, Canada and New Zealand are also culturally close, without the history but with the advantage of sharing a common language. The USA has the language advantage, but this can be misleading as it hides a greater degree of foreignness than might be expected.

These are some examples of culture shock and social etiquette in England the United Kingdom that you may encounter as a short-term visitor rather than as a resident. They are of course broad generalizations. Depending on where you come from some will seem very strange indeed, others so familiar that they may puzzle you as to why I bothered to write them at all.

One VERY important thing, when crossing the road - Look Right or Die. We drive on the left, so when crossing a road look right first and not just an instinctive glance to the left as you have been used to doing your whole life.


Politeness

The British are a polite race, you will hear please and thank-you a lot in your interactions with them, it will help if you also join in with these little acknowledgements that make things go a little more smoothly, some other examples:

Holding doors open for others -  you hold it for the person behind you, they take over for the person behind them etc, do it a little longer for the elderly or those with pushchairs etc. thank-you helps here too.

Accidentally bumping into someone and both aplogising - This really seems to confuse some who are not used to it, you accidentally bump into someone in the street, in a shop etc. both parties turn to each other and apologise, even if it might be clear that one was at fault and the other blameless. Now no-one ever teaches you this, but this is what is going on, what the "sorry" really means:

    It appears we have accidentally bumped into each other, now I don't think it was my fault, but I may be wrong, if it was my fault I am sorry for that, if it was your fault I am sure that you didn't mean it and I acknowledge the blameless nature of this incident with an apology that accepts it could have been me. In either event no malice or deliberate act was intended, no offence taken and we can just move on

The "sorry" is not an admission of guilt, but an expression of the regrettable nature of the incident.

Loudness in public is frowned upon - Strident voices you can hear half way down the street are not appreciated, and don't use the "outside voice" indoors, it is seen as an imposition on strangers and associated with a degree of ignorance.

You may be called love, duck, darlin', lovely, pet, mate or any of a whole bunch of other regional variations depending on where you are by strangers you are talking to. I'm not sure if this is polite, but it always feels quite nice at the time, don't worry about trying to reciprocate, it isn't expected and the rules can be arcane. It is an expression of acceptance and not intended to be condescending, patronizing or sexist, so please don't be offended.

Eye contact is expected when speaking to someone - to avoid this is seen as rude and not trustworthy.


Humour

British humour is heavy on Irony and sarcasm, there is a large self deprecating aspect to it, wit is valued very highly, and a deadpan delivery is common. Satire is popular and everyday absurdities provide a rich seam to be mined for comedic value. It is a heinous insult to accuse a Brit of having no sense of humour.

As a visitor, you will mainly be spared the more unfathomable aspects though will probably encounter the concept of "oppositeness". "Lovely weather!" said on an awful day, the worse the actual weather the better, and understatement, someone describes something really awful that happened to them followed by "It was great!" for instance.

Understatement or overstatement are often used as comedy. The phrase "I've been happier" to describe being involved in a car accident or stuck in a foreign airport with a Mars Bar to last you two days, "A little local difficulty" describes the sinking of your ship or the impending civil war you have found yourself in the midst of. "I'm popping out for a swift half" can signify the beginning of a liver-threatening drinking binge. Conversely, slight hunger becomes "My stomach thinks my throats been cut".

Most of all perhaps, it is the self-deprecation that is considered important as this demonstrates the admirable (and expected) trait of not taking yourself too seriously and being able to laugh at yourself.

Irony can be interpreted as sarcasm and insult by those not used to it, many Brits who know each other well verbally spar without even realising they are doing it much of the time. It is unlikely you will personally be the direct target of insults, if you are, it is most likely to be an invitation to show you can laugh at yourself and are expected to reply wittily in kind. Believe it or not, it is a sign you are becoming accepted into the inner circle of that person or group.


Alright?

You alright? is commonly used as a greeting, it is not a serious enquiry unless you know the asker quite well and the expected and accepted answer is something like "yes thanks, you?", you could build up to replying with "alright?" yourself (no answers needed or expected), but the tone has to be right or it seems weird. You aren't looking so bad or ill that it is causing strangers to enquire as to your physical or mental state so don't worry, it is simply a substitute for "hi" or "how's it going?".


Languages

Everyone speaks fluent English - hurrah! Everyone only  speaks fluent English - oh.

We're not proud of it, but the great majority of the inhabitants of the UK only speak the one language, you may meet someone who speaks your language too, but don't count on it.


Regional Accents

There are many regional accents in the UK. In and around London and the South East they are closer to what the British consider to be a lack of an accent, you will be familiar with this from various media sources and you will probably find these people easier to understand. Different parts of the country however may have very different accents which can be a little more challenging to the ear. I have heard of people working together from two places in the UK each with its own strong accent needing a third person to interpret for them even though they are speaking the same language, it is rarely this bad though.


Diversity

London is a very strong contender for being world diversity central, there are people of literally all kinds there from all countries and cultures speaking all languages - and lots of them. Away from London this is significantly less so, particularly in smaller towns and villages.

Britain is one of the less racist countries of the world, a situation that is helped by the inherent tendency to politeness in public situations. We are generally disinterested by religion and so don't have any objections to what yours is as as long as you don't talk to us about it (unless we enquire). Same sex marriage has been legal in all but Northern Ireland since 2014 and in general like most other aspects of life in the UK, your sexuality is your own concern as long as you don't preach about it.

Of course there isn't a universal acceptance of whoever you are and however you act, but visitors from many countries will find a greater acceptance than at home, and there are robust laws to protect minorities from abuse. You may notice more public displays of affection between different and same sex couples than at home depending where home is.

Mixed race couples are just regarded as couples. Very different people from very different backgrounds will proudly proclaim themselves to be British and no-one will imagine calling them anything different, we don't have categories such as X-British, Y-British or Z-British depending on where their ancestors came from.


Personal Boundaries and Privacy

It is perfectly permissible and acceptable to ask a Brit as to what their job is "what do you do?" and enquire after some of the details. It is considered very rude to raise the matter of personal money or spending. Asking someone you don't know well what they earn can be the height of rudeness and will at best receive an evasive answer, asking what something cost likewise is also considered rude. If the other person tells you then the topic is up for discussion, but enquiring uninvited in any way into the finances of others is a big no-no.

Family is usually a fairly safe topic but be wary about delving too deep or offering unrequested advice.


Queuing

It is often said that Brits love  to queue, well we don't. I don't love queuing any more than you do.

However... there is an acceptance that a queue is a fair and egalitarian manner of dealing with a group of people awaiting the same outcome according to the time of their arrival. I can't remember the first time I queued for anything, I was probably a small child waiting to buy an ice cream, the rest of the queue respected my turn however big or important they were and it was a powerful message. I might not be happy that there is a 6 year old, a 9 year old, a bloke in a wheelchair and an old lady with a walking frame in front of me any more than you are, but if you try to cut in I will object on their behalf, and so will others in the queue.


If you visit Britain you really should visit a pub to see what they're all about, they sell many non-alcoholic drinks too, often including tea and coffee. A British pub isn't like a bar found in many other countries which to us seem rather stark and purposeful by comparison, neither are they like cafes, they are more like community lounges. They vary enormously in size, age, ambience, decor, whether they serve food or not and almost any other aspect you can name.

Pubs are found everywhere, it is an unusual and/or very small village that doesn't have one. People will often meet there if going out for the evening with friends whether they will move on to a restaurant,  cinema or other place, they may go elsewhere first and end up in the pub afterwards or just spend the whole evening in the pub or a few of them in turn.

Generally it is younger people who will be found in pubs particularly at the weekends, though almost anyone and everyone will go at some time or other. Pub lunches are a treat most people occasionally enjoy.

The UK has something of a poor reputation for its drinking culture largely for two reasons. Firstly as a result of some drinking far too much cheap alcohol on low cost foreign holidays and secondly because of "binge drinking" in town and city centers, mainly at the weekend.

On a world wide basis, the UK has the 25th highest alcohol consumption about in the middle of the other European nations. About 57% of Britons drink alcohol at some time and about a quarter of these "binge" occasionally. 16-24's are less likely to drink than any other age group but are more likely to binge when they do, from the Office for National Statistics.

More about pubs


God

Most Britons don't really concern themselves with god and have little interest in talking about god or religion, you are free to believe what you like as long as you don't expect the majority to be at all interested. Neither do we need someone to tell us how they think god wants us to behave.


Measurements

Historically the UK has used the Imperial system of measurements, the move to metric has been slow and gradual, it received a boost in 1974 when the metric system was required to be taught in schools and when metric packaging was introduced. However, many years later, the UK still has an anachronistic mixture of both units that will be encountered in daily life.

Road distances and speeds - are displayed on signs in miles rather than kilometers, speedometers in cars have both marked with mph more prominent than kph.

Drinks measures - In pubs alcoholic drinks that are decanted into a glass from a larger container (barrel / bottle) are served in fixed imperial measures by law, and a 1698 law at that. Draught beers and ciders come in pints and half pints everywhere and sometimes third or two-thirds of a pint too. A pint is 568ml, it is 20 fluid ounces, larger than an American pint at 16 ounces and larger than many other glasses of beer served around the world, worth remembering when counting your drinks. Spirits are served in either 25ml or 35ml measures, only one within an establishment, which size is used must be displayed on a notice. Wine is served in glasses of 125ml or 175ml. You will often notice glasses with a line showing the required lawful amount.

Drinks sold by the bottle can be any size as long as the volume is marked on the bottle, typically they are 250, 330 or 500ml for beers and cider, 70cl (700ml) for wine and 35 or 70cl or 1 liter for spirits.

Soft (non alcoholic) drinks are not subject to such laws and can be whatever size the establishment decides on.

Many other sizes, clothes for instance have both metric and imperial sizes shown. You probably won't be buying any building materials on your visit, but it probably won't surprise you to find that plywood is sold in sheets of say, 6mm thick and 4 x 8 feet, and that mixed measurements for other similar supplies are common.


London is a Bubble

London is a great place to visit and if you come to the UK, you absolutely must visit it, however it is quite unlike the rest of the UK in many ways. During morning and evening rush hours in particular it is full of people making the dreary commute to their place of work and they aren't enjoying it, forget everything I said about politeness if you join them on this journey.

Because London is a bubble, there is more reason that you should make the effort to get away and visit other parts of the UK while you are here. Britain excels in the art of countryside and the commonest colour outside of cities even in the depths of winter is green. There is understated charm about postcard pretty villages, ancient castles that may be in almost full working order or anywhere along the scale to collapsed ruins. You can visit the places that inspired many famous authors and works of great literature. If nothing else, then at least go and eat fish and chips covered in salt and vinegar while looking out to sea.