An Introduction to UK Culture
British and Irish people are often shy and do not always make conversation on a first meeting. This is called being ‘reserved’. You will find that most local people will not talk to strangers while shopping, on the bus, train or when in a queue. You should not interpret this as being unfriendly, although it may well seem strange to you. You should not try to make continuous conversation at such times unless it becomes obvious that the other person expects it.
A first meeting
On first meeting someone, try to ask general questions and not personal ones which may be thought to be impolite. Questions like ‘What is your name?’ ‘Where do you live?’ or ‘What do you do?’ are acceptable, but questions like ‘How old are you?’, ‘How much do you earn?’ or ‘How much did you pay for this?’ would be considered impolite.
If in doubt, try to talk about yourself: what you do and where you come from. Most British or Irish people know very little about other countries and their culture in detail. Even if they have travelled abroad, tourist travel is very different from actually living in a country.
Time keeping is quite rigid in the UK. Life revolves around our watches and clocks and dominates everyday life! To arrive late, even by a few minutes is considered impolite. Your lecturer or supervisor may disapprove if you arrive late at a seminar or lecture, whatever the reason. For example, if a meeting or lecture is arranged for lunchtime, there might be a plan to eat and then to talk or the other way round. If you are late you could miss the part that you needed to attend.
The British and the Irish are known to be reserved in nature and are very reluctant to show their emotions in public. Unlike some cultures, people do not usually slap each other on the shoulder or otherwise make physical contact during a conversation. A British or Irish person may misinterpret such behaviour as aggressive or being too emotional.
It may be usual for you to stand close to another person while in conversation. In the UK people usually maintain a distance of 60-110 cm, so do not be surprised if local people move away from you when talking!
A British person will often greet you with ‘Hello, how are you?’ This is simply a way of saying ‘Hello’ or ‘Welcome’ and they will be expecting a reply similar to ‘Quite well thank you’. ‘Hello, how are you?’ is not a request for a lot of details about your health!
In a more formal situation (such as meeting your tutor or landlord for the first time) it is usual to shake the right hand of the person you are meeting. It does not matter if you make the first move with your right hand. Kissing and embraces are not usual in the UK on a first meeting and you should avoid them.
Hands and eye contact
In the UK, there is no special significance to the left and right hands. Both can be used for giving and receiving presents, although the right hand is always used for shaking hands.
You may be used to avoiding eye contact as a sign of respect for an older person or authority figure. This is not the case in the UK where avoiding eye contact is seen as a sign of insincerity and slyness. Try to look at people when speaking to them although it is usual to avoid eye contact with strangers (for example the person next to you in a train).
Most British people will smile when they meet you, irrespective of how they are feeling.
Gender and equality
It is important to be aware that in the UK female and male members of staff are equally respected and accepted.
How to address people
Many members of staff expect to be called by their first names. If you address them as Mr, Miss, Mrs, Dr or Professor you may be thought of as being very formal. Listen carefully to how they introduce themselves and to how other students address them.
Will you come for coffee?
People will often use the phrase ‘Will you come for coffee’ to mean ‘would you like to come round for a short while and chat’. Normally several different drinks such as tea, drinking chocolate or a soft drink like orange will be available as well as coffee, and you will be asked what you would like. Your host will not normally offer you alcohol at a ‘coffee’ event. You should accept the invitation the first time it is offered if you would like to go. If you refuse the first invitation you are given, a British person will think this is your final decision and may not ask you again.
Queuing is the normal method of waiting for your turn in shops, at bus stops and in similar situations. If in doubt as to whether someone is actually waiting in the queue, or just standing around, always ask before rushing in. To rush to the front of a queue could cause great offence.
If English is your second or third language, you may find some of the local forms of speech or accents difficult. Inferences, sarcasm and inflections of the voice can all alter the meaning of a statement.
Expecting indirect answers
Answers that mean yes usually include the word yes. However answers that mean no may be worded indirectly. For example, if you asked a friend if you could come for tea, your friend may say ‘Well it would be nice to see you today for tea, but we are rather busy so I will let you know’. Your friend might well be saying in this case, ‘No I would rather you came for tea another day’.
Do not be worried about saying no. In this country a ‘no’ is not considered impolite. Honesty is much preferred, so that people know what you really mean. If you do not wish to do something do not worry about saying so.
Never be afraid of asking questions to your host, tutor or lecturer. Asking questions, or putting another point of view is not considered rude in this country. It is often expected that students should have a reasoning, questioning mind, so you will be expected to ask, but don’t take over every conversation by asking too many questions.
Improving your English
The best way of improving English is to use it! Try to find someone with whom you can speak regularly. It is best to talk to people who are not too busy, such as young or retired people. Ask them to tell you if you use a wrong word or if you mispronounce a word.
You may also find that your college or the Adult Education Centre in the town run English classes. If you are having problems writing English, you may find that a book helps. There are many good books on written English but if you have difficulty finding one, here are two suggestions:
The Complete Plain Words by Ernest Gowers
One hundred per cent Report Writing by RA Ward
What should I do if I cannot understand what someone has said?
First ask the other person to repeat what they said more slowly by saying ‘I’m sorry, would you please say that again more slowly?’. If you still cannot understand, ask for it to be written down. This will help the other person to know that you are having difficulties and may mean that they will take more care to use simple English and speak more slowly. Do not be worried about letting the other person know that you have not understood: it is not considered rude in the UK to ask a question.
What should I do if someone else does not understand what I have said?
You should repeat the comment using different words if possible. Try writing down your comment if you wish – it may be that the other person is not familiar with your pronunciation.
Many British or Irish Christians drink alcohol, which may be a real shock to you. A common point of view is: ‘I wouldn’t get drunk, I only drink in moderation’. Do not judge someone who drinks or tell them it is wrong. Other people in Britain and Irish drink to socialise and town can get quite crowded on Friday and Saturday nights as people go around the pubs.
There is no such thing as a typical British or Irish young person. Most people affiliate to one group or another by the clothes they wear and the music they listen to. A friendship group is often very important to them. Britain is no longer a Christian country, and so you may find that many people live in a way you find surprising.
Local or National Politics
You might just be interested in our politics! Britain has no written constitution, but the system of parliamentary government is the result of gradual change over many centuries. The oldest institution in Britain is the Monarchy – which dates back to at least the ninth century.
The British Parliament is one of the oldest representative assemblies in the world. The House of Lords and the House of Commons both have medieval origins.
The British political party system depends upon the existence of organised political parties, each of which presents its policies to the electorate for approval.
In practice most candidates in elections belong to either the Conservative Party (Tories), the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, although there are smaller parties who also stand for Parliament.
In recent years, there has been a movement to political decisions being made in the geographical location where they have the greatest impact. The UK now has a devolved government for Scotland and a regional assembly for Wales.