Get started with this short primer on culture and social etiquette in the United Kingdom.
There are no strict etiquette rules that you have to stick to when in the UK. It is advisable, however, to demonstrate decent manners and respect to the local culture and traditions.
The first, and most important step, is to be aware of the clearly distinct nations which form the UK. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The citizens of any of these countries may be referred to as “British”. This term is also the safest to use when not certain of a person’s heritage. When certain of heritage, you are free to call the different residents as follows: English, Scot, Welsh or Irish. While the four countries share many customs, each has its own set of traditions and history.
Greetings and meetings
When first meeting a Brit, he or she may seem reserved and cold, but that is just an impression. In reality, they are very friendly and helpful to foreigners. A handshake is the common form of greeting, but try to avoid prolonged eye contact, as it may make people feel ill at ease. Use last names and appropriate titles until specifically invited to use first names. It is proper to shake hands with everyone to whom you are introduced, both men and women; the appropriate response to an introduction is “Pleased to meet you”.
Time and punctuality
British people are very strict when it comes to punctuality. In Britain people make a great effort to arrive on time, so it is considered impolite to be late, even with by few minutes. If you are delayed, be sure to inform the person you are meeting. Here are some situations when you are obliged to be on time, as well as some situations when it is advisable:
- For formal dinners, lunches, or appointments you always come at the exact time appointed.
- For public meetings, plays, concerts, movies, sporting events, classes, church services, and weddings, it’s best to arrive a few minutes early.
- You can arrive any time during the hours specified for teas, receptions and cocktail parties.
The British often use expressions such as “drop in anytime” and “come see me soon”. However, do not take these literally. To be on the safe side, always telephone before visiting someone at home. If you receive a written invitation to an event that says “RSVP”, you should respond to the sender as soon as possible, whether you are going to attend or not.
Body language and dress code
British people are not very keen on displaying affection in public. Hugging, kissing and touching are usually reserved for family members and very close friends. You should also avoid talking loudly in public or going to extremes with hand gestures during the course of communication. The British like a certain amount of personal space. Do not stand too close to another person or put your arm around someone’s shoulder.
When it comes to clothes, there are no limits and restrictions on how to dress. Just make sure that you respect the general rules when in formal situations. Observation will reveal that people in larger cities dress more formally, especially in London. Men and women wear wools and tweeds for casual occasions. Slacks, sweaters and jackets are appropriate for men and women. Do not wear a blazer to work — it is country or weekend wear. On formal occasions, always select an outfit that fits the dress code. When attending a holiday dinner or cultural event, such as a concert or theatre performance, it is best to dress formally.
Men should open doors for women and stand when a woman enters a room, although it is generally accepted for men and women both to hold the door open for each other, depending on who goes through the door first.
It is important to respect the British desire for privacy. Don’t ask personal questions about family background and origin, profession, marital status, political preferences or money issues. It is considered extremely impolite to violate a queue, so never push ahead in a line. It is also considered very rude to try to sound British or mimic their accent.
Remember that humour is ever-present in English life. It is often self-deprecating, ribbing, sarcastic, sexist or racist. Try not to take offense.
Cultural etiquette dictates that when invited to someone’s home, you should bring a small gift for the hostess. Give flowers, chocolates, wine, champagne or books. Feel free to express your gratitude and delight with the visit on the next day with a note or a telephone call.
Women in Britain are entitled to equal respect and status as men, both at work and daily life. The British have the habit to use ‘affectionate’ names when addressing someone, so do not take any offense if they call you love, dearie, or darling. These are commonly used and not considered rude.
It is acceptable, but may be misconstrued, for a foreign woman to invite an English man to dinner. It is best to stick with lunch. Also, if you would like to pay for your meal, you should state it at the outset. Remember that when in public, it is proper to cross your legs at the ankles, instead at the knees.