What Makes Us British

Language

When we talk about national characteristics and customs we must remember that some regions and even some cities have developed their own strong cultural identities that differ from the “norm”.

English is spoken throughout but is not the only language you will encounter. In large parts of Wales, Welsh is the first language and is taught throughout schools. Similarly, Gaelic is increasingly popular in Scotland and parts of Ireland.

The UK has a long tradition of immigration from other parts of the world. As well as adding to the cultural richness of the UK, these newer communities have brought with them their own languages. Expect to hear French, Arabic, Polish, Japanese and many others as you walk the streets of the UK.

Throughout the UK the use of the English language will differ hugely as regional accents and dialects come into play. Listen to a Scot and a Cornishman talking together and you would be forgiven for thinking they weren’t speaking the same language! This can be challenging for newcomers (and for some British nationals too!)

In business terms, the use of the English language is usually formal, particularly when writing. E-mail, of course, has encouraged a much more relaxed style to develop. Spoken English between friends and family is smattered with slang and colloquialisms. This may take some getting used to.

Family Values

We are a fairly liberal society and many couples choose to live together and raise a family without the legality of marriage. The British family typically comprises one, and increasingly two, working parents with an average of two children per household and a mortgage. The family unit is not as strong in Britain as in some parts of the world. One possible reason for this is that, within the UK, the workforce is fairly mobile and people frequently find work and settle away from their extended families.

Employing domestic help in Britain is not especially common. The better-off families might employ a weekly cleaner or gardener and working parents with children will need some form of childcare. Nannies are used and live in au-pairs work well for some families. A good source of information about domestic agencies is “The Lady” magazine. You should also try local newspapers and newsagents and word of mouth.

Etiquette

In the past, certain classes of British society were governed by strict and often mysterious codes of conduct. Largely, this is no longer the case, but good manners, politeness and respect are always appreciated.

Meeting and Greeting

Business colleagues – a firm handshake is the norm.

New friends and acquaintances – again, a handshake is most common or, in informal gatherings, a smile and a nod will usually do. It is unusual (but not unknown) to kiss on the cheek on a first meeting.

Good friends and family – a handshake between men or a pat on the back or arm is usual. Women tend to be more tactile, kissing one or both cheeks and embracing close friends and family. Friends who see each other very frequently often adopt a very casual form of greeting with a “Hello, how are you?” being considered sufficient.

Punctuality

Punctuality is important to the British. We call it the “courtesy of kings”. An appointment arranged for a set time, particularly in business, should be kept. If you are delayed, by bad traffic or transport problems, you should make every effort to advise the person you are meeting.

Formal social occasions often run to a timetable and likewise demand punctuality. Being late and holding everyone else up will not make you popular. Should you, heaven forbid, be late for a wedding, your hosts, especially the bride, are unlikely to forgive you.

You should respond as soon as possible to any formal invitation for a wedding, christening, milestone birthday party and celebration or dinner party. If your ability to attend changes, you should let your host know immediately, as this could affect catering or seating arrangements.

For less formal social occasions, such as meeting friends for drinks after work or popping around to a friend’s house for drinks and nibbles, you can afford to be a little more relaxed. However, if you think your being late or not turning up will inconvenience your hosts, you should let them know. The general rule is to treat others with the same level of respect you would hope to be shown yourself.

Doctors, dentists and hospitals run on tight schedules and you must try to arrive in good time for your appointment. If you are late there is no guarantee that you will be seen that day and with a private dentist you run the risk of being charged for the missed appointment.

Unfortunately, even if you are on time, you may still be kept waiting if other patients have taken longer than planned or if an emergency has cropped up. You must be patient and good natured about this. One day, you might be the emergency. If you feel you have a genuine complaint, there will be procedures for you to follow and you should not be afraid of doing so. However, the health service in Britain does not take kindly to its staff being harangued or abused.

Tradesmen, delivery companies and utility providers can also be unreliable, especially in cities. You may have to rearrange appointments several times. Deliveries or visits from utility companies can be particularly frustrating. The normal practice is to offer a delivery window, i.e. a morning or afternoon appointment rather than a specific time and you will have to spend several hours at home waiting for the crew to arrive. Being able to work at home on such occasions can be invaluable.

Sense of Humour

The British have a healthy sense of humour: it is dry, self depreciating and can be quite blue (moderately rude). Humour is often used in the workplace and may take the form of slight ribbing or teasing of colleagues. This is rarely meant offensively; British adults tend not to tease people they don’t like, but humour is a very personal thing and what is funny to one person can be distressing to another.

If you are concerned by a colleague’s use of humour, give them the benefit of the doubt if you can. It is unlikely they are trying to upset you. Otherwise, a quiet, discreet word with the person concerned, your line manager or with HR may be all that is needed.

In extreme cases inappropriate use of humour can land people in trouble. For example, people who have directed blue humour towards colleagues have been found guilty of sexual harassment. Be particularly wary of forwarding e-mails with explicit content. With luck, your company’s firewall will filter them out before they get to you.