A Look at British Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Welcome to our guide to the UK. This is useful for anyone researching British culture, customs, manners, etiquette, values and wanting to understand the people better. You may be going to Britain on business, for a visit or even hosting British colleagues or clients in your own country. Remember this is only a very basic level introduction and is not meant to stereotype all Brits you may meet!
Facts and Statistics
Location: Western Europe, islands including the northern one-sixth of the island of Ireland between the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, northwest of France
Climate: temperate; moderated by prevailing southwest winds over the North Atlantic Current; more than one-half of the days are overcast
Population: 63,742,970 (2014 est.)
Ethnic Make-up: white (of which English 83.6%, Scottish 8.6%, Welsh 4.9%, Northern Irish 2.9%) 92.1%, black 2%, Indian 1.8%, Pakistani 1.3%, mixed 1.2%, other 1.6% (2001 census)
Religions: Christian (Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist) 71.6%, Muslim 2.7%, Hindu 1%, other 1.6%, unspecified or none 23.1% (2001 census)
Government: constitutional monarchy
Language in the UK
The United Kingdom does not have a constitutionally defined official language. English is the main language (being spoken monolingually by more than 70% of the UK population) and is thus the de facto official language.
Other native languages to the Isles include Welsh, Irish, Ulster Scots, Cornish, Gaelic and British Sign Language.
Immigrants have naturally brought many foreign languages from across the globe.
British Society, People and Culture
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is comprised of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is important not only to be aware of these geographical distinctions, but also the strong sense of identity and nationalism felt by the populations of these four nations.
The terms 'English' and 'British' do not mean the same thing. 'British' denotes someone who is from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. 'English' refers to people from England. People from Scotland are 'Scots', from Wales ‘Welsh’ and from Northern Ireland ‘Irish’. Be sure not to call someone Welsh, Scots, or Northern Irish ‘English’.
The Class System
Although in the past few decades, people from varied backgrounds have had greater access to higher education, wealth distribution is changing and more upward/downward mobility is occurring, the British class system is still very much intact although in a more subconscious way. The playing field is levelling but the British still seem to pigeon-hole people according to class.
Class is no longer simply about wealth or where one lives; the British are able to suss out someone’s class through a number of complex variables including demeanour, accent, manners and comportment.
A Multicultural Society
Formerly a very homogenous society, since World War II, Britain has become increasingly diverse as it has accommodated large immigrant populations, particularly from its former colonies such as India, Pakistan and the West Indies. The mixture of ethnic groups and cultures make it difficult to define “Britishness” nowadays and a debate rages within the nation as to what now really constitutes being a Briton.
The Stiff Upper Lip
The British have been historically known for their stiff upper lip and “blitz spirit” as demonstrated during the German bombings of World War II. This ‘grin and bear’ attitude in the face of adversity or embarrassment lives on today.
As a nation, the Brits tend not to use superlatives and may not appear terribly animated when they speak. This does not mean that they do not have strong emotions; merely that they do not choose to put them on public display. They are generally not very openly demonstrative, and, unless you know someone well, may not appreciate it if you put your arm around their shoulder. Kissing is most often reserved for family members in the privacy of home, rather than in public. You'll see that the British prefer to maintain a few feet of distance between themselves and the person to whom they are speaking. If you have insulted someone, their facial expression may not change.
The British are very reserved and private people. Privacy is extremely important. The British will not necessarily give you a tour of their home and, in fact, may keep most doors closed. They expect others to respect their privacy. This extends to not asking personal questions. The question, “Where are you from?” may be viewed as an attempt to “place” the person on the social or class scale. Even close friends do not ask pointedly personal questions, particularly pertaining to one’s financial situation or relationships.
There is a proper way to act in most situations and the British are sticklers for adherence to protocol. The British are a bit more contained in their body language and hand gestures while speaking. They are generally more distant and reserved than North and South Americans and Southern Europeans, and may not initially appear to be as open or friendly. Friendships take longer to build; however, once established they tend to be deep and may last over time and distance.
British Etiquette and Customs
Meeting and Greeting
- The handshake is the common form of greeting.
- The British might seem a little stiff and formal at first.
- Avoid prolonged eye contact as it makes people feel uncomfortable.
- There is still some protocol to follow when introducing people in a business or more formal social situation. This is often a class distinction, with the 'upper class' holding on to the long-standing traditions:
- Introduce a younger person to an older person.
- Introduce a person of lower status to a person of higher status.
- When two people are of similar age and rank, introduce the one you know better to the other person.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- The British exchange gifts between family members and close friends for birthdays and Christmas.
- The gift need not be expensive, but it should usually demonstrate an attempt to find something that related to the recipient’s interests.
- If invited to someone's home, it is normal to take along a box of good chocolates, a good bottle of wine or flowers.
- Gifts are opened when received.
- Unlike many European cultures, the British enjoy entertaining in people their homes.
- Although the British value punctuality, you may arrive 10-15 minutes later than invited to dinner. However, if going to a restaurant be on time.
- Table manners are Continental, i.e. the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.
- The fork is held tines down so food is scooped on to the back of the fork. This is a skill that takes time to master.
- Remain standing until invited to sit down. You may be shown to a particular seat.
- Do not rest your elbows on the table.
- If you have not finished eating, cross your knife and fork on your plate with the fork over the knife.
- Indicate you have finished eating by laying your knife and fork parallel across the right side of your plate.
- Toasts are given at formal meals.
- When in a pub, it is common practice to pay for a round of drinks for everyone in your group.
- If invited to a meal at a restaurant, the person extending the invitation usually pays. Do not argue about the check; simply reciprocate at a later time.
Business Etiquette and Protocol
- A firm handshake is the norm; there are no issues over gender in the UK.
- People shake upon meeting and leaving.
- Maintain eye contact during the greeting but avoid anything prolonged.
- Most people use the courtesy titles or Mr, Mrs or Miss and their surname.
- Wait until invited before moving to a first-name basis. People under the age of 35 may make this move more rapidly than older British.
- Business cards are exchanged at the initial introduction without formal ritual.
- The business card may be put away with only a cursory glance so don’t be offended if not much attention is paid to it.
The British Communication Style
The British have an interesting mix of communication styles encompassing both understatement and direct communication. Many older businesspeople or those from the 'upper class' rely heavily upon formal use of established protocol. Most British are masters of understatement and do not use effusive language. If anything, they have a marked tendency to use ‘qualifiers’ such as 'perhaps', ‘possibly’ or 'it could be'.
When communicating with people they see as equal to themselves in rank or class, the British are direct, but modest. If communicating with someone they know well, their style may be more informal, although they will still be reserved.
Written communication follows strict rules of protocol. How a letter is closed varies depending upon how well the writer knows the recipient. Written communication is always addressed using the person's title and their surname. First names are not generally used in written communication, unless you know the person well.
E-mail is now much more widespread, however the communication style remains more formal, at least initially, than in many other countries. Most British will not use slang or abbreviations and will think negatively if your communication appears overly familiar.
The British can be quite formal and sometimes prefer to work with people and companies they know or who are known to their associates. The younger generation however is very different; they do not need long-standing personal relationships before they do business with people and do not require an intermediary to make business introductions. Nonetheless, networking and relationship building are often key to long-term business success.
Most British look for long-term relationships with people they do business with and will be cautious if you appear to be going after a quick deal.
If you plan to use an agenda, be sure to forward it to your British colleagues in sufficient time for them to review it and recommend any changes.
Punctuality is important in business situations. In most cases, the people you are meeting will be on time. Scots are extremely punctual. Call if you will be even 5 minutes later than agreed. Having said that, punctuality is often a matter of personal style and emergencies do arise. If you are kept waiting a few minutes, do not make an issue of it. Likewise, if you know that you will be late it is a good idea to telephone and offer your apologies.
How meetings are conducted is often determined by the composition of people attending:
If everyone is at the same level, there is generally a free flow of ideas and opinions.
If there is a senior ranking person in the room, that person will do most of the speaking.
In general, meetings will be rather formal:
- Meetings always have a clearly defined purpose, which may include an agenda.
- There will be a brief amount of small talk before getting down to the business at hand.
- If you make a presentation, avoid making exaggerated claims.
- Make certain your presentation and any materials provided appear professional and well thought out.
- Be prepared to back up your claims with facts and figures. The British rely on facts, rather than emotions, to make decisions.
- Maintain eye contact and a few feet of personal space.
- After a meeting, send a letter summarizing what was decided and the next steps to be taken.