Best of British: Behaviour, Manners & Etiquette

In the UK, summer is short – a few glorious weeks at most, a few rain-free days at worst – but that doesn’t stop the irrepressible British people from making the most of it, and from June to August, the calendar is packed with social and sporting events. Not even the vagaries of the notoriously fickle British weather can dampen the spirits of participants, or silence the sounds of summer – the splash of blades on water at Henley Royal Regatta, the chink of Champagne flutes and opera drifting on the evening air at Glyndebourne, the thud of willow on leather at a Test match, or the call of the umpire at Wimbledon.

Corporate hospitality has become an important feature of many of these classic, quintessentially British events, and much oiling of the wheels of business takes place alongside the sporting action or entertainment. For foreign visitors invited to an event, the etiquette and rituals of these occasions can appear complicated, and knowing how to behave can be confusing.

Here then are a few insights into the peculiarities of the British character, and a crash course on some areas of etiquette:

British character traits

  • Reserve

The British are inclined to be reserved by nature, often unwilling to show extremes of emotions in public, and to non-natives this can sometimes come across as cold and uncaring. An unwillingness to express feelings means the British can be slow to complain, and for years they’ve put up with poor service in shops and restaurants (though this has begun to change in recent years). An extreme example of the British sense of reserve was highlighted in a survey by the British Heart Foundation which found that Britons experiencing the symptoms of heart attacks will wait an average of 90 minutes before calling an ambulance!

  • Understatement

Closely linked to the sense of reserve, is the British tendency towards understatement. The most dramatic events can be played down almost to a point of insignificance – as in the Queen’s pronouncement: “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” as she reflected on 12 months in which her three eldest children’s marriages broke down and one of her palaces caught fire. The British weather is often the subject of significant understatement, so that torrential rain may be described as ‘rather inclement’, or sub-zero temperatures as ‘a little on the chilly side’.

  • Self-deprecation

The British are generally modest about their accomplishments and skills, and any expression of overt self-confidence is likely to be interpreted as arrogant and boastful.

  • Humour

The UK has exported it’s particular brand of humour all around the world through the medium of television and shows like ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Only Fools and Horses’, ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘One Foot in the Grave’.  Reflecting British culture, it’s often gentle, off-beat, ironic and understated.

  • Dress

Private functions such as balls and parties in the UK can call for a diverse range of clothing, depending on the nature of the occasion, so make sure you consult your invitation for dress code details. For public events, dress codes can vary depending on the type of ticket you have and the access it allows. Dress codes are usually quite strictly enforced, and if you’re not dressed appropriately, you may be refused admittance.

Eating and drinking

  • Table manners

Wait until everyone is served before you start eating, unless your host or hostess instructs you to start immediately. According to Debrett’s (a guide to British social skills), you should “Hold your knife firmly in your right hand, with the handle tucked into your palm, your thumb down one side of the handle and your index finger along the top (but never touching the top of the blade). It should never be eaten off or held like a pencil. When used with a knife or spoon, the fork should be held in the left hand, in much the same way as the knife, with the prongs facing downwards. On its own, it is held in the right hand, with the prongs facing upwards, resting on the fingers and secured with the thumb and index finger. Cutlery should be rested on the plate/bowl between bites, and placed together in the bottom-centre when you are finished.”

  • Tea

Tea is an institution in Britain; at any time of year, and at virtually any occasion, the British will always find an excuse for a ‘nice cup of tea’, and for those who insist on doing it properly, there is much to learn:

  • Tea should always be poured into the cup first, with any milk, lemon or sugar added afterwards.
  • After using your teaspoon to stir the cup, place it on the saucer.
  • When drinking, don’t hold your little finger in the air, but use your thumb and forefinger to hold the cup handle.
  • Drink your tea quietly without slurping – and definitely don’t dunk your biscuits’!

Are you new to the UK and struggling to get to grips with the nuances of British culture? Perhaps you have overseas staff recently arrived in the UK who have to attend social functions as part of their job, and need to understand the differences between British culture and their own? Expatknowhow can deliver bespoke cross cultural training programmes to suit all needs. Call us now to discuss your requirements.

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One Response to Best of British: Behaviour, Manners & Etiquette

  1. Tea first, milk second! i cannot believe that is correct. I always assume that someone who does that is ignorant of the right way to make a good cup of tea.

    Do you think that is that a result of my southern upbringing, or my solidly lower middle class upbringing?

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