We all more or less know how to behave in our own countries. Yet, what about the other places we travel to? Particularly the ones where the culture is similar to our own?
I had this issue when I moved to the UK from Australia. Despite befriending British people, dating them and being raised by one for my entire life, I still committed many social faux pas during my time living in England. This ranged from pronouncing the names of boroughs wrong, to talking loudly about my “pants” in public (I’ll never not call them trousers now). Thankfully it wasn’t anything too damaging, at least to my knowledge.
After listening, talking to others and taking many notes, I cobbled together some sort of idea of how I should behave in this country. So, here’s a list of what you should avoid doing when visiting the United Kingdom, from an observational perspective.
And if you’re heading to this windswept little island in the near future, you might want to check out this travel guide to England.
Not everyone considers themselves “British”
Here’s the biggest mistake that most newcomers to the UK make – lumping everyone together, thinking they’re one big happy family who are okay with being “British”.
The United Kingdom is made up of four different countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The relationships between these four countries can be… fragile at times, especially post Brexit, as roughly half of the UK were really hoping that this was a thing that would never happen.
Most of the countries that make up the UK were claimed as part of the territory many centuries ago, often by force. There is a lot of bad blood between all of them, going back hundreds of years.Here's what NOT to do when visiting the UK #LoveGreatBritain Click To Tweet
As a result, those who don’t hail from England tend to cling to their heritage (as they have full rights to) and will be beyond insulted if you refer to them as being “British”. Though not all – I noticed that the Scottish seemed to be particularly annoyed by it, but many Welsh people I met were far less perturbed. Although God help you if you assume someone who is Welsh or Scottish is “English”.
Even England isn’t immune… There’s competition between northerners and southerners. Those in the south tend to believe their northern brothers and sisters are backwards and inbred. Likewise, northerners think of southerners as being pretentious twats. So much animosity packed into such a small piece of land!
It can be hard to pick up on the individual accents if you haven’t got the ear for it (not helped by the fact that it seems that every postcode in the UK brings a new accent and slang with it). So if you’re in doubt… just ask!
Or simply keep the conversation generalised and refrain from making any sort of assumptions.
After having said all that, I’m now going to refer to inhabitants of the country of the UK as “British” within this article. If I keep having to type out the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, my head may actually explode.
Don’t go on about your own British heritage
You might be proud of the fact that your great-great-grandmother immigrated to the United States from a small village in England or that underneath your Australian accent you have a strong Scottish heritage. Good for you. It’s important to appreciate where you come from, what you are made up of.
Yet, keep this pride to yourself. I can tell you that no one in the UK will give two tosses about it.
You’ll probably get a stare, followed by a deadpan response of: “Really? How interesting,” in a tone that suggests it is anything but.
Don’t be offended. Remember that the British Empire did its darnedest to conquer the world. Remnants of these efforts can be found nearly everywhere and it just isn’t considered unique or impressive.
Don’t talk about your pants too loudly in public
English may be your native tongue but at times it can really seem like you’re speaking an entirely different language, thanks to the wonder of slang.
I had no idea coming into the UK of how much of my vernacular would make sense only to other Australians, or the amount we’d pulled from American English, particularly where fruits and veggies were involved. I find myself accidentally calling capsicums peppers now, but zucchini will always be zucchini and eggplants, eggplants!
I learnt quickly not to talk about my pants in public (trousers are the item of clothes that cover your legs, pants are those which cover your crotch. Quite the distinction between the two there). However, I’ll never stop calling thongs (flip flops) thongs. It is part of my heritage after all and just wouldn’t seem right.
Don’t boast – practice humility instead
I would generally try to refrain from bragging at all. The British culture is deeply rooted in self-deprecation and they are not a fan of anyone who tries to get bigger than their britches. You won’t be applauded for doing this – instead you’ll be branded a “wanker” and face possible social isolation as a consequence.
Don’t even attempt to pronounce the names of towns and boroughs of London and beyond
I’m pretty sure that whoever named all the places in the UK did it just to mess with foreigners. It can be nigh on impossible to get anything right the first time you attempt to say it aloud. As a result, you’ll hear many tourists asking people loudly on the Tube of how they should get to “Lye-ces-ter Square” or “South-wark” (and I for the life of me could never get Marylebone right, but in my defence I never really went to that neck of the woods in London because I’m not made of money).
However, this has led to one of my favourite games, called “Go-on-Google-Maps-and-laugh-at-the-names-of-British-villages-and-hamlets”. I really love the fact that there are places called “Twatt”, “Blubberhouses” and “Wetwang” in this wonderful country.
Don’t be offended when people avoid eye contact with you on the Tube
Londoners have a reputation of being quite bad-mannered… I’d say more that they keep to themselves. Either way, the Tube is a sacred place where silence is appreciated – particularly during peak hours. Everyone will squeeze onto the trains and stand under other people’s armpits for the entirety of their journey, without uttering a word.
It would be quite comical to watch, if the experience of it wasn’t so upsetting.
Yet, don’t assume the British are frightfully rude, ’cause they ain’t
The British are nowhere near as surly as you may believe, even in London.
I once said “Bless you” to a man who sneezed on the Tube, whilst I was on my way to the airport. We got talking and he even helped me carry my suitcases to the next train.
And no one rallies together in times of crisis like the British, as recent sad events have demonstrated.
Outside of the capital, people will smile as they pass you in the street and even stop for a conversation. This can seem quite jarring at first, because really, that doesn’t happen so much in London. Yet, you’ll soon get into the swing of it, once more.
Don’t Tube it from Leicester Square to Covent Garden
If you come from a country that fails spectacularly on the public transport front (cough, AUSTRALIA, cough) you may want to catch the Tube at any given opportunity. And sometimes it’s the only solution when going between stations, as they can be spaced quite far apart.
Yet, this mostly applies to the further you get out of the centre of the city. Sometimes it is better to walk, to get a taste of what London is really about. And if you’re heading from Leicester Square to Covent Garden, don’t bother with the Tube. The walking distance is a whole seven minutes. It will take you longer to get in and out of the station and wait for the train and either way, you’ll be battling the crowds.
Don’t be surprised if the trains stop running for no reason
As great as the trains in the UK are, they are prone to shutting down for reasons that seem laughable, with no warning whatsoever.
Ongoing battles between the train companies and unions lead to strikes, that can push the whole city of London into disarray. The weather is also a a contributing factor. Trains have stopped running due to there being leaves on the tracks, or the fact that the sunshine is “shining too bright in driver’s faces” (yes, true story). If it snows, you’ve got buckleys of getting anywhere.
As for trying to catch a Southern Rail train – well, I can only wish you luck with that.
Don’t stand on the left on escalators
There is a strong sense of order in Britain and visitors to the country are expected to adhere to these rules just as much as locals are.
Don’t walk slowly on the pavement and stop randomly to text on your phone, or take photographs. Don’t jump queues, rather line-up in an orderly manner. As aforementioned, don’t talk loudly on public transport or play music from your phone, because you’re actually not in a nightclub and that’s also why headphones were invented.
And for the love of all that is good, keep to the right on the escalators, unless you’re walking up them. Lord help you if you do anything otherwise.
Related: How to London Like a Local
Insult British cuisine at your own peril
British cuisine traditionally hasn’t had the best reputation abroad, but that is beginning to change. You can eat and drink very well in both London and beyond. Don’t believe me? I gained fifteen kilos whilst living in the UK over a period of two years, because I was having the culinary time of my life.
Especially the cheese. Oh my, the cheese. Do yourself a favour and eat all the cheese in the UK. ALL OF IT! No, actually please leave some for me.
Don’t talk politics
Unless you live under a rock, you’ll have noticed that the UK is going through a period of political turmoil. There’s a lot of anger and uncertainty in the air and no one quite knows whether things will work out for the better or the worst for the country overall.
My advice? Just don’t mention it, particularly if you don’t really understand what’s going on. And trust me – Brexit is a hard one to get your head around, especially from an outsider’s perspective. It may look like the country has deliberately shot themselves in the foot, but 52% of the island’s inhabitants had a reason for voting the way they did. Understanding is the first step towards acceptance and healing, in my books at least.
Don’t use Northern Irish Pounds in England (or Scottish, if you can help it)
The countries that make up the United Kingdom all use the pound sterling as their currency… but both Scotland and Northern Ireland print their own pounds (yet, not Wales for some reason).
Although these are considered legal tender, they’re not readily accepted around England. Fraud is a big concern in the UK and people will just automatically assume that you’re trying to pay for their goods or services with monopoly money. You’ll argue with them that they legally have to accept it, they’ll still refuse and both parties will leave feeling immense dissatisfaction with the other.
Am I speaking from experience? Why yes, I am. Years ago, I pulled 200 quid from an ATM in Belfast and soon realised the error of my ways. I somehow managed to shift most of the pounds when buying a winter coat, but had an elusive £20 note that no one would accept. I ended up going to a bank and asking them to swap it for an English note, which they did, no problem at all.
In all honesty, you might be able to get away with Scottish notes, but don’t be surprised if they are refused. Just swap them over to their English equivalents as soon as you’re out of the country (or keep them for your next trip north!).
And don’t worry about swapping out your English pounds for their Scottish/Nth Irish equivalent – they can be used all over the UK, without argument.
Don’t spend all your time in London
London is a vibrant, colourful city, packed full with culture. You could never be bored in London, although you may go broke.
Yet, you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t get out of the capital and see more of the country. Visit the Peak or Lake District, the Cotswolds or my favourite county Dorset, for some beautiful scenery. Drive amongst the Scottish Highlands, marvel at the architectural beauty of Edinburgh, or the urban grittiness of Glasgow. Tour the Welsh coastline and go pub crawling in Cardiff. Journey over to Northern Ireland to see the Giant’s Causeway for yourself or learn about its unsettling recent history.
The UK has so much to offer, beyond London’s borders.
Don’t not take advantage of the sun in the summertime, in assuming you may actually see it again
Just because the calendar date specifies that it is “summertime” in the UK, it doesn’t actually mean this is the case.
When the sun does deign to appear, everyone will head to their local park for a picnic or BBQ, or straight to the pub to drink beer in the sunshine. And if there is a body of water nearby, like a lake or a beach, guaranteed it will be packed to the rafters.
I found it really quite endearing, until I realised that they were just making the most of the one sunny day of the year.
The UK becomes an entirely different place in the sunshine and I thoroughly recommend that you make the most of it, while you can.
Don’t think you won’t be entertained
Brits are some of the funniest people you’ll ever meet in a subtle, self-deprecating way.
From hilarious fake Tube signs, to their comedy shows being actually amusing and therefore the best in the world. Their legitimate obsession with the weather and weird tendency to apologise to other people when they are not in the wrong. That Mr. Blobby is talked about with great affection, when he quite looks like the stuff of nightmares. How if you mention the Royal Family they will roll their eyes and talk about them with more vitriol than any Australian, Kiwi or similar Commonwealth member every could. That when tasked with the naming of a new ship, it was the name “Boaty McBoatface” which won the poll.
The quirk, humour and spirit of the British people can easily be found in the everyday. And I for one, love them for it.
And finally – Be aware that if you do step out of line in any way, you may never know
If you commit a social faux pas in other countries, you may be met with a tirade of abuse or sarcasm. In the UK, you’ll probably get huffing and muttered pointed comments under the breath. The British are very much a passive aggressive bunch – you better believe they get angry, but they do quite hate making a scene. Sometimes the build up can lead to an explosion of rage not unlike that of a supernova. I know. I’ve seen it (the rage, not a supernova, although how cool would that be, from a safe distance?!)
Hopefully this will better prepare you for your time in the United Kingdom.
Have you been to/are you from the UK? Is there anything you’d like to add to this list?
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