Etiquette and Customs in Britain
Britain is a great place to visit, for a holiday, business, or maybe even to stay. But Britain, like any other country, has a system of customs and etiquette that are particular to it. Here are some basic rules of etiquette that anyone visiting the UK for the first time can benefit from knowing.
In Britain, people generally don’t greet each other unless they know each other already or are introduced, either through a mutual acquaintance or by a shared situation. When people greet each other, they normally say hello, tell each other their names and ask how each other is. They may also shake hands, in both formal and informal meetings. While in some parts of Europe, people greet by embracing or kissing on the cheeks, in the Britain this usually only happens between family or close friends. But regardless of who you’re greeting, eye contact should be maintained and body language should be open and inviting.
While you don’t have to give gifts whenever you meet people, for the first or successive times, but it is customary to give a gift if you are staying at someone’s house for any length of time (normally more than a week) and during holidays, birthdays or anniversaries. It doesn’t have to be an expensive or ostentatious gift, but giving your hosts something will show courtesy and will probably be reciprocated by them. It could be something like a professional writing set, jewelry or a bottle of some favoured beverage. It is, after all, the thought that counts.
Much has been made of the British love of queueing. When it comes down to it, most British people don’t go out of their way to queue, but will do so when needed. We queue as an expression of our concern for fairness and order, wordlessly agreeing as a crowd that things will be more efficient if we form a line, and that those who turned up first should be served first. You can expect to queue in shops, theatres, for public transport and for seats in restaurants. Queues are a part of British culture, take part in one and you might get a deeper understanding of the British pace and flow of life. But while queues should be respected, they aren’t sacrosanct: if you have an urgent need for assistance and you ask politely to go to the front, nine times out of ten people will let you.
Punctuality is highly valued in Britain. Despite our national sport of queueing, we don’t like to wait around for each other. If you make an appointment with someone, you should aim to show up on time, or perhaps a few minutes early. This will mean planning the time it takes to get ready, planning the journey time and leaving some time for the unexpected. Many people will arrive early to avoid being late, and so if you arrive late they will have to wait for even longer. Punctuality is a sign of reliability and readiness for many, but there’s also a practical reason for being punctual. Britons tend to work long hours, so they need to use their down-time wisely!
If you dine at a restaurant, you can expect to be shown the menu, and pick one or more courses which may include starters, a main course and dessert. The person who extended the invitation to dine may deal with the bill, although if the group you’re with is large then you may decide to split the bill and pay for what you ordered individually. Depending on the type of restaurant and what you buy, dinner could cost between £10 and £30. This may include a service charge, but tips are generally not required. In most British restaurants, vegetarian and other dietary requirements are provided for, with indications of what’s compatible with such requirements on the menu.
Follow these tips and you can engage with British culture with confidence and authority.