British etiquette is often difficult to understand and put into practise for people who have not spent long in Britain (and for a good portion of the British population too). However, being polite is important in any culture to communicate properly and to be able to get what you want without hassle. Although these manners are flexible and do not apply in more informal situations, they are still worth knowing for this reason.
I have written what I consider to be the important rules of politeness below. Hope you enjoy and feel free to give me your take on what British manners are in the comments below!
The Three Golden Rules
• Say the magic words. If you ask for anything, say “please”. If anyone gives you anything at all, whether it is your change, a cup of tea or a car, you must always say “thank you”. In British culture, you cannot say thank you too many times. Ideally you should be saying it before, during and after someone gives you something in order for the message to fully get across.
• Apologise. British people will apologise for the smallest thing, including for apologising too much. Sometimes, you say sorry not to acknowledge your own mistakes, but to acknowledge that someone else’s mistake is okay. For example if someone treads on your foot, you should say “sorry” to communicate “I acknowledge that you didn’t mean to hurt my toe, and I’m fine with that”.
• Don’t make a scene. Staying respectful and calm is an important part of fitting into British culture. People often comment that British people are more reserved than other cultures, and that’s mainly because talking loudly, squealing with laughter or arguing in public is seen as inconsiderate in the UK since it can bother other people around you.
Out and About
• Do not stare at people…unless you are having a conversation with them, in which case you should make eye contact when they are speaking.
• It is considered extremely rude to spit on the street, cough up phlegm, cough or sneeze on someone, and otherwise do something which could create mess or spread germs in public. Overall, personal hygiene is considered very important in Britain and being clean and presentable in public is essential to fit in.
• When on public transport with few seats left, it is polite to offer your seat to elderly people, or people with wheelchairs or babies, who would benefit from the seat more.
• It is polite to make room for other people. Being aware of your surroundings, and allowing for people to get passed you, is key to being the perfectly mannered person. For example, it is considered kind to hold the door for someone, to let other cars waiting at a junction onto the road, and to allow people to queue in front of you if their needs are greater than yours. Even the most subtle of movements to give other people more room will be noticed and appreciated by most British people!
How to treat strangers differs in different places in Britain – for example in the south strangers will rarely strike up a conversation with each other, whereas in the north chatting to people you don’t know on public transport is quite common. People in the countryside are also much friendlier than in cities. If you’re unsure, smile at someone and say hello, and allow them to make the next move.
Often these rules aren’t followed, especially when eating with peers. However if you’re in a fancy restaurant or with people you want to impress, sticking to these guidelines means you can’t go wrong:
• Use a knife in your right hand and a fork in your left for main meals, and a spoon in your right hand for pudding.
• Make as little noise as possible whilst eating, because is extremely annoying to British people when they can hear someone chew!
• Eat with your mouth closed. No-one wants to see your food after it has left your plate.
• Keep your elbows off the table (quite an old fashioned rule, but some people still follow it).
• When eating out, always try and pay for your meal. If someone offers to pay for your food, it is customary to have some back and forth conversation saying “I’ll pay”, “no don’t be silly”, “no I insist”, “well I am happy to contribute” etc. before someone submits. This is because often British people will offer to pay for someone else’s meal out of instinct when they don’t actually want to – this dialogue is essential for figuring out whether they are making a genuine offer or not.
• Get the waiters’ attention my making eye contact – not by waving your hand around. In Britain it is polite and expected to treat restaurant staff as equals, not as servants.
• Tipping. It is not essential to tip in the UK, although if you’re eating in a nice restaurant it is polite to give the waiter / waitress 10% of your meal price, which is usually a pound or two per person. If you are eating out around the Christmas period, it is nice to tip more, since these people are giving up their holidays to earn money.
Visiting Someone’s Home
Adults in Britain will often socialise by going to each others’ houses during an evening and having a meal there. I’m pretty sure that this kind of thing will apply to most cultures, but here’s a few tips for what to do in this situation in Britain:
• Bring something to the table. It is customary to bring a small gift for the host when visiting someone’s house. A good gift is food or drink that you can share around during the event, for example a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates. Note: the host will probably have cooked a dinner, so don’t bring something which would affect the main course.
• Take your shoes off when you’ve entered the house.
• Compliment their home – this is a natural kind thing to do when entering someone’s home, although the compliment obviously has to be genuine.
• Engage in conversation (don’t look at your phone for long periods of time).
• Help to clear the table, and if you’re feeling particularly polite offer to do the dishes.
• Don’t overstay your welcome. You have to realise that the host can’t go to bed before you leave! Don’t stay too late, and look out for clues that the host is tired or is hinting for you to leave.
General last pointers
• Never insult anyone. It is extremely rude and inconsiderate to point out someone’s flaws both to their face or behind their back in Britain. For example, you should never call someone fat, ugly, annoying or boring. British people are quite sensitive and will take these things very personally. Of course people still do insult others, but it is generally considered petty.
• Don’t ask personal questions. If you don’t know someone very well, don’t ask things such as what their age is, how much they weigh, how much they earn, or their opinions on politics. When you’re friends with someone, naturally the closer you are the more you share this kind of information.
• Listen during conversations. Don’t interrupt what someone’s saying, and ask the person you’re talking to questions, or as some people call it “passing the ball in conversation”. To talk about yourself for long periods of time if considered bad etiquette in British culture.
British manners, like in most cultures, comes from a combination of tradition, old superstitions and consideration for other people around you. They are not set in stone and are adapting all the time.
Please comment below if you think of any more manners to add to the list!
If you like learning about my take on manners, read the article I made on Cambodian Table Manners! If you want to read more about my thoughts on culture, I have written a few articles including one discussing selfie culture and its roots in Are Selfies Bad? and about cultural stereotyping in Susceptibility to Single Stories.
Thanks for reading.