For the past several months I have highlighted the etiquette of various European countries to help Americans with their transition into this diverse continent, and how to blend in while visiting its many treasures. In this article I turn my attention to the jovial, manner-driven and determined society of Great Britain, an island country with the heart and sole of a continent! During my many visits to this wonderful country – both naturally and socially – I have determined that its folk look at life as being on the up side of all things; the glass is half full, not pathetically half empty. The British are scrupulously self-disciplined on even the most minute mannerisms, may they be how they shake a hand in greeting, when tea time is and how to properly hold a tea cup, all a trait that has awed cultures throughout the centuries and annoyed a few at the same time. Finally, one of Great Britain’s most endearing qualities is her resolve to “Never Surrender” as Winston Churchill put so eloquently in one of the most pivotal speeches of World War II, if not this century. In other words, British determination is that of steel, which has shown its stalwart structure to many cultures throughout the ages in both economy, diplomacy, politics and war, again awing many while frustrating more than a few, mostly those at the business end of the British sword. After all, it is the British fortitude to move forward through good times and bad in all things in life that lead her to carrying the esteemed title as the mightiest power on the globe settling in every corner of Earth and bringing her high spirited outlook on life and mannerisms to those cultures under her realm, on more occasions than not helping that culture for the better. Although the American relationship with her sister country Britain has wavered on a few bloody occasions resulting in who we are today, we do have much to thank of this country. Mostly so for sowing the seeds that lead to the creation of the United States of America starting with a small and —in the British tradition — determined settlement called Jamestown.
Although we share the same language and religious beliefs as the British, and some traditions, we are no means tied by similarity in all things considered etiquette. Keep in mind that when we won our independence, we pursued a different way of life that lead to different mannerisms and customs than our once Mother Country. This is where this article comes to play, to shed light on the etiquette of Great Britain from how to greet and socialize, to the manner they dine. Keep in mind when you peruse through these etiquette guidelines the cardinal rule that applies to visiting or living in any culture aside from ours: you will find most people are kinder to you if you behave politely, respecting local people and customs. You may sometimes upset people by things that you say or do, even if these things seem perfectly normal in your own culture.
In order to grasp what makes the British tick when it comes to their etiquette, lets run through a scenario with you visiting London for the first time to meet a British travel club in a Pub who will be guiding you through Great Britain for a week. You enter the quaint pub whose teak bar with its brass taps, and sturdy oak tables and chairs are lit by the sun pouring through two massive bay windows facing the street. You see the small group of men and women representing the travel club seated around a circular table, some enjoying tea others pale Ale. The leader catches your eyes and, with a smile, proceeds to come over and greet you by the door. How do you greet her? A handshake is the most common form of greeting among the English and British people and is customary when you are introduced to somebody, or in your case introduced to the group leader. After shaking the hand of the group leader, you are brought to the table for introductions. In this scene, it is suitable to shake hands with everyone to whom you are introduced, both men and women. The handshake should be firm, but with a lighter touch between men and women. An appropriate response to an introduction is “I am happy to meet you” or “How do you do?”. After the introductions, a latecomer to the group walks through the pub door. You proceed to introduce yourself to him once he grows near by extending your hand and saying ‘Hello, I am (insert your name)”.
Notes on British Greetings. There are formal and informal manners of greeting in Britain. In general, British people are quite reserved when greeting one another. You have tested the waters of British greeting etiquette with the first and foremost formal greeting “How do you do?”, which is not designed to be a question in this instance, but just a greeting. In turn all persons in the travel group will respond back to you not with an answer, but with the same ‘How do you do?”. Other formal greetings include “How are you?” which in contrast to the latter greeting is truly a question. The polite response is “I am fine thank you, and you?”. “Nice to meet you” is often said while shaking hands, and is followed by “Nice to meet you, too.” “Delighted to meet you” is another form of formal greeting that should be responded to with a “Delighted to meet you, too.” Or “Pleased to meet you” is appropriate, and should be responded to with a “Pleased to meet you, too”. Shorter formal greetings that represent the time of day are also used such as good morning, good afternoon or good evening. Once you have befriended your group and are on a first name basis, informal greetings come into play. These greetings include Hi or hello; Morning, Afternoon or Evening, notice the British drop the word “Good” in informal situations; “How’s you?” with a response of “Fine thanks. You?”; Thank you, thanks, or cheers. The British often say cheers instead of thank you or even good bye, in essence with this word they are saying “thanks and bye”.
As you get to know your group better during the course of the week, you will notice various terms of endearment the British use to call you and the other fellow group members. You may be called by many different ‘affectionate’ names, which are dictated by which part of Britain the speaker is from. The important thing is not to find these offensive since they are all a good thing, and not meant to raise arms in the name of one’s honor! You may be called dear, dearie, flower, love, chick, chuck, me duck, me duckie, mate, guv, son, ma’am, madam, miss, sir, or treacle, according to one’s sex, age and location. Of course you can always answer with our own terms of endearment such as Bro, Dude or Man, although these are not quite as colorful as the British names.
Once all greetings have been made and you have settled behind the circular table, it is time to get to know your newfound friends, discovering what this culture’s social customs are. First off, by arriving on time to the Pub you placed yourself in a positive position in regards to one of Britain’s main social customs, punctuality, which can’t be said for the latecomer you introduced yourself to. British people place considerable value on punctuality. If you agree to meet friends at 2 p.m. you can bet they will be there to the dot, or at most just before or just after 2 p.m. Since British are so time conscious, the pace of life may seem rushed, as you noticed walking down the bustling London streets. British make a great effort to arrive on time. It is often deemed impolite to arrive even a few minutes late. If you are unable to keep an appointment, it is expected that you call the person you are meeting.
General tips to follow in regards to British punctuality: You should arrive at the exact time specified for such occasions as lunch, dinner or appointments with professors, doctors, and other professionals, as well as any time during the hours specified for teas, receptions, and cocktail parties. You should arrive a few minutes early for public meetings, plays, concerts, movies, sporting events, classes, church services, and weddings. In contrast to the above stringent British punctuality, if you are invited to dinner at someone’s home at 6:30 p.m., they will not expect you to be there on the dot. It is considered good manners to arrive 10 to 15 minutes late; yes you read me right, late. An invitation might state 6:30 for 7, in which case you should arrive no late than 6:50. However, if an invitation says “sharp”, you must arrive in plenty of time.
The British are friendly, humor-loving folk who enjoy turning a grey situation into a bright one when ever possible; they are truly a socializing society. This is true to form for many in your travel group as you slowly get to know them sitting behind the large circular Pub table. However, there are a few persons reserved to begin a first-time conversation with you, and this stems from many of the British reserved side of socializing due to their dislike to be embarrassed. This form of etiquette may seem disappointingly reserved to an outsider such as ourselves, but it all has to due with English pride, and should not be taken as an offensive act by the British people. Let me explain. The reason for many British being reserved in the first approaches of socializing, especially with foreigners, is they fear that they may not be able to make conversation with you, or to understand what you say to them. They probably don't know much about your country (if they can guess where you are from) or culture, and fear they might say something that offends you. They think you won't understand their jokes (in many cases you won't!). The easiest way to avoid this is if they don't go up and start speaking to you. However, not all British are so reserved, as you have found out with the other more open group members.
Notes on British Socializing. British people like to have a lot of their own personal space. They want their own privacy. Some people may worry that if they make friends with you, you may not understand their social customs. They may also worry about interfering with your own personal space. If you are a woman, a British man may worry that you will feel threatened if he starts speaking to you. If there are several spare seats in a public place, most people will sit away from other people. People don't touch others very much, and will usually apologize if they touch someone accidentally. It is rare for people to go to someone's house without having arranged it first.
There are a few rules of etiquette you should be aware of in regards to invitations by the British people, which you will be undoubtedly faced with after spending some time in Great Britain and establishing yourself in a social circle. “ Drop in anytime” and “come see me soon” are idioms often used in social settings but seldom meant to be taken literally. It is wise to telephone before visiting someone at home. If you receive a written invitation to an event that says “RSVP,” you should respond to let the person who sent the invitation know whether or not you plan to attend. Never accept an invitation unless you really plan to go. You may refuse by saying, “Thank you for inviting me, but I will not be able to come.” If, after accepting, you are unable to attend, be sure to tell those expecting you as far in advance as possible that you will not be there. Although it is not necessarily expected that you give a gift to your host, it is considered polite to do so, especially if you have been invited for a meal. Flowers, chocolate, or a small gift are all appropriate. A thank you note or telephone call after the visit is also considered polite and is an appropriate means to express your appreciation for the invitation. How does one dress for a dinner party? Everyday dress is appropriate for most visits to peoples' homes. You may want to dress more formally when attending a holiday dinner or cultural event, such as a concert or theater performance.
Lastly on the subject of social customs, do not call Welsh, Scottish or Irish folk "English".
After a few Ales of your own, and good conversation with your group members over the English and American way of lives and travel destinations within the coming week, it is time to eat some pub grub to fend off that growing hunger devouring your stomach with aching growls. Of course, as with any of the world’s societies, there is a certain etiquette governing British eating and drinking habits. You soon find out The British generally pay a lot of attention to good table manners. Even young children are expected to eat properly with knife and fork.
You first notice this as you watch your neighbor begin to eat her meal with the fork in the left hand, prongs facing down, and the knife in the right as opposed to the American way of placing the knife on the plate once the food is cut and you are ready to eat your food with your fork; you later find out this British form of eating is called continental style; usually at the top of your plate will be a dessert spoon and dessert fork. However, if you find yourself in a formal situation, which the Pub is clearly not, you will inevitably come across numerous forks and knives. In this situation, as not to get too confused on which utensil is for what dish, start with the utensils on the outside and work your way inward with each subsequent course. Subsequently, when dining in a formal situation, rest the fork and knife on the plate between mouthfuls or for a break in conversation; other words, ensure you’re eating utensils don’t become a permanent fixture of your hands. You notice that a club member across from you utilizes a small plate on their left-hand side; this is a typical side plate that the British use for eating bread rolls, always located to the left of their main dinner plate. The club member is unaware that he is demonstrating the “bread roll plate” eating manner to you as he places some butter on the side of the plate, tears bread from the roll and then adds butter before eating it.
After your main course, dessert is served; it is one of Britain’s most popular dessert dishes — pudding. Everyone gleefully digs in, again you see a certain eating etiquette governing the way they eat their pudding. Using the dessert fork and spoon found at the top of their plates, they break the dessert with the spoon and push the pudding into the spoon with the fork. They always eat from the spoon with it in the right hand, and the fork in the left.
Everyone at the table is using a napkin, almost in the same fashion as we do in the States. The British golden rule is that a napkin should never be used to blow your nose with. This is a definite etiquette let down. Napkins should be placed across the lap; tucking them into your clothing may be considered 'common'.
General tips to follow in regards to British dining etiquette: As you have seen from the above scenario, eating utensils are mainstays in the British dining setting. However, it is considered appropriate to eat some foods without utensils, which are self explanatory, such as sandwiches, crisps, corn on the cob and most fruits. Other dishes considered quite literally finger foods are chicken and pizza if you are at a barbecue, finger buffet or very informal setting. Otherwise, always use a knife or fork.
When it comes to paying following your dining experience in a restaurant, it is normal to pay for your food by putting your money on the plate the bill arrives on.
Further factors you should consider when dining British style are if you are a guest, it is polite to wait until your host or hostess begins eating or indicates you should do so. This shows consideration. Always say thank you when served something, which shows appreciation. When you want to make others aware that you are done eating, place your fork and knife together, with the prongs of the fork facing upwards, on your plate. Always chew and swallow all the food in your mouth before taking more or taking a drink. When eating soup, tip the bowl away from you and scoop the soup up with your spoon, and by all means do not slurp your soup since this is considered very rude.
There are various rules of etiquette you should know of in regards to dinner invitations by the British people. When you accept such an invitation you inform your host or hostess if you have any dietary restrictions since they will want to plan a meal that you can enjoy. Food may be served in one of numerous ways: family style, which is served by passing the serving plates from one to another around the dining table; buffet style with guests serving themselves at the buffet, and serving style with the host or hostess filling each plate and passing it to each person.
Finally, It is ok to pour your own drink when eating with other people, but it is more polite to offer pouring drinks to the people sitting on either side of you.
We have thus far covered the do’s of British dining etiquette, which is made obvious by this article is a large part of their societal customs. It is only fitting, then, that we cover the don’ts of these peoples’ dining mannerisms; many of these are common to us Americans. For instance, it is impolite to start eating before everyone has been served. Never chew with your mouth open. No one wants to see food being chewed or hearing it being munched on. It is impolite to have your elbows on the table while you are eating. Don't reach over someone's plate for something, ask for the item to be passed. Never talk with food in your mouth. It is impolite to put too much food in your mouth. Never use your fingers to push food onto your spoon or fork. It is impolite to slurp your food or eat noisily. Never take food from your neighbor’s plate. Never pick food out of your teeth with your fingernails.
It was a late lunch, and the sun is slowly setting behind the quaint row houses lining the busy street outside the pub, blocking its rays from reaching through the establishment’s large pane windows. A soft yellow light veils your group radiating from the broad ceiling lamp hanging over your table. The travel group leader determines it is time to go and settle in for the evening, for you all have an early start tomorrow morning heading first to Stonehenge and then to the west coast. Among a flurry of ‘cheers’ and handshakes, some hugs and kisses among closer club members (kissing and hugs are only reserved for friends) it was time to part ways. In the dimming light of the London evening you head for your hotel not only anticipating the great adventure that lies ahead of you in your travels, but the great quest as well you have just embarked on to understand the inner workings of this noble culture’s etiquette.
With this scenario, you can be guided through the basics of British mannerisms and customs as you visit or are stationed in this country. Good traveling through the British culture, and Cheers!
To help you further, I have added a few more rules of British etiquette that should be followed. The British like to form orderly lines when waiting for something, i.e., boarding a bus, purchasing food, theater ticket, e.g. They will wait patiently and expect you to do so as well, taking your correct turn and not pushing in front; ‘jumping in line’ is immensely frowned upon. “Excuse me” is a valuable and effective phrase, especially when someone is blocking your way and you would like him or her to move aside. In Great Britain, you are considered to have first-rate manners if you say “please” and “thank you”. It is considered rude if you don’t. It is also considered very polite, as well as expected, to say sorry, especially if you accidentally bump into someone. The person you bumped into will most likely say sorry as well, even though it wasn’t their fault. This has become a British habit that has amused many visitors to the country. If you yawn or cough in public, make sure you cover your mouth with your hand.
Avoid speaking loudly in public, and try not to stare at anyone in public, this is considered impolite. Since the British respect each other’s privacy they expect the same from their foreign visitors, hence, it is important to try and steer away from personal or intimate questions in the beginning of a relationship. Such questions could be “how much money do you earn?” “how much do you weigh?” or “why aren’t your married?”. Use your best judgment on this one. Avoid doing gestures such as backslapping and hugging. This is only done among close friends. It is considered impolite to speak with your mouth full of food as well as eating off a knife when having a meal. Pay for drinks as you order them in pubs and other types of bars. Most importantly, remember to drive on the left hand side of the road, for you and your hosts’ safety!
During your visit or time spent living in Great Britain you will find that British women are entitled to equal respect and status with men in all areas of life, and tend to have more independence and responsibility than in some other cultures. It is not uncommon for women to go out and about on their own and to travel widely, and there are few formalities about dress; for instance, it is not uncommon to see women eating alone in a restaurant, with a beer in hand.
The British take their etiquette in regards to bodily functions seriously as well, although it sounds humorous. For instance, don’ pick your nose in public, the British are incredibly disgusted by this and request you use a handkerchief or at least a tissue. Spitting in the street is considered to be a very bad mannered, as well as burping in public; if a burp escapes, the British expect you to cover your mouth and say excuse me afterwards. Last but not least, do not pass wind in public. If one accidentally escapes ensure the act is followed by a “pardon me”.