The Shocking Truth About Brits!
Three takeaways from two travel guidebooks: Culture Shock! London by Orin Hargraves and Culture Shock! Great Britain by Terry Tan
- The subtle and not-so-subtle differences between English and “the other English” language
- Being polite goes a long way
- Watch the cues and stay in the queue!
Travel guides are always a great way to prepare for travel. It helps a person learn about cultural norms (do’s and don’ts) before going from their home country to another. I happen to appreciate travel and language guides. Maybe it’s a throwback from the language and cultural training my family endured prior to moving to three different continents outside of the US. My first language was not just one, but two. I don’t speak the non-English language as well anymore, but that part of my brain is still awake and kicks in as needed.
One of the things I always try to do before crossing the pond is to learn the language of the country, even if just a few polite phrases. There was a little relief when realizing that the other English utilises the Latin alphabet. However, I was struck by the numerous words and phrases that would not transfer well to the other English. This goes beyond “soda” or “pop.” This is the difference between “loo” and “toilet.” I would have to learn a new language! But and this is a BIG but, at least there is no need to memorize Cyrillic or calligraphy characters. Whew!
And then I read the part about most Londoners not speaking English. Oh great! Back to well-appropriated sign language. I use this term gently. I learned my lesson the hard way that not all hand or finger gestures transfer well from one culture to another. When teaching my Korean cousins how to play card games, and none of us spoke the other’s language, we used hand gestures. This was appropriate at the time. However, if I were in Italy, I wouldn’t dare use the backhand to my chin, even if I had an itch. One hand gesture that I have recently learned is the Korean “Finger Heart”. It is an expression of love, affection, and friendship. You will see me in a few Facebook pictures using this gesture but only when I’m with my hapa family.
Being polite goes a long way
I grew up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) with a Korean mother who speaks seven languages. There is a certain ease, in my DNA, to learning languages. One language that speaks volumes in any culture is politeness. No matter how polite one can be, there is also a need to learn cultural mores. There is a cultural difference and depth to what politeness means in different cultures. In Korea, one would bow to show honor and respect. This is considered being polite. In the US, if I were to bow to a stranger on the street, they would find me a bit odd.
I grew up learning to respect the “no shoes in the house” rule. The main reason for this is that most Koreans have a different relationship with their floor. They live in much smaller quarters then many Americans and their bedroom multitasks as the living room during the day. There are no beds, not even a murphy bed. Removing your shoes is a sign of respect. As a guest, this is also defined as politeness.
It seems that in Britain, tea is a social event that requires some etiquette and politeness. The concept of not clanking the spoon and milk first, then sugar is part of this. Will someone think less of you if you don’t put the sugar last? Maybe not, but it’s important to them, so why shouldn’t it be important to me as I enter into their space?
Also, what is normal in Korea and the US (sitting on the floor) is not acceptable behavior in the UK. This reminds me of a time when I was in Russia. There weren’t enough chairs for our rather large group, so we all opted to sit in a circle on the floor. The Russians were just shy of being horrified by this. A Russian would never sit on the floor. It’s not proper etiquette. Did it border on not being impolite? In certain situations, it would be.
I believe the main clue is paying attention to the host(ess). Whatever they do is what I do.
That leads me to the third concept: Watch the cues and stay in the queue!
This is not a far-fetched attitude of Americans. Queues are respected, in most cases. Where I have found this to bring a level of anxiety is when I have traveled to some countries that do not observe this. I happen to like order, so I’m thankful that the Brits have adopted this as imperative behavior. In fact, I remember one of my trips to Russia. The queue through customs can be very, very long. I witnessed a babushka (grandmother) being ushered to the front of the line. Suddenly, I heard an Englishman say quite loudly, “What is happening here?!” I chuckled because he was only stating what I was thinking. That being said, when sharing this later to a Russian friend, she explained, it is because age is respected. Ah. The same is true in Korea.
What fascinates me is the reason that the English value order – to protect one’s privacy. I had to stop and reflect on my own reasons. I am an incredibly private person. I will not “spill the tea” about others or myself unless I feel safe and trusted. Is the real reason that I value order really because I want to protect my privacy? I’m still reflecting upon this.
15 responses to “The Shocking Truth About Brits!”
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I took note that you mentioned being a TCK on our first call. You have already proven this gives you keen insight into cultural nuances and positions you well to be on the leading edge of cultural engagement and learning. I’ll be taking my cues from you!
You are being way too kind. I don’t know if I’m the one to take cues from as I’m not British. Thanks for reading! I look forward to learning from you!
Thanks for this, Nancy. I believe so many things could improve in our world with simple courtesy and consideration. When we respect one another enough to learn they are comfortable with and when we are intentionally mindful of the perspectives, feelings, and practices of others, we are much more able to build lasting bridges and foster truly authentic relationships.
My experience has taught me that most people are basically the same, even if they have different beliefs or backgrounds. A smile and pleasant demeanor and humble spirit can help break barriers and open the door for a conversation. Paying attention to the cues (and the queues!) can also help us avoid misunderstandings or something offensive.
I have much to learn still about how to be a citizen of the world and am looking forward to the experience over the next three years to do this in intentional ways. I’m glad you’re part of this cohort. I appreciated your post.
Thank you for reading. I find that a smile can be helpful, but not always. In some countries, smiling too much can get you in trouble. More on that for another time 😉
It’s funny how you say your experience has taught you that “that most people are basically the same, even if they have different beliefs or backgrounds.” My experience has taught me the complete opposite, but that’s why I like hanging out with people who are different from me. I learn so much from how others even approach thinking about something like food.
Glad we’re starting a journey and looking forward to integrating together!
I’m grateful that, from the very beginning of this journey, you are integrating your very unique (and, for me, deeply needed) perspective as a “third culture kid.” I was drawn to your commentary on the power of language, even if it be a few phrases, to create a sense of commonality and open doors into the potential of a relationship. That said, your notion that the practice of “politeness” is a language was a profound insight and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. Together, let’s watch for the ways in which our British colleagues signal to us (verbally and non-verbally) what is culturally expected and acceptable, take some risks to humbly embody the practices, and then process how our attempts impacted the encounter.
I’m in! Let’s take our cues from others, including each other.
Looking forward to practising this all in the UK.
Nancy, I like the background picture on your post, cool!
I like that brought up the Third Culture point as it is very close to my own life experience. I was born in Centro America Honduras and came to the US when I was 13th, and my dad is from Cuba. All my 20th, my wife, and I lived and Africa. I thank God for that experience because it has enabled us to be very anthropologies mindset and a great sense of multicultural sensitivity.
I wonder what culture approach in my visit to the UK I expect to take. Obviously, I will be in the country for a few days but if I was to go as a missionary to minister there. My first months could be that of a tourist more than anything else. As a tourist, I will look are everything with a different set of eyes.
Joe (or Jose?),
We share a couple things in common — being Angelenos and having spent time in Africa.
Would love to hear more about the anthropological mindset. Fascinating.
Thanks for visiting,
What I find interesting about traveling is trying to discern the spoken and unspoken cues. Every culture has different customs that are considered polite and and impolite – many of which we may not give a second thought!
One of my colleagues at the school I work at is Canadian and one day she sent me a video of “things American do that Canadians find weird.” At first, I was thinking, “This can’t be true.” But when I asked her about it, she pointed out that I did some of the things in the video and I didn’t even realize it. For example, one of the things mentioned in the video was how in America, when someone says “Thank you,” Americans will respond with “Uh huh” or “Yup” instead of “You’re welcome.” I know for a fact that I do this, and for me it simply means “It’s nothing to worry about.” However, my colleague told me that she has thought I was just dismissing what she said without giving any consideration to it. Another colleague (a local Hong Kong teacher) was listening in and mentioned the same thing and when I explained my meaning behind, he laughed and said the last four years made more sense. Four years!
In the same way, as we prepare to go to the UK, what are the little things we do that may not come across like we mean? It may be something minute, but it could make a difference.
Interesting that your co-worker sent you a video to point out cultural differences. I actually respond with “you’re welcome” or “no worries” (which is more SoCal).
To answer your question, I’m sure I will blunder whilst in the UK, but I hope I will be a polite blunderer ;-). To be honest, my main concern is the differences in words. Check this out: nine different ways to say thank you! eek. https://www.simpleenglishvideos.com/9-ways-to-say-thank-you-in-british-and-american-english/
Looking forward to meeting you!
Nancy, your take-aways were thoughtful and filled with generosity. I appreciate how you wove in your increasing awareness to the small gestures that make a big difference. In Rwanda, if I were to wave good bye using a way that’s specific and culturally appropriate for Americans, I would have a flock of children around me, because in Rwanda that simple gesture means “come here.” I’ll definitely have to review our books again to pull out some of the simple courtesies that when done say, “I respect your culture and want to learn more for you.” Thank you for that reminder:)
I find it fascinating how hand and finger gestures can be so tricky! I learned the hard way that finger and hand gestures can be insulting when I lived in Thailand.
My favorite hand gesture, right now, is the K-Pop love sign: https://www.google.com/search?q=kpop+love+sign&client=firefox-b-1-d&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=mnmK7zTUDtErkM%253A%252Cl0kB6C_9saEJ_M%252C_&vet=1&usg=AI4_-kTVJGVdozuT9WCc1q4BXQ1nmpnJCA&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi76dWCoMLkAhVCCTQIHUGGDHcQ9QEwAXoECAcQBg#imgrc=mnmK7zTUDtErkM:
So it took me some time to work that one out! I wonder how that will translate in London?? Being so cosmopolitan, surely others will know what it means?!
Thanks for sharing!
Nancy thanks for the insightful glimpse into your experiences. I usually find that most of us from different back grounds and cultures enjoy learning about each other. Even amidst awkward situations and blunders I have found grace. As a large framed man of 6’7″ it can be challenging to not be intimidating. As you wisely stated a kind word and posture of humility goes along ways.
Thanks for reading my post. My previous boss was a large-framed man as well (6’6″). I admit that I liked walking with him at the airport because he literally “parted the sea” and yet he was so sensitive about his stature, which is what I’m gathering from you.
I pray that we can part the way for each other as we learn more throughout this time.