Great Britain is in the news again, and not for positive reasons. The Brexit debate continues to rage and boil, as the slow-motion mechanisms of politics and governance continue. It was recently reported that “Theresa May stepped down as Conservative Party leader last Friday after failing to break the Brexit deadlock. On Monday, ten candidates were nominated in the contest to succeed her, with the winner expected to be announced in late July. Boris Johnson, who is currently the favourite among Conservative members, said today he would only take Britain out of the EU without a deal as a “last resort”, launching his campaign with a promise to unify a country deeply divided over Brexit.”
There is no clear path forward on Brexit and the UK and many others around the world are holding their breath to see how it will turn out. At the same time, during a recent state visit to Great Britain, US President Donald Trump got into a Twitter-based feud with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. “As Trump’s flight to Europe touched down on Monday, he fired off a duo of tweets trashing Khan as a “terrible” mayor and “a stone cold loser.””
As these two story-lines from recent news coverage of London and Great Britain show, there are troubles roiling the waters of the Thames River. It is important to note that Culture Shock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette Great Britain by Terry Tan and its sister publication Culture Shock! London by Orin Hargraves were published in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Oh, how the world has changed since that bygone era of 10 years ago!
As a North American traveling abroad to any new country or cultural context, it is helpful to have guidebooks to help paint the picture of a place. At the same time, there is a distinct limitation to what guidebooks can do. Like a church photo directory, a guide book is immediately out of date upon going to be printed. This is because things are happening and changing and developing all the time. Staying abreast of news reporting about events and issues, people and personalities from the UK is a more fruitful way to be prepared to step off the plane and into this new place.
So, with this in mind, what is useful about books like these? First, they provide much background, history and overall context for life in London and the United Kingdom more broadly. Even while new events come up, restaurants open, and politicians rise or fall, some things about the overall culture and context of a place remain. Traditional guidebooks try to give all of the information: what are the best restaurants, what is the exchange rate, what times do the trains leave, which hotels are worth staying in. With the incredible increase in information on the internet, as well as mobile phones, the old-school guidebook model doesn’t work in the same way.
The contribution of these CultureShock books is to give insights, hints, tips and an overall picture of what kind of culture a visitor is walking into. Tan writes, “it’s humour that’s pervasive, spilling out over just about every aspect of life. You’ll notice that most British advertisements, whatever the selling message, usually have a tongue-in-cheek touch.” This is a part of the national character, this penchant for a dry sense of humor, and that is what this book wants the visitor to know.
While those overarching national characteristics (such as English wit) are highlighted, so too are some helpful “survival” details. One example is the name given for foods, such as sausages (bangers), cookies (biscuits), French fries (chips), potato chips (crisps), and dessert (pudding). These are just some small examples within these books of the kinds of information that is present, especially things that don’t change as frequently as particular restaurants, hotels, or tour companies.
Reading these books gives only a flavor of life in London and the UK, but it also serves to pique the interest for anyone who has a trip ahead. In my own community here in California, there are many who travel often to the United Kingdom and London (some of them go every year!). These are books that I would share with them, just as a way to fill out some of their knowledge, or as a way of putting the experience into conversation with a written account.
I could also imagine these books being very useful, not just for a traveler, but for someone who was going to spend more a more significant amount of time in these places. They offer insights into a property purchase, how to rent a flat, navigating the school system, how to register a business and other details for regular daily living. One question that I am left with is what other places there are in this CultureShock series. It seems to me that it isn’t really possible to totally eradicate culture shock during a cross-cultural experience, but having this resource for other places that I go could be very helpful. It makes for fun reading, especially as I anticipate this trip and those that are still to come.
Martina Bet, “David Starkey: ‘Brexit Exposed Westminster’s Failings and Left Monarchy Last Man Standing’,” Express (June 13, 2019).
Amy Russo, “London Mayor Sadiq Khan Compares Trump to 11-year-old After Twitter Insults,” Huffington Post, June 4, 2019, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sadiq-khan-london-mayor-donald-trump_n_5cf6cd02e4b059c99ebeb992?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAJjHd2D2WRzLgG0sFK7F1phBx5WXmhCnHKOL7K4hG61sVo4-hpsoAZ.
Terry Tan, CultureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Great Britain (Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish, 2008), 57.
Orin Hargraves, CutureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish, 2009), 179-80.