Culture Shock in the United Kingdom
Most expats moving to the United Kingdom have very few problems adjusting to the culture. Larger cities like London and Manchester are incredibly diverse with a multitude of cultures staking claim to various neighbourhoods and streets. Every type of cuisine, obscure grocery item and cultural accessory is readily available.
Expats from the former colonies such as South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand number over one million, and there are sizeable and well-established communities of Asians, Jamaicans, Africans and Eastern Europeans.
Expats moving outside of cosmopolitan locations will experience more of traditional middle-class Britain, with a fairly standard set of values and traditions that are familiar to anyone from a Western background.
English is spoken widely, although strong regional accents may convince expats otherwise.
Traditionally, the British are polite, reticent and circumspect – although such is the diversity of classes and cultures that few stereotypes hold up very well to personal experience. It's better to think of the UK as a whole world on one island and adopt an accordingly open mind.
Regional identities in the United Kingdom
The UK comprises three separate but interdependent countries, namely England, Scotland and Wales, and the province of Northern Ireland.
While there aren't great differences in everyday modes of social behaviour from one part of the UK to another, there are some aspects of culture that are quite symbolic of national or local difference. Factors such as support for the monarchy, political affiliation and the support of football teams are some of the most obvious expressions of contemporary localism. Religious adherence and ethnic differentiation are also significant.
Although most expats move to the capital, London, it is important that new arrivals are not only aware of these geographical distinctions, but also the strong sense of identity and nationalism felt by the populations of each nation.
It's also important not to confuse the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ as they mean very different things. ‘British’ can be applied to someone from any of the four nations, but calling someone ‘English' means the person comes from England. Those from Scotland are called ‘Scots’, those from Wales are the ‘Welsh’ and people from Northern Ireland can be referred to as ‘Irish’.
Although this may seem like an obvious point, calling someone from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland ‘English’ can cause offence as members of these nations have a strong sense of loyalty to their country and its distinct culture.
Communication in the United Kingdom
Historically, the British have been known for their stiff upper lip and the ‘blitz spirit’ demonstrated during World War 2. This grin-and-bear-it attitude in the face of hardship and adversity is still apparent today.
As a population, the British tend not to be too animated when they communicate. This doesn't mean they don't have strong emotions, but rather that they merely choose not to display these in public. Many of the older generation will avoid public displays of affection.
Expats will also find that people in the UK seem more distant and reserved than those from North America and southern Europe. They like their personal space and prefer to maintain a little distance between themselves and the person they are speaking to.
The British value their privacy and expats shouldn't expect a tour of the home when visiting a British friend. They expect others to respect their privacy and this extends to personal questions. As well as avoiding discussions on someone’s financial situation or relationships, expats should be careful in asking a British person where they are from as this can potentially be seen as an attempt to place the person on the social or class scale.
New arrivals may also find that Londoners are busy people with little time for small talk, but the further up north one goes the friendlier the people are.
Cultural etiquette in the United Kingdom
The UK is a multicultural society made up of various ethnic communities, each with their own standards of social behaviour and cultural etiquette. But there are some points expats might find useful when interacting with the British.
When meeting someone for the first time it is best to offer a handshake. Hugs are only appropriate for people one is more familiar with.
When visiting the home of a British friend or colleague, it is good to take a gift of chocolates, wine or flowers for the host.
The British appreciate punctuality, not just in business but also at social occasions. It is best to make every attempt to arrive on time for any type of appointment. Expats running late for a meeting should call ahead to let someone know. Tardiness is regarded as a lack of respect.