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Most expats moving to the United Kingdom have a pretty easy time adjusting to the culture. Larger cities such as London and Manchester are incredibly diverse with a multitude of cultures. Every type of cuisine, obscure grocery item and cultural accessory are readily available.
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, of course, is spoken widely, although strong regional accents may convince expats otherwise.
Traditionally, the British are polite, reserved and circumspect – although such is the diversity of classes and cultures that few stereotypes hold up particularly well in personal experience. It's better to think of the UK as a whole world on one island and adopt an accordingly open mindset.
Regional identities in the United Kingdom
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 fiercely tribal 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. To understand the importance of this, some geographical, political and historical background is needed.
From a geographical standpoint, the British Isles consist of the island of Great Britain (the countries of England, Wales and Scotland) and the island of Ireland (the countries of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). The United Kingdom is a political entity consisting of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Notably, the Republic of Ireland is an independent nation, meaning that it is not part of the UK even though it is located in the British Isles.
Though Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland share a landmass, they have a tumultuous history, and it's important that expats recognise and respect this. The two nations are sharply divided by different politics, cultures and religions – so getting them confused or implying they're the same can cause offence.
As part of the UK, those from England, Wales and Scotland can usually safely be referred to as 'British', though many prefer the specific demonyms of 'English', 'Welsh' and 'Scottish' respectively.
Those from Northern Ireland might identify as 'Northern Irish', 'British' or sometimes just 'Irish'. Each of these labels implies a particular political stance and affiliation, so preferences vary widely and it's best not to make assumptions.
Nationals of the Republic of Ireland are called 'Irish'. Terms such as 'British' or 'southern Irish' are best avoided as some see these terms as diminishing the national identity and independence of the Republic from the United Kingdom.
Communication in the United Kingdom
Historically, the British have been known for their stiff upper lip and the 'Blitz spirit' demonstrated during World War II. This grin-and-bear-it attitude in the face of hardship and adversity is still sometimes apparent today.
Expats may also find that people in the UK seem more distant and reserved than those from North America and parts of 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.
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, as tardiness is regarded as a lack of respect.
►To learn about British business etiquette, read our advice on Doing Business in the United Kingdom
►What are the healthcare benefits available for expats living in the UK? Our Healthcare in the United Kingdom page offers guidance and tips.
"Initially getting settled proved to be quite a challenge. I didn’t have a job or a place to live lined up when I arrived. I had booked Airbnbs for my first two weeks and then planned to sort everything out after I arrived. However, I was often chasing things around in circles as I couldn’t get a lease without a bank account, no bank account without a job and no job without a lease. I ended up renting a cheap room in a house share for my first couple months until I was able to sort out a bank account and a job and then move to a better area."
For more insights from Allison, a Canadian living in Manchester, read her interview with Expat Arrivals.
Are you an expat living in The United Kingdom?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to The United Kingdom. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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