Visiting Britain can be a strange experience. I know this because I am British, and have had many strange experiences.
But if Great Britain can be confusing for the British, what hope does anyone else have? Travellers from somewhat saner countries are often thrown by the small things of British life, the “why do they do that?” questions evident on their faces, as they’re faced with the most scathing of British rebukes – the tut. This is because Britain is a country of unspoken rules, social behaviours which are expected to be followed at all times, but which we never voice because that would feel like we’re being rude and confrontational. And then we’d have to apologise for it.
So here’s a handy list of things to expect, social faux pas to be avoided, and an explanation of the pure weird.
1. We have separate taps for hot and cold water
Mixer taps are becoming more of a thing in your fancy, posh bathrooms (I have one, obvs), but on the whole you can expect to be confronted by two separate taps. This is particularly true for public toilets (which usually last had an overhaul of their facilities in 1952, or so it may seem) and in places like pubs. This gives you a choice between scorching your hands with water which has been specially drawn from the centre of the earth, or something that feels like it’s been shipped in from the Arctic.
So why do we do this? Do we just get a perverse pleasure from watching people zip their sud-soaked hands from one tap to the other, howling as they do so? (maybe.) But the answer is actually rather straightforward.
Basically, British buildings constructed after the Second World War had a slightly different plumbing system, which meant that hot and cold water came from a different source. Cold water came directly from the mains – no problem there for drinking. Hot water, however, was stored in tanks, which was then heated. This water is technically not safe to drink, as the cleanliness of the tank can’t be vouched for. So the taps are separate so that the undrinkable hot water doesn’t mix with the drinkable cold water. Simples!
And indeed, “simples” is another expression you may hear and wonder about – it comes from a popular insurance advert featuring a Russian-accented meerkat.
2. You need to order food from the bar in a pub.
I have seen many a visitor to Britain sit in a pub with an air of expectation, look around awkwardly for a bit whilst trying to catch the attention of the barman, and then complain about the service. Unsatisfied stomachs growl, tempers become frayed, sadistic locals watch, and an avoidable situation just becomes unpleasant for everyone.
This is thanks to another unspoken rule: pubs, unlike restaurants, require you to go to the bar in order to order your food. And you’ll need to remember your table number if you do. What’s the reason for this? Why is it so different from restaurants, who will tell you to sit down if you try the same thing?
Again, it’s quite straightforward. For a lot of pubs, serving food is still a fairly new thing (some pubs won’t offer any menu at all). Because your traditional pub is a watering-hole, with drinks bought and served at the bar, the method of ordering has stayed the same. Unlike a restaurant, it’s a case of sitting, checking the menu on the table, then heading to the bar to order. Queue politely (barmen are very good at becoming blind to anyone who’s a bit pushy), give and pay for your order. Your plates of hearty pub fare will be delivered to your table, hopefully sooner rather than later.
On the subject of pubs, remember that beer and bitter (a pale ale) are served warm in Britain. Also, if you want to smoke, you’ll have to do it outside.
3. Make sure that someone is English, before you call them English.
The United Kingdom is not completely united.
To some non-Brits, the word “England” has come to cover the whole of the British Isles (to be fair, this happen to some Brits, too). It’s an understandable mistake – England is the largest part of the United Kingdom when it comes to land size, and you have expressions such as “The Queen of England”, which itself is a bit of a historical leftover from the times before the Union.
But anyone from Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland will quite rightfully correct you if you call them English. The other nations have their own proud histories, and don’t like being lumped under the English umbrella – you’re not likely to receive any ill-feeling though, especially as a visitor. Most people, however, will be happy to be called British – it’s the British Isles, after all. The exception to this is Northern Ireland, as some people will consider themselves British, whereas others will be proudly Irish.
If you’re feeling confused by all the different names for the country, think of it this way – it’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain (which is the large island containing England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland.
4. Snow disrupts EVERYTHING.
Now, if you’re visiting from a colder climate which sees lots of snow, you will find this faintly ridiculous. Even the British find this ridiculous.
You’ll notice it if you watch a news bulletin in the winter, or pick up a newspaper. “SNOW IS ON THE WAY”, it’ll proclaim in a vaguely Game of Thrones-esqe manner. There is a sense of foreboding about the article, like it’s just announced that a nuclear warhead is aimed at the country. News readers look grave. The newspapers will advise the stocking up of tinned goods.
Then the snowstorm hits. Howling blizzards. The natives lock themselves in their homes. Schools and businesses are closed. The country is undone by massive snowdrifts measuring a depth of… 2 inches.
Yes, the truth is that a lot of areas are embarrassingly unable to cope with the slightest bit of adverse weather. The reason for this is that British weather is generally quite mild; we don’t really get any extremes, therefore the infrastructure to deal with wild weather just isn’t in place. Winters are cold and wet, but rarely life-threatening in any way. Spring and autumn are mild. And summer, if one actually arrives, are pleasant without being scorching. This is why the British are famously obsessed with talking about the weather; anything which is slightly unusual is immediately noticed and commented on.
So, on the whole, your trip is unlikely to be disrupted by the weather. Unless it snows. In that case, the best thing to do is paraphrase Shaun Of The Dead, and go to the pub, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over.
5. Queue-jumping will result in your (social) death.
Another thing that Brits are famous for is queuing. It is a national sport; a point of pride. And queue-jumpers can expect to be reviled and shunned by their friends.
It all comes down to a sense of justice. In general, Brits believe strongly in a “first come, first served” theory, as that just seems the fairest way – if you’re first, you get seen first, if you’re second, you get seen second. Therefore, ignoring the queue, or trying to cut into the line, will instantly provoke a sense of injustice in the rest of the queue. At the very least, you’ll open yourself up to an avalanche of tuts; at the worst, you could even be manhandled out of the queue. Yes, queue-jumping even overrides the British sense of being non-confrontational. It’s that big an offence.
But there are other crimes you can commit whilst in the queue. One of these is trying to engage fellow queuees in conversation – generally, we don’t mind the occasional comment (especially if it’s sarcastic, which generally endears you immediately to any Brit), but a full conversation will instantly make most people uncomfortable. I’ve even known people to make an excuse to leave the queue (“oh dear, I think I left the gas on, must pop home”) even though they still really want whatever it was they were queuing for.
And, most puzzling for visitors, don’t accept if someone offers to let you go ahead of them in the queue. This is also seen as bad manners – yes, even though the person offered. The correct way to do this is as follows:
PERSON: Would you like to go ahead of me? You’ve only got two items.
YOU: Oh no, I couldn’t possibly! I’m fine, thank you though!
PERSON: Oh go on, go ahead!
YOU: No, no!
PERSON: Yes, yes!
YOU: Oh… are you sure? Are you sure you’re sure?
PERSON: Yes, love, go ahead of me!
ME: Ohh thank you! You’re very kind! (etc etc)
You may now move forward in the queue. And this brings us on to…
6. We sometimes say things that we don’t actually mean.
I don’t mean straight-up lying (though obviously some less-than-honourable citizens will do that), but occasionally a Brit will say something to you that they don’t really mean.
It’s less shady than it sounds. Basically, we generally pride ourselves on being quite polite, and we don’t like big fusses, or anything that’ll cause a scene in public. However, this well-intentioned practice often puts us into a little bit of a corner when it comes to social interactions. What do you do when someone is lovely, but they invite you to a party that you really don’t want to go to? Or they give you some advice from the heart, but you don’t quite have the guts to say that you’d rather submerge yourself in of a vat of camel diarrhea?
It’s simple: you reply with something polite, but that you don’t really mean. It’s kind of a conversational stop-gap – we’re actually saying “you’re so nice that I don’t want to hurt your feelings by being bluntly honest, so I’m going to leave it dangling in the hope that you forget about it.”
Some excellent examples include:
“I hear what you say” = I disagree, and want to end this line of conversation.
“That’s not bad” = I like it.
“By the way…” = let’s get back to what I wanted to talk to you about in the first place.
“I almost agree” = I don’t agree at all.
Sometimes, we do genuinely mean it, though. Unfortunately, the confusion this causes is part of being British, and must be endured.
7. We don’t like to refer to football as “soccer”, even though it’s the correct name.
British football fans take the sport very seriously. Whilst football hooliganism largely belongs to the past, rivalries between teams still remain, particularly if they both happen to be located in the same area – Manchester United and Manchester City, Rangers and Celtic, Arsenal and Spurs, West Ham and Millwall, Portsmouth and Southampton. However, there is one thing that all of these agree on.
It’s called football. Not soccer. Never soccer. Even though that’s technically the correct name, and we are totally responsible for the confusion.
Back in the 1800s, the game now known as football was beginning to evolve into the form that we now know it. But at the same time, an offshoot version with egg-shaped balls, and a tendency to use hands as much as feet, was becoming popular in the prestigious Rugby school. To differentiate between the two, they became known as “association football”, and “Rugby football”, or “soccer” and “rugger” for short. Soccer was THE name for the sport, which was exported across the globe to millions of adoring fans, including across the Atlantic to the United States.
In America, the sport was known as “soccer”, and never referred to as “football”, as that confused it with the American game of the same name. However, this then caused a mini-backlash in Britain, where both “soccer” and “football” were used, because it was considered that “soccer” sounded too American. Now, unsuspecting visitors who refer to it as “soccer” immediately mark themselves out for gentle ridicule by young football fans up and down the country.
America – we’re sorry. It’s completely our fault.
8. Some British foods have really vague names.
Some foods have beautiful, simple names. They describe exactly what they are, with no need for doubt, or questioning of a waiter. Steak and ale pie – classically simple. Fish and chips – wonderfully descriptive. Sticky toffee pudding – it’s exactly what it says.
And then there are foods that make you scratch your head. You may have no idea what they are, or you might order it and receive something completely different to what you expected. They are the potential minefields of British cooking, waiting for the unsuspecting visitor. Here’s some of the confusing ones, explained at last:
Black Pudding: Not a pudding. Black blood sausage, made from pig’s blood. Often found in a Full English (see below).
Yorkshire Pudding: Also not a pudding. Batter souffle, usually accompanying roast beef on a Sunday. Very tasty when filled with gravy.
Full English: Breakfast. Usually consisting of sausages, bacon, baked beans, egg, mushroom, grilled tomato, black pudding, hash browns, and toast. Will keep you full until the evening.
Brown sauce: Often found alongside ketchup. Made with tomato, molasses, dates, apples, tamarind, spices, and vinegar. Excellent on a bacon sandwich.
Welsh Rarebit: A nicer version of cheese on toast. Contains 0% rabbit.
Scotch Eggs: A boiled egg wrapped in sausagemeat, then rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Traditional picnic food. Varieties using black pudding instead of sausagemeat are available.
Haggis: National dish of Scotland. Sheep’s heart, liver and lung, mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, and stuffed into a sheep’s stomach. Tastier than it sounds. Not popular with sheep.
Ploughmans: English cold meal containing bread, cheese, ham, salad, eggs, and a pickled onion. Contains 0% ploughman.
Toastie: British version of a grilled cheese sandwich.
Bangers and Mash: Sausages with mashed potato. Second World War sausages acquired the name “bangers”, as the water content was so high, they tended to pop when cooked.
Toad in the Hole: Sausages cooked in a bed of yorkshire pudding. Reason for the name is unknown; probably people just wanting to confuse future travellers.
9. Holding the door open for the next person is practically compulsory.
It’s human nature to pass through a door, and to let it close behind you. After all, that’s why they put those nice hinges on the doorframe, which bring it into a pleasingly-controlled descent towards being closed. However, not holding the door for the person behind you is a massive no-no in Britain.
Much like queuing, holding the door open is one of the cornerstones of British society. Those who let go of the door, blithely getting on with their lives and potentially allowing a little old lady to get smacked in the face, are tutted at in the strongest manner. There are limits to this, however – one is not expected to hold the door open indefinitely. Allowing one or two people through is normal (extra if the elderly are approaching); any more than this, and you will identify yourself as a Canadian.
10. Be nice to strangers, and shockingly rude to the people you love.
Yes, Brits are a contradiction. We will usually attempt to be unerringly polite to people we have never met, and will probably never meet again. However, it will not be unusual for a British friend to introduce an acquaintance to you using a phrase similar to “this is my mate Bob, he’s a total dickhead.”
This is because, in the eyes of the British, when you become truly familiar with someone, it allows you to drop the formal politeness of the stranger and affectionately refer to them in appalling ways. It should never be taken as an insult, but as a sign of love. This is also commonly referred to as “banter”; particular experts in the art may be acclaimed as “the Archbishop of Banterbury”.
But beware! Affectionate insults are something that will only come with time. Insulting someone too quickly will possibly result in offence, and a darkening of a Brit’s brow. Allow the Brit to insult you first: then you know that your level of friendship has achieved the exalted level of ‘banter’.
Also be aware some words may be ruder than you think. For example, your author remembers watching a DVD of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (it’s the finest Star Trek series out there, folks), and being vaguely shocked when Chief O’Brien exclaimed “bollocks!” rather loudly. This particular word refers to testicles, and should not be shouted in polite company, even if you have just lost your daughter to a time portal. Similarly, “wanker” does not mean an idiot, but ‘one who masturbates’. If in doubt, consult Urban Dictionary.
11. We don’t tip much.
There are actually relatively few situations where the visitor will be required to tip in Britain – for instance, if you try to tip your barman in a pub, you’ll generally be met with a blank look (if you really want to be nice to a barman or barmaid, offer “and one for yourself” when you’re ordering a drink).
In fact, the main situations in which you’ll be expected to leave a tip are:
Hotel porters: Tip around £2.
Taxis: Not a requirement, but most people will round their fare up to a round number. Also makes it easier for your taxi driver to give you change.
Restaurants: A tip of 10% is the maximum needed. Some places will include service on the bill.
Hairdressers: A tip of 10%, rounded to the nearest pound.
12. Cricket. You won’t understand the rules, but neither do we.
Cricket is as English as a church fete being held in a green and pleasant village green, but unless you’re talking to a passionate fan of the game, the chances are that any casual viewers will not have the faintest clue of the rules, or what is currently going on. You’ll occasionally hear scores announced on news bulletins, usually in an arcane code such as “England are 230 for 6”, which will draw appreciative murmurs or derisive tuts from those in the know, but the majority will simply look blank.
By all means, ask a local what the score is and how the game is going, but don’t expect a reply that’s any more in-depth than “I think that means they’re losing again”, unless you’ve been fortunate enough to locate a cricket fan.
I’d explain the rules to you myself, but I honestly haven’t a clue what they are.
13. Conversations about Brexit are better avoided, unless you know the person well.
Brexit remains a touchy subject in Britain, and unless you know the person you’re talking to fairly well, it’s usually better to completely avoid the topic. Tensions ran high after the vote in 2016, and it hasn’t yet abated – friendships, and even family relationships, have been broken simply by heated debates, especially if the arguers are on different sides. As a visitor, you probably won’t invoke anyone’s ire if you do ask about it, but you can certainly expect most people to talk fairly passionately about it.
Similarly, it’s never a good idea to criticise the NHS (National Health Service) – there are a few things that the British are truly proud of, but one of them is certainly the free, compassionate care provided by the NHS. To put it into perspective, being negative about the Royal Family will barely raise an eyebrow these days, but complaining about any treatment you’ve received from the NHS will never go down well. Other emergency services, such as police and fire service, are equally appreciated by the population.
14. We like to blow stuff up on 5th November.
Yes, Britain has it’s own version of the 4th of July: a special day when we’ll gather the family together, put apple-cheeked youngsters into their warmest clothes, then encourage them to set light to a bonfire with an effigy of a tortured rebel on top, their eager eyes dancing with flames.
In 1605, the Gunpowder Plot occurred – a group of dissidents decided to blow up the House of Lords (part of Parliament) during the State Opening, and put an unlucky chap named Guy Fawkes in charge of the explosives. After an anonymous letter tipped off the authorities, Fawkes was found in the cellars of building, guarding 36 barrels of highly lethal gunpowder, where presumably he protested his innocence. However, it was to no avail, as the surviving plotters were all hung, drawn and quartered. (Game of Thrones fans may want to look into Kit Harington’s ancestry for an interesting footnote to the Gunpowder Plot.)
In celebration of all this destruction, “Guy Fawkes Night” became a thing, commemorated each year on the anniversary of the plot. Fireworks are shot into the air, bonfires are burnt, effigies are lovingly constructed and just as lovingly reduced to cinders. Visit the Sussex town of Lewes for the ultimate, hardcore Bonfire Night festivities.
15. Add the tea before the milk.
- Select your tea.
- Boil the water. A good kettle is vital.
- Insert teabag into mug, Pour boiling water on to teabag.
- Remove the teabag.
- Add milk. Also add sugar at this stage.
- Congratulations! You are now prepared for life in Britain. Remember, ALWAYS tea before the milk!
Liked this survival guide? Are you now feeling confident enough to visit Britain without suffering the death of a thousand tuts? Comment below!