10 Unwritten Rules of British Culture
“I’m like my mother, I stereotype. It’s faster.” — Ryan Bingham, Up in The Air.
1. Dry Humor — It bears repeating the British communication default is dry wit. When in doubt, presume irony. This indirectness is often compared to a teakettle; always on, whistling inconspicuously in the corner and tough to switch off. It is invariably met with perplexity.
2. Small Talk — There is no real purpose for the “polite procrastination” phase of the conversation preceding the “real conversation”. This is merely a displacement skill (usually about the weather) that cleverly avoids undue intimacy.
3. Taking the Mick (or piss) — I cannot stress the importance of not being earnest enough. No Englishman would be caught dead feigning sincerity. Self-importance is strictly forbidden, be prepared to have them “take the Mick out of you” (teasing).
4. Restraint — The British are unreservedly, reserved. While they do not display much emotion, their humanity can be inestimable. However, British emotional unresponsiveness hovers somewhere around underwhelming. Pomposity is just plain mortifying. Perhaps all this attention deflection compensates for all that, uh-hem, empire-building, not to mention that unnerving social class pecking order business.
5. Understated — London may be one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it’s unlikely you’ll find many signs of recognizable wealth (much less royalty). That international reputation for dressing badly in dowdy tweeds — Saville Row tailors, monarchical costumes, and theatrical costumes notwithstanding — is nothing but a clever decoy for their entry in Burke’s Peerage, because class and status matter, immensely.
6. Ambiguity — While it can be said that the British practically invented manners and politeness, this confuses communication. Direct questions get evasive responses and conversation is fraught with ambiguity. Inured by this Kabuki dance, the befuddled listener must ‘listen loudly’ to distinguish what is being said from what is meant by interpreting subtle facial expressions and tone of voice.
7. Competition — The English are without a doubt competitive. They’re just not in your face about it. Don’t mistake their tendency of fairness for weakness. After all, Britannia was an empire on which the sun never set for 500 years.
8. Nationalistic — The island geography produces a certain isolationist mentality (not unlike New York, although neither would admit to it).
9. None of the above — The new schizophrenic Brit can take the form of “Reluctant Modernizer” or “Frantic Modernizer,” one of which the Ladies of London most assuredly falls.
10. Geography — The U.K. means the United Kingdom of England, (Northern) Ireland, Scotland and Wales, so being English and British are not the same. English means people from England, only. People from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are British. The Scots and Scottish are from Scotland. People from Northern Ireland are also called Irish. Anyone from Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are likely to be offended if you call them English.