Every society has its own hidden and unwritten rules, cultural
restrictions and taboos that can be easily understood and followed by its
members, but need to be explained to foreigners. As a matter of fact, these
rules can be very different from country to country and what seems normal to
someone can be strange to someone else. These differences are what create the commonly
shock”, a range
of emotions that make travellers and, especially, people moving to another
country feel confused and disoriented. The United Kingdom is not an exception.
British culture is indeed characterized by many unique rules that guide the
behaviour of its members.
Kate Fox, a social anthropologist and co-director at the Social Issues
Research Centre in Oxford, in 2004 published Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. With
this book, she tries to determine the quintessence of Englishness and, therefore,
discover all the behavioural rules that make the English what they are and that
distinguish them from others. To do this, throughout her research, she followed
a method called “participant observation” which means that she
participated in the life and culture of English people to gain an
perspective, but, at the same time, she observed them in a detached and
From Kate Fox’s observation it seems clear that one of the main characteristic of
English people, or, at least of the majority of them, is being socially
inhibited, excessively reserved and awkward in building relationships. The “English reserve”, is, in fact, a well-known phenomenon
easily noticeable to every foreigner visiting the country and it is often
interpreted as coldness.
“social dis-ease” and individuality
Kate Fox concludes her book, Watching
the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour (2004), with a diagram
showing which are the defining characteristics of Englishness (English cultural
According to her, its central core is what she calls “social dis-ease” and defines as a shorthand term for the
social inhibitions of English people and refers, also, to the awkwardness and
embarrassment that leads them to a sense of discomfort and incompetence in the
field of social interactions and so to a lack of relationships. Moreover, Kate
Fox believes that the general disinclination of the English of showing emotions
and feeling, which is known as “English reserve”, and their obsession with privacy are two of the symptoms of this
However, she believes that this is treatable and that there are
ways of dealing with it: with the use of props and facilitators that allows
them to break the ice and interact with others, overcoming their awkwardness by
masking, at the same time, their social incompetence, or retreating in their
Weather-talk, for example, is one of the social facilitators the
author describes along with others such as pubs, clubs, pets etc. To foreigners
the English obsession with weather is difficult to understand and is very strange,
but for them it is extremely important. In fact, every of their conversation
seems to begin with it as it helps them overcome their embarrassment and reserve
start talking with each other.
Also, she connects their obsession with nestbuilding and privacy
sensitivity to their typical characteristics of social inhibition, reticence
and embarrassment as, to compensate their lack in social skill, English people
love to retreat to the protectiveness and security of their own homes because behind
the doors they do not have to worry about it. Therefore, the English consider
their houses as castles and, in fact, home improvement for them is
not a simple hobby, but it is, also, regarded as a necessary activity for the
destruction of any evidence of the previous owner and, in a sense, to mark the
house as theirs.
Moreover, English houses are characterized by a lack of indication
as house numbers are often hidden and follow an illogical order, making it
difficult, especially for a foreigner, to find a house one is looking for.
Probably, even this has to do with their mania with privacy.
As showed by Kate Fox’s research, the English are, indeed, very
private people and have difficulty with social interaction. As a matter of
fact, British culture is highly individualistic and is, for this reason, called
a low context culture as opposed to the high context ones. These terms represent
the two main dimensions (individualism and collectivism) used to explain differences
between cultural groups and were first introduced in 1976 with the publication
of the book, Beyond Culture, written by
Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher.
According to Hall’s definitions of these concepts, a high context culture values
tradition, long lasting relationships and the group harmony. Since it
emphasizes the belonging of individuals in a group and, also, encourages
conformity while discouraging individuals from standing out, a high context culture
is defined as collectivistic.
On the other hand, a low context culture is characterized by
valuing short-term relationships and by being more individualistic, meaning
that the individual needs are considered to be more important than the group
harmony. Therefore, individualism is a dimension of a culture that has to do
with whether people regard themselves primarily as individuals than as a part
of a group by emphasizing personal freedom, accomplishment and every action
that make an individual stand out. As a matter of fact, in low context
cultures, as the United Kingdom, children are taught from an early age to think
for themselves as the route to happiness is only through personal fulfilment.
The concepts of high and low context cultures refer, also, to the
way people communicate. In the case of high context cultures communication is
implicit and very few words are necessary as they are replaced by the use of
contextual elements such as body language, tone of voice etc. Instead, in low
context cultures communication has to be explicit and the message is
communicated almost entirely with words. This type of communication is typical
of societies where people tend to have many connection, but of a short
showing UK’s individuality
As we have already discussed, English people are known to be more
socially reserved than other cultures; they do not talk to strangers or make
friends easily. Communication is often brief and limited. These factors are,
probably, some of the causes of their lack of communication with other people
and, also, with their neighbours.
British people are, in fact, barely friends with them.
A new YouGov research looks at the realities of neighbourhood life
in Britain, revealing that only one in four British people would call their
neighbours good friends. Few say they
get on badly with people who live near them and the majority of British people
say they speak to them every week. However, the vast majority (65%) say they
would not call any of their neighbours ‘good friends’ and an even greater majority (67%) have
not invited any of them into their house for a meal or a drink in the past
year. Obviously, this varies by location. Only 32% of people living in urban
areas know all of their nearest neighbours’ names, while in rural areas 51% do, and
in town 47% do. Regarding the different
areas of Great Britain, Wales and the North are the most neighbourly areas,
with 32% and 31% respectively calling their neighbours good friends compared to
26% in the south, 21% in Scotland and only 19% in London.
Age is also very important to explain a decline in neighbourliness.
Fully 44% of over-60s would call their neighbours good friends and 46% have had
neighbours round for a meal or drink. However, there is a significant
difference between over-60s and the middle-aged generation. In fact, only 26%
of 40-59-year olds would call their neighbours good friends.
According to an article published on The Guardian website, in a
survey and a follow-up social experiment carried out to mark the 50th
anniversary of the Neighbourhood Watch network, people were asked about their
connection with their local community. During this month-long experiment, the
participants, who all lived on suburban Lingard Road in Manchester, had to
smile at people in the street, offer help where they could and try to start a
conversation. Although several reported “strange looks” and some
initial reserve, by the end of the four weeks all the Lingard Road participants
reported success. One of the participants, Jay Crawford, said that this study
was successful because people he never met before started being a bit more
Kate Fox, director at the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford,
believes that even very small gestures such as a hello, can have a significant
positive effect on a neighbourhood. Moreover, according to her, this social
experiment confirmed her own findings about the misleading stereotype of the
English reserve. She thinks that English people are reserved, but not in the
sense of unsociable, as they also have a need of belonging in a group. They are
only a bit more socially awkward than others.
Now let’s talk about the rules of behaviour on public transport. According
to Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English: the hidden rules of
English behaviour (2004), the main mechanism on public transport is called “denial”, which requires people to avoid talking
to strangers, or even making eye contact with them. It is considered entirely normal
for the English to make their morning and evening train journeys with the same
group of people for many years without ever exchanging a word. As the author
explained, almost all of the commuters said that even a brief nod might
constitute a drastic escalation of intimacy.
When the interviewer asked about a brief chat with a fellow
commuter, he noticed that the problem is that if you did it once you might be
expected to exchange polite words with them every day, and if you have nothing
in common, these conversations would be highly awkward and embarrassing.
Curiously, eye contact in public space in England is never more than a fraction
of a second. If you meet a stranger’s eyes, you must look away immediately,
probably because to maintain eye contact may be interpreted as flirtation or
Subsequently, the author talks about “the moan exception”. The moan exception to the denial rule
commonly happens when something goes wrong, such as a train delayed or
cancelled. On these occasions, English passengers become aware of each other’s life, making eye contact or saying
something. They exchange smiles, shrugs, and brief comments such as “Huh, typical!”, or “Oh, now what?”.
However, commuters know that this is a temporary suspension of the
denial rule. They can have a brief exchange of words without being obligated to
talk to their fellow the next morning. After that, silence is resumed, and
everyone can go back to ignoring each other.
When is socially
acceptable to talk to a stranger?
In all societies, places where people can meet to talk
or have a drink together are part of the social life. However, the English pub
is more than that. It is a place with an important social function and is frequently
the focus of community life in villages and cities all over the nation. As a
matter of fact, the primary function of drinking places is, indeed,
facilitating social bonding. As Kate Fox states in her book, Watching the English: the hidden rules of
English behaviour (2004), the pub
is the only place where English people are more likely to begin a conversation
with a stranger since it is a special environment where normal rules of privacy
are suspended. To fully understand what a British pub is, it is important to
look at its social rules.
One thing that often surprises tourists is that there
is no table service, and, like every other aspect of pub etiquette, the no
waiter-service system is set to encourage sociability. Indeed, having to go to
the bar for your drinks, provides plenty of opportunities for social contact
between customers. In fact, waiter service can confine people at separate
tables, which makes it more problematic to socialize with others. It is much
easier to have a casual chat while waiting at the bar, than trying to have a
conversation with people seated at another table, which is even considered
rude. Also, it is customary for one or two people, on behalf of the whole
group, to go to the bar to order drinks. Other members of the group should go
and sit down at a table. Anyway, before you can order, you must follow the
correct bar counter etiquette.
Another important aspect of the pub is that it is the
only place that seems to lack the typical British queuing, but the queue is still
there, as the bar staff are conscious of each person’s position in the “invisible” queue. You need to attract their attention in such a
way that makes it obvious that you are waiting to be served, without making any
noise or gesticulation. Instead, simply make eye contact with the
Also, in British pubs there is no tipping. The usual
practice is, instead, to offer the bar staff a drink. The social structure of
the pub is egalitarian: to give a tip is to treat them as “inferiors”, whereas to offer a drink is
to treat them as equals. To understand this singular aspect of pub etiquette,
you need to understand the British attitude towards money. The British tend to
be embarrassed about money and an excessive interest in money is considered
Besides pubs, gardens play an important role in
everyday British life. Britain is, in fact, a nation of gardening and gardens
are always well maintained. According to an article written on The Telegraph by
Debora Robertson, gardening is seen as escape from everyday life. It is a good
way to make time pass faster and, in addition, gardening can also ease stress
and benefit physical and mental health. As a matter of fact, it’s prescribed by doctors for patients with cancer,
dementia and depression.
As explained by Kate Fox in her book, a typical British
house often have a small garden at the front and a larger one at the back.
While the backyard is often delimited by a high wall, in order to prevent
neighbours from looking inside and is more private and casual, the front yard
is characterized by a low wall and is generally more cared. Nevertheless,
British people prefer to spend their time in the back garden where no one can
see them. Conventionally, they consider the back garden as their own private
On the contrary the front is frequently developed as a
display garden for others to admire and enjoy. It is used to display elements
such as garden gnomes. These are not yards to sit and relax, and you would be
considered odd if you stand there without looking busy. Furthermore, a person
standing in the front garden is regarded as socially “available” and, therefore, more likely
to be stopped for a chat by neighbours, who, otherwise, would never dare knock
on the door since it is regarded as intrusion.
. In conclusion,