British Culture Social Taboos

British social taboos–what are they?   After nine months of being here, I still feel clueless.  I know that Brits generally regard Americans as louder, more arrogant, and geographically ignorant, but if we still venture out and risk making fools of ourselves, what rules might we avoid?

Before coming to the UK, I tried to read up a bit about major social do’s and don’ts.  I read that Brits frown on tardiness, overt religious references, and that they have a hard time accepting earnest compliments.   They take their tea seriously from what I can tell, no matter how manly the man, so don’t mess with their cup.   (A hilarious parody of all the herbal varieties of tea out there and manliness right here.)

I’ve noticed, in some group situations, that women will speak very quietly, often at an inaudible level.   A few other expats have remarked that British women usually adhere more to traditional female roles, and might avoid appearing aggressive, confident, or dynamic.  Of course this exists in the US too, and as a previous tomboy/princess-warrior/Tank Girl, I’ve rarely felt comfortable in traditional female environs.  In London, it’s all tights, skirts, and heels, and almost always straightened long hair.  Not so many earthy, sporty girls.

Does not worry about being nice.


Hugging.  I know that’s a no-no.  When I first met C.’s family, I asked what I should do–if I should hug them, shake hands, or do the cheek kiss.

“Nothing, he said.  “Definitely not hugging.  Don’t hug them.”

I was a little worried, as that’s how I convey warmth where I’m from.  To not even shake hands would seem cold.  It did.

The shaking hands thing seems very awkward, especially in professional or semi-professional situations.   I never know if I should shake, which would be my usual inclination, or to not shake.  If in a casual situation in the US, some folks, especially if female and shy, might not shake and that would be fine, but if one extended a hand that would rarely look weird.  I’m never sure if it looks weird here or not.

Hugging tigers: a no-brainer.

One thing I have observed is that people don’t talk about what they “do” as much as they do in the US, and they rarely ask.   Definitely appreciate this, and would even if I was working.  And no inquiries about where I went to school, which is such a big issue in the US.

I guess the other thing would be being personal in any way–making folks who are reserved uncomfortable.  I’m sure this varies from person to person, but I’ve definitely felt that I need to avoid saying anything about my life whatsoever with some sets of company.  This causes all sorts of confusion with C. and me, because he maintains that people want to get to know me, but since I can’t read people here I sometimes get self-conscious that I’m too expressive, too open, just plain too much in contrast to the English. When I get excited I talk with my hands, I raise my voice, and may even (gasp!) use fanciful language (one of C.’s favorite accusations). C. is constantly telling me “use my inside voice” and says that I exaggerate. (Gasp again.)

Along with the being too personal thing, I often feel too blunt, which is something I struggled with a lot in Richmond.  Chicagoans don’t mince words, and also being a Sagittarius (or it’s my personality if you’re one who thinks the stars don’t mean a thing), I have the tendency to tell it like it is.  I’m guessing that this is a taboo…?

I’ve also noticed that the level of formality is very different, and I might appear crass or rude by not observing the same level of formality.  For example, C.’s mom might come by for lunch or to help with something.  When parting, one of them might say “thank you ever so much for helping today,” along with a few other pleasantries.  The thanking part seems long, overdone and formal to me, especially for a family member.  I’ve experienced the same in a small interaction, say, at a small grocery store.  C. might say “thank you ever so much.”  In the US, there might be a bit of banter, and a “have a good one,” where I’m from, but not a semi-formal thank-you.  The wish of having a good evening, afternoon, etc. is something that I miss, actually, and the colloquial “take it easy,” or “take care.”  In VA, sometimes “take it easy darlin’.”

C. also gets upset if I don’t use please or thank you all the time.  Once, in a moment of total informality I said, “Gimme your camera,” trying to catch a quick shot before it was gone.  C. was offended.

While I appreciate C.’s politeness, it would just never be natural for me to say “May I please use your camera?” to my partner or spouse.  I might say  “Can I have the camera?”  It’s colloquial, relaxed language, but in C.’s family it seems that formality always remains.

What about restaurants?   I’m gluten-intolerant, and the other night I asked if I could have something without the bread, and the server seemed vexed. From what I’ve read, this makes Americans look demanding.  Obviously one should be reasonable, and all I did was ask if it was possible and when the server said no, that was fine.

The knife and fork thing seems to be a big one.  Americans often eat with just a fork, and may cut some meat with the edge of the fork, which I think is seen as sort of crude here. Here one is supposed to push food onto the fork with the knife and then take a bite with the left hand, off the fork.  Too old a dog for such new tricks?

Customer service. It’s different here, but I’m not sure how, exactly.  While trying to navigate the teacher qualification nightmare, I’ve had brush-offs by a number of people, but they were polite about it.  Truth be told, I would much rather someone be a jerk, but give me the information I wanted, without the obligation for a ten minute long thank-you.  Sometimes niceties are enjoyable, but sometimes you just want to ask a question and get an answer.

One place that has impressed me is Tesco, in that once I asked if there were any carts inside, as I ran out of hand and arm room, and the clerk went and GOT me one.   Holy schnikey–that was nice.

And then there’s eating.  Talking while eating (not with one’s mouth open, of course, but just in general)–I wonder about this one sometimes, as C.’s family is notably silent while eating.   If I say anything other than that something is tasty, I feel like I’m doing something wrong. To me it’s very awkward to eat in silence–that indicates tension, that something’s wrong.

Not eating dessert–is this terribly unpolite or just another family thing?  If one doesn’t want dessert should one prepare an effusive apology…?

The weather.  I’ve read that it’s ok for Brits to complain about it, but that if foreigners do, it’s annoying.  True?

Thanks in advance for any contribution to a chat about figuring out the British.

16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Paul Goodman
    Apr 25, 2011 @ 16:37:59

    Yes, the Brits are generally more reserved as a culture. I am a Brit in the USA so I see it the other way around. I quite like the American warmth, though I am still a Brit so I don’t do as much hugging and little of the hand gesturing.

    As far as women’s roles go, I’ve had a different experience to you, I actually find social roles a little more old-fashioned generally down here in the US South than where I was in a big British city. My American wife had a very different experience to you when she came to the UK to you, as she’d never heard women swear/curse so much before then!

    The family you mention do seem particularly reserved, however, and they maybe aren’t representitive of Brits generally.

    People in Britain do talk about what they do just as much as Americans, methinks! I suspect that you are encountering a certain sort of Brit much more than others! 😉



    • taramoyle
      Apr 25, 2011 @ 20:58:38

      Thanks Paul for the feedback. I’m sure things vary all over, both in the US and in the UK. You’re so right about the South being a different story than the US North. As I said, I had some culture shock nine years ago when moving from the Chicago area to central VA. And yes, depending on where you’re from, women can keep up with any sailor. 🙂 Hope the visa stuff is moving along and that you’re not sweltering too much down in FL yet. We’ve had full sun almost every day here in April, which is great, but I’m thinking that we’ll need some rain soon!


  2. Jacqui
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 04:27:49

    I quite agree with Paul on women’s roles. There is rampant, entrenched discrimination against women in the US. Much less in the UK. Perhaps I’ve been living in the US south too long. Also, my family in the UK are much more huggy.

    I always took flack from Americans on my use of knife and fork.

    PS – my ex said I could make a Boatswain blush!


  3. taramoyle
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 16:54:59

    Jacqui–I think a lot of it is the US south, yeah. It’s tough in terms of traditional female submissiveness, etc. l love many things about it–the lush flora, the tradition of storytelling, and appreciation of the eccentric just to name a few, but it’s not progressive in most places.


  4. Erika
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 08:50:52

    I’m so glad you wrote this post! I struggle with LOTS of the same things. I’m a hugger, I talk with my hands, I am sometimes VERY over-enthusiastic, etc. It’s funny – I’m the only American in a class full of Brits (there are three women from Cyprus, and one woman from China, and me, rounding out the international contingency) and in the beginning, I felt AWFUL most of the time, trying to tamp down my personality in order to match everyone else. But I gave up about three months ago and just decided the hell with it, I was going to be myself. Everyone teases me but what’s funny is that they all come to me for hugs. 🙂 I think that navigating the world of in-laws is a special challenge unto itself – and one that is hard no matter where in the country you are! It does sound like his family is a little more on the formal side. I’ve been welcomed to family dinners here, and have enjoyed talking while eating, it actually struck me while I was there how similar it felt to an evening in the States. So maybe it also depends on the person? So many mysteries to unravel here! In the meantime though, I’m sending you a virtual hug from Tunbridge Wells! 🙂


  5. taramoyle
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 12:29:50

    Thanks again Erika! So glad that my post rang true with you and your UK experience. I always feel so good when I go back to Chicago and talk to folks and think “Wow–I don’t feel like I’m doing anything wrong here!” Even little interactions at the coffee shop feel different. Funny how culture–national and local–permeates everything. And good for you for deciding to hell with it–you’re just going to be “the enthusiastic one.” That’s what I decided too. I can’t redo everything at this point in my life! 🙂

    Hope the school stuff’s going well!


  6. David
    Apr 29, 2011 @ 17:33:35

    Perhaps I should be in the USA!

    I am a big hugger, there is something about hugging that is just well… close.

    I’m shocked that you didn’t say please when borrowing the camera! Manners cost nothing! Shame on C for making such a big deal of it. We are a strange race when it comes to please and thank you… As far as I’m aware no other race is anywhere near as polite. Not that for one moment I want to give the impression that my manners are impeccable but by the back of my fathers hand I learned to use please and thank you.

    Give it a year or two and the subtle stuff will either come to you or everyone around you will just accept you as being strange and just introduce you to people with warnings/disclaimers.


    • taramoyle
      Apr 30, 2011 @ 14:09:03

      You should, and to get the best bear hugs, go to the Midwest. When they hug you, they mean it. 🙂 I think I am finally catching on to some things, and have just started to accept that I will stand out and that that’s ok.

      Missed you at nibble, but C. said you did a cool talk today at Barcamp. Would love to see your song list if you are sharing it to those not in attendance!


  7. David
    May 03, 2011 @ 20:58:36

    I was in Dublin for the nibble.

    BarCamp was good, the pub after was also good. C missed out on a good evening.

    My music list for the year is on:

    I’m going to try and get hold of the slides for C’s talk as I got the talk on video and want to try embedding slides in the video.


    • taramoyle
      May 05, 2011 @ 22:50:56

      Ah, hope Dublin was good. Have never been to Ireland but as it’s my homeland, am looking forward to a visit.

      Love the weekly CD! Very smart and simple idea. And at a quick glance so happy to see Nina Simone and Laura Marling there. And Joni Mitchell who is an all-time favorite. If Blue wasn’t on the list, that’s often *the* recording for hardcore fans. Did you make the list ahead of time then? I feel like music has taken a backseat in my life and I really miss it. My friends and I used to trade CDs all the time but everyone just downloads now.

      Congrats on making it through all the music!


  8. David
    May 06, 2011 @ 08:13:55

    I have a good amazon wish list which now contains Blue, thanks for the recommendation.

    I add stuff to it when I get a recommendation that sounds good/interesting. I try to order CDs so I have 1 – 3 weeks worth of CDs in advance and I try to balance it out so I’m not listening to music too similar more than a couple of weeks in a row.

    I have to say that I thought that Laura Marlings second album wasn’t anywhere near as good as “Alas I cannot Swim”.

    Dublin was very good, so many renditions of “whisky in the jar”.


    • taramoyle
      May 06, 2011 @ 10:42:49

      Good idea re. the wish list. I’ve got a long one of books there. I used to have a great “music to buy” list going on Pandora, which you may have used before it was blocked. I don’t have Marling’s albums but have just heard a sampling of songs. Love “Rambling Man,” which also has a gorgeous video. Do you like Beth Orton’s stuff? You might if you don’t know it. Similar to Marling. Comfort of Strangers a good album, with “Shopping Trolley” & “Heartland Truck Stop.”


  9. David
    May 06, 2011 @ 10:56:45

    Added Comfort of Strangers by Beth Orton to Wishlist.

    I used to use pandora, but defected to, far more friendly to the UK audience.


  10. Angie
    May 20, 2011 @ 14:11:47

    Your husband’s family sound a lot more formal than any I know. Also all my friends and family talk at mealtimes, it is a social event after all. You shouldn’t have to change who you are, if people don’t like it tough.


    • taramoyle
      May 28, 2011 @ 23:30:32

      That’s what I’m gathering Angie. I think they are a bit more formal, yeah. And I’m starting to realize that I’ll never be that formal, and that I’ll probably say or do the “wrong” thing most of the time, and so be it. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and sending a note! Tara


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