What is British culture? It’s a good question - especially in a city as cosmopolitan and diverse as London where etiquette and manners can be fascinating and complex.
Because of this, picking it all up can sometimes be disorienting, especially for international transplants. But have no fear. We’ve put together this quick and simple guide. Read on to learn everything you need to know - for current residents, those moving into our Wembley Park apartments and those just starting to explore what London has to offer.
What is British etiquette?
‘British etiquette’ might make you think of old-school manners - the upper class as presented in TV shows like Downton Abbey.
The reality, though, is both a lot less regimented and a lot more interesting. You shouldn’t feel the need to behave like a member of the royal family - in fact, most Brits would find too much formality stiff and a bit strange.
There are important basics, though, like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, apologising with a quick ‘sorry’ if you bump into someone and, famously, waiting your turn in a queue. And there are, of course, more specific things to know when spending time in the UK, whether you’re moving to London or just visiting, which you’ll find below.
British vs American words: What to watch out for
While it would be impossible to list every single difference between British and American English, ones to remember include:
Colloquial language is often different in British English than it is in American English. For example:
- Banter is the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks
- Score means £20
- Quid is slang for a pound
If you’re using written English, it’s also worth remembering that words like colour and flavour are spelt with a ‘u’ (Americans would go without - think color and flavor).
Don’t stress too much, though - thanks to American films and TV, most will know what you mean when you use Americanisms.
London etiquette you should be aware of
1. London escalator etiquette
When it comes to escalators, the correct way to behave can be summed up very simply: stand on the right.
Despite a frankly inordinate number of signs saying just this, it’s not uncommon to see an unfortunate tourist barrelled out of the way by an irate local commuter. Stand on the right, walk on the left.
2. London pub etiquette
In general, you won’t go wrong by being polite to others and avoiding getting too drunk. Be respectful of other customers and staff, and you’ll be fine.
One thing worth nothing, though, is the practice of buying ‘rounds’. The principle is simple: if someone buys you a drink, you buy them one back.
When buying rounds, the first person to order a drink gets one for everyone in the group. Each member of the group then does the same, until everyone has bought the same number of drinks.
You should be careful in large groups, though, as this can get expensive - and commit you to drinking more than you otherwise might.
3. London tipping etiquette
Unlike some other things on this list, tipping still has an uncertain place in British culture. Some embrace it as a thoughtful way to show appreciation, while others decry it as an unwelcome American import that adds to bills and does little to help workers.
We won’t get into any of that here, though. What we will do is tell you what you need to know to make sure you don’t accidentally offend anyone.
Firstly, tipping is not expected for most services. While there are, of course, some not mentioned here, the following list is a good guide to who you’ll be expected to tip in London:
- Waiters in table-service restaurants
- Taxi drivers
- Hotel porters
In most cases, a tip of 10% is considered low but acceptable, with anything above 15% considered high.
Many restaurants will add a service charge onto your bill. On the other hand, while bars and cafes may have tip jars, there’s no expectation that you’ll contribute - staff will be very welcome for your spare change, but there’s no obligation to give it.
For taxi drivers, the 10-15% figure is a good rule of thumb, though many locals often just round up the fare - a ‘keep the change’ approach.
Hotel cleaning staff won’t expect a tip, but it’s not rare for guests to leave an amount of their choice as a reward for good service.
4. London Underground etiquette
Ah, the Underground. An instantly recognisable symbol of London life and the oldest urban metro system in the world. With its first stations opened in 1863 and electric trains running on its lines since 1890, the Underground remains an astonishing feat of engineering, and one of the best ways to get around the UK’s bustling and cosmopolitan capital city.
With a daily ridership of nearly 2.5 million in February 2022 and a total of up to 5 million journeys each day, it’s also busy, and sometimes stressful.
To ensure your journeys around the city go smoothly, it’s important to be considerate of your fellow passengers. This includes:
- Not eating smelly food
- Not staring or making eye contact
- Moving down inside the carriage
- Letting passengers off before boarding
- Not blocking the doors
- Giving up your seat to elderly and pregnant people and those less able to stand
We hope you’ve found this guide helpful. Before you leave, though, there is one final piece of advice: don’t take these rules too seriously.
While it can be fun to point out all the little things that make a society unique, what’s really important is often far simpler. Be considerate. Remember that other people aren’t obstacles but, well, people. As long as you’re respectful and aware, the rest will come naturally.
So don’t be intimidated. Instead, be excited, and explore our Wembley Park apartments to find the right place for you.