3 British social puzzles we foreigners take time to crack
Diana Voxerbrant is a straight talking Swede with a passionate Polish heart, and a proud multinational Londoner. She’s a writer at The Story Desk and runs Sultan Decorators in Muswell Hill. Follow her on Twitter or Insta.
After over a decade in this country I kind of know the answers to these questions already, but it certainly would have helped me when I was a new Londoner to know the proper answers. So I asked my friend Victoria at Perfect Cuppa English to explain these 3 mysteries which puzzled me as a newcomer to London.
- Why do English people ask you how you are if they don’t want to hear the answer? I’m almost compulsively honest and have a terrible morning temper. It’s really hard to answer something positive every school run.
It’s all part of the ritual of opening the conversation in the UK. It’s not a genuine question at this stage, and we always expect the answer to “How are you?” to be “Fine, and you?”
We then get into the main part of the conversation and properly find out how the other person is at this stage.
We don’t expect personal details though! Replying in minute detail about your illnesses, marital problems & anything private is likely to embarrass a British person, unless you know them very well, or they ask for more details.
At most, if we are feeling unwell, we might say we are “a bit under the weather”. Remember to throw in your weather talk as well at the start of the conversation ritual to come across as a real British pro, e.g. “it’s a bit hot/ sunny/ rainy/ chilly today (delete as appropriate), isn’t it?”
- Fundraising and charity – why do I have to dress up all the time? There is Red Nose Day, Halloween, Spotty Day and a marathon for every occasion. I still remember the terror when my son’s nursery sent a text that they should dress as Oompa Loompas the following week. Why can’t we just do charity without sewing and baking skills?
The British are pretty passionate fundraisers, and there is a constant stream of local events via schools, clubs & groups, as well as big national events like Red Nose Day or Children in Need day.
Despite the image of the stiff upper lip and being reserved, the British have a real desire to let their hair down and dress up at any opportunity, and really don’t mind wandering around the streets in the craziest of clothes. This is not only for charity & fundraising events, but also includes hen & stag dos, some birthday celebrations (even for adults), and sports team events. Ever seen a rugby team all dressed up as Amy Winehouse? I have!
Also don’t forget that fundraising includes obligatory cake baking & extreme sugar consumption, all in the name of charity!
3. Pub culture – buying rounds etc. how does it work? I used to be mortified when my Swedish friends couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that you can’t buy only one drink for yourself in the pub. Especially after being part of several rounds. Nowadays I struggle with pubs because I barely drink any alcohol.
If you’re invited out for a drink with British people, please go! It’s an important part of any social interaction, there is no obligation to drink alcohol, and it’s a great way to get to know your colleagues/ friends better.
So let’s pretend you’re meeting your friends in a pub. We usually meet on time/ just after the time scheduled. Being 10-15 mins late is acceptable but any later might be considered a bit rude unless you had an emergency and do let people know you’re running late.
You usually have to go to the bar to order, and we take turns to buy the drinks for everybody else. You might say “it’s my shout”, or “it’s my round” when you’re offering to buy for the rest of the group.
When you get there, you can of course order lager, wine, soft drinks, or whatever you fancy but why not try a local ale or bitter? Local breweries include Camden Town and Meantime brewery. You don’t have to order an alcoholic drink every time, but usually it’s polite to have something to drink. If not everybody gets a chance to buy a round that night, then we try to remember that for next time we get together.
Pub chat is ritualised as well and we like a good moan: about the weather (whether it’s hot or cold!), the government/ politics/ Brexit, the tube etc. And it’s really important to agree with the group point of view when they are having a moan! Don’t try to disagree!
I know the headline says 3 puzzles, but I’m going to have to be awfully un-British and add a 4th one:
- Why are the Brits so terrified of disagreement and conflict? Surely debate is healthy for democracy and, dare I write it, fun?
We get nervous of disagreement and worry that it might hurt the other person’s feelings, it might lead to an embarrassing or awkward situation, or worst of all it might seem impolite. If in doubt or when the stakes are high we might avoid the disagreement by saying nothing or find a softer way to introduce the negative opinion.
For examples phrases like, “I see where you are coming from but…” or “Sorry, but I am not sure about that”, or even “Can I get back to you later?” (when I can send you negative feedback by email, rather than in person).
Thanks so much Victoria, I know I’m turning slightly British when I even say “please” and “excuse me” when asking my cat to move out of the way. But I’m not fussy about how I like my tea!
Let’s do this again soon!
Victoria Rennoldson is a real Brit & Londoner, passionate about helping people to speak English naturally & confidently, get the real meaning in British communication and understand British people better.
She is the founder of Perfect Cuppa English, offering private English Language & Culture courses, for everyday and business. You can chat to her here: [email protected], or stay in touch via Facebook or Instagram.