United Kingdom cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
The single most important thing to be aware of when visiting the UK for the first time is the sheer diversity of cultures that you will come across. It is essential not to assume anything about a person’s culture, heritage, or background.
Work is a fine topic for discussion, a lot of first time conversations start with "where do you work, or what do you do?" It is important when starting a conversation with someone that you do not intrude. If they do not seem forthcoming on a topic then do not go digging, this will not endear you to them. Change tack, go for a new topic, and if all else fails, talk about the weather. In the UK we like to talk about the weather even more than you do in Canada. Where are you from is a tough question to ask in the UK, as it can be seen as culturally insensitive. Better to ask something like, "where have you travelled?" Simple advice, avoid discussing politics, sex and religion until you know someone well, these can make for sticky conversations.
You will come across humour in many different settings—work place, the pub, other social settings etc. It is important to understand that the British are capable of really insulting themselves and finding this really funny. We would not find it so funny if an outsider did the same thing. Irony is a mainstay of British humour, look out for people using this quite a lot.
It would be more appropriate to initially ask about someone’s family or where they are from than to ask them about their job. There isn’t the same tendency in the UK to ask people what they do the moment you meet them and doing so may be regarded as impersonal.
When meeting people for the first time in the UK it is best to ask people where they are from rather than making an assumption and, for instance, mistaking a Scottish or Irish person for an English person. This may cause offence. Along the same lines, referring to the whole United Kingdom as England, or referring to UK citizens as "the English" will also offend Scottish or Irish people. Certainly a good safe opening topic often used by people in the UK is the weather.
In terms of topics to be avoided, it is probably best never to open a conversation about religion, politics, or for that matter, football rivalries.
As for the use of humour this is always a good icebreaker but if people aren’t used to your accent they may not get your joke.
Standing too close to someone can really put them off. Keep your distance to about 2 feet or more. Do make eye contact with people. It is important not to seem distracted while addressing someone. If you are talking to a group, then make eye contact with all people, and do not focus your attention on one person alone. While being addressed, maintain a certain amount of eye contact, but do not stare at the person talking.
Touching while talking to someone is generally something that the British do not do. You will meet people who do this, but it would not be advisable when first meeting someone.
In terms of gestures and facial expressions, keep them small. Over egging a gesture can always come across as aggressive behaviour. It is important to keep a balance between directness and rudeness. Avoid putting people on the spot too much in communications.
Canadians and UK citizens have similar preferences regarding personal space, the use of eye contact, and whether or not to touch someone while speaking to them. The only communication issues that may arise will stem from different accents, expressions, and use of vocabulary words. People in the UK like to laugh at "Canadianisms" such as calling rubbish "garbage", or a favourite, referring to trousers as "pants", pants in the UK referring only to underpants.
Display of emotion
Public displays of emotions are something that is on the increase in the UK, though still better to err on the side of caution here. As a general rule, the British would keep emotions hidden from public view as they can make others uncomfortable. With the advent of reality television, the UK is becoming more accustomed to seeing such displays, though they are still not common outside of this setting.
Rudeness is not tolerated in the UK and great importance is placed on being polite and friendly at all times, even under stress. Outbursts of anger are very uncommon and public displays of affection are acceptable in the same contexts as they are in Canada. You might see some public outbursts if a lot of drink (alcohol) is involved. People in the UK are more likely to intervene if an incident occurs in a public place, at the very least by commenting on what has happened to their neighbour. The only unusual expressions of affection you may experience will be when older ladies you don’t even know call you love, sweetie, or duck.
Dress, punctuality & formality
There are distinct sectors in the UK workplace: central government, local government, charity, business, & trade.
Most employment will be in one of these categories. As a general rule, Central Government & Business are the more formal settings, though this can stretch into the higher echelons of local government too. The other settings tend to be less formal in both dress codes and general dealings. When interviewing for a post, do not be afraid to ask about the dress code. Recent years have seen a relaxation in the rules that saw countless thousands in suits with bowler hats. One thing to note is that it is very uncommon to wear shorts in the workplace.
When addressing colleagues/supervisors it is best to start off fairly formally, avoiding humour. However, do listen for irony in response, this will help you to set your boundaries. Relationships are often very different outside of work. Do not be surprised to find the supervisor socialising with other employees. There will be strictly different working and social relationships. Do not assume that because you were socialising with a supervisor that your working relationship will have changed.
Punctuality is very important in the UK. "Time is money, etc." Continued tardiness, absenteeism, or the missing of deadlines will not be looked upon favourably.
The same importance is placed on punctuality in the UK as it is in work settings in Canada. The same norms also apply in terms of relating to superiors i.e., take your cues regarding familiarity from them. When it comes to dress, err on the side of formality in the workplace. Some professions may dress more smartly than we do in Canada; for example, it is rare to find a male primary or secondary teacher at work without a tie. School uniforms are still very much the norm in the UK for primary and secondary school students.
Preferred managerial qualities
The most highly regarded qualities in a manager are being hard working; a worker will like to see that the manager is working as hard as they are. Being approachable is key too. There is nothing like a closed door to get people talking about a manager. The UK workplace can (and is) very often the place where most gossiping happens. A manager that has no secrets and is open with his/her employees will keep this gossip down to a minimum.
An expat manager will face the same challenges that a UK manager will face. It is usual for there to be at least one expat manager or employee in a workplace, or to know someone who does, so it is not unusual at all.
You will only know how your staff view you if you instil trust in them and forge an open relationship. If they are working hard for you, coming to you with issues and are generally of a friendly disposition towards you then it is likely that you are doing alright. Start to worry when the staff stop consulting you.
Having a superior who is highly personable is very well regarded in the UK and socialising takes place between management and employees. There appears to be a distinct line drawn between work and social relationships that makes it possible to go out in the evening as a workplace without jeopardising in-work hierarchies and relationships.
A non-local manager or supervisor would be regarded much as any new manager who came in from outside an organization—if it became clear that your education and particularly your experience made you the best person for the job, you would be well regarded. Qualities such as openness and honesty, along with efficiency and reliability will be highly valued.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions are made at all levels. The important thing here is to know where your decision- making boundaries are. If you are not sure then it is best to ask.
Ideas on the other hand can be generated at any level at any time, though it will be down to the working relationship that you have with your supervisor to determine how far and in whose name these ideas appear.
It is acceptable, and advisable to approach your line manager for answers and feedback. Again, the advice here is that if you are unsure, then ask.
Ideas are generated and implemented by people with decision-making power. It would be most appropriate to approach your immediate supervisor first for answers and feedback and to go to higher ups on their recommendation or with their knowledge.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
On the whole there is equality here. Though in some institutions women are still either paid less (I.E. Wimbledon tennis champions) or excluded (some conservative clubs). This is an issue that is challenged on a regular basis and can be discussed openly with people.
The UK is very tolerant in terms of religion. The majority exist in relative harmony. However there are sometimes incidents between Catholics and Protestants in some areas of Scotland and in Northern Ireland. Other religious issues have come to light over the last few years. Be careful when discussing this topic.
Many would like to believe that this does not exist in the UK. Class does not go hand in hand with money; it has a lot to do with families and schooling etc. In the average workplace this should not be an issue.
On the whole, ethnicity is less of a social issue than it was 10 years ago. Racial incidents do still rear their heads every so often, but they are isolated.
Attitudes regarding gender equality are very similar to what they are in Canada, or if anything more liberal. It is not uncommon in the UK to have a female as a superior. At the same time, the same concentration of females and males in traditional jobs such as secretarial work and construction occurs in the UK as it does in Canada.
Given the long and turbulent history of Northern Ireland and its impact on the psyche in the UK it is best to avoid the subject of religion. It isn’t likely to create conflict but why open yourself to the possibility of offending someone or starting an argument. Religious events (mainly those which are Catholic or Protestant in origin) may cause strong feelings.
In general there is less social mobility in the UK because social class is more easily identifiable by for example, how someone speaks. People are more class conscious than Canadians and would be more likely to self identify as for example, working class. Old social hierarchies are no longer of relevance to the majority of people in the UK but if you move in some circles you may feel they are still in place.
A distinction must be made here between people from different ethnic background who are settled and integrated into the UK and recently arrived refugees and immigrants. For the vast majority of people racial slurs are seen as unacceptable and people from different ethnic backgrounds are well integrated into life in the UK. Negative attitudes are held by a small minority of the population toward recently arrived refugees in the UK.
There may be divides in the workplace but these are more likely to exist between management and staff rather than between different ethnic or religious groups. In some cases, there will be a correlation between class differences and holding different positions within an organization, but any person would be accepted into any position in the workplace as long as they have the appropriate qualifications and skills.
Breaking the ice before a business meeting is a good idea and will make everyone more comfortable and able to talk freely. Niceties (such as, "have you travelled far to get to this meeting?", "Nice weather for it today!") are a good way of breaking the ice before a business meeting. In this way you will establish a relationship before starting to talk about the serious stuff.
This is important because of the reserved nature of the British as a whole. We will not be likely to divulge personal information before a business meeting, or on a first meeting, so you would need to pick a topic that does not intrude at all; Weather, Travel, Sport, etc.
It is important to establish a personal relationship with colleagues and clients before getting down to business but in a down to earth manner rather than by employing a slick or rehearsed approach. People in the UK tend to be intolerant of a social spiel and may regard slickness as insincerity. A pub lunch is a good context for beginning a business relationship and could be suggested as an alternative to meeting in an office setting.
Privileges and favouritism
It is unlikely that people would expect special treatment, and usually this would make UK people quite embarrassed and uncomfortable. However, there is such a thing as the "old boys network" where this is the norm, so it will happen.
I would not recommend this type of behaviour at all. Though you might be put in the position of having to make such a decision if a superior indicates that you should. Then it would be your own judgement call.
UK Human Resource laws usually make this impossible, and are being implemented more stringently across the private sector to stop this type of behaviour.
Nepotism in the workplace will be frowned upon and there is a strong sense in the UK of the importance of fair play. At the same time different workplaces have varying cultures regarding hiring practices etc. As an outsider working in the UK you will lose your neutrality if you are seen to favour certain people or groups in your workplace.
Conflicts in the workplace
This really does depend on the relationship that you have with the individual. It is usually best to approach the individual first, as it would seem like "telling tales" if you go straight to a supervisor/manager. I would only recommend doing this if you have tried approaching the person directly and this has failed.
Always do things in private at the work place—it is never good to publicly humiliate, or berate someone.
Look for signs of frustration in others, such as exasperation in their expression, or general withdrawal from conversation and then association with you. It is a good idea to approach the person involved here, and ask for feedback. Do not be afraid to ask for feedback, it is often the best way to sort problems out before they get worse.
Generally speaking, a private confrontation would be the first step and if a conflict cannot be resolved other people might have to be involved. Going public right away or going above a colleague’s head without speaking with them first would not be well regarded. You would know if someone is having problems with you if they avoid you or are friendly in a perfunctory manner.
Motivating local colleagues
This is impossible to answer generally. All sorts of things in the work place motivate people. You can often infer someone’s motivators by where they work. A person working in a Multinational Bank is often motivated by money. Those working in the charity sector, are rarely motivated by money. A person who is working in a central government office is often motivated by politics and power. Those in local government are less motivated by power and more by issues.
I think that in the South of England, and in capital cities such as Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast people can be motivated by money, though this is largely out of necessity as it is more expensive to live in these areas. In other areas people can be motivated by job satisfaction and working conditions more. Though as previously said, it is impossible to generalise about this topic.
In the business sector all over the UK people are reported to be motivated by a fear of failure. This sector has been particularly cutthroat over the last decade and a lot of people have been put out of a job.
People are motivated to perform well by factors such as job satisfaction, personal commitment, money, loyalty, good working conditions, and fear of failure but maybe the two most important motivators are good working conditions coupled with good pay. In general, people in the UK are less tolerant of work encroaching on their social lives than Canadians are. Asking people to do work in the evenings or over weekends if they are not accustomed to doing so will not be popular.
Recommended books, films & foods
Any book by Nick Hornby—Nick Hornby’s books always have a British cultural edge to them and can reveal a lot about society’s little foibles. Other good authors and books to read are; J.K.Rawlings’ Harry Potter; Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy; Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia; Zadie Smith White Teeth; Irvin Welsh’s Trainspotting; Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, the Bronte’s Jane Austen. There is a multitude of British Authors, or books on British culture to read. To get a broad spectrum and a good idea of British culture today and why it has been formed in such a way I would choose Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde, or four similar books.
Here is a top ten of British films that give a great and diverse cultural perspective: Bend It Like Beckham, Die Another Day (You should see one James Bond movie), The Italian Job (Original 1960’s version with Michael Caine—A British cultural Cult classic), Trainspotting, About A Boy, Hope and Glory (post WWII London), Pride & Prejudice, Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter, Henry V and Four Weddings & a Funeral.
www.visitbritain.com, www.travelengland.org.uk/, www.visitscotland.com, www.visitwales.co.uk/, www.discovernorthernireland.com/, www.britishcouncil.org, www.bbc.co.uk http://www.daysoutatlas.co.uk/, www.blackpresence.co.uk/html/uk.htm, and http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/ .
Books to read
To find restaurants try The Time Out Eating and Drinking Guides. If you like mysteries try Ruth Rendell, or P.D. James. If you have children they are probably already reading Harry Potter. If you like science fiction you could try Iain M. Banks. Lots more authors found on the website recommended below.
Lots of recent popular movies have come out of the UK, including Waking Ned Devine, Secrets and Lies, Billy Elliot, The Van, The Full Monty, and 24 Hour Party People.
There are only five channels in the UK but lots of quality programming. There are many many cooking shows and game shows -- game shows are so popular they even air in prime time. If you want to sample British TV, the following programs are available in Canada: Coronation Street, Frost, Inspector Morse, As Time Goes By, Keeping Up Appearances, and Heartbeat.
www.statistics.gov.uk -The "At a Glance" section provides lots of quick facts. http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/UK-authors.html - British and Irish authors on the web organized by date.
This all depends on which time of year you are in the country.
Newspapers—the cultural section in either, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent or the Telegraph—these will all give you a good perspective on what there is to do. It is also a good idea to look at Time Out, or the Evening Standard Newspaper if you are in or around London. Other local Newspapers will give you a good idea of what is going on locally.
BBC television and Radio is always good for Sport, documentaries, films, and especially dramas. If you have access to digital TV then you can get the same choice as anywhere else in the world. 200—300 channels etc, though you have to pay to get this.
The centre of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh etc are full of places to visit in terms of clubs, bars, café’s and venues for music and comedy. Check the local press for details of what is on.
Sport plays a great role in the UK culture. Football (Soccer) is played professionally every weekend between August and May when the season finishes. Teams are based throughout the country. Ask someone at your work place or socially about the local team. Rugby is another big sport in the UK, and is similarly played throughout the country, although there are two different types. If you are in the North of England, then it is likely that Rugby League will be played, if you are in the South then Rugby Union. Scotland, Ireland and Wales play mainly Rugby Union. Cricket is played throughout the country too, if you have time to learn the rules to this oldest of British games then it is well worth it as it provides a very relaxing day out.
If you are in the South of England at the beginning of summer then try to catch Tennis at Bournemouth, Queens Club (London) or Wimbledon. You can pick up tickets at the doors to most of these events.
If you are out of the cities then there is some beautiful countryside to see and some great history. The highlands of Scotland hold some great secrets in terms of castles and you will find a completely different perspective on British culture here.
Excellent Indian food is available in the UK, alongside favourites like fish and chips and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Chips and cheese, chip sandwiches, chips and gravy, and chips and curry will provide variety if you want to visit the chip shop everyday. Highlights of products to purchase are cheese from local cheese factories, savoury pies from pie shops, and the reasonably priced fresh fish and seafood that is available. The most common alcoholic beverage is beer; it is most commonly drunk in the pub than in the home.
If you are looking for a cultural interpreter I would suggest going directly to the pub, seating yourself at the bar, and ordering a pub lunch. If the bartender doesn’t become your interpreter, chances are one of the people in a neighbouring seat will. Football games, hiking or hill walking excursions or an afternoon at the races (or in the betting shop) will all provide great opportunities to meet people and experience UK culture. Taking the train rather than driving is also a good way to meet people.
David Beckham—Captain of the National Football Team—An all round nice guy, married to a Spice Girl etc..; Sir Ranulph Feinnes—Considered the Greatest Living Explorer; Ellen Macarthur—Greatest female solo yachtswoman ever; Sir Richard Branson—entrepreneur—founder of Virgin; and Bob Geldoph—Live Aid.
The Beatles—Considered the greatest pop band the world has ever seen; Winston Churchill - British Prime Minister during WWII; William Shakespeare—Considered one of the greatest literary geniuses in the world; Elizabeth Fry as the nurse Florence Nightingale—Inventor of modern nursing, and Sir Alexander Fleming—The man who discovered Penicillin.
Football and rugby players will be heroes but these will vary depending upon which teams your colleagues’ support and what part of the UK they are from. Definitions of political heroes will also vary in different parts of the UK. For example, Margaret Thatcher may have been a hero in the Home Counties surrounding London while she was unpopular in the north of England. Some people in the UK are monarchists while others feel the monarchy is an anachronism. Given the diversity of opinion in the UK it’s difficult to name national heroes. Considering the current popularity of reality television shows like Big Brother and Popstars in the UK you might even argue that ordinary people are increasingly becoming national heroes.
Shared historical events with Canada
Yes. We share a monarchy, and quite a lot of history. None of this should be a detriment to working relationships though. It is my understanding that the UK people look very favourably on Canadians.
Canada and the UK have very close ties, as many Canadians are descendants of people who immigrated to Canada from the UK. World Wars One and Two and close trade ties also link Canada and the UK. People in the UK have a warm feeling toward Canada and Canadians. Many people in the UK have either visited Canada or have relatives who live there and have positive preconceptions of both country and people. So you have to work hard to be disliked!
I am afraid that the biggest stereotype is that Canadians are just like Americans. Most Britons who know a Canadian know differently, but this is one stereotype that you might have to break on meeting someone.
Canadians may not be aware of the distinct cultures that exist within the UK. It would be worthwhile doing some research on Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales and the relationships between these places. The more you are aware of the diversity that can exist between people in what to a Canadian is a very small geographic area the more tuned in to British culture you will become.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in London, United Kingdom (UK) the eldest of 2 brothers. He was raised in London until the age of 4 and then moved to the southeast of the UK. He moved to Geneva, Switzerland at the age of 13 to study and then returned to the UK to continue his studies in Luton, in the Midlands. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the University of Luton. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter moved to Canada to work in International Development. He is currently living and working in London, England.
Your cultural interpreter was born and raised in Chapleau, Ontario, the youngest of four children. She studied History at Queens University and subsequently completed a Bachelor of Education at University of Toronto. Her work sent her abroad for the first time with Voluntary Services Overseas to Oshikuku, Namibia where she worked as a teacher for two years. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter taught in Madang Province, Papua New Guinea for two years and then moved to the Glasgow, Scotland where she lived and worked for a year and a half before returning to Canada. She is currently living in Toronto.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.