Perhaps it’s our notoriously variable weather that’s made us the way we are; perhaps it’s our long and interesting history; perhaps it’s the oddities of our language that you’ll have encountered if you’re learning English. Whatever the reason, it’s given us a great many cultural quirks that frequently take visitors by surprise – particularly visitors from countries less given to peculiar behaviours! Our quirks range from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright bizarre!
Us Brits are militant queuers, but the true extent of this national habit may still take you by surprise. We don’t just love queuing in shops. We’ll queue for anything: buses, events, ice cream vans – you name it. As George Mikes said, “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” The great thing about queuing is that it’s a completely fair system that totally alleviates the pushing and shoving you get in similar situations elsewhere. ‘Queue-jumpers’ – those pushing to the front of the queue before their turn – are regarded with the utmost derision, and committing such a crime is highly unadvisable.
You are likely to witness queuing in a variety of contexts if you come to Oxford. The famous Oxford Union, right in the city centre, is the scene of some of the city’s most impressive queues, as it frequently plays host to interesting speakers. When Pierce Brosnan came to speak at the Oxford Union, a queue snaked its way from the door of the Union’s debating chamber, all the way out of the Union grounds, around the corner, up Cornmarket Street and as far as the Clarendon Shopping Centre.
Our response to warm weather
We are obsessed with the weather, but our response to warm weather may surprise and amuse some. We get comparatively little good weather in the UK compared to many countries, and on the rare occasion we do get a spell of sunshine, the whole country completely changes in atmosphere. Even if the warm weather comes early in the year, when it’s still a little chilly, the nation changes into shorts and flip-flops and gets the barbecue out. If you come from somewhere that enjoys rather more sunshine than we do, you might find this national outpouring of joy in the face of sunshine rather bizarre – and it’ll probably seem a bit cold for shorts and flip-flops for you. But for us, it’s such a pleasant change from wind and rain that it has to be enjoyed to the full.
Our response to wet weather
While we’ll eagerly lap up any trace of sunshine the British weather treats us to, we’re also not ones to let the weather dampen our spirits. On a rainy summer’s day at a British seaside resort you’ll find plenty of British holidaymakers pacing up the beach in their waterproof jackets, determined to enjoy their holiday come rain or shine. If we’ve planned a summer barbecue and it rains, it’s more than likely to go ahead anyway, with the majority of guests taking refuge indoors while one poor soul braves the outdoors to get the barbecue going in the rain.
Sitting next to each other (or not)
In the UK, we’re generally quite a reserved bunch and won’t sit next to a stranger if we can avoid it. If you’re sitting on a bus or train, someone boarding the bus will sit in any other free set of double seats before sitting next to you, or may even prefer to stand. This is nothing personal against you – we just like our personal space. The same goes for the cinema – it’s only when there are no seats left and we have no choice that we’ll sit next to someone else, and you’d be regarded as a little odd if you went and sat down next to someone when there were plenty of other seats available.
It may be football that gains us more international sporting attention, but if there’s one game that’s quintessentially British, it’s cricket. For those not in the know, the rules of cricket seem infinitely complex, but it really doesn’t matter whether you understand the rules or not. The point of cricket is to give one something to watch on a summer’s afternoon, preferably with scones and jam and some form of beverage. You haven’t experienced an English summer until you’ve experienced this.
It can be frustrating, but we Brits don’t always say exactly what we mean. Because we don’t want to offend anyone, we have a tendency to mask our true feelings behind a host of euphemisms. For example, if someone says “With all due respect”, what this actually means is that they couldn’t disagree with you more. We also understate things; for example, rather than saying “that’s good”, we’ll say “that’s not bad”, which may be misconstrued by non-English speakers as not being positive, when actually it is. If you’ve invited someone to come and join you and your friends for drinks, and a British person says “I might join you later”, what they almost certainly really mean is that they have no intention of joining you; they just didn’t want to hurt your feelings by declining your invitation. Confusing, isn’t it? And it’s all because we’re too polite to say what we really feel, in case it upsets someone.
On the London Underground, it’s not unusual to apologise for accidentally making eye contact with someone.
Along similar lines to our often euphemistic way of speaking is our over-use of the word “sorry”, which we often use in situations other than when we’re making an apology. Here are just a few examples of the (non-apologetic) scenarios in which you might hear the word “sorry” spoken when you’re in the UK:
– When we’ve misheard you, we’ll ask “Sorry?” meaning that we would like you to repeat what you’ve just said.
– “Sorry, you’re standing on my coat” – as a means of getting the attention of someone who is standing on your coat. Really, it’s them who should be saying sorry…
– “Sorry to bother you, but…” – this isn’t really an apology, it’s just a way of being humble to preface the asking of a favour.
If you hear someone refer to “the War”, this is almost certainly the Second World War, the memory of which is still very much alive in the UK, particularly among the older generation. There are still countless documentaries and dramas being made about both the Second and First World Wars, which reflects the fact that interest in this period of our history is still strong; Dad’s Army, the comedy sitcom set in the Second World War, was made in the 1970s but is still being shown on television every week. The Second World War is viewed with particular nostalgia in the UK; the music of this period is still popular, as are images from the wartime recruitment and motivational posters (in particular the “Keep Calm and Carry On” one, which is ubiquitous in the UK at the moment and endlessly paraphrased).
The cure to all of life’s problems. The Brits are famous for their love of tea, we Brits regard tea as the solver of all problems; the reflex action of many of us in the face of a crisis is to put the kettle on and ‘brew a cuppa’. There’s fierce debate among Brits about the correct way to make a cup of tea (how much sugar? Does the milk go in before you remove the bag? And so on), so if you happen to offer to make a British person a cup of tea during your stay, make sure you get exact instructions from them before you start.
The quiet carriage
If you travel by train in the UK, you’ll probably find that at least one carriage is the designated ‘quiet carriage’. While you don’t need a special ticket to travel in the quiet carriage, you will be expected to play by the rules. That means no talking on the phone, no chatting to your travel companion, and definitely no music, even if it’s played through headphones (we can still hear it!). Users of the quiet carriage will take a similar approach to rule-breakers as any Brit would to a queue-jumper (that is to say, they will be incredibly unimpressed, and someone is likely to pluck up the courage to tell you to be quiet).
The White Van Man
The cultural phenomenon of the ‘White Van Man’ stems from the fact that in the UK, the stereotype of the average builder or workman is that he drives around in a white Ford Transit van. The stereotype goes beyond this, describing someone who reads the tabloids, likes ‘builder’s tea’ (strong white tea with sugar, in a big mug), wolf-whistles at blonde girls they pass in the street, and so on. It’s rather a negative stereotype and, like all stereotypes, not always accurate.
In the UK, we’re quite backward when it comes to taps. Unlike the rest of Europe, we have yet to embrace the ingenious concept of a mixer tap, instead preferring two separate taps, one for hot and one for cold. This arrangement is almost invariably annoying, because it means that the cold tap very quickly goes very cold indeed, and the hot tap very quickly scalds you. There’s no in between. It would be so much easier for all of us if we were to opt for the mixer tap, like our European cousins, but unfortunately – and bafflingly – this has yet to catch on.
Plane, train and bird spotters
Another peculiarly British phenomenon is the plane, train or bird spotter. These are people who obsessively trek around the country photographing – or simply listing – trains, planes or bird species they’ve seen. Otherwise known as ‘anoraks’ on account of their choice of clothing, or ‘twitchers’ in the case of bird-watchers, these folk will go to great lengths to spot something they haven’t seen before. You might spot them as you leave Heathrow Airport, loitering around the entrance – you can identify them by the expensive cameras with huge lenses hanging around their necks. They’re not on the lookout for celebrities – they’re simply photographing airliners. It doesn’t matter if they’ve already seen dozens of 747s – they’re on the lookout for a specific 747 that they haven’t seen before. It’s the same with train spotters, whose obsession we could more easily understand decades ago, in the age of the majestic steam train; but it’s much harder to see why modern trains hold the same appeal. All part of the rich tapestry of British eccentricity!
The Chelsea Flower Show
We love a good garden here in Britain. We’ll happily pay to go round the gardens of a stately home at the weekend, and in some circles there’s intense rivalry over who can achieve the greenest lawn or grow the biggest onions. But there’s one annual event that brings gardening into sharper focus than normal, and widens its appeal beyond the middle aged, who are generally seen to be the group most interested in this outdoor pursuit. That event is the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, held each May in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. It’s a celebration of the pinnacle of gardening achievement and draws in hordes of Brits each year, with everyone from your next door neighbour to the Queen flocking to Chelsea to admire perfectly manicured show gardens and perfect examples of pretty much every kind of flower under the sun. For those who can’t make it to Chelsea, this horticultural spectacular is also televised. Only in Britain…
Looking through this list, it’s not hard to see why we Brits have a reputation for being a bit eccentric but we’re proud of our quirks and I for one hope it continues.