How To... Navigate British culture

Lily Martin
Lily Martin

6 November 2020 • 5 min read

British culture is a strange thing. Being a Brit who has travelled pretty widely, I am more than aware of what the resounding narrative about us is - uptight, with a strange sense of humour and decidedly ‘proper’. But really, the United Kingdom is a diverse and exciting nature with an equally as fascinating and welcoming culture. So here’s the low-down on some of our culture’s hidden traits.

Regions and their accents

It’s easy to think of Britain as one unified nation, particularly because we’re comparatively small both in size and population. However, there are strong regional differences depending on where you live and in particular how you speak. The most obvious is the North-South divide. There’s a lot of debate where this border exists in England. Although we all can comprehensively accept that Scotland is definitely the North, there’s some serious questioning about whether Birmingham is. 

As for Wales, they have mercifully escaped the border-drawing. Northerners are typically surrounded by narratives of being angry and a little-rough around the edges, however being a Northerner myself, I can safely say that they are some of the kindest people the UK has to offer. Welcoming, with strong community bonds and a strong value structure, the North has a reputation for its strong values and open-heartedness. In comparison, the South is known for its prosperity and fast-paced life. 

Southerners are known for being ‘well-spoken’, too. In Northern counties, like Lancashire, Yorkshire and the cities of Birmingham and Newcastle, distinct accents stray from the stereotypical ‘Queen’s English’ of the South. There’s an ongoing debate about whether bath should be pronounced’ bah-th’ or ‘baf’. And don’t get us started on scones. Is it scone (as in gone) or scone as in (alone)?

British class

The class system people expect to exist over here is vastly different to the set of Downton Abbey. Although there are, somewhere, a fair few Dukes, Viscounts and Earls hanging around - really they’re not in most people’s everyday life. Nevertheless, depending on where you live, basic class structures still exist. Predominantly, the closer to London, the wealthier people are perceived to be. Unlike in some other European countries, in Britain class often comes hand-in-hand with wealth. In the UK we also have a wealthy ageing population which complicates our class structure slightly.

For the most part, the Brits have four classes - working class, upper-working class, the middle classes and the upper class. The vast majority of British people fall into the upper-working class bracket. They are skilled workers, many have a University degree or specialist education. Many white-collar workers  — such as businessmen or office workers  — straddle the middle classes, depending on their success and where they are in their careers. Increasingly, people are becoming stagnant in the upper-middle classes due to economic limitations and restrictive pay packages, especially in the north of the country. 

Now, the upper class is always the bit that people are most interested in. Frequently tipped as the ‘toffs’ by outsiders, the upper class holds the majority of wealth and tangible power in UK society. Stereotypes surrounding this demographic are rife. But even between those within it, there’s ‘old money’ and ‘new money’. Those with ‘new money’ are considered tackier than their counterparts, who often have been wealthy for several generations. In some sectors of society, your class can not only affect how you speak, but also what school you attend and where you live.

Humour

British humour is a fickle thing, and not often easily understood by those not used to it. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out why Brits find certain things funny. And that’s probably because of our use of a few key techniques. Firstly, sarcasm and irony are a Brit’s favourite tools when it comes to humour. Sarcasm is frequently used by saying one thing but actually meaning another. For example, saying to your housemate, “You’re not making a mess at all,” when really they are. Then there’s the understatement, a flawless technique to jokingly comment on the severity of something. For example, “Those curtains are a little bit pink,” to a housemate with bright pink curtains.

Food

Britain doesn’t necessarily have a national dish, although many counties have their firm favourites. The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie is a staple in Leicestershire. In Yorkshire, it’s all about the Yorkshire pudding. As a country, we’re a big fan of fish and chips, although what you eat them with - curry sauce, mushy peas, gravy and scraps - is totally dependent on where you’re from. Plus haggis in Scotland, and Welsh Rarebit in Wales. Then there’s the different words for things that are the same thing. There’s half-a-dozen words for a bread bun. And a continuous debate around whether ‘Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner’ should actually be ‘Breakfast, Dinner and Tea’.

 

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Lily Martin
Written By
Lily Martin

Lily is a Content Writer and Editor based in Manchester, UK. She is passionate about travel, literature and higher education.


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