British Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: The British are relatively indirect communicators; they strongly avoid creating conflict and therefore take all necessary measures to remain polite throughout discussion. This involves making indirect statements that vaguely communicate their message without ‘rocking the boat’ (upsetting the status quo). As a result, people often have to read between the lines since what is said is most likely an understatement of what is actually meant (e.g. “not bad” means something is in fact quite good).
  • Self-Deprecation: The British are quite self-deprecating in conversation in an effort to come across as humble, honest and relaxed about themselves. Feel free to join in with the jokes by criticising yourself in a similar matter. However, agreeing with self-deprecating comments or jokes too enthusiastically can become insulting to the person making them.
  • Humour: Humour is used a lot throughout British communication, so expect some light-hearted joking to be involved in most conversations. Jokes about situational circumstances are often used to lighten moods or approach difficult topics in an indirect way. That being said, British sarcasm and understatements can be very subtle and nuanced, sometimes making it difficult for outsiders to detect whether they are kidding or not. In this case, remember these communication habits and know that they’re most likely joking.
  • Listening: Avoid interrupting a person speaking. The British are polite listeners, rarely interrupting others unless they need clarification about something.
  • Voicing Displeasure: British people are not likely to complain, and will tolerate bad service or food in order to avoid making a scene. Therefore, they might become very nervous if you voice your dissatisfaction in public. 
  • Criticism: Personal criticism should be voiced in an indirect way as well. Otherwise, this will only make your British counterpart hostile and defensive, and your criticism will be ineffective.


Non-Verbal

  • Expression: The British do not always give away their emotions via facial expressions. For example, they may not show it if they have been offended. On the other hand, keeping a straight, serious face can be the punch line to many sarcastic jokes
  • Personal Space: The British like to be given a fair amount of personal space, and may feel uncomfortable if someone sits or stands too close when other space is available. It is polite to maintain an arm’s length distance between yourself and the person speaking. 
  • Physical Contact: British culture is generally quite reserved. People are generally comfortable touching those they know well (e.g. backslapping is common among close friends). However, women tend to be more physically affectionate with one another than men.
  • Gestures: Gestures are usually quite reserved, polite and less demonstrative. For example, tapping the side of one’s nose means that something is confidential or to be kept secret. It is considered offensive to make a V-sign with your index and middle finger, the palm facing inwards and the top of the hand facing the other person. This is another way of saying “up yours” in their culture. However, the V-sign with the palm facing outwards is understood as the sign for victory or peace.
  • Eye Contact: It is best to make direct eye contact that breaks away now and again. Prolonged eye contact can make people feel uncomfortable, and staring is impolite. If talking to a group, be sure to make equal eye contact with all who are present.
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