British Culture

Core Concepts

  • Stoicism
  • Class
  • Equity
  • Regional diversity
  • Informality
  • Humour
  • Diligence

 

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (also known simply as the UK) is a country including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these constituent nations have distinct national identities. They are united under the same monarch and government, although each have their own parliaments or assemblies to make their own laws. The people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also speak the same language, use the same currency, have similar laws and policies, share media outlets and are subjects of the same Royal Family. That being said, many customs and social expectations vary between nations.

 

Cultural differences between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are most visible in each country’s individual history and heritage, as well as regional dialects and accents. There are also variations in the way each national identity within the UK is perceived. For example, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people tend to be more aware of a dual identity (e.g. being both Scottish and British). The English, on the other hand, generally do not feel the same need to distinguish their origin – as ‘British’ is often assumed to be synonymous with ‘English’. This predominance of the English identity can be a point of tension or resentment. Indeed, England is the significantly more populous country, with approximately 84% of the UK’s population living there.1 All four countries are influenced by the size, popularity and political decision-making power of London, which is the cultural and economic hub of the UK. 

 

The UK has also become increasingly multicultural with the increase of immigration over the past two decades. In 2019, it was estimated approximately 9.5 million people living in the UK (or 14% of the population) were born abroad.2 London has the largest number of migrants among all regions of the UK, home to over 3 million foreign-born residents (35% of the UK’s total foreign-born population).3 Some of the largest migrant and second-generation migrant populations have arrived from former British colonies (such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Jamaica). There are also significant populations of people born in Poland, Romania, the Republic of Ireland and Germany. Such migration has introduced a diversity of cultural customs and traditions to most major cities, visible in the varieties of foods, places of worship, music and arts. 

 

Further cultural differences in the UK can often be found between those who live in the major cities and those who live in the countryside. The British can often quickly detect which county a person is from by their accent alone, and may sometimes be able to pinpoint their town of upbringing just from their speech. This easy identification of people’s backgrounds can cause the British to pigeonhole and stereotype each other quite quickly, sometimes hindering social mobility. This is especially true for those with accents that acutely reflect a class stereotype. For example, ‘posh’ pronunciations can reveal that a person was raised in a wealthy family and went to a private school, whilst a regional accent (e.g. cockney) may be associated with the working-class. 

 

The Class System

The British class system has historically been a powerful point of stratification in the social, economic and political spheres of life. Differentiations between the working class and middle class were once largely defined by the occupations people had (e.g. blue collar workers vs. white collar workers). However, today class differences generally have more to do with one’s schooling, social orientations and upbringing. The majority of the UK is now often considered to be ‘middle class’, a distinction often expanded to include all that live relatively comfortably and have a secondary or tertiary education. Though British society has progressively become somewhat less class conscious, the class system remains integral and continues to shape the people’s sense of belonging. For example, many working class British may wear their class status as a badge of honour that engenders a sense of solidarity with others. Furthermore, the elite or aristocracy of British society (usually inheritors of old money or land) may be viewed with suspicion and/or resentment.

 

Despite social stratifications between classes, there is a strong egalitarian belief that everyone should have equal opportunity to better their circumstances regardless of their background. This also translates into a respect for order or ‘fair play’, whereby people should be rewarded on the basis of their work ethic rather than privilege. Furthermore, bragging or boasting about one’s status is not appreciated and often met with ridicule (a phenomenon known as ‘tall poppy syndrome’). Thus, people from the upper classes will usually refrain from talking of their privilege in overt ways. 

 

Stoicism and Reservedness

The British have earned a reputation for remaining stoic and maintaining a ‘stiff upper lip’ through tough times. This has been largely shaped by the hardships faced during the First and Second World Wars, as well as the post-war period. There is a strong notion that the British nation and society has been built upon generations of hard work and social progress. In turn, many people pride themselves on their capacity to ‘grin and bear it’ whilst being diligent and respectable, as is exemplified in the slogan  “keep calm and carry on”. 

 

The British also generally tend to be more reserved about exhibiting emotions in public, preferring to air negative opinions or impressions in private company (or deliver them politely). While many readily voice political frustrations through organised demonstrations or other major public events, speaking out of terms, complaining or strong dissent amongst one’s peers can be seen as unnecessary fuss. Many, especially among the older generation, exhibit a preference toward ‘minding one’s own business’. 

 

Humour

Humour is an important aspect of British culture and communication that is also used as a way of being more pointed and direct. Jokes can establish rapport and informality, bring people together over differences, introduce risky ideas and even present criticism in an acceptable way. Most topics can be lightened with good humour. For example, one may find the British poke fun at the royal family, politicians, religion, class, society as well as each other. Much British humour and sarcasm may be delivered through subtle or dry understatements. However, while their humour may seem harsh at times, it is important to avoid taking personal offence to jokes. Doing so can often lead a person to be the target for teasing. 

 

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1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2017
2 The Migration Observatory, 2020
3 The Migration Observatory, 2020
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