Customs and Culture in the UK
It's acceptable to address someone by their first name in most social situations. First names are sometimes avoided among strangers to avoid seeming overly familiar. In very formal or business situations first names are not commonly used until people are better acquainted. The best strategy is to use what they introduced themselves with. Officials, however, (like policemen or doctors) will invaribly call you by your title and surname, for example "Mr Smith".
The British can be extremely indirect when requesting things from people they do not know. It is common for Britons to "ask around" questions when requesting something: for example, one would be more likely to say something along the lines of "Where can I find the changing room?" when in a clothes shop, rather than "Where's the changing room?". Although asking questions directly is quite common, it can sometimes be seen as overly abrupt or even rude.
Similarly, saying 'What?' when not understanding something can be considered rude around authority figures or people you don't know, so 'Pardon?' is more appropriate to use in situations with a stranger or a superior. British people apologise a lot, even when there is absolutely no need to do so. For example, if someone trod on someone else's toe by accident, both people would normally apologise. This is just a British thing to do, and dwelling on it (eg: "What are you sorry about?") will mark you out as a foreigner. Often a British person will request something or start a conversation with 'sorry'. It isn't because they feel sorry, but it is rather used instead of "excuse me" or "pardon".
Allow some personal space between you and others in queues and elsewhere. You will usually find this in such places as cinemas. Generally, unless people know each other, you will find they will usually choose to fill up every row of seating and keep as much distance of possible until there is a requirement to sit directly next to each other. Exceptions are in very crowded situations where this is impossible, like on the Tube.
Greetings are dependent upon the situation. In anything but a business situation, a verbal greeting (such as 'hello (name)!') will suffice. Younger people will usually say 'Hi,' 'Hiya,' or 'Hey' though the latter is also used to attract attention and should not be used to address a stranger as it would be considered impolite. Another British greeting (frequently used by younger people) is 'You all right?' or 'All right?' (sometimes abbreviated to "A'right" in northern England), which basically is a combination of 'Hello' and 'How are you?'. This term can be confusing to foreigners, but it can be easily replied to with either a greeting back (which is far more common) or stating how you feel (usually something short like 'I'm fine, you?').
In the effete south east, a greeting may sometimes be accompanied by a kiss on the cheek or less commonly a hug. Etiquette for a hug is somewhat complicated, so the best advice is to accept a hug (regardless of the gender offering it) if it is offered, otherwise a handshake is appropriate. In a formal situation or an initial greeting between two strangers, a handshake is the done thing, this should be of a appropriate firmness (generally moderate firmness).
It is not uncommon for people in the service industry (eg: cab drivers and hair-dressers), to make small-talk with you while they are serving you. A couple of good conversation topics are the weather (a British favourite) and sport (particularly with men). Regarding the latter, most British people will have at least a passing knowledge of football, cricket, rugby, or tennis. If you find you share tastes, then music, films, and books are also fairly universal subjects.
For more details on unwritten rules concerning greetings, addressing others, small-talk etc, read Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox.
The Scottish are Scottish, the Welsh are Welsh, and the English are English. Referring to all of them as "English" will probably offend. It's a potential minefield but "British" will always be safer than "English". Remember, too, most Northern Ireland Unionists would not want to be called Irish. (In contrast, most of the Nationalists in Northern Ireland will identify as Irish and register accordingly as Irish citizens and carry Irish passports, which all people born in Northern Ireland are entitled to do if they wish). You may also find that, even though all the people of the United Kingdom are legally classed as British, peoples preferences are based upon which country in the United Kingdom they were born in, rather than using the collective term British. It is also common to meet someone who might say " I am half Welsh, half-English" or "my parents are Scottish and I am English".
Never refer to the Falklands as being Argentinian: over 250 British soldiers died fighting to defend these islands from Argentinian invasion and occupation in the early 1980s. The Falklands remain a British Overseas Territory to this day. The same goes for Gibraltar; despite the Spanish claim, UN supervised plebiscites register more than 98% local support for remaining British.
Do the V sign with the palm facing outward to indicate either "peace" or "victory"; do the reverse with the palm facing inward if you wish to be extremely offensive.
Same-sex displays of affection will not likely cause upset or offence apart from some areas such as the rural towns like the Yorkshire valleys and rural Lincolnshire, and in rougher parts of many cities. Cities and towns with larger gay populations include London, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton, Bournemouth and Edinburgh. Cities such as Brighton host pride festivals each year. Civil partnerships have been legal since 2005. However, someone looking to start a fight may decide to treat this as a pretext. Try to avoid eye contact with drunken men in city centres at night, especially if they are in a large group. It is also important to note, if in Northern Ireland, same-sex displays and activities are rarely shown, outside Belfast, where many will still hold conservative values. Keep in mind, while in Belfast some areas are safer than others in showing affection.
Urinating in public is against the law; if you're caught, you'll be given a telling off by the police, made to pay an £80 fine and, in some areas, be made to clean up your own urine with a mop and disinfectant.
The content on this page is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. It has been written by the users of WikiTravel and gapyear.com cannot not accept any responsibility for its accuracy. For any critical information you require, please be sure to check with the relevant embassy for the most up to date information before you travel.