Living in the United Kingdom: A Cultural Profile

Although we share many similarities with our “cousins” across the way, expats will discover some subtle, but distinct, differences as well.

Many people liken the United Kingdom to the United States because of these two nations’ historical links, but there actually are some subtle, yet important, differences between their cultures.

Class consciousness

One of the more distinguishing characteristics of British society is class consciousness. Today, the old nobility shares the highest echelon of society with the most powerful government and business leaders. Many of these individuals are from wealthy families and have been educated at the best schools, thus forming a self-perpetuating “old boy” network.

Class separation is a very real part of the British mind — and what class a Briton is in may be very obvious to another Briton, sometimes solely on the basis of their language. The upper class, for example, speaks what is considered a more refined version of English. Also, many families only socialize with others of the same class.

Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism

Although the British monarchy has no real power, it remains symbolic of a structured, aristocratic lifestyle. The fact that the monarchy exists alongside a democratic government is somewhat representative of the tension in Britain between a hierarchical society and a more egalitarian one. Power in the UK tends to be more centralized, in spite of the fact that the British developed the idea of democracy.

Government power is centralized at the national level, with no British equivalent to US state governments or Canadian provinces. In business, power concentrates in the upper levels, and middle managers often have little decision-making authority. Surprisingly, for a diverse nation that believes in equal rights, the British place disproportionate emphasis on family and educational background.

A different slant on individuality

Individuality is as important to the British as it is to Americans. On American soil, however, an individualist refers to a self-made, independent person; the British use the term to describe a distinctive or eccentric personality. Since social mobility is more difficult for the British, the concept of the self-made individual that’s so much a part of the American mind does not exist.

One concept of individualism the British do share with Americans is the belief that each person has individual needs and rights. This differs from other cultures, such as those in Asia, where community or family needs take precedence over an individual’s needs. The British system of law also emphasizes the individual. And, as in the US, young people are taught to be responsible for themselves. Many students attend boarding schools, have part-time jobs, and are encouraged to travel on their own.

Polite, formal and humorous

The British are known to be polite and courteous, almost to a fault. When inconvenienced by a missed deadline or bad service, for example, they may make a polite comment and leave it at that. Although they may very well be upset, they are not in the habit of showing it. Despite their tendency toward polite behavior, however, the British are neither indirect nor ambiguous. On the contrary, they can be quite honest in their opinions; they are merely more subtle in how they go about it.

The British are also known for their often dry sense of humor. Comedy is a national pastime, and much of the humor is directed inward: no one is better than the British at poking fun at themselves.

English insularity

Perhaps it is the inevitable result of living in an island nation, but the British tend to be an insular people. They don’t like to think of themselves as European, seeing that as a designation for residents of the continent. Their insularity typically extends to their private lives, as well. They are not given to talking about themselves at great length, and are unlikely to casually invite visitors into their homes. Like their counterparts in America, many British citizens speak only English.

Negotiating with the British

When it comes to business negotiations, the British are similar to Americans, in that they share the same concerns for bottom-line profits and short-term results. There are, however, some important differences in style.

In terms of communication, the British are direct in the sense of being honest about their opinions, but less direct in the way they voice them. They emphasize courtesy, formality and tact, and since they seldom show their true emotions, it may be difficult to read their responses. The British are also innately cautious. Their culture values security and leans toward the status quo. When making decisions, they process information a bit differently than do Americans. In keeping with their cautious nature, they prefer to examine concrete precedents. Americans, on the other hand, are generally more comfortable using data to speculate a conclusion.