LONDON (Reuters) - With the Olympics just days away, London is braced for extreme excitement, drama and unprecedented numbers of tourists. Aside from the sporting spectacle, visitors experience will be enhanced if they embrace all the customs, quirks and idiosyncrasies that define the British way of life. Here’s a selection of the best of Britishness:
Britain is still a comparatively non-tactile society and, like much of the world, a firm handshake, using the right hand, is the common form of face-to-face greeting for most social situations. Handshakes are brief, lasting just a few seconds, and should be accompanied with direct eye contact. Do not complicate the greeting with other forms of touching - hands on the back, double-handed handshakes etc.
Social kissing is, however, becoming increasingly popular in Britain, but it is by no means an accepted norm. As a general rule, don’t kiss colleagues or people you don’t know. Do kiss close friends. Usually it’s right cheek first, but prepare to change direction at the last minute, and generally opt for just one kiss. Just holding cheek against cheek feels insincere, but there is a fine line between an acceptable peck and an overly affectionate smacker.
The traditional British greeting on introduction is ‘How do you do?'. The appropriate response - however strange it may seem - is to reiterate the phrase ‘How do you do?'. In situations where this exchange may seem too formal, a friendly ‘Hello’ will usually do. At an even more informal level, if someone says ‘Hi, how are you?’ the response should be positive and upbeat: ‘Fine thanks, and you?'.
If you are introducing other people, there are a few rules to be observed. Men should be introduced to women, juniors to elders. Introduce individuals to the group first and then the group to the individual. Unless the occasion is formal there’s no need to mention surnames.
No visit would be complete without having a drink at a traditional British boozer. Drinks are bought directly from the bar - there is never table service unless you are eating - and tipping is not necessary. Don’t hog a space at the bar, blocking the way for other punters. If a group of you are drinking together it is usual for people to take it in turns to buy a round. Don’t opt out of rounds, or hang back; you shouldn’t have to be asked.
Where other nationalities mass frenziedly, the British queue. In fact, grumbling in a queue is one of the great British joys and queue-barging is the worst solecism a foreigner can commit; even the reticent English will feel justified in sharply pointing out the back of the line to any errant queue-jumpers. If in doubt, it’s always a good idea to ask “is this the back of the queue?” and avoid giving offence.
5. Saying Sorry
For many British people, apologising is a default reaction to life’s little irritants. This highly illogical response is deeply ingrained in the British psyche. If someone barges into you, treads on your toe, or spills your drink, it is quite normal to mutter “sorry”.
Obviously this is not a normal apology - a heartfelt mea culpa for a blunder. In fact, the British apology is a strange, strangled version of the outraged “do you mind?” of more confrontational cultures. British people are well aware of this enigmatic agenda. When they commit an offence and are met with the requisite “sorry”, they are quite likely to respond in kind, which can lead to a surreal escalation of apologies. Visitors to Britain should be aware that the word “sorry” is devalued currency.
Self-deprecation is a trait that permeates British culture. The British have a horror of what they call ‘blowing your own trumpet’, and are deeply averse to earnestness, pomposity and self-importance. Statements that, in another culture, would simply be attributed as confident expressions of self-esteem, are misinterpreted in Britain as boastful and self-aggrandising. If you want to avoid being misunderstood, learn to downplay your attributes and resort wherever possible to understatement. People will read between the lines and admire your modesty.
The British are well-known for their strong sense of fair play. Although they are fiercely partisan, they will always show their appreciation of opponents sporting prowess. In the confines of the stadium seating, be aware of your fellow spectators, don’t obscure their view or disturb them by jumping up and down in overexcitement. Excessive shouting, cheering or whooping will disturb others and be viewed as bad manners.
When you see a taxi with its light on, i.e. available for hire, simply lift your arm and lean out from the pavement slightly to get the taxi driver’s attention. Refrain from shouting ‘Taxi’ or waving frantically. Tell the driver your destination through the front window before getting in the back. In London-style taxis men should allow women to get in first and take the banquette seat while they should take the fold-down seats if necessary. At your destination get out and pay the driver through the front window. The going rate for tipping is 10 per cent.
British love nothing better than ‘putting their feet up’ and enjoying a ‘cuppa’ and the quiet gentility of the English tea ceremony is seen as a reflection of the reserved national character. If a waiter places a teapot on the table without pouring the tea the person nearest the pot should pour for everyone. The tea should be poured first and any milk or sugar added afterwards. Once you have stirred your tea remove the spoon from the cup and place it on the saucer. When drinking tea hold the handle of the teacup between your thumb and forefinger. Don’t hold your little finger in the air.
In the UK, tipping in restaurants is usually ‘discretionary’, but it is more discretionary in some places than others. Check your bill. ‘Service not included’ means just that, and it is usual to offer 10 percent. If you are paying by card, you will often be able to add the tip before entering your PIN number. You can leave cash instead, or some establishments will add a discretionary percentage automatically. For taxis, the going rate is 10 per cent. In smarter hotels give a small gratuity (i.e. one or two pounds) to bellboys or porters per piece of luggage if they take your bags to your room. Doormen should be tipped upon checking out if they have helped with taxis or luggage. In bars, where you are seated and drinks are delivered to your table, tip 10 per cent, as you would in restaurants. Don’t tip in pubs.
English people are notorious for their endless fascination with the weather; it is a topic that is deployed nationwide as an ice-breaker. When two strangers meet, in a queue for example, it is virtually de rigueur to enjoy a short conversation about the weather. English weather is, above all, unpredictable. Sunshine, showers, wind and rain sweep across the country with extraordinary rapidity, providing an ever-changing outlook. With the weather as a topic, conversation is never going to falter.
(Any opinions expressed are her own. Debrett’s has a publishing heritage dating back over two centuries with a contemporary range of publications including “A-Z of Modern Manners”, “Etiquette for Girls” and “Guide for the Modern Gentleman”.)
Editing by Paul Casciato