While Canada and the UK are actually quite similar when it comes to many 'social cues', there are a few points of British “etiquette” that are good to remember when moving to the UK. Given the heightened social experience of life in London, it is especially important to be cognizant of the people around you and what is considered acceptable behaviour. Below are a few key points of British etiquette to help you adjust to your new surroundings:
1 - Queuing
While it may seem fairly natural and socially acceptable for Canadians to form a line and wait their turn, this isn’t the same in all cultures. It’s important to note, however, that while a Canadian may roll their eyes at a line-cutter and continue to wait patiently, cutting in line is a serious no-no in British culture and can even be cause enough for a few choice words or stern looks.
2 - Commuters
The one rule of London etiquette that visitors and newcomers quickly pick up on is that when it comes to public transit, commuters have the right of way. The clearest demonstration of this can be seen on the escalators and hallways that access various tube stops. The clear ruling is quite simple: “Stand on the Right, Pass on the Left.” The quickest way to offend a local in London is to cluster in a group on an escalator, and not allow room for anyone to pass.
Commuters into the city are a busy bunch with nary the time to stand idly on an escalator and prefer (read: demand) instead that they be able to march quickly down the left side of an escalator using the moving stairwell to quicken their timely journey home. (Anyone who thinks this mentality foolish has clearly never had to wait for up to 4 fully-packed trains to pass by before they were able to squeeze inside one and begin their hour-long ride home.)
3 - Tipping
The service industry is one area where British bartenders or taxi drivers may greedily eye up a potential Canadian customer. Let it be known: Canadians have a tendency to over-tip even within Canada. Now imagine how they are viewed in a culture where tipping is not quite non-existent but definitely minimal. As a general rule of thumb, tipping culture in the UK is “discretionary.” For any social situation where you aren’t sure of the British custom, a 10% gratuity will usually fit the bill.
For haircuts or taxi rides, a tip isn’t necessarily “expected” but is given as a sign of your appreciation for the service and care provided. A pound or two to a bartender in a pub won’t go amiss, but they’d likely be just as happy if you offered to buy them a drink. If you aren’t sure, play it safe and embrace the Canadian reputation of generosity.
4 - Dress
Many Canadian student in London in summer may find a city engrossed in pale skin and dark clothing to be a bit of a shroud over the city but they’ll quickly find themselves adopting the London dress code. In general, the average wardrobe in larger cities in the UK tends towards darker tones and more conservative styles. (Think Victoria Beckham not Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.)
That’s not to say you have to lose your own personal style if you decide to move to the UK; many Brits may even comment on the “cheeriness” of your colourful wardrobe. But just be prepared that if you decide to wear your tie-dye hoodie for your tube commute, you’ll likely be pegged as a token tourist.
5 - Loo/Toilet
While Canadians won’t need to adjust to drastic differences in personal hygiene when moving to the UK, they may need to adapt a new vocabulary. Most Canadians have likely heard of Brits referring to “the facilities” as a loo; they may not know that it is also socially acceptable to ask for the “toilets” while in a public place. This may seem a little crude at first to Canadian ears, but it’s a sure-fire way to get your needs across.
Furthermore, while most Brits may be accustomed to North American references to the “bathroom” or “washroom” they will be quick to point out that, historically in Britain, a bathroom was a room for bathing (i.e. containing a bath but no toilet) and therefore you shouldn’t be heading there to relieve yourself.
6 - Pants
Perhaps one of the most difficult British terms to get used to - until you've suffered the social embarrassment of using it incorrectly in public - is "pants." An important distinction for Canadians to note is that, in the UK, pants refers to underwear. If you get cool in the evening and want to change out of your summer attire, you’ll want to put on “trousers” to cover your legs. Whatever you do, don’t feel the need to tell anyone that you need to change your “pants”.
7 - Public Houses
Many Canadians may have local restaurants in their hometown that they may refer to as the town pub or local “watering hole,” but few of these establishments will fill the same role as Public Houses in the UK. Commonly referred to as the town’s “living room,” pubs play an essential role in British culture. This can be an easy and comfortable adjustment for most Canadians; however, it is important to take note of pub customs. Pubs in the UK are generally not table-serviced, so don’t plan on waiting patiently at the table for someone to come over and take your order.
Take a look at the menu and then mosey on up to the bar to place your food and drink order with the bartender. Remember to take note of your table number beforehand so that your food gets delivered to the right spot. It is also customary etiquette in British pubs that groups will “order rounds” rather than each person ordering and paying for their individual drink. This is a great way to make friends as pubs in the UK are social places and it isn’t rare for a local to strike up a conversation and offer to buy you a drink.
One thing to keep in mind: if you go with a large group you may have more drinks coming your way than you can handle.
8 - Tea
Many Canadians will be familiar with the stereotype that British people love their tea. Without making too much of an overgeneralization, this is one stereotype that is absolutely true! But it actually goes beyond a mere love of steeped leaves; British tea drinking is wrought with ritual and culture. Tea should always steep in a pot using piping hot water straight from the kettle. (Gone are your days of plunking a bag of tea into a cup of water and popping it into the microwave). Milk and sugar should also be served alongside the pot of tea.
Some people believe that milk should always be added first and your tea poured on top; others believe that this tradition developed from the privilege of the upper classes and that the average commoner couldn’t afford to waste any extra milk and would therefore pour only as much as was necessary to lighten their tea. Nowadays, it likely comes down to personal preference, but why not go out for a fancy afternoon tea in London and see for yourself which way you prefer?
9 - Titles
While Canadians moving to London will marvel over the incredibly long, rich history (you’ll pass by many a pub that’s older than Canada herself) there are also a few complicated social structures that go along with that history. One of these areas of social etiquette that Canadians might struggle to grasp at first is the proper use of titles. In a nation that was dominated for so long by aristocracy and social class, there are, unsurprisingly, countless social rules on how to address everyone from the Queen down to your Economics reader.
As a student in the UK, you will want to get a solid grasp on the various titles for your module instructors. Unlike in Canada, where anyone with a PhD is called Professor, a professor in the UK is actually one ranking among a hierarchy of academics including: readers, lecturers, senior lecturers and even fellows. While readers and lecturers are generally referred to using their academic qualification (i.e. “Dr”) if they have one or “Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms” if they don’t, the title “Professor” should be reserved to those who have been made a “full professor” by the university. But not to worry: if you are ever unsure, just ask.
10 - Punctuality
One final piece of sage advice regarding etiquette in the UK concerns punctuality. As a Canadian studying in London, this will likely apply most to your academic, or possibly work, routines. While it may be acceptable in some Canadian classrooms to show up at the bell or even to trail in a few minutes late, tardiness in the UK is considered disrespectful. Aim to show up for class a few minutes early so that you can get yourself situated and ready to learn as soon as the class “officially” starts. In the UK, it is similarly considered impolite and rude to show up for a lecture without having prepared in advance by completing any recommended readings or assignments.
UK education has a much faster pace and involves quite a bit more independent study, so these assignments aren’t voluntary; they are vital parts of your course material. But not to worry, as long as you are showing up on time, ready to learn and willing to participate in class discussions you should have no problems fitting in with your British classmates.
Ready to learn more about what studying in London could really mean for you? Discover the All-In-One student's guide below, and hopefully after reading you will feel more prepared and excited to take the next steps.
Photo Credit: Laurence Edmondson