UK: Customs and traditions






Visitors should be wary of the word sorry – it has endless nuances. For instance, if I inadvertently step on your toe we should both immediately say sorry. I’m sorry for having stepped on your toe – you say sorry to imply it was your fault really, or at least no one is quite sure, so both should say sorry. It also means no hard feelings. But when I say “sorry to bother you, but…” I’m not really apologising, just prefacing a request for some trivial favour, or bit of information. Such as: “Sorry to bother you, but do you have the time?” However, if you hear “sorry?” as a question you’re most likely being asked to repeat something not quite heard or understood.







What some foreigners, especially Americans, don’t know is that asking for two beers by raising two fingers – with the back of your hand to the person that you are facing – is considered a rude gesture. Legend has it that the gesture originated in the Hundred Years War that was fought between England and France in the 14th Century. One of the English military advantages was the longbow and skilled archers. As an interesting side note, all able-bodied men were required to practise archery on Sundays, and several sports including football were banned because they interfered with archery practice. The legend goes that when an archer was captured by the French, they would chop off the two fingers on his right hand that he used to draw the bow, thus rendering him useless as an archer. Therefore, brandishing those two fingers to the French became a gesture of defiance. These days, it’s a general-use rude gesture similar to the one-fingered salute that’s favoured in America, which is also used here. So when asking for your two pints of lager in the pub, if you feel the need to raise two fingers to illustrate your request, please make sure that you have the back of your hand facing yourself, not the barman.




British speakers of English try to avoid addressing each other by any sort of title. While speakers of French politely address strangers as “monsieur” or “madame”, the British are tongue-tied at the point of interaction, hoping that simple proximity will indicate to whom they are talking. These days, it’s considered condescending to use “sir” or “madam”, unless the speaker is in a clearly-defined “service” role. To fill this gap, the locals have developed various colloquial circumlocutions. In London, for example, “guv[nor]”, “mate” and “squire” are employed by males (according to complex rules) to address unknown males, with “darling” or “love” (rather questionably) filling the gap for males speaking to females. Further north, “petal” is a possible variant on “love”, while in western Scotland “pal” is used to address unknown males. In south Hampshire, the guv/pal equivalent is the linguistically intriguing “moosh”. What the British never, ever do is follow the American tradition and address those driving taxis as “driver”, those serving at table as “waiter” or those working the hotel switchboard as “operator”. To our ears, this is the height of condescension, verging on rudeness, and will ensure that the cab stops on the wrong side of the road, drinks orders are unfilled and the call is misrouted. Y’all remember that now.


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