Customs and Etiquette in England: 15 Things Every Visitor Should Know

Posted by Fodor's Editors on April 12, 2010 at 5:35:04 PM EDT | Post a Comment
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Is it a faux pas to order orange juice in an English pub? Is calmly waiting in line a sign of moral fortitude? Know before you go! To learn more about customs and etiquette in England, read on.

Customs

In general, British and American rules of etiquette are much the same. Differences are subtle. British people find American and Canadian bluntness somewhat startling from time to time, but are charmed by their friendliness.

British people tend to take politeness extremely seriously. They say "thank you" at every stage of a financial transaction, but are less likely to offer a "God bless you" should a stranger sneeze.

The famous British stiff upper lip is more relaxed these days, but on social occasions the best option is to observe what the others do, and then go with the flow. If you're visiting a family home, a gift of flowers is welcome, as is a bottle of wine, or maybe some candy for the children—but not all three.

Greetings

British people will shake hands on greeting old friends or acquaintances; female friends may greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. In Britain, you can never say please, thank you, or sorry too often; to thank your host, a phone call or thank-you card does nicely.

Sightseeing

As in the United States, in public places it is considered polite to give up your seat to an elderly person, to a pregnant woman, or a burdened parent struggling with young children and bags.

Sometimes if only a woman is standing, men will offer her their seats. Jaywalking is not illegal in England and everybody does it.

British people take waiting in line (called "queuing") incredibly seriously. They highly value patience, and will turn on "queue jumpers" who try to cut in line with some ferocity. Complaining while waiting in line is considered wimpy. Enduring the wait with good humor is considered a sign of strong moral character.

The single thing you can do that will most mark you as a tourist—and an impolite one—is failing to observe the written and spoken rule that, on virtually all escalators but especially those in tube stations, you stand on the right side of the escalator and leave room for people to walk past you on the left. Commuters are far too impatient to wait for the escalator to make its way to the top or the bottom, and they need to be able to rush by you. If you're in their way, they'll never forgive you.

Out on the Town

Etiquette in restaurants is much the same as in any major U.S. city. In restaurants you hail a waiter by saying "Excuse me..." as one passes by, or by trying to catch their eye by politely signaling with subtle hand signals. It is common to have drinks before dinner, and wine with dinner.

Tipping is done in Britain just as in the U.S., but at a lower level than you would back home. Tipping more can look like you're showing off. Do not tip movie or theater ushers, elevator operators, or bar staff in pubs—although you can always offer to buy them a drink. There's no need to tip at clubs (it's acceptable at posher establishments, though) unless you're being served at your table.

You're generally expected to dress "casually smart" for the theater (suits or nice jackets for men, skirts or nice slacks for women), and those going to nightclubs will dress just the same here as they would in New York or Chicago—the flashier the better. Pubs are very casual places, however, and jeans and tennis shoes are perfectly acceptable there.

Pubs

Note that most pubs do not have any waitstaff and that you are expected to go to the bar, order a beverage and your meal, and inform them of your table number. Also, in cities many pubs do not serve food after 3 pm , so they're usually a better lunch option than dinner.

A common misconception among visitors to England is that pubs are bars. Pubs are also gathering places, conversation zones, even restaurants. In many pubs alcohol is almost an afterthought. Pubs are, generally speaking, where people go to meet their friends and catch up on one another's lives. In small towns pubs act almost as town halls.

It is not uncommon for some people to order soft drinks, tea, or coffee, rather than beer. Even if you don't drink alcohol, go to a pub and have an orange juice or a soda, relax, and meet the locals.

Traditionally pub hours are 11-11, with last orders called about 20 minutes before closing time, but pubs can choose to stay open until midnight or 1 am , or later.

Posted in Travel Tips

Member Comments (12)  Post a Comment

  • Jandevere on Apr 17, 10 at 12:20 PM

    Watch out for bicycles!!! I was astounded last summer in London to watch the bikers speed along like crazed peacocks, dodging vehicles and coming awfully close to pedestrians. There also seems to be a very adversarial relationship between drivers and bikers! I actually saw a panel truck try to pin a biker between his truck and a parked car after an encounter with lots of #%$!@@ language and naughty gestures. This was right by the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall.

  • flanneruk on Apr 15, 10 at 05:40 AM

    "Escalators & footpaths follow the same rules as the roads: Drive/walk on the left - pass on the right."

    100% for creativity and wilful malice.
    The idea of a "rule" for footpaths is especially inventive.

  • Bokhara2 on Apr 14, 10 at 09:19 PM

    Escalators & footpaths follow the same rules as the roads: Drive/walk on the left - pass on the right.
    If you're standing on an escalator, please stand on the LEFT, so people can pass on the right.

  • Ms_Mouse on Apr 14, 10 at 03:41 PM

    In repsonse to British Voyager above - afraid your comment is more "bull" than The Bull in Ambridge :-)

    In all parts of the UK there are pubs that would put the "The Bull" in Ambridge to shame as a centre of community life - as well as pubs that are just bars, from the seediest to the swishest imaginable.

    Lots of people have a "local" that isn't "local" to where they live but which is the centre of a wider community of interest/companionship.

    Check the Good Pub Guide http://www.thegoodpubguide.co.uk/ or the Good Beer Guide by The Campaign for Real Ale http://www.camra.org.uk

    @atp2007 - I have a dog and have found that many pubs do NOT allow dogs other than "service dogs". The Good Pub Guide has info on whether or not pubs are child and/or dog-friendly and there is also http://www.doggiepubs.org.uk/

    In terms of "etiquette" I am SO tempted to say that you will make many friends if you visit a pub for the first time on a serious "Quiz Night" and either:
    a) Carry on noisily just as if a Quiz was not in progress
    or
    b) Shout out the answers
    or
    c) Take part and win!
    :-D

  • annhig on Apr 14, 10 at 02:47 PM

    there is certainly no law, unwritten or otherwise, that you shouldn't take flowers and wine and chocs if invited to someone's home...certainly not if you're coming to MY home. please feel free to bring as much as you like!

  • atp2007 on Apr 14, 10 at 01:23 PM

    I always thought it was funny that people could take their dogs into pubs w/o question, but wewould have to ask if it was okay to bring in our kids. The article should also mention that many pubs have two sides, the rowdy side and the more genteel side.

  • RLee on Apr 14, 10 at 12:34 PM

    Do pubs allow underage patrons? In Canada we have bars/pubs that allow kids till 6 or 7pm. Just wondering if it's the same in GB. By that I mean all of GB, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I do also understand that each country may have it's own rules.

  • tansay on Apr 14, 10 at 11:07 AM

    Canadian bluntness??? As a Canadian, who has visited family in Britain, I couldn't disagree more! I recall visiting a community art fair with my husband's aunt. She was interested in a painting, however was very pleased to tell the artist that 'he was getting above himself with that price.' I was taken aback - but both Aunt J and the seller were not in the least surprised.

    Also, my husband and I have had any number of pub dinners over the years -indeed we have preferred them to restaurant meals. Better food and cheaper!

  • British_Voyager on Apr 14, 10 at 10:20 AM

    "Pubs are, generally speaking, where people go to meet their friends and catch up on one another's lives. In small towns pubs act almost as town halls."
    When was this person last in Britain? They are clearly confusing The Bull in Ambridge* with a real British pub in 2010.

    *The Bull in Ambridge is a pub in a radio soap,Supposedly relecting country life in 2010, but seen through rose tinted spectacles.

  • y10vne on Apr 14, 10 at 09:54 AM

    Fodors seem to be confusing "England" with "Britain" throughout this article. Is it really that difficult for you to understand that England is only one of four countries which make up Great Britain. Or do the prejudices expressed not include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

  • WineTraveller on Apr 14, 10 at 09:47 AM

    Have a problem with your line "Jaywalking is not illegal in England and everybody does it." It may be legal to do, but it is also suicidal to do in cities, especially London. Non-Brits frequently fail to instinctively remember that the traffic is on the opposite side and seems to flow in the opposite direction. In London, many crosswalks have signs reminding you to watch which way you look. If you cross away from the corners, you run the risk of becoming part of the front grill of a bus or have an intimate experience with a Pirelli tire!

  • pdupka on Apr 14, 10 at 09:40 AM

    I spend my summers in London and have also worked as a barmaid three times. I agree with most of what you have said except for the dress at the theatre. You will find the full range of clothing from suits to jeans. When it is warm, some theatres do not have air conditioning, and people will wear shorts. Please do no avoid the theatre because you do not have nice clothes with you. It's a great experience. Make sure to check out half price tickets in Leicester Square. Also, go to www.lastminute.com for some good deals.

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