Monday, 21 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #4: Etiquette

Because I'm having a Week Of Doom at the moment, the wonderful Paul Anderson has agreed to guest-write this post, and probably the next one (about driving on the left hand side of the road!). He rocks.

If you know anything about the British, then you know that we are famed for politeness and good manners.

In Hollywood movies anyway. In real life we can be as crass, arrogant and rude as the next nation (the next nation is France - enough said). Here's a crash course in surviving the bewildering world of etiquette in Britain. There are whole books dedicated to this subject. This is just a taster.

Dining and Drinking

One of the delights of dining in America is the excellent service that you will receive, regardless of the eating establishment. From fine dining to fast food, service is fast, with a smile, and designed to please you. A very good reason for this is tipping. You don't dare incur the wrath of your customers, in case they don't tip, and if you are in the service industry, you need those tips to get by.

Not so in Britain. Thanks to the minimum wage, the service industry does not rely on tips. So lesson one, is that tipping is purely customary. Some restaurants may add a service charge to a table with a large party, but in general anything under 8 will not see a service charge added to your bill. At this point tipping is purely at your discretion, and a good tip is considered to be 10% of the bill. There are also no sales taxes to add on at the end, so don't worry about having to add that on when working out how to split the bill.

The downside of this of course is waiting staff may not be quite as attentive to you as you are used to. This doesn't excuse rudeness of course, but you aren't going to get quite the same level of service as you might expect in the US.

Also worth noting is that tips are generally placed in a pool and divided amongst all the staff on duty for that shift - your own particular server will not get the whole tip.

When in bars you may tip at your discretion - it is always appreciated, but again is not expected. Whilst in the US a dollar per drink is the normal rate, in the UK a couple of pounds per round is perfectly acceptable (unless the round is particularly expensive, or involves difficult drinks to mix, in which case you may consider the 10% option). [Ed: I tend not to tip in the average chain pub, but as Paul says, it is always appreciated.]


Outside of major cities like London, it is rare to see public taxis that you can flag down in the street. Most local councils have licensed taxi ranks from which to get a cab, or you can phone a private minicab company to arrange pick up. Please, for your own safety, only travel in licensed private minicabs or from licensed taxi ranks. There have been a number of cases of unlicensed cars picking up customers, particularly lone females, and assaulting them.

Once again, it is not customary to tip your driver, but you may do so if you feel the service was particularly good.


Note the spelling. If there's one thing the British know how to do, it is forming an orderly queue. Woe betide someone who cuts in line. You will be subjected to a chorus of tutting and repressed hostility. People may even mutter something about "bloody foreigners". The exception to this appears to be on public transport, when it is every man for themselves.

In crowded places like bars, there may appear to be no organised queuing system, but patrons have a general sense of who was there before them. Be aware of this. Often a barman will start to take an order from someone who will indicate that you were before them. Be gracious. If you truly were, then thank them. If you weren't, then say so and allow them to go before you.


It is still considered impolite to discuss religion and politics with strangers. And no matter how much you hear a British person complain about public transport, our food, our government, or our sporting performances, we're allowed to do so because they are ours. The instant a non-Brit starts complaining, we'll close ranks. Remember, you're a visitor, so in a sense you haven't earned the right to moan yet.

Oh, and for god's sake, don't mention the war. Any of them.

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