Carpets in bathrooms, apologising when we’re not really sorry, and endless talk about the weather. Yes, we Brits are weird.
My husband is Spanish and despite being married to a Brit and having lived in the UK himself, there are a few traditions and customs he just can’t get his head round.
For any expats in the UK, here’s a handy guide to surviving my beloved (but weird) Britannia.
1. Tea. Tea is much more than a drink – it’s a national pastime, a social identifier and an emergency response (all crises are treated with a cup of tea).
Hosts should offer tea within minutes of guests arriving (or else appear very, very rude). We Brits may offer to make a coffee, but this is a polite pretense and we’ll be annoyed if you take us up on our offer. Besides, our coffee sucks.
‘Dunking’, i.e. the custom of lowering your biscuit into a cup of tea is a popular sport, especially in the north of England. In aristocratic circles it’s frowned upon. A seaside café in the south of England throws out customers for the crime of biscuit wetting. If in doubt, keep biscuit consumption to the privacy of your own four walls.
2. Greetings. Shake hands with someone you don’t know very well, offer one kiss on the cheek if you’re well acquainted and if you’re on any form of public transport in London avoid eye contact altogether. (In the capital only madmen and foreigners say hello to strangers).
Variations of ‘hello’ include ‘hiya’, ‘hey’, ‘isn’t this rain awful?’ and if you’re a man in the northern countryside a deep grunt accompanied by a nod of a flat capped head. Adolescents may choose to greet you with the latest cool saying (I heard my 12 year old neighbour using ‘you safe?’) Teenagers will not greet you.
3. Dress codes. ‘Smart casual’ means no trainers, no ripped jeans and a jacket, but no tie for men. It means pretending that you haven’t made an effort when really you’ve tried on a zillion outfits and are still unsure.
‘Cocktail’ means a slightly above the knee length dress. Anything too short and you won’t be invited back again (or at least not for the right reasons).
‘Optional Black tie’ is not optional. It means the host has bought a very expensive dress and she needs a reason to wear it. Dress formal, preferably something swishy and floor length.
‘White tie’ means it’s going to be a fabulous party.
4. Animals. Dogs are a man’s best friend here in the UK and we prefer them over humans. If you feel squeamish about dogs in pubs, then get over it or expect rubbish service. Dogs are not just animals; they’re passports to promotions and better boyfriends.
We love all animals not just dogs, and the fluffier the better. Meat sold in supermarket plastic packaging is not derived from real animals and we can eat as much as we like with a clear conscience.
5. Privacy. The British preoccupation with privacy may appear confusing to foreigners. Expect us to vent our outrage over intrusive public surveillance cameras via selfies posted all over social media.
6. Drinking. British people have a really bad reputation for overdoing it on the drinks. This is certainly well founded in some circumstances – on a sunny day, after an important international football game we might get a bit boisterous. However I’d like to think we’re mellowing. People will respect your choice if you choose not to drink alcohol for whatever reason
7. Humour. Sarcasm, irony, black humour: if you don’t get it, please just smile or force a giggle. Otherwise people will assume you’re boring, or German.
8. Table Manners. As mentioned my husband is Spanish and table manners cause more arguments in our household than Gibraltar (which is British incidentally…) Sit up straight, keep your fork in the left hand and your knife in the right.
If you’re a beautiful American film star we may forgive you for swapping your fork into your right hand and scooping, but anyone else will become a dinner party pariah.
If you’re beautiful and (very) French you might also get away with resting your elbows on the table in between courses. Anyone else will be excluded from future social functions (unless our genetic defect – see number 6 – kicks in).
9. Timings. There is only one thing worse than arriving too late to a dinner party – arriving on time. 15 minutes after the designated time is the correct point to show up.
10. Queuing. My family and I were invited to a lunch in Spain and gosh, the children were so much better behaved than the British youth of today. Until the food arrived. Had the children skipped that part of their education? Were they all off sick when the queuing class was being taught? The little angels turned into feral demons as they scrambled past me for food.
If you’re in the UK, be prepared to queue (if I were Prime Minister you’d go to jail). Spanish kids on English exchange programmes – you’ve been warned…