8 British Stereotypes and Why They Are (Mostly) Inaccurate
As with any other country, we Brits are subject to our fair share of cultural stereotypes.
While, to a greater or lesser degree, there’s an element of truth in some of them, you’ll soon discover that many are comically far from the truth! That’s not to say that we deny responsibility; many of the stereotypes about the British are of our own making, and it gets worse if you get into region-specific stereotypes, like the range of things said about the Scottish and Welsh. Still, it’s certainly the case that visitors can come to Britain with somewhat inaccurate expectations of what they’ll find here. In this article, we’re going to debunk some of the myths and help you get to know us a little better.
1. We’re all best mates with Prince William
Mention to someone from another country that you’re from Britain, and one of the responses you may encounter is “Do you know Prince William?” And in that question, you might just as well substitute the heir to the British throne with any other member of the Royal Family. Judging by the volume of Royal memorabilia sold to tourists each year, it would seem that our Royals are one of the things that non-Brits most love about us. Even those of us who live in Britain are fascinated by them, particularly since William and Kate have come to the fore as the monarchy’s 21st century ambassadors.
While it’s very gratifying that our monarchy generates so much interest from overseas, Britain is a country with a population of 63.23 million people. Funnily enough, we’re not all personally acquainted with the Royals, even though many of us will happily dig out our anecdote about “the day we saw the Queen” or about our brief encounter with one of the more minor members of the Royal Family. But, while we may be on first name terms with them, they’re sadly not on first name terms with us.
2. We all live in a gloriously idealised London
In the imaginations of many outside the UK, our capital city is the place in which all British people reside – doubtless in residences with views of the Houses of Parliament or Buckingham Palace. At a push, non-Brits may have heard of other major cities such as Oxford or Edinburgh, and maybe Birmingham, but that’s often as far as non-Brit knowledge extends. This isn’t helped by the fact that so many major films are set in London: Notting Hill, Love Actually, Bridget Jones, to name but a few. And all these films present idealised versions of London that have those who’ve never been imagining that it’s idyllically snowy in the winter and sunny in the summer, that transport is by the iconic red double decker buses and black cabs (the latter at least is partly true), and that all London living is based in the very heart of the city, surrounded by its most famous landmarks. In movies, those who don’t live in London live in picture-perfect villages surrounded by unspoilt countryside, in quaint little cottages with log burners, and roses growing around the door.
The reality, of course, sadly doesn’t quite live up to this romantic ideal. Those who live in London live mostly in its sprawling (and often depressing) suburbs, with astronomical house prices making living in central London an impossible dream for everyone but the world’s richest. More often than not, London is grey, polluted and rainy, and getting from A to B is a gargantuan task that involves negotiating the grimy, crowded London Underground, known affectionately as “The Tube”. Don’t get us wrong – London is fantastic. But it’s not how it’s portrayed on the big screen.
What’s more, most Brits don’t live in London. They live in cities, towns and villages dotted around the country, just like people do in any other country. Though there is much to admire about the majority of British settlements, and many have long and interesting histories that are still in evidence in their buildings and monuments, they’re probably not how most non-Brits imagine them. These days our high streets look very similar from one town to the next, because they’re all dominated by chains of the same shops and supermarkets, and modern housing estates all look the same because they’re mostly built by the same property developers. Some people do enjoy the idealised, Hollywood version of Britain – but it’s generally the people who have lots of money. That’s not to say, however, that Britain for everyday people lacks charm; far from it.
3. We all talk like a Cockney or an aristocrat
“Tally ho old sport! I say, isn’t this some ghastly weather we’re having, what?”
“Alright me old geyser?”
These are the two categories of British accent that constitute most non-Brits’ impressions of how we talk here in Britain. Hollywood has done little to dispel this idea of British speech, as this is how we’re depicted in most movies as well.
In reality, numerous regional dialects add colour to the way in which English is spoken in Britain, from the thick Glaswegian accent to the gentle West Country lilt. With each of our many accents comes our own set of internal British stereotypes, but we don’t have time to look at these now. Suffice it to say that if you come to Britain expecting us to talk like the Queen or Dick Van Dyke, you’re in for a disappointment!
4. All we ever talk about is the weather
There’s certainly a big element of truth in this one, but you only have to look at the average British weather forecast to understand why. If you lived in, say, California, you’d get bored of talking about the weather after a while, because the sun is always shining and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, weather-wise, from one week to the next. Over here, on the other hand, our weather changes constantly. Look at today for example. When I woke up this morning the sun was shining and it was the perfect crisp winter’s day. It’s now 11.20am and it has clouded over and it’s raining heavily. What’s more, January was so wet that much of the country is suffering from horrendous flooding. It’s only February and we’ve already experienced record levels of rain, mini tornadoes, record-breaking wind speeds and the biggest, most destructive waves the coast has ever seen. There’s never a dull moment when it comes to the British weather, and that’s why we like to talk about it so much.
But talking about the weather fulfils another purpose: it’s a guaranteed topic for small talk, a safeguard we use to avoid those awkward silences that we self-conscious Brits hate. That self-consciousness and awkwardness is another stereotype, of course; even if there are plenty of Brits like that, there are also plenty of gregarious types who defy that image. And all that said, we don’t just talk about the weather. We talk about what we’re up to at the weekend, what happened on TV last night and what we think of the latest gossip. And plenty more besides that, too.
5. We have a stiff upper lip
The idea of the “stiff upper lip” comes from the fact that a trembling upper lip betrays a lack of control over one’s emotions, and maintaining a stiff upper lip – not showing any emotion – is something that many people think characterises the Brits. This misconception stems from the Victorian period, when showing your emotions was indeed considered a big no-no. This has left us with a reputation for being reserved, and reluctant to show how we feel, but this labelling of us as unemotional is a little unfair. These days it’s considered healthy to show grief if you feel it; just look at the public outpouring of emotion at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. A number of newspaper articles in recent years have argued that the British stiff upper lip is no more, and you only have to observe the number of tears shed on reality TV shows like The X Factor to see why this outdated stereotype now fails to hold true.
6. Our food is awful and we can’t produce our own wine
Some countries – dare we say it, France, for example – look down their noses at British food and deride us for our lack of taste. Admittedly, the proliferation in Britain of eating places of overseas origin – French, Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, to name but a few – does rather suggest that we feel our own food is lacking something; after all, in Italy, you only really see Italian restaurants.
We admit that fish and chips and “bangers and mash” aren’t exactly the height of culinary sophistication, and the less said about Glasgow’s deep fried Mars Bars, the better. But what about our fabulous cakes and Afternoon Teas? Our hearty steamed puddings? Cornish pasties? And our huge variety of delicious sausages and cheeses? A good strong cheddar is every bit as good as a French cheese; and the French may claim that they have a different cheese for every day of the year, but according to the English Cheese Board, we have over 700 different varieties. And we don’t care what anyone says, we love our Sunday roasts and they’re the feast of kings.
Our wine industry is a bit of a joke compared to that of many countries, and that’s why we import so much. After all, what grape would grow in our horrid rainy climate? Well, quite a few actually. It may surprise you to learn that we have a number of vineyards and we even produce our own sparkling wine – the British answer to Champagne. Not that anyone in the UK ever really drinks it, but we feel that that’s beside the point.
7. We’re a nation of queuers
Now here is a British stereotype that definitely is true, and we’re very glad about it. We Brits are renowned for forming an orderly queue whenever the need arises. We’re not ones for pushing and shoving; we let fairness rule the day and patiently wait our turn. Few things offend us more than people who jump the queue, and we’ll make sure that any violators of the queuing order feel the full force of our disapproving glare.
8. We complain a lot – but we also say sorry a lot
It’s true: we do complain a lot. We love grumbling to each other about everything from our neighbours to politicians, from energy bills to noisy parties and from the weather being too cold to the weather being too hot. But we’re normally too polite actually to complain to the source of the grievance. In a restaurant, for example, we might privately complain to our dining companion about the standard of the food, but when the waiter comes round to ask us if everything is alright with our meals, most of us will politely tell them how good it is.
It’s also true that we say sorry a lot. In the restaurant scenario we’ve just outlined, if we did pluck up the courage to say something about our substandard meal, we’d probably start and end our complaint with the word “sorry”, as if it was somehow our fault that the food wasn’t up to scratch, and that we are the ones who must do the apologising. It makes no sense, but that’s just how we’re wired.
If you’d like to see for yourself how we Brits measure up to our stereotypes, why not try signing yourself up to one of our English as a Foreign Language (EFL) courses? During your studies, you’ll stay in the classic English university city of Oxford, where your education extends beyond the classroom to learning about Britain’s rich culture and history. What better way to get to know what the Brits are really like than by travelling to the UK and understanding the background to what makes us tick? If you do decide to join us, just remember one thing when you’re at a bus stop or buying something in a shop: never, ever, jump the queue.