Prepare yourself for life in Britain with our guide to British culture
Despite being the home of the English language and sharing cultural affinities with America, Australia, and other former colonies, the British identity remains distinct. There are plenty of peculiarities which set them apart from their European neighbours and their cousins overseas, including some of the following:
Fish and chips Ask anyone around the world what the British eat, and there’s a good chance they’ll answer “fish and chips.” Despite being a by-word for British food, the origins of this humble combination of battered cod and potato fries can be traced, surprisingly, to the influence of Spanish Jews and the industrial revolution. Fried fish was first introduced to England by the Spanish immigrants in the 17th century, fleeing from persecution in their homelands. However, it wasn’t until the development of railways, allowing fresh fish to be transported rapidly into the cities, that fried fish became popular with the working classes.It is unclear how exactly the combination between fish and chips emerged, but it was well established by the beginning of the 20th century. So popular did it become that to keep morale up during the Second World War, the British government ensured fish and chips were still readily available throughout the country, despite the severe rationing of almost all other foods.
Drinking tea Britain is one of the world’s highest per-capita tea consumers, and has been for some three centuries! Popularly served in a mug with milk, and sometimes with sugar, drinking tea is one of the defining aspects of British culture. Tea reached Britain in the 17th century, imported from China by the East India Company. The drink’s popularity amongst the upper classes spread when a fashionable Portuguese princess with a penchant for tea married king Charles II.Brits first added milk and sugar to their tea in the 1720s, and in the following three decades imports quadrupled. During the industrial revolution, tea was promoted as a wholesome alternative to alcohol for the working classes (drinking un-boiled water was dangerous at the time), and tea drinking became a truly national pastime, essential to both society and the economy – Britain even went to war with China over tea!
Talking about the weather Britain’s most beloved subject of small talk, discussing the weather is the perfect ice-breaker or silence-filler for almost any situation. According to surveys, British people identify talking about the weather as their most unique national trait. Some experts suggest this is just a matter of climate and geography.While Britain may not be subject to arctic winters, blistering heat-waves or calamitous storms, its position at the edge of the Atlantic means the country’s weather is highly changeable. Alterations in atmospheric pressure can bring hot air from southern Europe or draw in icy blasts of wind from the frozen north, and wave upon wave of cloud and rain sweeps in from the ocean, driven by the Jet Stream. Don’t forget to bring your umbrella, because summer or winter, you’re guaranteed to need it!
Curry Curry is considered to be a British national dish, eaten regularly by some 23 million people. The term today embraces any South Asian dish served in spiced gravy or sauce, some of which are specific to Britain itself, like Chicken Tikka Masala. It’s believed that the world originates from a South Indian dish called Kari, which was popularised by the Portuguese in the 17th century.Britain’s obsession with curry stems from its long trading relationship with, and later rule of, the Indian subcontinent. Many British people spent time in India and returned with an appreciation of the cuisine, and this taste for curry spread throughout society as large numbers of South Asians moved to Britain following the Second World War. The food served in many of Britain’s South Asian restaurants is quite different to that in the region itself, as it’s been thoroughly anglicised, while dishes like the aforementioned Tikka Masala are unknown outside of Britain.
Mentioning the 1966 World Cup If you ever watch an England international football match on British TV, especially in the run up to or during a major tournament, you can practically guarantee this year will be mentioned. 1966 was, quite simply, the finest sporting moment ever enjoyed by a football-mad nation. The English team triumphed over West Germany on home ground to win their first, and only, World Cup final. The match went into extra time before finishing 4-2. It was the most watched television event in British history, peaking at 32.3 million viewers. Despite their less-than-stellar record ever since, English fans still dream of recreating this glory at every tournament. However, the team now hasn’t reached a final in either the European or World Cup competitions in 40 years.
Driving on the left Driving on the left is often seen as a quirk of the British. However, perhaps the more instructive question is to ask why two-thirds of the world drives on the right?This is because taking the left hand side in traffic actually goes back hundreds of years, well before the invention of automobiles, and was once the norm across much of Europe. In pre-industrial times, travellers would often carry swords or other weapons while travelling, and as most people are right handed, travelling on the right would have left them vulnerable to attack by people coming from the other direction. This long standing convention was eventually signed into law in the UK with The Highway Act of 1835. As the world’s first industrial nation and the leading superpower of the time, one might expect this to have been accepted as a worldwide norm.So why did much of the world start travelling on the right? After the French Revolution, the new Republic decided that, as part of sweeping away the old order, they would also change the side of the road upon which they travelled. Some put this change down to Napoleon, who was left handed. Whatever the reason, throughout France’s global empire, people began to travel on the right.In America, travelling on the left was initially more popular, but the invention of freight wagons changed this. The best place to sit to control the chains of horses pulling these giant wagons was on the back of the rear-most left-hand horse. Therefore, the best way for wagons to pass each other without colliding was by driving on the right. America’s industrial might in the early 20th century as the motor car was developed for mass production forced other countries to adopt this norm, although many of Britain’s former colonies still drive on the left to this day.
Apologising for everything It’s a common stereotype that the British say sorry about everything. In fact, British people are often believed around the world to be very polite and well-mannered. While this idea is based on a rose-tinted view of upper class British society, there is something of a cultural penchant for saying sorry – even when somebody else is at fault.A study by YouGov suggests that Brits are indeed consistently more apologetic than Americans, with 36% claiming they say sorry when someone bumps into them. Another survey suggested the average Brit says sorry around eight times a day. However, researchers suggest this doesn’t mean British people are genuinely more remorseful than those from other countries. Rather, it’s more of a cultural reflex, and often expresses an anxiety about impinging on other people’s privacy – such as when asking a stranger for help.
Baked beans and marmite Served in a tomato and sugar sauce, baked beans appear at first glance to be a uniquely British staple food. Enjoyed with toast and full English Breakfasts, this convenience food, despite being as British as drinking tea or Downton Abbey, is actually American in origin. Baked beans were first sold in the UK in 1886 as an expensive foreign delicacy, having been imported from the United States. If you want to try them, you’ll find them on breakfast menus in English style pubs and cafes throughout the country.Marmite, another cherished, but bizarre, British food, is also a foreign invention; first conceived of by a German scientist, Justus von Liebig. The yeast-extract spread, which is commonly used on bread and often combined with cheese, has become a metaphor for something that divides opinion. In fact, the British company’s own marketing slogan is “Love it or hate it.” Its strong, distinctive salty taste is variously despised and loved by millions. A different version of Marmite is sold in Australia and New Zealand, and Marmite is often added to plain rice congee in Malaysia and Singapore.
Arrange a 1:1 consultation with our Oxbridge experts
We are now offering free 15-20 minute Skype consultations. For more information on our summer programmes or top university admissions processes, reserve a time now.