In Expat Life on
31/03/2018

What I’ve learned about the British since moving to the UK

It has been two and a half years now since I moved to Great Britain, so I think it’s time to talk about all the odd and funny habits people have in this country and the cultural differences I’ve observed. When I left Germany I thought that things can’t really be much different, as the UK is a European country with a Western culture and it’s just a two-hour flight away from Germany.

But the longer I’ve lived here, the more I realise: things are different – whether it’s communication, food or housing. Living in the UK also reminds me of how German I actually am, so it’s a helpful lesson in self-reflection too! There are obvious differences, for example the language and the left-hand traffic but I got used to these ‘major’ things quite quickly. It’s mostly the little things which I pick up at work or in conversations with friends that unveil these habits and attitudes British people have.

They’re good at small talk

When I started my first job here I learned that people normally have a brief chit-chat before they talk about work-related stuff. You’d always ask your colleague a question like ‘How are you?’ before you get to the actual point.

I truly admire people who can make conversation so effortlessly and I enjoy being around chatty people. Some might say that this kind of small talk is just superficial but it’s really helpful at work and to break the ice in awkward situations.

I also had to get used to chit-chat at the supermarket till, which brings me to…

Customer service is highly valued

People behind the till usually ask how your day is going and if you’ve found everything you were looking for. I think it’s a really nice gesture, even though I’m aware that they forget about me as soon as I leave the shop but I’d rather hear shallow kind words than no kind words at all.

They love pubs

And I love them too! Pubs are one of my favourite things in the UK, although you have to get used to drinking your beer at room temperature, still and without foam (they call this kind of beer ‘ale’). Pub food is often greasy and carb-loaded but it’s such good comfort food! Pubs are normally packed during after-work hours, especially on a Friday night. It’s the place to socialise, meet up with family and friends and watch your favourite sports games.

They love tea

I guess that’s not a surprise! However, when talking about tea they mean black tea in all variations (Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Darjeeling etc.). Fruit or herbal teas are called ‘infusions’, so when you ask for tea you will always be served black tea.

‘Having a cuppa’ is so much more than simply drinking a cup of tea. It’s a break from daily routines, a chance to catch up with a friend and the ‘fuel’ that takes you through the day.

Afternoon tea or cream tea is a special variation of your normal tea break as you have it with sandwiches, scones and little cakes. It’s very much a treat here, so you don’t have it every day but mostly on special occasions.

They are obsessed with the weather

It’s the first year that I’ve seen snow in the UK and the reactions are just hilarious. People in the office glue their faces against the window once they see the first snowflake. Because of the maritime climate it doesn’t snow that often in the UK, especially not in England. People also don’t have winter tyres for their cars and nobody shovels snow off the pavement in front of their houses, so getting around by foot is a slippery affair.

The reactions to warmer weather are hilarious too. 10-15 °C and sunshine are already warm enough to wear flip flops, miniskirts and sleeveless tops.

The weather is also a popular topic for conversations, probably because it’s so changeable and it’s a good starter for small talk.

They are obsessed with accents

Apparently people from the south around London sound more ‘posh’ than people from the north and if you’re having a scouse accent (Liverpool area) people always make fun of you. I can barely understand a person with an Irish accent but I can tell now if someone has an American, Australian, Canadian or South African accent, which was a major break-through for me in terms of understanding English better.

They don’t like Europe

At least 51.9% of eligible referendum voters did not, back in 2016! However, they do like the Commonwealth. I’ve met so many people from Canada, New Zealand and Australia in the UK. Since those countries once belonged to the British Empire, the cultural difference seems to be much less apparent compared to European countries that are geographically much closer to the UK.

They don’t tip

That’s something I learned quite late into my ‘living abroad’ experience. In Germany it’s common to give a tip of around 10%, even if you’ve experienced rather mediocre service. Here in the UK you’re not required to give any tips, especially not in a pub where you order at the bar. Sometimes you get the bill with an ‘optional service charge’ but you can ask your waiter to take it off the bill which they will normally do for you.

Everyone wants to own a house

When you decide to move in with your partner, renting isn’t an option for most people anymore, even when they’re still young. They will try to buy a house which isn’t that easy as house prices have increased massively over the last few years, especially in Cambridge. However, you don’t buy a house to live there for the rest of your life but it’s rather seen as an investment. You start with a small flat or house and sell it with a profit, so you have more money to spend on a bigger property when you start a family for example. It probably makes more sense than renting but it still baffles me how important it is for young people to get onto the ‘property ladder’, considering the horrendous house prices in recent years.

They love traditions

There is a big love for preserving historical places and traditions, which is amazing and so interesting when you visit these places. But sometimes it also feels as if people prefer to live in the past rather than in the present. There is a lot of nostalgia around World War II for example, which is really odd for me as a German because we perceive history, and especially the two World Wars, so differently. In the UK it’s more about the sacrifices people made in order to protect their country. In Germany it’s a constant process of coming to terms with the past and how these horrible things that happened can be prevented in the future.

They are quite funny

The infamous British humour is such a cliché and I am aware that not everyone is super funny in this country. But I’d still say that people here are quite witty, jolly and have a positive attitude towards life. Sometimes their humour is quite dry and I have to think twice about a joke but when I get the joke I find it to 99% funny!

Do you think I hit the nail on the head or are my observations completely wrong? Post it in the comments, I’d love to know your thoughts!


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6 Comments

  • Kelly

    I loved reading this post, Lena! I thought things wouldn’t be that much different moving from the US to the UK being as we both speak English, so I was surprised at even the little things that were so different. It’s so interesting to hear your perspective as someone from Germany! I think one thing I picked up from living there was becoming obsessed with the weather! And I wish I would’ve seen Cambridge in the snow. All the pictures are so beautiful.

    Tuesday April 17th, 2018 at 11:18 PM Reply
    • lena

      Thank you Kelly! That’s interesting to hear, I always thought if people speak the same language it can’t be so difficult to move countries.
      Cambridge in the snow is pretty indeed but we actually had a lot this year for English standards, so I’m glad it’s finally spring!

      Sunday April 22nd, 2018 at 12:22 PM Reply
  • Nicolas Inard

    I couldn’t have written those things better! Thanks Lena for your wonderful reflections and many British expressions. Such a pleasure to read 🙂

    Thursday April 12th, 2018 at 12:55 PM Reply
    • lena

      Thanks Nicolas, really appreciate it!

      Thursday April 12th, 2018 at 03:41 PM Reply
  • Angie

    I love this blog post very much!!!
    And I understand a lot of your feelings and reflections from my time in the UK 👍

    Sunday April 1st, 2018 at 08:01 PM Reply
    • lena

      Thanks Angie! 🙂

      Thursday April 12th, 2018 at 03:40 PM Reply

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