Very pleased to share my latest article – a Q&A column which was published as the lead article in the FOCUS magazine, autumn edition.
Read all the answers to common questions I get asked by my clients who’ve relocated to London, for example about the weather, how British people communicate & unusual customs.
Hope you find it useful & please let me know if you have any other questions, you would love to know the answer to! Feel free to share the article with anybody who’s newly arrived in London from overseas.
In my work supporting international professionals & expats settle into life in the UK with English language & culture courses, I am often asked questions about British life, the people & their customs. These questions are often about how to get things done here when you first arrive, and how to get up & running quickly to feel at home. Here I answer some top questions & shed some light on these areas.
Why does the UK have so many different names & what’s the right one to use?
So to start with, we need to look at some geography as amazingly the UK is both one country and four countries! There are different ways we talk about this country, so strictly speaking this is what they mean:
- United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland
- Great Britain: England, Wales & Scotland
- Britain: England & Wales
However, in reality in everyday life, you will hear people talk about the UK, Great Britain & Britain to mean all the same thing, i.e. the whole country. Usually England just refers to the country excluding Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland, and just to clear up any confusion the Republic of Ireland is a separate, independent county.
Why do Londoners never seem to carry an umbrella with them?
Now I’d like to set the record straight here: lots of people accuse our weather of being rainy, but the reality is that you’ll find most of that rain in the North West, Scotland, Wales & South West, which is why these areas are so lush & green. In fact, the South East is relatively dry & many summers we end up with hose-pipe bans (not being able to water your garden).
We certainly do have our rainy days, but the exciting thing that British people have discovered is that the weather changes here, a lot, and is totally unpredictable, even for weather forecasters. So if it’s rainy right now, the sun might come out in 2 minutes. And if you think you’re being smart by following the weather forecast to work out what will happen, then be warned. The BBC’s weather forecast for rain works one hour in delay – so a 60% chance of rain at 4pm actually means there is 60% chance that there will be some rain between 3-4pm! Which is why it might lead to some wet people.
Also remember weather is an important part of any chat for British people. We love talking about the weather and it usually kicks off with a question: e.g. “_______ day, isn’t it?” (insert the correct word for the day in question: cold, sunny, mild, rainy etc.). In fact, apparently almost 40% of British people have talked about the weather in the last hour, at any one time, which is truly remarkable! It’s probably why so many newspaper headlines are about the weather; both celebrating and moaning about it. So go on, get in the mood & get your weather chat ready.
Why do the British drive on the left but stand on the right on escalators?
Ah, now this is a tricky one, which foxes a lot of people. We obstinately drive on the left, and claim to do this because it was easier in the old days if you were travelling by horse to draw a sword, when most people are right-handed, and fight your opponent. This custom continued in the UK & a few other places, including Australia & Japan, whereas the rest of the world decided driving on the right was sensible. So an important piece of advice when you arrive: make sure you look the correct way for crossing the road, i.e. look right first, then left!
As for escalators….it makes sense if you think about it. We are still moving on the left, i.e. you can walk up the left-hand side of the escalator, but standing still on the right. You’ll soon get the hang of it, even if you have been here only a few days. Just don’t commit the faux pas of standing on the left, which will irritate people quite quickly, and you are sure to hear a “sorry” as somebody tries to get past.
Why do the British always ask, “How are you?” but don’t seem that interested in the reply.
This may surprise you but even informal conversations can have clear structures & rituals. Especially with people we don’t know well, we tend to steer clear of personal questions. The response to “How are you?” is usually an automatic “Fine, thank you, and you?” without much detail, except maybe saying life/ work is busy or good at the moment. We very rarely share what we really are feeling at this stage in the conversation, even if we feel ill or having problems, unless we know somebody very well.
At the end of meeting somebody, we also have our ritualised chat ending. You might hear a British person say, “We must catch up again soon for lunch/ coffee” etc . This is a fairly standard way to end the conversation and sometimes can be an empty invitation. It means, “Sure, let’s see each other again sometime in the future, but I’m not going to fix a date now”. So, don’t expect to start looking at your diaries together at that moment!
As a result, international residents sometimes tell me they find it hard to get to know the British, which can be true until you get them down the pub or out for a social event, when you will see drinking culture allows many inhibitions to be dropped! Heading to the pub with friends or colleagues after work or at lunchtime Friday is a great way to get to know people, and it’s here you will find out more about their personal lives in a relaxed way. You don’t have to drink alcohol, it’s more of the bonding social experience.
Why was Prince Philip not a King?
Great question! In fact, our law says that the Queen’s husband should be known as the Prince Consort and does not automatically become King. So for this reason, Prince Philip, who was also known as the Duke of Edinburgh in his lifetime, was never a King. However, it works differently the other way around, so Camilla, King Charles III’s wife is Queen Consort. Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge is also not a princess, but as & when William becomes our future King, then she will become Queen Catherine. The original reason for this was to protect the British Royal Family from “outsider influence”.
Why does the monarch have 2 birthdays?
Whether a British person is a royalist, a republican or just ambivalent, most people couldn’t help but admire the Queen for her achievement of 70 years’ reign, during which time she saw 15 Prime Ministers, 14 US Presidents & had more than 30 Corgi dogs. Plus as a British monarch, Queen Elizabeth was also lucky enough to celebrate her birthday twice.
Her real birthday was on 21st April and was celebrated privately with her family. It has been traditional for over 2 centuries to also celebrate the monarch’s official birthday in June with the ceremony called, ‘Trooping the Colour’. On this day you will see almost 1500 soldiers, 200 horses & 400 musicians marching along The Mall, a Royal Air Force display and a gun salute in Green Park. Pretty impressive, and I wish I had the same for my birthday.
Why are British public schools actually private? What are public schools called in the UK?
Our school system is quite complex & hard to navigate, and this topic creates the greatest number of questions for people when they relocate, especially if they are organising schools for their family. So to clear up this matter, our government-funded free education is offered in what we call “state schools”.
There are different types of private school, including public schools, which in other countries around the world have the meaning of a free education. In fact here, public schools are some of the best schools in the country, usually the oldest-established, most expensive schools with excellent reputations, for example Eton College, Harrow & Rugby Schools. These schools were originally called public because previous to their establishment, the only education option was to attend a local grammar school. When these new types of schools opened they were made “public” to poor scholars who could travel from further away to attend them, and were not restricted by religion or family situation.
If you’re finding the school system hard to navigate, then it’s worthwhile getting some orientation through a UK-based education consultant who can guide you through the options to successfully find a school place. For example, Magus Education, offers education consultancy & placement.
When does no mean no for a British person? And why don’t they just say no!
The British have a bit of a reputation for being indirect and some people might find it awkward to give negative feedback, so don’t want to say no. It’s often in situations where we don’t know the other people very well, or the stakes are high, e.g. a negotiation, or pitch.
As a result, they start the sentence by sounding positive, then comes a “but”, and finally end with the real negative message, e.g. “I see, that’s interesting, but maybe I can think about that”. They also might modify their language with words like “a bit”, “quite”, “fairly” or “rather”, both for positive and negative feedback, as they don’t want to sound too extreme, e.g. “That’s quite an interesting idea”.
It’s really important to listen to their voice to understand the real meaning. Positive, strong tone suggests this is positive feedback. Hesitant, questioning tone suggests this is negative feedback. Also watch out for the use of a double negative. E.g. “It’s not bad” = it’s good, or “It’s not very good” = it’s terrible.
You might also find people asking a question or asking your permission to give feedback but they definitely want you to listen to their opinion & take an action, e.g. “Could I make a suggestion here?”, or “What about if we offered a discount?”
Finally the most important part of the feedback will be flagged with introductory phrases to prepare you for their negative view, e.g. “To be honest, I need more time to think about it”, or “Actually, it’s a question of budget”.
Although these examples may sound indirect, it comes from an intention to be polite and diplomatic, to avoid conflict, to soften personal, negative feedback and from a feeling of awkwardness. Also bear in mind, these communication styles are true for some British people, in certain situations, but the point is to make sure you are always clear on what is being said, and if you are uncertain about the true intended feeling or meaning, then clarify by reflecting back what you think have heard.
If I have private healthcare in the UK, do I need to register with the NHS?
The National Healthcare System (NHS) is our free healthcare system, and a bit of national institution at over 50 years old. It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty marvellous service, available to all.
Many people believe that just because you have private healthcare insurance, you don’t need to register with the NHS or use their services. Actually, it’s highly recommended to register with the NHS, via your local GP (local doctor’s surgery), ideally as soon as you arrive. There are a couple of very good reasons to do this. First, if you have an accident & need to use A&E (Accident & Emergency, which is present in every NHS hospital), then it will much easier to be treated if they know who you are, because you have registered already. Secondly, if you end up staying in the UK for a time, then this can be an important public record of your proof of address, which can be significant if you do not work in the UK and/ or you don’t have your name officially on utility bills/ council tax for your home.
As for the service itself, generally it is good but can have long waiting times, depending on the specialist area & where you live. Some people opt to get a diagnosis & referral for a medical problem via the NHS, then get a faster appointment via their private healthcare insurance. However, in an emergency, the NHS is usually very good for treatment.
Is London a good place to move with pets? Where can I take my dogs walking in London?
Good news for pet owners! London is an exceptionally pet-friendly city, and that’s true also for the whole of the UK. The British love their pets, and whether you’re more of a dog or cat-person, you know the pet will be very much treated as a core part of the family. If you’re bringing your own pet over, you will find yourself meeting people easily as the city goes dog walking every morning & evening in our lovely royal parks & green spaces. There is also a whole industry built around pets’ services , and whether you are looking for meet-ups, grooming, sitters or pet artists, London is definitely the place to find them. And if you haven’t got a pet already but would love to have a pet while you’re here? I highly recommend Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, which is a popular shelter to adopt pets that have been abandoned by previous owners, and if that’s just too much commitment, then you can even “borrow” a pet for an afternoon from Borrow My Doggy!
Is London a family-friendly city? What are your top tips for families where to go & what to do in London?
Now that is a big question & I could write a book on that topic! Yes, there is a lot going on for kids in London & children are pretty much welcome everywhere, including in most restaurants or pubs during the day (except very smart ones), until 6pm. My favourite thing about children’s London is that most museums are free to visit & of course we have access to a huge number of parks & outdoor spaces, usually with excellent play facilities for kids. If your kids are old enough for walking around, then London is an excellent city to discover by foot, & when they get tired, just simply hop on a bus & travel on the top deck for a great view. Top tip: if you’ve just arrived, the no 15 bus will take you past the best landmarks & places to visit, so you can just hop on & off the route. If you want to keep up to date with the latest on what’s happening in London for kids, then I recommend you check out Time Out London for Kids, plus the Hoop app, which sends a helpful weekly newsletter with the latest events going on. Another way to know about family-friendly places, activities & recommendations for nannies, tutors, cleaners etc. in your part of London is to check out your local parenting facebook group, e.g. “Hampstead Mums” is the facebook group to join if you live in Hampstead.
Do I have to get tickets in advance for the British social season?
Yes, that’s right, you need to be clued up to get tickets for events such as Chelsea Flower Show & Royal Ascot. But the one you should really think about almost a year in advance is Wimbledon, as this is the event which is hardest to get tickets for. The opening date for the UK Public Ballot is usually 1 September and it runs to mid-December. If you are successful in gaining a ticket, you will find out by mid-February, and tickets are allocated randomly so you won’t be able to choose which game to go to.
If you miss out on the public ballot, then there are a limited number of tickets available online 48 hours in advance via Ticketmaster, but then the other way is to do what the British love best, which is queue on the day! You can queue up early in the morning to get tickets for the same day, or from mid-afternoon for ticket returns.
What is Fireworks Night & who is Guy Fawkes?
I have to say this is one of the stranger celebrations that we have in the UK. Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire or Fireworks Night) is on 5th November every year and this is a celebration of a historical event in 1605 when Guy Fawkes was arrested for trying to blow up Parliament and kill the King. The festivities were meant to celebrate the survival of King James I but most British people associate it with Guy Fawkes himself. We even have a little rhyme which kids learn in school:
Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I see of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
There are some big displays of fireworks in London, usually on the weekend closest to 5th, including at Alexandra Palace in North London & Battersea Park in South London, but getting anywhere high up & open will mean you will see some of the great displays going off across London. You may also see other fireworks around the end of October & start of November as Hindus celebrate Diwali, their festival of light.
Where are great places for English afternoon tea in London?
Well, everybody has their favourite places and that’s often connected to the experience & who you are with. There are some obvious contenders but new afternoon tea experiences are launching all the time in London, especially themed to match festivals & key events. So, here are my personal favourites & I’m sure you’ll discover your own as well! The Wallace Collection: this small museum just near Selfridges is a mansion house with a great collection of Victorian paintings & furnishings, but also happens to house a beautiful conservatory restaurant, where they serve delicious afternoon tea amongst the palm trees. Biscuiteers: for a slightly different, creative twist on the afternoon tea, why not try the Biscuiteers in Notting Hill, who specialise in beautifully-crafted, artistic biscuits for their afternoon tea, as well as the traditional scones & cakes. Fortnum & Mason: has sold tea for more than 300 years & their Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is a famous location for a very English afternoon tea. I also love wandering around the store afterwards looking at their lovely food gifts & hampers, which make perfect gifts.
Hope that’s answered some of your questions & always happy to help if you want to know anything else about settling in, life in London, English language or British culture! Enjoy your time here, whether you are here for 6 months or 20+ years!
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