Having lived here for half a year, I have learnt a lot of things about the British culture. I must admit that I have had many preconceptions about British culture, and prior to this, my only exposure to this culture was through movies and television. Yes, my parents did tell me not to believe everything I watched on screen. And yes, it is wrong to make sweeping generalizations about people. So here’s something to make amends. Here are some of the things that I have learnt so far.
#1. British culture can be perceived as passive-aggressive to the uninitiated.
I am going to put this very bluntly. The British people are polite. Sometimes too polite that people from other cultures feel that they are condescending and patronizing. Sometimes, British people may seem to go to great lengths to avoid speaking about something bad, like they are trying to avoid and ignore an important issue. Truth is, they are simply being polite and would like not to hurt anyone. No mal-intentions, unless you give them a reason to be angry or annoyed at you.
#2. Some things that never mattered personally may matter to others.
And on things that may annoy people, there were some issues that I was ignorant about that is important to people. One issue is on gender identities. I participated in a few debate competitions, and all of them would ask me what my preferred pronoun was – whether I like to be identified as a male, female or have no preference. Having to go to such detail to ensure that everyone does not feel excluded shows that they do take these issues seriously and it was an eye opening experience to me. Once I said off the cuff that “I do not care what gender identity is assigned to me” to mean that I actually do not mind any gender identity people associate me with. But some people took offence, especially those who feel that their gender identity is important to them and that I was just dismissing them. This taught me a valuable lesson that sometimes it is not what you say, but how you say things. The choice of words is clearly very important in order to not be misunderstood.
#3. “Western” culture is not all the same.
Instead, it is one big cocktail of everything. My flatmate told me one time that in the UK, “accents change every 25 miles”. On a grander scale, that means that for “every 25 miles”, there are communities with their own distinctive backgrounds, histories and cultures. An example of such uniqueness is found in the musical My Fair Lady, where a linguistics professor claims to have the ability to identify where a person stays within two blocks accuracy just by listening to his accent. The differences might be very subtle, but they are there. And once I began appreciating the subtleties and the little nuances, the UK suddenly just became a hell of a lot more interesting.
#4: British people always have tea.
But they love coffee just as much. Cheers!