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Day-to-Day Etiquette in London

While Americans are generally regarded as being forthright (especially about complaints) and on the loud side, the British are known quite rightly for their steely reserve, as well as their ironic and sarcastic sense of humor. So while we may share a similar Anglo-Saxon ideology, background, and language, there are distinct differences between us and how we interact with our fellow humans.

For example, as an American, I find it difficult to accept the poor customer service that is often handed out, expecting much more from the food server or sales assistant. Yet I have come to realize that making a big fuss won’t necessarily get me anywhere and I will be dubbed a pushy American and duly ignored. However, a polite, yet direct, request that they do something (such as checking the stockroom) may be the best approach. Thankfully, some retailers (albeit the more expensive ones) have finally realized that customers do value good service, and there has been a marked change to improve their customer service.

Waiting in line at the Bank of London.
Waiting in line at the Bank of London. Photo © Sean O’Neill, licensed Creative Commons 2.0.

The most noticeable difference between the British and any other nationality is their tendency to “queue” (line up) and their deep indignation if someone “jumps the queue” and pushes in front of the line. Likewise, “cutting someone up” (when a driver purposely gets into the wrong lane at a traffic light or line of traffic and then darts into the right lane at the last minute, thereby avoiding the line of traffic) can easily lead to road rage. Even in crowded London, people patiently queue for a bus. The more polite members of society will ask anyone even remotely near a queue, such as at a sales till, whether they are in a queue before stepping toward the line. And if I am completely honest with you, on more than one occasion I have stood behind someone believing them to be in a queue, only to realize that they weren’t when the sales till became empty and they didn’t move forward.

Another major difference between the British and many other nationalities comes from their driving habits. So, not only do you drive on the left, with oncoming traffic to your right, but often people will adopt the same approach when walking down the sidewalk (referred to as “pavement” here). Of course this depends on how crowded the sidewalk is, but generally people naturally keep oncoming traffic to their right, whereas Americans naturally keep oncoming traffic to their left. Don’t be surprised when you first arrive and you have a few odd little dances with people, as you both sidestep the same way to avoid bumping into each other, or someone makes an embarrassingly large maneuver to ensure that they pass you on their right.

Interior of a British Jaguar XJS convertible, showing the driver's controls on the right-hand side.
Interior of a British Jaguar XJS convertible, showing the driver’s controls on the right-hand side. Photo © Jeremy, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

On the whole there is more day-to-day formality in Britain, such as men holding or opening doors for women or removing their hats when they are inside. Sometimes a man will give up his seat on a train for a woman or someone younger will give their seat to someone older. Generally, people will shake hands when they are introduced, with the younger generation making do with a nod of the head and greeting of “hi” or “all right?” although handshakes are common in the workplace. The French custom of air-kisses on both cheeks is fairly widespread in some circles, although it is a considered by some to be a bit bourgeois.

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