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British Politeness and Social Etiquette

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Historical and Class-based Etiquette

Britain is known around the world for its politeness and rules of social etiquette. Some of these rules are historical or class-based and can be seen in period dramas, films and television programmes such as Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, and Pride and Prejudice, which attract huge audiences and have influenced the perceptions of viewers worldwide. Such programmes display the behaviour that was expected in certain settings, at certain times, between people of different social standings. 

‘My dear fellow…some things are just not done’

In these programmes we usually see the rules followed, but at times they are scandalously broken. As viewers, we learn that breaking such rules may, at best, ‘raise an eyebrow’ or in the very worst cases, even lead to disgrace. These rules are seldom stated – they are just accepted as being the natural order of things. Historical British social politeness may be summarised in the phrase: ‘One simply does not do that’.            

Without a doubt, Britain considers itself to be a polite country but in our modern British culture, are such notions of social etiquette still important? And what does that really mean when every country has its own sense of these things? Well, in our classrooms it means a near-endless source of trivia, activities and discussions as we compare and contrast our own customs and habits with other people’s.


It is clear that rules of etiquette linger to some extent in the aristocracy, as can be evidenced by the protocols surrounding the British Royal Family, but even here customs have modernised. For example, historically when leaving the Queen’s presence, you would have walked backwards until you were far enough away that you could leave the room in the normal fashion. These days this is no longer necessary, but whether this was changed because it seems a little silly or because of health and safety concerns (as widely reported in 2009), I cannot tell you! However, people must still greet the Queen and other dignitaries in a specific way. For example, when presented to The Queen, the correct formal address is ‘Your Majesty’ and subsequently ‘Ma’am,’ pronounced with a short ‘a,’ as in ‘jam’. The Royal protocol can be found here

For those of us who are not Royalty (yes, that’s most of us!) and who are not likely to be meeting the Queen anytime soon, these facts fall into the trivia category, and you may consider it more important to teach your students about things they will really encounter when they visit the UK. There are still some things most Britons just do not do, such as queue jumping. This social ‘faux pas’ is likely to be met with horror and irritation from those already queuing – though they may not ever say anything to the offender as they don’t want to make a scene! Other examples of behavioural norms include saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ every time a request is made. For example, when paying for something in a shop or ordering food in a restaurant, or closer to home at the dinner table: ‘Please could you pass me the salt?’, then a few seconds later ‘Please could you pass me the pepper?’, a little while later, ‘Please can you pass me the water?’…and so on. Quite exasperating I’m sure for those who are not used to this.

As some norms pass out of fashion, other newer ones become established. These days it is common to see people balancing shopping in their arms as they leave the supermarket if they have forgotten their reusable shopping bag – strange behaviour in the past! We certainly need further guidance in other areas as there are times when you need to check your mobile phone and reply to messages urgently, but is while having dinner with friends one of them? Probably not!

Visiting the UK

So, the next time you visit Britain here’s some advice:

  • Small talk with a stranger should usually be about the weather or the fact the train or bus is late. 
  • Don’t forget to queue properly, joining the end of the queue and not in the middle.
  • When eating, do not speak with your mouth full. 
  • If you have an awkward social interaction with someone, such as trying to go in and out of a door at the same time, both people would say sorry. Neither of you has done anything wrong but it is used to acknowledge the awkwardness of the moment.
  • It is also polite to apologise if you are paying for something using a lot of change, perhaps with a short ‘I’m sorry about all the change, you don’t mind do you’? Why? Well as a rule we British do not like to inconvenience anyone and counting out lots of change may cause some inconvenience.
  • Another general rule of thumb for British people seems to be: “Why use fewer words when you can use more?!” Consider the example ‘Can you open the window, please’ vs ‘I hope you don’t mind, if it isn’t too much trouble, would it be possible to open the window, please’. Adding modals, (particularly in the past tense) and making requests indirect may be exhausting, but it is polite! Happily, the second example here is a little over the top and we don’t really speak like that in everyday life. In fact, you might come across as a little rude for wasting so much time!
  • Finally, don’t forget your reusable carrier bag for your shopping!

These are just a few tips to brighten up your stay when you next visit. And remember, you can always reduce the extent of a social blunder with a smile. Just saying please and thank you frequently and giving a friendly smile will keep you in good standing and help you to navigate the arduous terrain that is British social etiquette. 

Lesson activity for teachers

Attached is a short activity that will help your students learn about what is and is not acceptable! You will need one set of cut-up cards per small group. 

  1. Give each group a set of cards.
  2. Ask them to sort the advice listed into things that are ‘always true’, ‘partly true’ or ‘never true’.
  3. Have students compare their answers with another group.
  4. As a class, discuss each scenario and decide on what you think are the most important rules.
  5. Discuss with students their own experiences of British politeness (or rudeness!)
  6. What are the social rules within students’ own culture(s)?

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