How to fit in in Britain: the things they didn’t teach you at school

My friend Ioana (who is from Romania) has recently been asking me loads of questions about some of the ‘strange’ things we British people say and do, so I told her I’d write a short guide to how to fit in here – the real stuff that matters in day to day British life. If you learned English at school or classes, they probably taught you some stuff about our culture, like about Jane Austen and the Victorians and fish and chips? Well here are a few of my tips on some of the weird things you need to know to really fit in in the UK…


  1. How to make a proper cuppa’

A ‘cuppa’ for those of you who don’t know, is what we call a cup of tea. And it’s not something to be taken lightly. If you make a cup of tea incorrectly, you will be judged, and quite possibly frozen out of your social circle. So make sure you follow these simple instructions: Water must be boiled, but not necessarily to 100 degrees. It’s acceptable to make the water slightly cooler so you can actually drink the tea. Teabag first. Anyone who says otherwise is a dangerous heretic. Water up to an inch from the top – no one likes a half measure. Leave the bag for 1-3 minutes depending on preferred strength. But be aware that weak tea marks you out as an inspid person. Then remove the teabag and add milk. If you don’t add milk, this is ok, but you’re not a real British person. For the love of God don’t add sugar unless you’re a builder or below the age of ten – we will judge you. If someone asks you ‘how do you take your tea?’ the only correct answer is ‘milk, no sugar’. It’s a rhetorical question, actually, but make sure you do ask, for politeness reasons. Contrary to popular belief it’s perfectly ok to make your tea in a mug, but teapots are nice for special occasions. Add an extra bag ‘for the pot’. When you are given a cup of tea, you must take a sip and then say something like ‘ooh that’s better’, ‘lovely’ or similar. Tea must be drunk at least 4 times a day, although the 5pm tea thing is sadly a myth.

  1. How to ride the tube in a socially acceptable way.

The basics: DO NOT look anyone in the eye. In fact, do not look at them at all. If you accidentally look at someone, be sure to look around the carriage and pretend you meant to do that all along. Don’t speak, unless you absolutely have to, or sing, unless there’s a football match on. Look at the floor as much as possible. Try not to touch anyone even if they are right up against you. If they bump you, say ‘sorry, sorry’ with an embarrassed face, and ideally hold up your palms to show it was unintentional. If someone gets in your way, blocks the exit or leaves a huge suitcase in the aisle, you may give a small tut or cough to express your intense anger and disgust. Don’t barge on to the train before people exit, and be sure to glare (subtly) at anyone who does, although if they look at you, change your face and pretend to whistle nonchalently. If you are carrying anything larger than a clutch bag, you should look embarrassed by it and give it an occasional glance as if to say ‘this old thing!’ and look apologetic. If anyone starts talking or doing anything other than looking at their book/phone/shoes, then you should look at your own shoes more intently to make up for their dreadful social faux pas.

Ps be aware you can spot tourists a mile off because they’ll be disregarding all those rules, and probably loudly asking the way to ‘Ley-cester square’. You may mock them, but do so quietly and preferably once you’ve left the tube, but pretending you actually gave them a witty telling-off.

  1. ‘Politeness’

Everyone knows about the famous British politeness, but few people understand what it really is and how it works. The Canadians have tried to steal our reputation for awkward over-politeness, but they’re wrong. We invented it. The main point is to appear to be polite at all times, whilst secretly hating everybody. There are many seemingly strange rules to learn, so here are just a few:

Say sorry all the time. Someone bumped into you? ‘Sorry!’ You looked at someone? ‘Sorry!’ You don’t have the right change? ‘Sorry!’ You’re looking for someone but they’re not there? ‘Sorry!’ This must become automatic.

Say thanks to everything. Remember to say this at the end of a phone call, even if it’s from James from Whirlpool trying to sell you a new fridge you don’t want. You may also say ‘cheers’ as a more casual form of thanks. If in doubt, say thank you a few times. Or sorry for good measure. Thank you and sorry together are a powerful force for seeming charmingly British and superbly polite.

Never take the last one of anything, such as biscuits or roast potatoes. Make sure you offer them to everyone else before you consider eating it. However, if someone offers you the last biscuit, you’re not supposed to take it, because them offering it to you means they want it. Similarly, if you’re eating a meal with people, you mustn’t start eating until everyone else does.

When you meet someone you must say that you are ‘pleased to meet them’ even if you are not. Make sure you invite them to ‘pop round for tea’ or say ‘you must come for dinner some time’. Don’t worry – they won’t actually come for dinner. Every British person knows that this is a politeness phrase which means nothing at all. In fact, there is a silent ‘but please don’t’, after all of those requests. If you want to actually invite someone, make sure you suggest a concrete date and time.

Don’t be late when meeting a British person. They hate lateness and will tut at you if you’re more than 5 minutes late.

  1. Queuing

Queuing is our national sport and if you get it wrong, you will incur more wrath than if you insult the Queen, mix up Manchester United and Man City or call a Scottish person English. Queuing is sacred. If you see a queue, just join it, even if you don’t know what it’s for – it must be something good. Never ever ever try to skip a queue, push in, or barge to the front. If you see someone doing that, then this is the ONLY time you are allowed to actually get angry and tell them off. Or at least cough, tut or give a disapproving look. If you see an Italian or Spanish person, make sure to guard your queue position with your life, as they don’t know our rules and can’t be trusted to behave properly.

  1. Special phrases to avoid saying what we mean

There are many phrases that we use that don’t mean what you think they mean. Such as ‘you must come for dinner’. For example…

‘I might join you later’ (really means… I don’t want to come)

‘I should start thinking about making a move’ (I’m out of here!)

‘Honestly, it doesn’t matter’ (I’m really angry)

‘With all due respect…’ (I think what you’re saying is rubbish)

‘I’m just popping to the shop, does anyone want anything?’ (please say nothing)

‘I might get some cash out’ (I am actually doing so right now… no ‘might’ about it)

‘Not bad’ (this may mean anything from AWESOME to horrendous)

‘Interesting…’ (are you crazy? / I’m not listening)

‘I’ll bear it in mind’ (what a rubbish idea. I won’t bear it in mind at all)

‘I don’t mind’ (I definitely do mind)

Always remember that you’re not allowed to be too positive about anything. If someone compliments anything you’re wearing you must immediately say ‘what? That old thing?”, if they praise something you did, you say ‘it was nothing’. Something really great is ‘not bad’. But similarly don’t be too negative. ‘Could be worse’ covers everything from dropping a sandwich to losing an arm.


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