Welcome to the British Culture Club

Planning to live, work, or study in the UK? Working with British companies? We help explain some of the mysteries of British culture, customs and the English language.

Turn on English subtitles to read the text while listening.

Politeness - Mind Your P's and Q's

Dan: Hello everyone, and welcome to the British Culture Club. The podcast, online magazine, and videos exploring British culture. In this episode you'll learn more about a British politeness. We'll start off with an interview.

So today I have with me, Ollie. Ollie is a young man in his early twenties. He's been brought up in the UK but he's traveled to other places as well and has traveled around the world. So he has experience of other cultures as well. Hi Ollie.

Ollie: Hi, Dan, how are you doing?

Dan: Yes. Very good. Thank you. Today we'll talk about politeness

So Ollie, when I say politeness, what do you think of.

Ollie: I think if someone that acknowledges someone else and respects that other person, and I feel like people do this through you know, gestures or certain mannerisms and someone saying, thank you, or please.

Yeah, I think ever, ever since I can remember, my grandparents always used to tell me to do certain things and especially on the dinner table , you know, with the cutlery, it has to be in a certain way, not to have your elbows on the table when you're eating. You know, and to say please, and thank you.

And especially when you're out at a restaurant, I think to really acknowledge the waiter or waitress to say, you know, "thank you for that" or "excuse me, please can I have" a certain thing. And I think it's a respect. And I think that's what politeness really is in the UK is to respect.

Dan: What do you notice about how people interact in public spaces here in Britain?

Ollie: So in the UK, I think one of the main things is queuing. And I know I've noticed this a lot, wherever I've traveled within the UK you know, people are queuing to go to toilets, people are queuing to go into the shops. And within the shops, you know, once you've finished your shop, you have to queue to pay for your shopping.

I think this is a gesture of politeness as well, because you're respecting other people around you.

Dan: Would you describe yourself as a polite person?

Ollie: Yeah, I would and my friends as well, also polite because, you know, I say my please and thank you's, you know, I'd hold the door open for someone.

Dan: Okay. So that's another way of showing politeness - giving other people priority by, by holding a door open for them. And your friends, do you think they would do the same thing? Would they, do they act in the same way?

Ollie: Yeah, definitely. I think my friends are definitely polite in the same way I am in my gestures. And I don't have any friends that I sort of think, oh, you know, you shouldn't be doing that. That's that's not polite. They always are polite.

Dan: Do you feel that that's the same between your friends and your group as it is between maybe one of your friends or yourself and somebody from an older generation?

Ollie: Yeah, perhaps that's slightly different, because I think when you're with your friends you sort of know each other and you're perhaps not so polite to one another. But when you're speaking to someone maybe from an older generation I think you're more polite. And I think that's because you sort of respect them more and you don't know them as well on such a friendly level.

Dan: Yeah. So it's slightly more casual than say between yourself and an older person.

Ollie: Definitely.

Dan: Somebody looking from abroad to the UK might have this image of the sort of stereotypical image of an English gentleman. Do you think the English gentleman exists?

Ollie: I do. Yeah, but I think it's gradually slipping away. I know, especially in the area that I've been bought up that there is this English gentleman. And I think you know, people from abroad still see this as a British culture ideology or stereotype, that there is this English gentlemen. But I do believe an English gentlemen does exist.

Dan: And what characterises the English gentlemen?

Ollie: I think an English gentleman is someone that is polite and has been bought up well and sort of respects, respects someone else. And you know, it looks after them.

Dan: Are there any downsides to British politeness do you think?

Ollie: Yeah. I think some people can be over-polite. People can say, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, and it's just, it's just unnecessary I think. I guess you're acknowledging that other person and you are saying, sorry, but you don't need to keep repeating it. I think once is enough, and please and thank you can also be used too much. And when it's overused, it then takes away from this from the politeness and this gesture of goodwill.

Dan: Do you think there's a sort of expectation between people in Britain about politeness?

Ollie: Yeah, there is. And I think that this can be shown in queues and if someone jumped to queue, you know, people sort of look down on someone because they haven't been polite and they're almost judging them. And I think, yeah, that's almost an issue.

Dan: Ollie covered a lot of different aspects of politeness there. Thank you, Ollie. He talked about table manners, saying please and thank you, being polite in a restaurant, queuing, holding doors open, and apologising. And really the essence of being polite, respecting other people.

Let's go over to Jessica to get more views on what it means to be polite.

Jessica: Hello everyone, I'm Jessica, and today I'm going to be talking with Callum. Callum lives and works in Bath in England. He is a bookseller at Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights, an independent bookshop.

Hi Callum.

Callum: Hello

Jessica: So what do you you think about when you think of British politeness?

Callum: It's often something that British people are caricatured for having, for being over polite. And I recognise that when I'm in other countries, that's not to say of course, that other countries are rude in any way. It's just to say, I think that sometimes British people are very quick to apologise for things unnecessarily and to thank people.

Jessica: I think a lot of people would associate being polite in Britain with apologising a lot and saying thank you a lot. Thinking of examples from films, a lot of British actors, like Hugh Grant, they apologised a lot and it's quite funny, but it is a very British thing to avoid conflict or bad situations.

Callum: Definitely. I think it does go hand in hand with a certain charm that is perceived of British people.

Jessica: So what are some of the places you can think of where you might be expected to behave with good manners in Britain.

Callum: Schools, certainly as a young person that was educated in Britain, you're sort of taught. Certainly I went to a Church of England school where manners were taught extensively and we're expected to use them in all situations, in the food hall with teachers, with other parents, certainly in sort of eating and dining situations, in restaurants.

There's a level of etiquette and manners, which are expected. In the workplace , depending on what sort of role you do as well, if you're customer-facing, or if you're business-to-business manners often go a very long way. I think manners really do take up a large part of British culture or they sort of find their way into most conversations, dinnertime conversations when you're talking with your elders as well, I think there's a level of etiquette which is expected.

Jessica: Can you think of any examples of good manners or politeness to use in the workplace? Especially as someone who works in a bookshop serving customers to help people who might be starting work in the UK.

Callum: So of course there's the the P's and Q's the pleases and the thankyous, which go really such a long way. And also there's more subtle ways of showing good manners. Picking up bags for people, certainly when, within a working context or with perhaps even a family member, or if you're visiting a family showing politeness through actions as well as language, just being aware of other people's space as well, can often be construed as, or read as being well-mannered.

Yes, particularly in the UK, I think one of the big differences I've noticed between the UK and a lot of other countries throughout Europe and throughout the world is that British people will shake hands, they don't hug very often or kiss each other on the cheek very often, this is considered something reserved for close friends.

Jessica: It's more friendly than you would expect if you were in a workplace or in a school or out on the street and meeting someone who you haven't met before. Yeah, so British people, will usually prefer to shake hands and it's considered respectful to be aware of other people's space and not forcing them to be too friendly straight away.

Callum: Yes, definitely

Jessica: You mentioned other subtle ways of displaying good manners and showing good manners to people. Can you think of any examples that you would use every day, such as things like holding a door for someone or helping someone who needs help to cross a road and that kind of thing, which is considered polite action.

Can you think of any more examples of polite actions or polite words?

Callum: I think the main thing is, is reading the situation. I think being mindful of the people or the person that you are showing, attempting to show, politeness towards . Things like, you're right, opening the doors, making them aware of you as well, "excuse me", and asking people to move.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with doing that. I think British people do have a problem sometimes with that. I sometimes find it really awkward for some reason, in some situations, to ask somebody to move to the side for me so I can pass. I don't know why that is, but I'm sure that is tied into the over-polite Britishness, where they sort of feel it's impolite almost to to put themselves in another's way but it's absolutely nothing impolite about asking somebody to excuse you.

Jessica: I think linked to that is this idea that British politeness is important in Britain in order to make other people feel comfortable. Maybe that's why it feels sometimes awkward to ask someone to excuse you and move out of the way is that you feel that politeness is supposed to stop conflict and make other people comfortable and make sure that the situation is calm.

And no one gets angry and no one feels offended or feels like anyone's being rude.

Callum: I think it's also, as we've sort of discussed, it goes some way to defining a British identity. And I think when people are showing manners, I think it's also as well as avoiding conflict. I think it's a way of defining oneself to a certain degree.

Jessica: Absolutely. I think that that is often one of the things that British people aim for is to seem polite to other people and to seem caring and respectful.

A different perspective there from Callum, but lots of common themes with Ollie who we interviewed earlier. Well, I hope that's given you some insights into British culture, politeness in British culture.

Of course this episode, wouldn't be complete without me saying "thank you for joining us".

We're looking forward to our next episode. If you haven't already subscribed, please click on the subscribe button and you can join the British Culture Club, read our online magazines at our homepage, that's britishcultureclub.org.


Questions? Comments? Feedback? Please email us or post on our Facebook Group