The British People - A Class Act
There are significant differences between what British people think of as Britishness and what the rest of the world thinks about the British people.
Stereotypes are images and ideas formed in the absence of knowledge or a clear picture of a subject. Therefore, the stereotypes we all hold of other countries and peoples, are usually highly inaccurate, but it is nevertheless interesting to look at how nations perceive each other.
In fact, in terms of trying to create a picture of the British people and Britishness, it is important to look at how the British view themselves, and how they are viewed by others.
Most British people have a view of their fellow countryman based on where they sit within the class system. A classic 1960’s TV show sketch, put this idea across very clearly. Dudley Moore, John Cleese and Ronnie Barker, stood in line according to their considerable differences in physical height, to delineate where they stood in the class structure, with each knowing his place. Ask most British people what they think of their fellow countrymen, and class will form at part of that opinion. The stereotypes held from within British society are based on how types of people are segregated by class. It remains a part of the British identity to judge people according to a complex calculation that includes parentage, where they live, what school they attended, how much money they have and how they choose to spend it, what attitudes they hold, their furniture, what type car they drive, what brand of clothing they favour, where they buy their groceries, where they take their vacations and so on. Any one of these factors will give an indication to British people of where they stand in relation to each other, in relation to class.
In general then, the British see themselves divided according to class, and as we shall later, this extends to where they work and how they live.
Britishness as it is seen from outside the UK is very different and varies according to the views from individual countries and how much contact they have with British people. The vague and general stereotypes of the 1930’s bowler hatted city worker and the chirpy cockney come from images which have long since become out of date. These nostalgic views of the British come from a succession of films made in the 1950’s and 1960’s such as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and My Fair Lady. Post war Britain was in need of a comforting new view of itself, and the simpler Victorian era, held a fascination for both Britons and those from outside.
The views we hold of other countries today, are largely well informed due to the nature of global communications. The USA is probably the best example of this. Most people around the world have a well defined mental picture of the American way of life as it is portrayed in countless TV shows, sitcoms and movies. How closely this actually portrays the reality of American life is questionable, but the US has a very contemporary external identity.
Britain has a strong place in global media and the BBC broadcasts news across the world playing a large part in the way that the world views the UK.
Closer integration with Europe easier, the media and social media and cheaper access to travel means that most Europeans hold an accurate and contemporary view of modern British society. However, this is tempered by the experiences many European countries have of the British abroad. British people have become stereotypes in Southern Europe, as the growth of the tourism has taken hold. 2.5 million Britons a year take holidays in Spain and 70,000 own a second home there. This has a profound impact on the way Britain is perceived in Spain. Any country that has hosted international football events will also have a specific view of the British.
The Cultural Context
The study of cultural difference has become an important academic discipline as the world has seen the growth of global trade and movement. When moving to a new country, it is useful to understand those parts of the culture which are not so obvious. All cultural studies are based on an average interpretation of a whole people, and obviously within this there will large groups of exceptions, but it can be very useful to have an understanding of the general cultural bias of the country. To start, it is useful to have a definition of what culture is:
“Culture is everything that people have, think and do as members of their society.” GP Ferraro, The Cultural Dimensions of International Business
Explicit parts of the culture include the buildings, the transport system, the language, clothes, music etc. There are also implicit parts of the culture that cannot be seen such as values, opinions, attitudes and expectations. Within this can be seen the first hurdle in the understanding of a country and its people.
Everything we do, is within a context. When we are in our own country, with the people we know and understand, we don’t think about the context of our lives, relationships, work or conversations. But being able to understand that this context exists is very enlightening when living in a new culture. There is always so much that is not said, but which is understood by virtue of a set of common understandings. To come into a new culture without the knowledge of these common understandings, can mean miscommunication.
Britain is a medium context culture. In high context cultures, such as Japan, an enormous amount of communication is based on mutually known information. This is because the society is based on very close knit interpersonal relationships. Therefore conversations can be had with very few words being exchanged using lots of non-verbal messages. What is not said, may well be just as important as what is. In low context cultures, such as Germany and the US, communication does not rely on mutually understood information and therefore conversations will be explicit as will instructions. This is as a result of looser interpersonal relationships. Things will be conveyed using clear and precise instructions.
Britain (like France) falls somewhere between the two! This means it is best to clarify what it is that is being asked of you. In getting directions for example, many British people will assume knowledge of landmarks, even though they know you will may not have knowledge of them. In work, it is useful to clarify what is being put across, but this may result in your questions being seen as slightly pointless.
Low context cultures can often be seen by outsiders as highly confrontational. This is because of the desire to clarify everything by being direct. Someone from Japan, may find the direct and precise nature of the German workplace intimidating, whereas a German in Tokyo would find the implicit nature of Japanese communication very confusing and may ask for clarification. Not understanding these cultural dimensions can cause friction, but where both sides are aware of the underlying cultural differences of people, understanding can foster good relationships.
In terms of work and organisational styles, Britain is what’s known as a monochronic culture. That is, British people prefer to do one thing at a time, concentrating on the task in hand and sticking to pre determined plans. This is very different to say Italy, where a polychronic style is more the norm. This is where many things are done at once, interruptions are tolerated and may take over from the task in hand and where planning is less important than flexibility. Again it is easy to see how people from opposing time centred cultures, will initially find working in their opposite culture, frustrating and bewildering.
Frequently, expats in a new culture can feel very unwelcome, through no fault of new colleagues or friends, but simply because no-one has taken the time to explain the cultural context of work and relationships. A good example of this can be seen in the frequent failure of international assignments from the US to the UK and back. Although, it would seem logical to think that the most difficult assignments are those where the individual or family are moving to a completely different culture, such as USA to Indonesia, it is in fact where the perceptions of cultures as being similar where people have the most difficult adjustments. As George Bernard Shaw wrote:
“Nothing separates people more than a common language”
In the US, it is understood that a level of immediate intimacy is reached in the building of a friendship or working relationship. This is known as the “peach” model. Americans are relatively unguarded about their outer skin – they are easy to penetrate, but in the centre of their psyche is a place reserved only for those most intimate to them. Therefore it is not uncommon, on a long flight for example, to make friends with an American and learn a great deal about their lives, loves and desires. This then invites a level of commitment to the relationship from the other person. But if this is an American and a Briton, the British person will be very unused to divulging anything but the most superficial information about their life. British people are what are known as “coconuts” in the field of cultural relationships. The outer skin is very tough, difficult to penetrate, but as intimacy within the relationship develops, more will be revealed about the person. So going back to the example of the American and the Briton on a long flight, at the end of the journey the Briton who has shared personal details about life will feel very bonded towards their new American friend, while the American will feel happy to have passed the time chatting, but will in no way see this as a developed and intimate friendship. On exchanging phone numbers and email addresses, the American sees this as a pleasantry, while the Briton fully expects to continue the relationship, leaving the American feeling stalked and the Briton, rejected!
The British Class System
This is a very confusing topic for most people from non-hierarchical cultures, such as the US. Although the rigidity of the class structure in Britain has declined since the second world war, it is still very much evident. Since the 1980’s much sociological research has played down the importance of class in understanding British society, but there is considerable evidence that class based inequalities and class identities are still strong.
The working class in Britain have been responsible for much of the positive social changes since the industrial revolution. The labour movement has been instrumental in promoting the importance of health and social care, trade unions and education. According to sociologists, the British “Working Class” refers to people employed in manual occupations and extends to their dependants. If this definition is taken, then the working class has declined significantly since the 1950’s, where 15.6 million workers were considered to be in manual employment, constituting 72% of the workforce. By 1991, this figure had declined to 42%.
Working class culture can be seen as distinct from middle class, but this is dependant upon several factors. Sociological studies indicate that there is little social interaction between members of different classes. Almost all studies show that the social networks of manual workers are drawn from the working class. One of the most visible changes in the economic position of manual workers in Britain is the growth of home ownership. In 1996, 77% of skilled manual households either owned outright the house they lived in, or were in the process of purchasing it with a mortgage.
The middle class are sociologically defined as those employed in non-manual, white collar occupations and their dependants. Between 1911 and 1981, non manual workers have grown from 18% to 52% of the population, making the middle class, the largest social grouping in Britain (Price and Bain 1988).
The middle class in Britain is divided into several groups, according to their occupation (and as we shall see later in this chapter, subdivided into middle class groups). Non-manual workers (shop assistants, office clerks), lower professionals and technicians, managers and higher professionals all add to the complexity of this structure. On top of this, a new sub group identified as the petite bourgeoisie (self employed owners of businesses, consultants) also adds to the complex definition of this class.
Within the middle class, there is significant mobility, both social and spatial. The middle class contains some very rich people, but most are comfortable and share in the consumer society that has developed around them.
The upper class, although at times seeming to merge with the upper echelons of the middle class, is very small. Its defining characteristic is wealth. Britain has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any EU state. In 2019 the top 10% of the population owned 44% of the total wealth of the country, this ranks Britain as the 5th most unequal economy in Europe. However, in 1920, the top 1% owned 60% of total wealth. In this respect, the power and wealth of the upper class has declined markedly in the last 90 years. Through networks of family and institutional bonding, the upper class remains more separate and less socially and spatially mobile than the middle class.
Defining those areas of day to day life that are affected by class in Britain inevitably takes one into the area of subjectivity and there are a raft of serious and humorous books which tackle the subject. Here we’ll look briefly at those aspects which will have the most relevance for the expat arriving in Britain for the first time.
There are few aspects of British life that are not affected by class. Your home, the car you drive, the area you live in, your furniture, where you went to school, which supermarket you prefer all have an impact in how British people judge each other and define themselves. We will look closer at these indicators in later chapters, but here we will examine the dominant class indicator, speech. There are many instant indicators for British people. For example, the Hughes family buy their groceries from Waitrose. This is an immediate sign that they are middle class as it’s perceived as more expensive than say, Asda. Mrs Hughes then tells you that they take your holidays in Blackpool. This indicates they are working class. However if Mrs Hughes then loads her groceries into a Volvo station wagon there is a definite anomaly. British people understand these signals very well and had the Hughes family taken their vacations in Tuscany, you would know they were solidly, wealthy, middle class. These type of anomalies rarely happen in Britain.
Nothing more clearly indicates to the British upper class where someone is in the class structure than language, both accents and idioms. Though this outdated notion shouldn’t matter, to a certain sector of British society, it still does! In some ways, with the British head of state a constitutional monarch, born privilege still has an influence over British society.
It doesn’t matter when considering speech as a class indicator where a person is with regard to money. The upper classes will happily embrace someone living in a caravan in a field, doing a manual job, providing they speak with the right tone and follow the correct rules. Similarly, an enormously wealthy entrepreneur living in a mansion may still be shunned by the upper classes for not adhering to the speech rules of class.
Regional accents in the UK are many and diverse, from the lilting country twang of the West Country, exemplified by long vowel sounds, to the guttural and clipped speech of Glasgow. Transferees to the UK can find understanding regional accents a significant challenge. Times have changed however. In the pre-war years, the presence of a regional accent was an immediate indicator of working class status. Wealthy provincial families spent much money on elocution and private education for their children so that they may enter the ranks of the elite where their moneyed parents had not. In response to this, the Upper Classes closed ranks and adopted secret codes, the infringement of which would immediately identify an interloper, or worse, the nouveau riche. Today, standards are more relaxed and the bastion of Received Pronunciation (the preferred speech of the upper middle and upper classes) the BBC now embraces diversity in regional accents. Many will tell you however, that this is merely tokenism and that speech and accent will immediately act as the giveaway for the social status of another. It is an indication of Britains’ failure to become a truly meritocratic society, that money has not become the defining characteristic of the ruling class.
There are seven linguistic “deadly sins”, that will mark out all but the most determined, from the ranks of the upper classes. British novelist Nancy Mitford, brought to popular attention in the 1930’s, her theory of “U and Non U”, the indication of speech markers which differentiate Upper and Non Upper class people. These outdated notions of class are still important to a certain sector of British society.
Meaning, coach or sofa, the word settee will never be used by an upper or upper middle class person. The upper class will always refer to a sofa, the middles either sofa or coach. The increasing use of American words is now an acceptable form of expression for the younger upper classes, who may also now use the word couch.
The word toilet will never be used by the upper class. They will use the term “loo”, with the middle classes also using the term “lavatory”. Any other terms, such as water closet, bathroom, WC, bilges, heads, latrine, restroom, will be used only by the lower middle and working class as euphemisms for that which is slightly embarrassing. The upper classes would hate to believe that people would think them embarrassed about anything and this fosters a sometimes alarming frankness in their speech and manner. They would never, for example, refer to someone’s “passing” but will always refer to death.
This is meant in the repetitive sense, as opposed to the apologetic one. For example, you would be considered working or lower middle class to ask someone to repeat what they had said, by asking “Pardon?”. The upper class imply say “what” in the manner of a statement, the middle class preferring the term “Sorry?” asked as a question. The only acceptable use of the word in this sense would be in the demeaning phrase “I beg your pardon?” usually intended to be mildly insulting.
Again, this would never be used by the upper class to refer to a linen or paper item of table ware. Instead the term “napkin” is preferred. This is one of the most common infringements of the secret code, with many people believing the French origins of the word, give it status.
The only time the word sweet is used by the upper class, is to refer to a boiled confection, in the manner of the US term, Candy, or to a characteristic of an appealing pet. “Sweet” would never be used to define a trifle, cake or meringue. This is termed “pudding”, regardless of its actual formation. The term may just as well be applied to a slice of fresh melon served at the end of a meal, as to a treacle sponge with custard.
The upper class refer to their primary living space as the “Drawing” or “Sitting” room. Never the lounge or living room. Drawing room is the term for the large salon, usually in a big town house on the first floor, or the main salon after the Ballroom of a country house. The term actually comes from “withdrawing” room, to which the ladies would retire after dinner while the men stayed in the dining room for port and cigars. The term sitting room is now acceptable to refer to a smaller salon in a smaller house still occupied by upper class tenants.
Dinner to the upper class refers only to a large, relatively grand evening meal shared with guests. Casual evening meals are referred to as supper. In parts of the UK, regionality dictates the word dinner will refer to lunch. Tea, in the upper class sense, takes place at 4pm as a link between lunch and dinner (or supper) and includes the drink tea, cakes, crumpets or scones. Tea in regional household refers to dinner, or supper. When being invited to eat with the British, always confirm the time so as not to misinterpret what meal you are being invited to attend!
Watching the English – Kate Fox – Hodder and Stoughton
Class – Jilly Cooper – Corgi Adult
Riding the Waves of Culture – Fons Trompenaars – Nicholas Brierly Publishing
Meridian Eaton – Cross cultural trainers – www.meridianeaton.com
Richard Lewis Communications – Cross cultural trainers – www.crossculture.com
Geert Hofstede - www.hofstede.com