National Stereotypes


There are certain stereotypes of national character which are well known in Britain. For instance, the Irish are supposed to be great talkers, the Scots have a reputation for being careful with money, the Welsh are renowned for their singing abilities, and the English are considered to be reserved. These characteristics are, of course, only caricatures and are not reliable description of individual people from these countries.

British people give a relatively high value to the everyday personal contacts. Some writers on Britain have talked about the British desire ’to belong’, and it is certainly true that the pub, or the working man’s club, or the numerous other clubs devoted to various sports and pastimes play a very important part in many people’s lives. Many people make their social contacts through work and, partly as a result of this, the profession is also important aspect of their sense of identity. British people try to appear as if they belong to as high class as possible, though nobody wants to be thought of as ’snobbish’.

The British have few living traditions and are too individualistic to have the same everyday habits as each other. They are rather proud of being different. However, this does not mean that they like change. They don’t. They may not behave in traditional ways, but they like symbols of tradition and stability. The British are rather conservative and their conservatism can combine with their individualism. Why should they change just to be like everyone else? Indeed, as far as they are concerned, not being like everyone else is a good reason not to change. Their driving on the left-hand side of the road is a good example to this. Systems of measurement are another example. The British government has been trying for many years to get British people to use the same scales that are used nearly everywhere else in the world. But everybody in Britain still shops in pounds and ounces.

The modern British are not really chauvinistic. Open hostility to people from other countries is very rare. If there is any chauvinism at all, it expresses itself through ignorance. Most British people know remarkably little about Europe and who lives there. The popular image of Europe seems to be that it is something to do with the French.

It is probably true that the British, especially the English, are more reserved than the people of many other countries. They find it comparatively difficult to indicate friendship by open displays of affection. For example, it is not the convention to kiss when meeting a friend. Instead, friendship is symbolised by behaving as casually as possible.

The British are comparatively uninterested in clothes. They spend a lower proportion of their income on clothing than people in most European countries do. Many people buy second-hands clothes and are not at all embarrassed to admit this. Of course, when people are ’on duty’, they have to obey some quite rigid rules. A male bank employee, for example, is expected to wear a suit with a tie at work. But on Sundays the British like to «dress down». They can’t wait to take off their respectable working clothes and slip into something really scruffy. In fact, the British are probably more tolerant of strange’ clothing than people in most other countries.

The English people are great pet lovers. Practically every family has a dog or a cat, or both. They have special dog shops selling food, clothes and other things for dogs. There are dog hairdressing saloons and dog cemeteries. Millions of families have ’bird-tables’ in their gardens. Perhaps, this overall concern for animals is part of the British love for nature.

The British are always talking about the weather. Unlike many others, this stereotype is actually true to life. But constant remarks about the weather at chance meetings are not the result of polite conventions. They are not obligatory. Rather, they are the result of the fact that, on the one hand, to ask personal questions would be rude while, at the same time, silence would also be rude. The weather is a very convenient topic with which to ’fill the gap’.

As is the case in most countries, the Britain of today is made up of lots of different people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. This is especially true in large towns and cities, which have become really multicultural over the last few decades especially. Some of the more rural parts of Britain are perhaps less so, but in general it’s much harder to define a national ‘culture’ than say, fifty years ago.

That said, there are definitely stereotypes that are commonly applied to the British culture, some of which are fairly close to the truth, and others which aren’t! Many would have been based on the Britain of decades gone by, but there are some which are still relevant today.


There are lots of stereotypes about British food, one of which is that we live on fish and chips and roast beef! Fortunately for our arteries, this is not the case… these dishes are certainly long-standing favourites amongst British people, but these days people have a much more varied, and in general, healthy diet. Most towns will have at least one fish and chip shop, but most people will limit a fish and chip dinner to once or twice a month. Roast dinners are still very popular too, but are restricted in general to Sundays, when it is common for people to go to a local pub for a beef, chicken, pork or lamb roast. Most towns and cities in Britain actually have a huge range of restaurants, which reflects the change of eating habits in Britain – Thai, Chinese, Indian and Italian food in particular are now fully incorporated into the British diet, and in fact will often be eaten much more frequently than traditional British dishes.

Another stereotype that relates to food and drink is that British people drink lots of tea. Whilst coffee and other hot drinks are consumed in Britain, it’s fair to say that tea is probably still the most popular! Tea is commonly drunk in the workplace throughout the day, and often if you want to meet up with a friend or family member you’ll invite them to your house for a ‘cup of tea’ and a chat.

Social customs

In general the British have a reputation for being very polite and quite traditional, and to a certain extent this is quite true. Of course, as in any society there are some people who choose not to be respectful, but in general Brits are fairly polite. It is normal in Britain to hear people saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot, and also to refrain from reacting angrily in situations where people brought up in other cultures might be more ‘forward’ in airing their opinions!

Another aspect of politeness is the way that British people are taught to queue. British people queue for everything in public, and any attempt to ‘queue jump’ will be considered very rude. Any queue jumpers would most likely be asked to move to the back to ‘wait their turn’.

The way that British people speak and the language that we use is also considered quite polite. The language that many people use, including lots of phrases like ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘pardon’ or ‘excuse me’ and ‘would you mind…’ certainly back this up, but the stereotype that all British people speak the Queen’s English is most definitely not true! There are some people who use Received Pronunciation (the accent of Standard English in England), but the majority of people around the country speak with a regional accent and use a dialect that wouldn’t be considered as ‘Queen’s English’. Over the last couple of decades there have been sustained efforts to promote the use of regional accents in the British media, specifically to try to reflect a more accurate picture of the Britain of today. The BBC, one of Britain’s oldest and most renowned establishments, now has presenters who originate from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as people who come from areas like Yorkshire and the North East who speak with very specific regional accents.

Although in general the British are portrayed as quite a polite and traditional race, they are also famed for their sense of humour. It’s true that humour is a really important part of the British culture, and comedy shows and acts in Britain are very popular. It’s a specific type of humour that British people appreciate though, which is usually based on sarcasm and irony. This is quite different to the humour in other cultures and can sometimes take a while for foreigners to appreciate!

Free time

The British ‘local’ pub is famous the world over, and today it still plays an important role in small communities especially. Often, villagers or townspeople will have one favourite pub where they go regularly to socialise with friends and neighbours, and it is normal at the weekends or in the evenings for people to go to the pub for a drink or two. In general, British people do drink quite a lot of alcohol in comparison to other European cultures, where the consumption of alcohol is perhaps more common as an accompaniment to a meal than as a stand-alone activity.

Another stereotype about British culture is that we all love football and cricket. It’s definitely true that both of these sports are really popular in terms of both playing and spectating, but it’s not exclusively these which are followed. Rugby is also very popular in Britain, as are tennis, horse racing and Formula 1 motor racing. Lots of sport is shown on British tv, especially at the weekends, and many people attend sporting events on a regular basis too. Sport is definitely an important part of British culture, and will often form the basis of conversations between new acquaintances – especially amongst men. One of the first questions you may be asked is ‘what football team you support’, so make sure you have your answer ready!

Cactus offers English language courses in over 30 locations across the UK, covering England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A variety of courses are available to cater to all ages, levels, interests and budgets, and accommodation can be arranged alongside your course too. All schools offer a comprehensive range of activities and excursions to enable you to make the most out of your stay, meet other students and practise your English.

And if you need to understand the British way of life, business environments, or how to work with individuals from other cultures, Cactus also offers half-day and one-day Cross Cultural training courses. These will help open your eyes to a better understanding of the people you live and work with.

2. Irish, English, British, Welsh and Scottish - what do we understand by these terms and labels - what are the differences? If more people took the trouble to understand, we might not have so much historical misunderstanding and assumptions. This article is not intended to highlight racial stereotypes but achieve the opposite! Neither is this a comprehensive history about these races; plenty is already available. However, some definitions are required to frame this article.


The two islands comprise two independent countries;

· United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ("UK")

· Republic of Ireland ("Eire")

To refer to "Southern Ireland" is incorrect, since the northernmost county in Ireland is Donegal and belongs to the Republic! Confusion also reigns about the province ofUlster, consisting of the six counties of Northern Ireland listed below plus CountiesDonegal, Cavan and Monaghan which belong to the Republic. The Irish provinces no longer have political or administrative significance.

The UK consists of three nations: England, Wales and Scotland. Northern Irelandconsists of six counties in Ireland, namely ,Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Derry(or sometimes Londonderry) and Tyrone and is governed jointly from London and its own parliament at Stormont, Co. Down.

"British" people come from England, Scotland or Wales. Britain is governed from parliament in Westminster, London; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own assemblies or parliaments for local government.

"Irish" people originate from the Island of Ireland, the most westerly landmass in Europe. Irish people live in the Republic of Ireland or the North of Ireland. If the latter, and depending upon religious and cultural persuasion, some in Northern Ireland consider themselves closer to Britain since their ancestors were imported ("planted") into Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from Britain, frequently at the expense of Irish native landowners who were evicted or expelled. Further draconian laws by the British resulted in more misery for the Irish; see Wikipedia's article on the "Penal Laws" to understand the issues (and why resentment against the English is still felt in Ireland).

Otherwise "Irish" people live north and south of the border. It is a misunderstanding to categorise somebody as Irish simply by their catholic religion (more below); many Protestants have served the cause of Irish republicanism, not least Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmett, Arthur Griffiths, W.B. Yeats, Erskine Childers and many more.


It is in the evening time that differences between Irish and British people become particularly apparent.

Irish people tend to socialise and go to sleep later than British people. For example, it is generally acceptable in Ireland to call to somebody's house unannounced in the evening time and be invited in for some hospitality (drink, cup of tea or perhaps some food). In England, most people would expect you to make an arrangement to visit, and would only accept an unexpected visit if it was an emergency or crisis. Likewise, English people do not tend to phone each other after 9pm or 9.30pm, whereas in Ireland most people will not get too excited if you call them up to 11pm.

Friendships are different also - the vast majority of Irish people have a wide range of casual friends, many of whom they know through other friends, or simply meeting them during the course of their day or night! In England, friendships tend to be carefully developed by introduction, typically by someone they might already know.

Finally, when Irish people meet a new friend, they might swap surnames and discover where they each live. The chances are strong, given the relatively small number of people and strong family ties, that they already know someone in the other person's circle of family or friends, or might know the town or city from where the person comes. Since the UK has a far larger population, British people are generally denied the opportunity to see if their new friends have any people they already know!

3. When tea was first introduced in England in the mid 1600’s, the consumption was limited by the high cost and also because of the segregation of tea being served in coffee houses that catered solely to men. Once tea became popular enough in the coffee houses, more specific tea houses began to be opened in London and elsewhere in the country. Here, men and women could both enjoy a cup of tea or buy some for home.

Afternoon tea, a tradition that is thought of being almost synonymous with the word “British,” did not become established until almost 200 years later. In those days, most people only ate two meals: a large breakfast late in the morning and a late dinner around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening. Anna, Duchess of Bedford, can be credited for creating the tradition of afternoon tea. She would become hungry during the afternoon, in the long hours between breakfast and dinner. She began asking her servants to bring her some sweets and a cup of tea to ward away her hunger. Eventually she began sharing this custom with her friends, and afternoon tea soon became popular among the aristocratic class. The working class caught on quickly, especially as the afternoon meal was a good opportunity take a much needed break and spend time with friends. Later on in the 19th century, Queen Victoria’s love for afternoon tea was well known, as were her particular tastes for having a slice of lemon with her tea and her preference for certain cakes and strawberry jam. Afternoon tea also gave way to another favorite tradition: the creation of tea gardens. Tea gardens were quiet places, created specially for taking in afternoon tea, with beautiful flowers, herbs and quaint outdoor furniture. Today tea gardens are not as popular as they once were, but one can still stumble across many throughout the countryside.

In England today, the tradition of afternoon tea continues on in the home, in upscale hotels, in department stores and even in the small neighborhood cafes and tea rooms found in every town. Whether it is a short break for a cup of tea and a small cookie, or a 3 course event of cakes, scones with jam and Devonshire cream, sandwiches and other treats, afternoon tea will continue to be a true English tradition. And tea itself will have a lasting place in English culture. Besides afternoon tea, the English consume large quantities of tea throughout the day, from breakfast to dinner and the last cup of the night. This love for tea is not unique to the English alone, but is found in most citizens of the British Commonwealth, including all of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

4. Everybody knows that for British people politeness is very important: never forget to say “Please”, “Thank you” and to use those incredibly difficult modal verbs. What’s the point? To make what you say sound less direct. For example, a simple request like “Close the window” must become “Could you close the window, please?” Or, even better, “Would you mind closing the window, please?”