Article: 35 Things Only True Brits Know: Howstuffworks
35 Things Only True Brits Know
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About This Article
Every nation has its own culture, history and mythology. They also tend to have two reputations — the one they think they have, and the one they actually have. The British hope they are seen as having a great sense of humor and being polite and competent. Of course, we know deep down that we are actually seen as rather standoffish and superior, and, thanks to the last few years of our politics, somewhat absurd.
Still, this doesn't bother us, because we true British citizens enjoy a veritable smorgasbord of upsides, secrets, and advantages by virtue of being British. We are essentially members of a secret society that has all sorts of handshakes and membership perks. We get to know the secrets of British history and culture. We know how to make a dinner party really work. We are under no pressure to excel at sports because we know that it doesn't really matter. We know how to survive almost any amount of rain without any warning whatsoever. We even know why monarchy isn't actually as silly an idea as it seems from the outside.
Of course, only the truest Brits know all of these things and more. Can you count yourself among their number? Let's find out!
Brits Drive on the Left So Our Swords Don't Get Caught
Globally, driving on the right is more common. This means the vehicles will be left-hand drives, which suits the right-handed majority of drivers, as it means they can change gears with their dominant right hand. However, the British had a more important consideration — self-defense. A rider on the left is shielded by buildings on their weaker side, and can more easily draw their sword with their dominant hand. This is indeed a safer configuration ... if you organized your streets back when the most important users were on horseback!
British Culture May Not Be Warm, but It Is Kind (in Its Way)
The British do not have a reputation for being particularly friendly, and indeed, on a personal level, this is fair. Brits tend not to want to talk to people who they don't know. However, on a societal level, modern Britain has a strong sense of obligation to the less fortunate. This manifests in a fanatical dedication to the National Health Service, which — despite complaints — is generally excellent, and provides world-class care that is free at the point of need, surviving the more individualistic political approach popularized since the 1980s. Other manifestations include what is, by global standards, a strong social safety net, and taboos against being impolite, unpleasant, or very demanding toward service workers.
There's a Right and a Wrong Way to Use an Escalator
In the USA, it's considered acceptable to walk up or stand on either side of an escalator. In the UK, this is considered the height of rudeness. There is a standing side and a walking side, and the walking side is on the right. If you are unable or unwilling to walk, you are obliged to confine yourself to the standing side. Otherwise, you may be subject to considerable opprobrium, including tutting, clicking and even being called a variety of ghastly names.
The Hellfire Club Isn't a Marvel Thing
Many people hear the name of the Hellfire Club and assume it refers to Marvel's comic series. However, true Brits know that this refers to the Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, which was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, along with other high society hellions in the 1740s and 1750s. Benjamin Franklin (yep, THAT Benjamin Franklin) was a member, along with many British aristocrats like the Duke of Wharton and Earl of Sandwich. The club members had to swear allegiance to the Devil and supposedly participated in all sorts of naughty trysts with women of dubious reputation.
Always Saying Sorry Isn't Just Polite — It's Crafty
The British are famous for how much they apologize, which stereotype doesn't quite convey the nuances inherent in a British apology. There is absolutely an excessive culture of genuine apology in the UK, including habits such as apologizing to a person who has trodden on your foot. However, some apologies should be understood in the same way as the words, "I'll pray for you" in parts of America's Deep South. It is not a real apology and is instead one of the rudest things you can say to a person, condemning them to purdah for all time.
Etonians Have Been Grieving for 200 Years
The most famous school in all the UK (and possibly the world) is Eton, the boarding school that educates the sons of the elite, including Prince William. Eton is noted for its funereal uniform, including long black tails and a starchy white shirt with an "Eton collar." When the school was first founded, the uniform was not actually all black. It included colorful jackets and waistcoats. However, the school adopted the black uniform in 1820 to honor the death of King George III, and apparently, they've been grieving ever since!
The Weather Is Always Interesting
A British summer is typically 75F and sunny, and a British winter is typically 35F and chilly. British weather has no extremes, but that doesn't mean it's not interesting. On the contrary, while the weather doesn't swing violently, it does change all the time, and there is no time of year when you can be sure it isn't just about to rain. This is what makes it a perfect topic of conversation. No matter what the weather, it can change in the time it takes you to decide it's ideal for a hike and put on your walking boots. This means that no matter whether or not you have already brought it up on a given day, there's always something new to say!
Tooting Your Own Horn Is "Bad Form," Even in an Interview
If there are two things the British do not like to be seen to do, it's striving very hard, or having a big head. Being naturally but discreetly gifted is socially acceptable, and being absolutely terrible at something and admitting it willy-nilly is also fine. What is not acceptable is admitting that you weren't brilliant at something, but became brilliant through hard work. This might lead to actually acknowledging that you are good at something, which is bigheaded and thus improper. The correct response, when asked if you are good at a skill in which any reasonable metric shows you to be in the top several percents, is to say that you are, "Not bad."
The Train Is Not for Talking
We mentioned Britain's weirdly indirect kindness earlier, but it's time to deal with its individual-level opposite. British people are not out and about in the world to make friends. Each person's personal space is a bubble, and penetrating it for any reason other than to yank them out of the way of an oncoming bus is frightfully vulgar. If you are forced into physical proximity due to public transport or a large crowd, you simply pretend not to see one another. Otherwise, you remain at arm's length or more. This includes when meeting a new person at a party. As any Brit knows, if you could reach out and easily touch them, you're too close.
If the Water Didn't Boil, It's Not Proper Tea
A national obsession, the humble cup of tea can seem like a strange choice for a country that has the wrong climate in which to grow tea, but this has not deterred all true Brits. The important thing about tea is not where it comes from, but that it is perfectly suited to a cool and rainy climate. It's like giving your insides a lovely warm hug. However, tea must be made properly, meaning that the water must reach 100 degrees Celsius before you add the teabag. Anything less than this is a pale imitation of tea. If you see a British person in a U.S. diner gaping at the beverage before them, now you know why they are confused.
Anything You Enjoy Is "Cheeky"
The idea of having fun is perfectly acceptable in the UK, as long as you make at least some sort of overture in the direction of good, solid, Puritanical guilt. After all, the British fought a war against our own King and all his pleasure-loving courtiers, and part of the price of victory by the sombre Roundheads was the tacit agreement that we would thereafter never again do anything enjoyable without a good excuse. Drunkenness is the usual scapegoat, but it is also OK to simply refer to the activity as "cheeky." "I'm just going to have a cheeky drink." "Anyone up for a cheeky trip to Pizza Express?" "He took a cheeky nap between classes." This way, you can confess your sin and obviate your guilt, without having to go to too much effort.
Day, Month, Date!
True Brits write the date in ascending order: the day, then the month, then the year. This means that it is very hard to do business or make plans with anyone who hails from a country where this is not the common practice, unless you limit your interactions to the 13th onward in any given month, thus removing ambiguity. The trick is to seem to compromise by offering the unmistakable format 01Jan20, on the grounds that there is no ambiguity. Most people will agree, without noticing that they have just switched to writing the date the British way.
The Chip Butty Is a Valid Food Choice
You don't have to be British to know that the humble French fry is known as a chip in the United Kingdom. However, you do have to be British to appreciate that putting chips into white bread then adding ketchup to form an all-carbohydrate sandwich is a great idea. It sounds absolutely terrible, but it's actually delicious. Is it good for you? Of course not. Should you eat it regularly? Nope! However, once in a while, it's a perfectly yummy option.
Cholmondeley Is Pronounced "Chumley"
Names that are spelled the way they are pronounced are tolerable for anyone whose family arrived in the UK from the Industrial Revolution onward, but if you want to show that you are a true Brit of many centuries' standing, what you really need is a name that bears almost no relation to its spelling. Classic examples include Grosvenor ("grove-naw"), Cholmondeley ("chum-ley"), and Menzies ("ming-is"). This means that your family was around before standardized spelling was invented, and is thus terribly old and grand. Even if your ancestors were pirates or highwaymen, you still get credit for a name like this.
Heated Towel Rails Are a Must
Did we mention, the British climate can be a smidge damp? We may have also mentioned that heating leaves much to be desired in the considerable number of British houses that are older than 30 years. This means that, of course, you could hang up a towel on a peg and be at serious risk of it simply not drying at all. Since this is a recipe for not just discomfort but also mildew, the solution was not to heat the whole house, as that would be far too expensive, but to install a heated towel rail. Now, even the poorest British house has such a rail. Once you have tried putting on a lovely toasty towel direct from the rail, you simply cannot go back.
Curtains for Everyone!
British houses often suffer from draughts, because they are old and Britain is a windy island in the middle of a northerly sea. This means that unless you have upgraded your home with modern insulation and glazing (which most people have not), no matter how good your heating system, you will shiver in your own living room unless you have good curtains. The office blinds that pass for window treatments in many American homes would be considered tragic indeed. Only a proper interlined curtain will do! It's not only warmer (and in summer, cooler), but it also ties the room together.
"The Civil War" Means Roundheads vs. Cavaliers, Not North vs. South
One of the great ironies of the Age of Empire, from Britain's point of view, is that it came about at the exact same time as the British people themselves realized that self-determination was the only way to properly run a country. This resulted in the English Civil War, which took place from 1650-1660 and resulted in King Charles I having his head chopped off. Was it incredibly hypocritical to do this at the same time as not only colonising Scotland, but setting the stage to conquer a fifth of the globe? Yes. Does it still mean that "the Civil War" refers to this war anywhere in Britain, even now? Yes. To refer to other civil wars, one must preface them with the nation in question, for example, "The Spanish Civil War" or "The American Civil War."
World War II Began in 1939, Not 1941
In the movie "Pearl Harbor," Josh Hartnett's character observes, "I think World War II just started." Of course, on that date, most of Europe had already been conquered, and the vast British, French and Russian Empires had been fighting Axis powers in Europe and Africa for over two years. Indeed, from spring 1940 to summer 1941, Britain stood alone. France, Poland and other allies had been conquered, and Russia had made a deal with the Nazis. During this period, the UK experienced defeat at Dunkirk, the Blitz, and a narrow victory in the Battle of Britain. A true Brit would consider it a great offense to the heroes of this time to erase this period of the war.
The Many Contradictory Rules Concerning Puddings
Pudding means the final course of a meal that comes after the "starter" and the "main course," instead of the "appetizer" and "entree." This means that all pudding is dessert, except for three items: haggis, which is only pudding in the Rabbie Burns poem; black pudding, which is a sausage; and Yorkshire pudding, which is one of the essential trimmings when serving roast beef. Just because some puddings are not dessert, however, does not change that all dessert is pudding. If it's sweet and comes at the end of a meal, it's pudding, even when it's cake or pie. None of this is confusing to a true Brit.
Tiny Fridges Are the Only Way to Go
Most British houses were built before there was such a thing as a fridge, meaning that kitchens are often quite small and were not originally designed to fit a large fridge. Additionally, people only started getting fridges just after World War II, when wartime rationing was still a strong memory. This means that small fridges became the cultural standard. The huge American fridges that can store a month's worth of food were too energy-hungry and took up too much real estate. Things are different now, and yet the fashion for a smaller fridge remains the same.
There Is a "Wrong Kind" of Snow
The temperate climate stakes yet another claim to our cultural landscape with the near-total inability of British infrastructure to cope with any snow that falls south of Birmingham. Indeed, in 1991 the rail operator got in trouble for noting that even a tiny amount of snow had caused unacceptable delays when their spokesperson said it was, "The wrong kind of snow." Nearly three decades later, this is still a national joke. If the slightest amount of snow falls, immediate speculation begins as to whether it is the right or wrong kind.
The "Y" in "Ye Olde Tea Shoppe" Is Actually a "Th"
All over the United Kingdom, some establishments call themselves something like, "Ye Olde Tea Shoppe." This is supposed to be a cute and authentic nod to the Middle English dialect that was supplanted by our modern language. However, the "ye" is a misreading of the Anglo-Saxon letter "þe," also known as "thorn." It looks like "ye," but it's really pronounced "the." To be accurate, it should say, "The Olde Tea Shoppe."
If You Can't Drive a Manual Car, You Can't Drive
Most British cars these days have an automatic transmission, as these are now generally more efficient than manual ones. However, as this was not always the case, most Brits can indeed "drive a stick," as the Americans call it. Indeed, to get a full license in the UK, you must pass your test in a manual car and prove that you can work a clutch. There is a license for people who only drive automatics, but it doesn't cover driving any manual vehicle, meaning you may be limited in your options. Ultimately, anyone who cannot drive a manual car is deemed to be a junior driver.
Early Is Rude, On Time Is Early, and Late Is On Time
If you are invited to someone's home in America and they tell you to arrive at 7:30, showing up at 7:25 would be considered perfectly acceptable. Indeed, you might do it on purpose to help them set up. In the UK, this is very rude indeed, as your host will probably still be preparing at this time and thus be clad in her underwear with curlers in her hair. You have not only invaded her privacy, but you've also implied that she's not capable of managing properly. Thus, on the dot of 7.30 is still very early, and 7.40 is optimal. This means that having good manners requires being slightly late. If you get there on time, the polite thing is to sit in your car or walk around the block once before ringing the bell.
You Should Always Be Prepared for Rain
Another strike for the great British climate comes in the form of weather preparation. The fact that it may rain at any time means that every event always has a rain contingency. Even if the weather forecast claims that it'll be dry and pleasant, you simply cannot bet on this. You can see this in the way that British fashion is all about layers. Everyone is always ready to go up or down a level when it comes to both warmth and waterproofing. After all, if you let rain change your plans in the UK, you'd never make any plans; thus, you must simply be ready to soldier on through it. In British culture, there is no such thing as a "raincheck."
At a Dinner Party? Don't Sit With Your Spouse!
Dinner parties are quite a significant feature of British life, but one thing that is important about them is that all the guests understand they're there to meet new people, or at least to hang out with people who didn't arrive in the same car or on the same bus! If the host has made a table plan, then they won't seat couples together. If they haven't, true Brits will automatically organize themselves, so they're not seated with their other half. That way, they get to meet someone new or learn something new, then tell their spouse all about it later!
Proper Grass Is Always Green
Grass is a particular obsession in the UK, which is why the great English country garden always includes a lawn. After all, one of the many upsides of a mild and rainy climate is that the grass is always green, never brown. Brown grass, to a Brit, just looks sad and dead. That's why a true Brit knows that proper grass is immaculate, bright green, and ready for a lovely game of croquet at a moment's notice!
Rolling a Cheese Down a Hill Is Sport
The UK is not noted for its sporting prowess. It rarely wins any of the major international prizes, such as the Olympics. It doesn't even try to compete at American sports like baseball. It even loses at sports it invented, such as football (soccer) or cricket. Fortunately, there are other ways for the Brits to get exercise, such as the Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll, in which people chase a wheel of cheese down a slope. Nobody ever catches the cheese, and lots of people get hurt, but it's called a sport all the same (see also: bog-snorkeling). This means that we Brits don't need to invest emotionally in professional sports, only to be disappointed time and again. All we need is to fall down a hill after a cheese, and we've done enough to call ourselves sports(wo)men.
You Actually Don't Need Air Conditioning
Putting in air conditioning when there is a single week of hot weather every year and the actual hot part of the day only lasts from noon until 3:30 p.m. is, of course, an absurd use of time and money. There are a few places that do get too hot, such as the London Underground, overground trains, and the interiors of large office buildings, and these places are rightly beginning to get AC. However, the rest of the time, all you actually need is a fan, the occasional cold drink, and the wherewithal to open the window. Heatwave solved!
Even the Queen Doesn't Speak "Queen's English"
Accents are very important to the British, as they are used to infer all sorts of information about a person — where they went to school, how wealthy they are, possibly what sort of job they do, and so on. The fanciest accent is the posh and plummy variety known as "received pronunciation" or "BBC English," also known charmingly as Queen's English. However, even the Queen herself sounds different now when compared to say, 1955. Watch out for words like "girls" (formerly pronounced "gels") to see her Majesty's evolution. Of course, if the Queen adjusts, everyone else adjusts with her, so naturally, whatever she's doing is still correct!
The BBC Is a National Treasure
The British Broadcasting Corporation gets a lot of criticism from all quarters, from how it is funded to the content it puts out to its lack of diversity to its allegedly over-emphasis on diversity to the supposed or actual political leanings of its employees. However, the "Beeb" remains a beloved and highly trusted national institution. If a major event occurs, it is the BBC who remains the go-to source of information. The fact that the BBC is a trusted source of news and quality programming internationally is a huge source of British pride — as it should be!
Sadly, Sherlock Holmes Isn't Real
If you go to Baker Street in London these days, you'll discover that number 221B is, in fact, a real place! However, it was not always thus. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes were such a massive hit that, as the age of mass tourism arose, residents of Baker Street found themselves giving directions to excited visitors seeking the residence of the great man himself, quite convinced he was a genuine historical figure. Sherlock Holmes never existed, of course, as Brits know — but that didn't stop the local authorities realizing there was money to be made in creating the Sherlock Holmes museum and making the address real. Just don't tell the tourists!
They're Not Called Christmas Lights
Those pretty little strings of lights that people love to string on Christmas trees make any event feel festive. However, in the UK, we call them fairy lights, not Christmas lights. This is a great way to justify using them in all sorts of locations and at times of year that have nothing to do with Christmas. Want to pep up your halls of residence at university? Try fairy lights. Are you trying to create a pleasant outdoor seating area? You need fairy lights. Want an excuse to feel Christmassy in July? Fairy lights all the way!
The Queen Is Better Than a President
One of the myths many people have about the UK is that the British are unaware that monarchy is a rather outdated idea. The truth is quite the opposite. The British know that monarchy is a bit silly, but we also know that all forms of government end up being a bit silly, so we've embraced it anyway. The Queen is immensely popular, after all, thus support for her is genuinely democratic. It's not that all Brits think having a Queen is actually a great idea, it's just that picking a leader is always a gamble. Having seen the awful results that many nations' presidential elections have produced, then comparing those results to the graceful, dutiful and intelligent Queen Elizabeth, we've decided we'd rather roll the dice every 50 years than every four.
Forty Hours Is a Full Time Job
The British have always had one foot in Europe and one foot out, which is truer now than it has been for a long time. That means that when it comes to working, there is a mix of attitudes at play. On the one hand, Britain is very much aligned with the Teutonic and Northern European nations who love to put in a solid work week. On the other hand, the Southern Europeans have a point, with their siestas and their shorter school days. That means the British have compromised around the idea that forty hours is full time. This sort of workload may feel like a holiday to the average Millennial American, but the Brits find it works for them.
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