*Editor’s note: for the companion piece to this guide, please visit the “British tourists guide to not making an ass of yourself in America.”
Now that Britain has voted to leave the EU, and the pound has nosedived against the dollar, you may be contemplating a summer vacation here in Blighty.
I know what you’re thinking – “The UK will be a nice, easy, affordable holiday. I don’t have to worry about not speaking the language, or getting served unusual food. We’ll fit right in! We’ll go see Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and drink some of that warm beer I’ve heard about. It’ll be an easy holiday.”
You may think you know all about Britain, its culture and customs. But even if you read every guidebook, and watched every episode of Doctor Who and Downton Abbey, there’s still a good chance you’re going to embarrass yourself on your British Holiday.
I don’t mean you’re going to feel embarrassed, after all, you’re American. You’re big, you’re loud, you’re over-confident and you’re generally oblivious to introspection or cultural subtleties.
But maybe some of you, my gentle readers, are a little bit different. Yeah, you. Maybe you want to have a vacation abroad where you don’t stand out quite so much… where eyes don’t roll behind your back everywhere you go… where no one is silently “tutting” or judging you. Maybe you’re one of those few Americans who is willing to put in a little bit of extra research and effort to ensure that you don’t embarrass yourself in the eyes of your hosts during your summer holiday to the UK.
If that sounds like you, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve lived here more than 11 years – I know everything there is to know about the secret rules, rites and rituals that British people use to judge foreigners, especially Americans. If you don’t want to make a pillock, prat or plonker of yourself while you’re over here, read my tips, tricks and advice below.
How to dress:
Unbend the brim of your stupid little baseball cap
Or better yet, leave that thing at home. People don’t wear baseball caps outside of America. It’s like a British person walking around with a Sherlock Holmes hat. Or an Irish person wearing a big green, leprechaun hat with a buckle. Or a French person sporting a black beret. You look stupid. You may wear a cowboy hat if you own cattle. Or you may don a stovepipe hat if you’re a descendant of Abraham Lincoln. But unless you are a major league baseball player, you are going to come across looking like a big, cartoon-ish, national stereotype in that baseball cap.
Don’t wear clothing with corporate logos
Unless you are a driver for NASCAR, or your family name is “Hollister” or “Abercrombie,” you shouldn’t wear clothes over here that loudly advertise your corporate preferences. British people already think Americans are money-obsessed loudmouths. Walking around like a human billboard only bolsters that perception. Be yourself, by all means, but for the sake of your country’s image, please try to be a version of yourself that doesn’t have the words GAP or WASHINGTON REDSKINS plastered across your chest.
No fanny packs
These look ridiculous everywhere in the world, but especially in the UK, where the word fanny means vagina. Do you really want to be walking around sporting a big ‘vagina bag?’
No shorts, no service – shirt optional
If you’re a man, don’t wear shorts. It never gets hot here and shorts are mostly worn by schoolchildren in Britain. If it gets a little bit balmy, and you choose to wear shorts despite knowing this information, you may as well accept the fact that you will come across looking like a big American man-child. My advice is to instead take off your shirt. That’s the way British men do it. At the first hint of summer sun, or international football (soccer) competitions, the shirts come off. This way, you have less to pack!
Dress up a little, you’re embarrassing me
Look, I’m not here to tell you that you have to break out a tuxedo for your visit the UK. The image of British people as toffs who wear dinner jackets and sport monocles as they sip cocktails is slightly exaggerated – as any trip to British clothing stores like Top Shop will show you. Over here it sometimes feels like the 80s never went away – there’s a lot of polyester being worn in city centres, this ain’t Italy or France, where everyone seems to have stepped out of a fashion magazine. But in general, British people, when they don’t have their shirts off, do tend to dress up far less casually than Yanks as they go about their day. And they actually wear clothes that fit. You can tell American tourists a mile away, even if they’ve followed all the fashion rules I’ve listed so far, because they’re still probably going to be wearing baggy jeans and over-sized t-shirts and, if it’s cold, heavy North Face ski jackets. Clothes here tend to be a cut a little more snugly, and people dress in layers to accommodate the unpredictable weather. So if you’re coming over to visit, and you want to make a good impression, try shoes instead of sneakers, and leave your XXL t-shirts at home. Instead, might I suggest you wear your ‘make America great’ polo shirt with the collar turned up?
Fashion words matter
Words relating to clothing are a common source of confusion. If you are invited to a fancy dress party, be aware that this is an invite to a costume party, not an excuse to wear your favourite frock – as dresses are sometimes called here. A vest is something Bruce Willis wears in the Die Hard movies – they call that other, fancy thing you wear with a suit a waistcoat. Sneakers are called trainers. If you look smart, that means you are well-dressed (no one thinks you’re smart-smart, you’re a Yank). Sweaters are called jumpers. And most importantly, the word pants means underpants in the UK – they say trousers instead. Pants also means rubbish/bad, and it would be pants to talk about your pants in mixed company over here.
Speaking of embarrassing situations, I once received an invitation to a party that mentioned a dress code of lounge suits for men. I found out the hard way that this means a standard matching business suit, and not an invitation to break out polyester jogging clothing that Rob Burgundy would have worn in the 1970s.
How to comport yourself:
Be very very quiet.
British people have very sensitive ears. If they hear an American accent louder than a whisper, it immediately confirms for them their preconception of all Yanks as clamorous windbags. So speak very quietly while you are here. If you are overheard speaking loudly, try to pepper your conversation with phrases like “I can’t wait to go back home to Winnipeg!” and “Justin Trudeau makes you proud to be a Canadian, eh!?”
Don’t try to pass for Canadian
Unless you’re covering up for being a loudmouth (as directed above), don’t ever try to pass for Canadian in some kind of misguided effort to make yourself more acceptable to the British. This is a surprisingly common strategy for some travellers, but it’s a bad move. It is indeed true that British people love Canadians more than any of their other imperial
lackeys, subjects commonwealth compatriots. But in addition to selling out your country, you also run the risk of being found out after just one question. “Quick, who was the first Canadian President or Tsar or whatever?” Don’t bother. Be proud to be American – just be proud quietly.
Never smile for any reason – and for the love of God, don’t talk to anyone.
Over here, being overtly friendly to people is seen as a sign of weakness and/or idiocy. I don’t mean that British people aren’t likeable and kind. They can be, as you’ll see for yourself after you spend a little time getting to know them – give it around 8-12 years and they’ll open up to you a little. But until then, realise that Brits, especially the English, are profoundly uncomfortable with most forms of human interaction that take place outside of pubs or football stands. So say very little, don’t smile, and walk around with a look on your face that conveys that you are slightly disappointed with everything going on around you, and you’ll fit in just fine.
Get out of the way
This actually applies to every tourist. You’re a visitor, and people are trying to go about their business and you’re walking slowly on a busy street, blocking progress. Get out of the way, especially on escalators, which have clear signage telling you to stand on the right so people can pass you on the left. British people won’t ask you to move. They hate personal conflict -they’ll just seethe in silence. So get out of the way, please.
Stop with the hand-gel
British people don’t carry around those little squeezy alcohol gel bottles. Ebola virus is really quite rare in London and most other tourist destinations. Relax, and leave your hand-gel at home with your fanny pack, otherwise you’ll come across as some kind of paranoid germophobic weirdo.
Try not to be fat
Look, I don’t care what size you are – I’m not judgmental, but British people are. All of them. Yep, I’m aware that it’s ironically judgmental of me to declare an entire country to be judgmental. But I stand by these generalisations: Americans are among the fattest people in the world, and British people are among the most judgmental people in the world. It’s a combustible combination. British people aren’t skinny, btw, they are – by far, the fattest people in Europe, but they console themselves by thinking “at least I’m not as fat as an American.” Don’t give them the satisfaction. Lose some weight or get your stomach stapled or something before you come over here. For the sake of our national image. Or if that’s too drastic for you, ignore what I said before about not pretending to be a Canadian. Be a big fat, pretend Canadian tourist.
You are cordially invited to become quite inebriated
There is a very strong culture of binge drinking in the UK, and being drunk, or talking about getting drunk, is considered socially acceptable in a way that Americans will find inconceivable. Here’s it’s perfectly okay to miss a day of work because of a bad hangover. No one will imply you have a drinking problem if you have two pints of beer at lunch before going back to the office. And city centres fill up on the weekends with drunken revellers. Sunday morning walks through UK cities resemble a version of the video game Frogger – where you must navigate through a patchwork maze of vomit splashes on the sidewalks – especially around bus stops and tube stations. You know how eskimos have 100 words for snow? Brits have even more for getting drunk – the BBC recently listed more than 141. I have been at countless work-related events, where I have been discouraged from ordering food, because – I quote – “eating is cheating” – and stands in the way of quick, efficient drunkenness. If you think there’s any chance you will be invited to go out “on the piss” by British acquaintances, start training your bladder before you even get on the plane.
What to eat and drink:
Try some tea
There’s no point in coming over to Britain, and not drinking tea. It’s like going to Italy and not eating pasta, or going to France and not having a baguette, or going to Russia and not considering the exploitation of the proletariat by the owners of the means of production. It’s just what you do. The only proper way to take tea here is strong, with a splash of milk. Do not ask for lemon, don’t order Peppermint tea or Chamomile, or Jasmine or any of that nonsense. “English Breakfast” is the technical term for “regular tea.” For more information about tea, read this previous in-depth post. Oh, and one more tip – do not ask for iced tea. No restaurant, or cafe in the country has iced tea. To British people, putting tea on ice is like, I dunno – putting ketchup on pasta (something many British people do).
Buy a round of drinks at the pub, and try some real ale
Part of the reason why this is a nation of binge drinkers is because pubs are so great. They’re not bars – they’re pubs. They’re restaurants, meeting places, bars, town halls and gambling venues – what more could you want? If you’re coming to Britain, you need to learn a little about pubs, and how they work. I did a blog post a while back, that consisted of an interview with a British pub landlord. There are loads of tips in there for American tourists on what to order, how to act and what not to do in a British pub. Long story short – buy a round for your mates, try the real ale and you don’t have to tip, unless you really, really want to. Don’t try to order light beer, it doesn’t exist over here and that stuff is swill anyway. Be aware that not all pubs are equal, there’s a chain called Wetherspoon’s that’s a cross between a Chili’s restaurant and a McDonalds. They’re the focus of another blog post.
No ice. No doggy bag. No service.
British people are bound by tradition, and one of their favourite traditions is remembering the food rationing and discomfort of World War II. You’ll feel this especially strongly if you go out to eat in a restaurant. It may seem entirely reasonable to you that, if you ask for ice in your drink, that you want more than 1 cube. But that’s not how it works here. And if you can’t finish your meal (the portions are considerably smaller here), you may think it’s practical to ask to take the remainder of it home with you to eat later, rather than waste it. But “doggy bags” aren’t really done here – so don’t ask your server to “wrap this up.” Customer service isn’t really to the standard that you’re used to as well. You probably won’t be able to ask for substitutions to your meal, you won’t get free rice if you’re in an Indian or Chinese restaurant (they charge for everything here – I once got charged when I asked for a little packet of mayonnaise), and there are no free refills for your soda/coffee or tea. On the bright side, British people are, compared to you, unimaginably stingy when it comes to tipping. A 15% tip would be considered extravagant over here – 10% is standard. So you’ll be saving money on your iceless, no-doggy bag, no substitutions, no free rice, no refills meal!
Don’t order the nachos
I have nothing to add to this. You have been warned.
Have some pudding
Since this blog posting is meant only for Americans, we can be honest here – don’t tell anyone I told you – but most of what you’ve heard about British food being bad is kind of true. It’s overpriced, it’s stodgy and nearly all of it, for some reason, is a shade of brown.
I heard someone complaining recently about Brexit – “without access to Europe, no one is going to want to move here. Let’s face it, no one comes here for the food.” True, but the puddings are great. It’s worth visiting – or even moving here – just for the pudding.
In Britain, all desserts are called “pudding.” You know that line in the Pink Floyd song where someone shouts: “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” That should make more sense to you now. Our American version of pudding doesn’t really exist, the closest thing they have would be chocolate mousse. But instead of sweet brown glop, you get a cornucopia of great, but strangely named desserts: sticky toffee pudding (the greatest thing in the world), eton mess, spotted dick (really), banoffee pie. Try them all, but make sure to eat your meat first!
Eat at chain restaurants – no really
In many ways, you should approach eating out the opposite of the way you would if you were visiting France, Italy or Spain. Look for a good-looking chain restaurant and you’ll probably eat better than at a local cafe or pub. I will do a future blog post on chain restaurants, but for now, a few of the cheap and cheerful good ones are: Comptoir Libonais (middle eastern), Leon (fusion, North African), Belgo (Belgian), Wagamama (fusion asian), Nando’s (chicken) and Busaba Eathai (Thai). To be avoided at all costs: Cafe Rouge (French), My Old Dutch Pancake, most Wetherspoons pubs, Jamie’s Italian, and any Aberdeen or Angus steakhouses. There are a million Italian chains, Carluccio’s, Pizza Express, Ask, Strada – they’re all okay, just be prepared for a lower standard of food than you are used to at your local Italian back home, especially for the pizza. Unless your local Italian is Domino’s, in which case you’ll be just fine. By all means, do the research and you can come up with some good independent restaurants all over the country, but be prepared to pay quite a bit more and don’t just say “this one looks okay- let’s try it.” One exception – Indian restaurants (and most Thai) are generally really good here, you can take a chance on them. Chinese food is of a much lower quality than you’ll be used to, as is Mexican. Did I mention not to order the nachos?
I’m sorry, but fish and chips kind of suck
When Americans think of British food, the very first thing they think of is fish and chips. You’re probably planning to try some when you come over. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret – fish and chips are actually kind of terrible. Well the chips (french fries) are okay. But the fish itself is a giant, oily mess from the sea. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, they’re not horrible, but they’re not exactly special either. You’ll hear people say things like: “Well of course you think fish and chips are bad, as you’ve probably never had real fish and chips.” Then they’ll tell you that there’s no good fish and chips in London and that in their hometown in the north, you get the most amazing fish and chips. It’s always in the north. I’ve been to the north – it only takes 90 minutes to get to the north from London. It’s not that far, and the fish and chips there aren’t that great there either. You won’t be making a fool of yourself by ordering fish and chips – it’s a safe order if you’re not sure what to get. But my advice is to get a pie instead. Meat pies are very common here – you can use chicken pot pie as a reference point. There are steak and ale pies, chicken pies, vegetarian pies and even fish pies, if you really are hankering for British seafood. Pasties are a kind of meat pie, very common in train stations. (They’re pronounced “passty, not pastey.”) If there are two of you, one of you can order the fish and chips and one of you can order the pie and you can see for yourself that I’m right.
What to know:
For now, the country is called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Thanks to Brexit, the UK will probably dissolve into its constituent parts in a few years, but until then, you really shouldn’t go around referring to everything as England. If in doubt, just say “Britain” when referring to the overall country, and “British’ when referring to the people. This way, your deafness to local accents won’t lead you to offend offend some Northern Irish, Scottish or Welsh person.
Learn the money – it’s really not hard
I find it deeply embarrassing and perplexing that some Americans can’t seem to wrap their minds around British money, and will be constantly asking “How much is that in American money?” It’s dead simple – a pound is like a dollar, but is worth a bit more. It’s made up of 100 pennies. That’s all there is to it. If you see something is £50, just think “that’s like $50 but a bit more.” Got it?
Read the Economist
Americans are kind of ignorant when it comes to anything other than Hilary Clinton’s email scandal, or Donald Trump’s latest verbal gaffe. But over here, there’s more to the world than Republicans and Democrats. People actually know a little bit about what’s going on in France, Brazil and Asia. I don’t want you, as an American, making us all look stupid when the conversation inevitably leads to whether Philippino President Durtete should or shouldn’t be advocating extradjucial killings (he shouldn’t). So my advice is, instead of buying People or Us weekly at the airport, get the Economist and read it cover to cover as homework, before you come over, so you have some sense of the world at large and don’t make us all look like Trump-ist know-nothings. Thanks!
But leave your American political talking points at home
If you want to talk about your God-given right to own a gun, or your belief that government-run health care is worse than slavery, and how the Muslims are invading Europe, imposing Sharia Law everywhere, and how the existence of gay people makes little baby Jesus cry, you’re going to find yourself quite unpopular over here. British people have entirely different reference points for politics than Americans. It was the conservative party that passed laws allowing gay marriages. Police unions would go on strike nationally if they were asked to carry guns, and Muslims for the most part, co-exist peacefully with everyone else – London’s mayor is a Muslim. And the National Health Service (NHS) is more popular than the Queen. If you are a Fox News fan and you start to feel a bit isolated, you may find some common ground with a certain percentage of the country (I don’t know, maybe around 52%), who share your strong dislike of immigrants and foreigners.
Be aware that soccer can be dangerous here
There’s a strange paradox when it comes to sports in the UK. British people are far less interested in sports, and yet take it far more seriously than Americans. You know how in America, almost everyplace you go has a game on in the background, sometimes games from several sports at once all on different TVs? It’s not like that here. Football (soccer) is more like religion – something to be indulged in not every day, but just once or twice a week, and prone to tribalistic violence. Don’t tell people here that you support Manchester United if you’re not prepared to talk about what makes them different and better than Manchester City. Don’t wear football jerseys, especially in pubs – they are sometimes seen as war paint and not just clothing – and don’t go to a football match unless you’re quite confident that you won’t be seated in the “stab supporters from the other city” section.
Avoid tourist traps
Some of the things you Americans like to do as tourists in the UK are stupid. Madame Tussaud’s is famously crap. I have never, in 11+ years of living here, ever met anyone who thought it was worth the expense. Don’t do any dungeon tours, and don’t do any Big Bus tours. The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace is not very interesting and it’s overcrowded. Here are some alternative ideas:
- Instead of wax museums, go to real museums. Most are free, and most are amazing
- Instead of Harrod’s which is wildly overpriced and overcrowded, go to Fortnum and Mason’s which is only quite overpriced and overcrowded
- Visit Windsor Palace instead of Buckingham Palace – there’s more to see and the Queen spends more of her time there.
- Stonehenge is historically important, but it’s incredibly disappointing as a tourist attraction, instead go to Bath, or do a walk in the countryside, ending in a visit to a country pub.
- Don’t bother with York, it’s filled with “Ye olde” fake tourist traps. Go to Edinburgh instead, it’s worth the extra distance, or if you don’t want to go far afield, Oxford is lovely and has great, free museums.
Are you kidding me with these human statues?
I don’t know if human statues, or people wearing Yoda masks, sitting on floating platforms hidden by walking sticks are common in other parts of the world, but they’re common here in Britain. In every tourist hot spot you’ll see them – and you’ll see idiot tourists gawking at them, amazed at the incredibly simple trick. Here’s a video revealing the ‘secret’ if you’re too thick to figure it out yourself. Don’t give Yoda money. Makes you look like an idiot, it does.
This isn’t a country for city breaks
Let’s face it, you’re coming over to see London, not Britain. Maybe some of Scotland too, and maybe some English towns. Britain isn’t really a place to do a random city break. I once did a trip to Lyons, France’s second city, and it was lovely, and there was amazing food and loads to do and see. Birmingham, the UK’s second most populous city, would not have the same appeal. You could drop into almost any city in France, Italy or Spain and have some great adventures. Urban centres in the UK aren’t the same. Some cities are okay – locals love Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol, but as a tourist, I’d stick to London, Edinburgh and some of the well-known countryside destinations, such as the Lake District and the Cotswolds. Although the fish and chips there will be marginally better, unlike almost everywhere else in the world, coastal cities (with the exception of Brighton) are economically depressed and to be avoided.
How to know when you’re being insulted?
As should be clear from the title of this posting, if someone calls you a prat, a pillock or a plonker, they mean to say that you are stupid. These are among the most mild insults you are likely to hear as an American visiting the UK. You’ll be called gormless, a muppet, a knob, a wanker, a tosser, a git, a bell-end, a div, a numpty, a wally and a berk. There are many more. If you hear a British term you’re unfamiliar with, chances are, you are being insulted. British people know all the American slang words, so don’t bother trying to retaliate with your own ‘obscure” retort.
You’re going to mispronounce almost all the place names, but please get some of the important ones right
- Edinburgh is pronounced “Ed-in-brah” not “Ed-in-burgh”
- Leicester Square is “Lester Square” not “Lie-chester”
- Anything with “ham” at the end is pronounced “um” not “ham.” So it’s Birming-um, not Birming-ham.
- Glasgow is “Glass-go” not “Glass-gow”
- Anything with “wich” at the end is “ich” not “which.” So it’s Nor-ich, not Nor-which
- Anything with “shire” at the end is pronounced “sher” and not “shire.” So it’s York-sher, and not York-shire.
- Anything with “mouth” on the end is pronounced “muth” and not “mouth.” So it’s “Born-muth” and not “Born-mouth.”
Don’t ever attempt any British accents
My last piece of advice to prevent you from making a prat, pillock or plonker of yourself, is never… and I mean never… attempt to imitate how the locals speak. These people spend their entire lives listening carefully for the most minute differences in pronunciations, as a means to judge each other’s lineage and social standing. Your attempt to plod in and make a funny go of saying “alright guv’nor” is only going to provoke snide laughter, embarrassment and derision. One of my very first blogs was about how British people still – on almost a daily basis – talk about Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins, a film made nearly 50 years ago.
If you listen to my advice above, you can enjoy your holiday in Britain, without coming across as a Dick.