To live in a new country inevitably requires decoding a new culture, and making a few mistakes! Even when the country in question is only on the other side of the Channel, not so far from where I grew up. I left France for England (London at the time) 6 years ago, but it was with pleasure and, I hope, humour that I thought about all the small mistakes made in the first few months after my arrival on British soil. Whether it is pub culture, popular sports, the country’s cultural identity or culinary and clothing habits, here is a list of the mistakes that have marked my life among the English. Am I forgetting some? I would love to know if you are on this list, or if you would add others, keep in touch through the comments at the bottom of the article, and enjoy reading!
1. Not knowing how to greet people
When I arrived in England, freshly arrived from France, I still had the reflex of trying to kiss everyone to say hello. I knew she was not part of the morals of the country, but I didn’t realize how uncomfortable she could make the British feel. Very quickly, I didn’t know how to greet people too much anymore, because no matter how much foreigners laugh at the kiss, it still simplifies things quite a bit (despite the existence, it’s true, of regional variations in France). In England, you can greet by shaking hands even at a dinner with friends, giving a “hug”, giving a kind of half-kiss (on one cheek, or sometimes two, but only to people you are close to), or doing nothing at all, with your arms loose. An Englishman recently told me that she didn’t know how to greet people in her own country, because the codes are not clear, even between British people. Awkward!
2. Not to pay for a pub tour
When I started in London, when I went out to the pub with friends or colleagues, I used to buy my drinks “à la française”, i. e. only mine. I didn’t understand that drinks are paid for by rounds, and that everyone has to pay for one regularly. The importance of this was revealed to me the day I heard from a friend’s friend of a friend, with a frown from the band, that he always managed not to pay for a tour. In short, never offering a tour in England is equivalent to “drinking by the eye”, and is in bad taste. It can be expensive, but it’s the custom: ignore it at your own risk! The only exception: those who do not drink alcohol can fall through the cracks, since they are perceived as not having to pay everyone for beer if they only order a Coke (which is actually worth the same price as a pint in England, more or less).
3. Not finding an apartment in advance
In England, real estate is particularly flourishing, but there are not many apartments and houses for rent, especially those at reasonable prices. It was really hard to find a nice place to live, because I started my research far too late. It is better to go through a site (like for-sale, which is rather known) or via classified ads well before arriving, to be sure to find a cosy home!
4. Call the whole country “England”
Like everyone else, I learned at school that the United Kingdom was made up of 4 nations (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland). But I didn’t understand how different they could be from each other in their accents and cultural identities, and that they are not interchangeable within a discussion. I sometimes used the word “England” interchangeably to refer to the United Kingdom, while England refers only to that small southern part of the country, which has its own legal existence, separate from the other 3 nations. Many British people took me back, kindly explaining to me that I could not say of a person that they were “English” if they were in fact “Welsh”, and that these 4 nations represented almost 4 independent countries, but with an underlying global sense of identity all the same. You will notice that I use both English and United Kingdom terms in this article, but it is because technically I have never lived in the United Kingdom except in England. So I’m not at fault!
5. Get on the bus through the middle door
In England, the rule is strict: you get on the bus through the front door, the one where the driver is, you get off through the middle door, but you never get on through it! The only exception is wheelchairs and strollers, after notifying the driver. I provoked a few small outbursts by going up through the middle door when I arrived in England, in good faith, wondering why everyone was waiting in line… I quickly understood.
6. Not understanding the “dates”
This applies only to those who have had the pleasure of being single in the United Kingdom, or in other English-speaking countries: succeeding in establishing your love life according to the rules of the natives may leave you slightly confused at first. The system of “dates”, in particular, has been difficult for me to understand, because they are real institutions in the United Kingdom. We “date” it all the time, with a lot of rules, including, jumbled together: make yourself (very) beautiful for the date, let the man pay (if he is English it often ends like that, but of course you can offer to share the bill), accept the “date” before even knowing if you like the person, and accept the fact that you can go on a “date” with someone without ever having another date once the appointment is over, after spending a whole evening and sometimes a movie in addition to doing the conversation with someone. “Dates” are a kind of first job interview before you have even looked at the CV of the person applying. During dinner, we decide whether the person will be entitled to a second interview, and if not, we can take the liberty of disappearing on the sly. The sentimental jungle!
7. Confuse fries, chips and crisps
A classic, and it’s even worse if you’ve lived in other English-speaking countries that use all these words differently within the English language. In the United Kingdom, fries refers to thin French fries, chips to thick, thick, English-style chips that are often served by default in pubs (but which are different from potatoe wedges, be careful), and crisps are chips. On the other hand, in the United States, chips are chips, as in France, and not English-style chips (thick chips). Are you lost? That’s normal. It’s a minefield, so be careful where you step when you order from the restaurant: check out my little beginner’s glossary!
8. Want to have dinner before the evening at the pub
A typical mistake of the Frenchy who arrives: suggesting to meet colleagues at the pub around 8pm, after dinner. You are changing the rules of the game, which are very clear: we start drinking very early right out of the office, on Friday evenings sometimes at 5pm, and we have dinner when hunger eats our guts, usually a little drunk around 8.30pm or 9pm, in the most civilised scenarios. In more extreme cases, dinner is served in the middle of the night in your local kebab. On the positive side, however: starting with an extended aperitif at 5pm or 6pm often means that the evening doesn’t end too late, which can also be nice to enjoy, for example, your weekend.
9. Believing that the royal family is not important
As a good republican, I really thought that the royal family was neither popular nor unanimous, and that the British should generally wish to move from a monarchy to a republic. Of course, the royal family had some setbacks in Lady Di’s time, or in the face of other unpopular and too conservative decisions for her time (who else looked at “The Crown”?), but I have only met, to date, two Englishmen in my direct circle who told me openly that they were Republicans and that they thought the monarchy was an outdated and unfair symbol. Many people, not necessarily zealous, told me that the principle of a monarchy did not bother them, and that they preferred that the royal family should continue to exist. Even among the young. I wouldn’t say that it bothers me very much, I learned to listen to the English who explain to me that for them, it is also a guarantee of political stability (although the royal family has no official political role or power), but I was really surprised not to find more resistance to the monarchy. However, I tell myself that the Scots, Irish or Welsh may be less attached to the royal family, but since I have less contact with it, I don’t realize? The question is open, for those who wish to enrich the debate.
10. To think that I knew what it meant to dress smart
Before arriving in the United Kingdom, I thought the French knew how to make themselves chic for parties, weddings and other important events. That was before I went to my company’s Christmas Parties, weddings or any other official event in the United Kingdom. Whether it’s fake eyelashes, fake nails, flamboyant (and sometimes extremely short) dresses, dizzying heels, creases and tanned skins in the middle of December, or impressive hats worn by these older ladies at a wedding (you can’t be chic without a hat in England), English women take their evening look very seriously. This involves, for the youngest, hours of preparation (a colleague told me she was preparing for 3 hours for my company’s annual Christmas party at the time), and for older women, a headgear. Not all English women are as pretty, but on the whole, they put the little dishes in the big ones when it comes to getting dressed to go out.
11. To think that London is England
I plead guilty! Now that I live outside London, I realize the difference. London is the most populous city in Europe, which necessarily implies that it is more diverse, cultural, open or avant-garde than other large and medium-sized cities in the country. In London, we are used to working with people from all over the world, companies are filled with employees from all 5 continents, each with their own accent. This is less, if not much, marked in smaller and less international cities (with the exception of some other cities such as Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh, for example). There are also the London features you get used to when you live there, and don’t miss when you leave London for a provincial city: cheaper rents, a less stressful life with less or no public transport, and sometimes even the ability to walk almost anywhere, even to work.
12. Sending very formal emails
When I started working in England, I wrote my emails “à la française”, i. e. respecting the formal greeting protocol by using the “Bonjour Mme Dupont” and “Bonjour M. Durand”. With a few exceptions in very formal or official situations, everyone calls each other by their first name in emails, even if it is for example a client you have never met, or the first contact with your real estate agent. The formulas at the end of the letter or email are also less pompous: no “I took you to agree, blah, blah, blah…”, but rather “Kind regards” or one of its variations in a single word.
13. To think that a pub is a pub
Tell me what your personality is, and I’ll tell you what kind of ad you need to go to. Be careful, a pub is never just a pub in the United Kingdom, choose the type that suits you best! Gastro pubs, for example, are more and more common: they are often more refined, with a chef who offers a carefully studied menu, cooked from fresh and seasonal products, sometimes even organic, with a rather chic decoration and atmosphere. This is the type of ad you take your parents to when they visit you. There are pub sports, such as Wetherspoons (a channel), which are very cheap, and bring together English fans of cheap football and beer, with matches broadcast in the background. There are also the neighbourhood pubs, with a family atmosphere, which are a little bit between the two types of pubs mentioned just before, and of course the traditional pub, very old and having solid wooden tables, huge golden mirrors above the bar and gildings everywhere, with reproductions of paintings from the 18th or 19th century, often of an admiral who defeated the French troops in a battle at one time or another. The choice of drinks is also an important criterion: some pubs are known for their wide choice of homemade beers, others also have a beautiful wine list or cocktails.
14. Not knowing when to leave the pub at the right time
This applies especially to evenings with colleagues, which are very common in the United Kingdom: there is always a time, usually from 10pm or 11pm, when the few (too many) lively people in the group exceed the blood alcohol level that causes them to move to the dark side, resulting in a sudden change in the atmosphere of the evening. Between those who simply fall asleep with their heads on the table, those who become noisy and a little heavy, and those who try their luck with everything that moves, I usually like to leave just after the third tour to avoid embarrassing situations with colleagues who we will have to greet in the kitchen on Monday morning!