The British, like the people of every country, tend to be attributed with certain characteristics, which are supposedly typical.
Stereotypes and change
Societies change over time while their reputations lag behind. Many things which are often regarded as typically British derive from books, songs or plays which were written a long time ago and which are no longer representative of modern life. One example of this is the popular belief that Britain is a ‘land of tradition’. This is what most tourist brochures claim. The claim is based on what can be seen in public life and on centuries of political continuity. And at this level – the level of public life – it is undoubtedly true. The annual ceremony of the state opening of Parliament, for instance, carefully follows customs, which are centuries old. Likewise, the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace never changes.
However, in their private everyday lives, the British as individuals are probably less inclined to follow tradition than are the people of most other countries. The country has fewer local parades or processions with genuine folk roots than most other countries have. The English language has fewer sayings or proverbs that are in common everyday use than many other languages do. The British are too individualistic for these things. In addition, it should be noted that they are the most enthusiastic video watching people in the world – they very opposite of a traditional pastime!
There are many examples of supposedly typical British habits, which are simply not typical, any more. For example, the stereotyped image of the London ‘city gent’ includes the wearing of a bowler hat. In fact, this type of hat has not been commonly worn for a long time. The image of the British as a nation of tea-drinkers is another stereotype, which is somewhat out of date. It is true that it is still prepared in a distinctive way, but more coffee than
tea is now bought in the country’s shops. As for the tradition of afternoon tea with biscuits, scones, sandwiches or cake, this is a minority activity, largely confined to retired people and the leisured upper-middle class.
Even when a British habit conforms to the stereotype, the wrong conclusions can sometimes be drawn from it. The supposed British love of queuing is an example. Yes, British people do form queues whenever they are waiting for something, but this does not mean that they enjoy it. In 1992, a survey found that the average wait to pay in a British supermarket was three minutes and twenty three seconds, and that the average wait to be served in a bank was two minutes and thirty three seconds. It would therefore seem wrong to conclude that their habit of queuing shows that the British are patient people. Apparently, the British hate having to wait and have less patience than people in many other countries.
English versus British
Because English culture dominates the cultures of the other three nations of the British Isles, everyday habits, attitudes and values among the people of the four nations are very similar. However, they are not identical, and what is often regarded as typically British may in fact be only typically English. This is especially true with regard to one notable characteristic – antiintellectualism.
Among many people in Britain, there exists a suspicion of intelligence, education and ‘high culture’. Teachers and academic staff, although respected, do not have as high a status as they do in most other countries.