An ongoing project of mine is to document the cultural differences between my host families and students from different countries, to highlight the problems each might encounter as one culture rubs gently against the other, and to offer solutions, or at least a degree of preparation, in order to avoid embarrassment or misunderstanding.
One chapter of this project, which I hope to publish one day, is about cultural aspects of the United Kingdom. It draws from my experience welcoming students at our school, BEET, in Bournemouth, and it covers topics like arriving in the homestay, conversation, time, meals, body behaviour, driving and crossing the road, invitations, meetings, etc. Here are a few tips:
Nowadays, people in the UK tend to have a light “continental” breakfast: cereal and/or toast, perhaps fruit juice and tea or coffee. The traditional “English breakfast” is a 3-course meal and a lot of homestays may not be prepared to cook this.
Lunch is normally a light meal, though some people like to eat well at this time.
Dinner is generally the main meal of the day, and would consist of 2 or 3 courses. It’s not unusual to miss either the starter or the dessert and have just 2 courses, and it’s not normal to have bread on the table or to drink wine on a daily basis.
Shaking hands is a sign of welcome and greeting. It is widely practised in the UK when meeting people and saying goodbye. Handshakes should be firm but not crushing, and you should look the person in the eyes, and smile!
Once you have settled in on your first day, it is a good idea to offer a small gift, something typical of your country, for example some linen napkins, a box of chocolates or a ceramic bowl. Do not be surprised if the gift is opened in front of you, or it may be put aside. Customs vary.
Safe topics for small talk in the UK are the weather, pets, gardens, sport, television, cinema and theatre. Topics to avoid are what a person earns, their age, politics, religion, sexual relationships and why someone has no children or is not married. Also avoid jokes and unfavourable comments about the Royal Family.
The protocol is different for social invitations and business meetings.
Invitations to dinner: arrive a little later than the time stated (10 minutes is safe), and take a gift, such as a bottle of wine or box of chocolates. Sometimes a formal invitation will say “7 for 7.30”. This means arrive after 7 to eat at 7.30, so arrive about 7.10.
Invitations to parties: Arrive late. It is generally safe to arrive up to an hour after the time stated and it is usual to take a bottle or two of wine.
But for meetings, arrive at least 5 minutes before the time stated.