6 biggest culture shocks to international students studying in the UK
Here's everything you need to know about UK culture. Source: shutterstock.com

If you’re dreaming of studying in the UK, you’ve probably already envisaged your new life spent drinking tea with the Queen, playing cricket on the weekend and gorging on Sunday roasts. This romanticised version of British culture does have some elements of truth – but read on to find out what life in the UK is really like…

1) Get ready for people to apologise for everything

This can be a shock to the system if you’re from a hectic city or a quiet town, but politeness is at the forefront of everything British people do.

From rushing past someone on the stairs to walking into a lamppost, British people just love to apologise. This can be utterly baffling: you just accidentally hit someone with your bag, so why are they apologising to you?

It’s an unspoken rule that both parties should apologise over the most insignificant of things, regardless of who, or if anyone, is at fault. It can be hard to determine what the apology actually means in these situations … is the person aware they’ve caused you inconvenience? Have you caused them inconvenience, and they’re drawing your attention to it? Are they expressing genuine anger, in the most British way possible?

Man, apology culture can be tough!

2) Tea and alcohol are the cornerstones of student social life

In the UK, drinks represent a lot more than just your hydration. In fact, most social situations revolve around either tea or alcohol.

“Tea?” is a question you’re likely to hear whenever you visit someone’s flat. English Breakfast Tea acts as an icebreaker in social situations, with at least a few minutes spent discussing how you like your tea, what other types of tea you enjoy, when you tend to drink to, etc etc.

Even if you don’t drink tea, this often starts a conversation on why you don’t like tea, what other hot drinks you enjoy, whether you like coffee, how much do you rely on caffeine, etc etc.

After night falls, these conversations often move to the pub where friends catch up over an alcoholic drink (or something lighter if that’s not your thing). Pub culture is another social device to break the ice. Conversations often revolve around whether people prefer pubs or clubs, whether new trendy pubs or old traditional pubs are better, and what drinks people like at pubs.

If students aren’t in the pub, they’re likely to be “pre-drinking” in someone’s flat. Friends will meet before going clubbing to drink cheaply and skip the expensive price tags at the bars. Here, a drunken blanket smooths out any social awkwardness as everyone sings to pop classics and plays drinking games.

3) No one talks about their feelings

There is an inherent awkwardness that comes with expressing emotions in the UK. Nothing’s quite as embarrassing to a British person than deeply caring about someone or something when those feelings aren’t reciprocated.

This leads to most people downplaying their emotions, acting like they don’t care about situations when you know they do and defending themselves through nonchalance.

Wondering why no one speaks in your seminar? It’s probably because they’re worried about looking “too keen”. Confused as to why that hottie giving you the eye never asks you out? It’s because they’re scared they’ll be rejected.

This can be confusing if you come from an open culture which unashamedly shares their emotions. Why would you be embarrassed about how you truly feel?

It’s something that British people themselves don’t really understand or know how to stop. But – be warned – nothing will make someone from the UK raise their defence wall than a sudden outpouring of emotions.

4) Hook-up culture

This feeds off the UK’s fear of expressing emotions, but university can sometimes feel like one big game of Tinder. It’s not uncommon for two people to meet in a club, have one night of love and part ways forever more the next morning.

It can be tricky navigating this fickle way of life when your culture values relationships and marriage, but remember it’s not personal. There is just a mentality in the UK that relationships should be saved for someone really special, so even if you do get past the first date, you’re likely to be waiting between one and three months until things become “official”.

Hook-up culture can be frustrating when all you want is to find someone you connect with but remember you don’t have to sell yourself short and become part of this casual dating game if you don’t want to. There will always be someone looking for the same things as you … but it’s probably not that guy grinding on you in the club.

5) Confusing use of language

Considering English is their native language, they definitely use it in a very confusing way. Phrases and slang make up a large part of social communication, which can be baffling if you’ve never heard them before.

You’re likely to hear people saying strange things like: “the pot is calling the kettle black,” “I’m going to see a man about a dog,” or “having a butcher’s,” to name a few. While it’d be impossible to list all the weird things British people say, these phrases mean “accusing someone else of something they are”, “I’m going to do some secret activity/business”, and simply “looking at something” respectively,

British slang can be equally confusing, as they have a tendency to informally use words for their opposite meaning, or even to mean something totally unrelated. For example: “sick” means “good”, “peak” means “emotional/stressful/very bad” and “bare” means “a lot” … confusing, right?

It might take you a while to get to grasp with the British use of English, especially if you’re used to watching TV shows and movies from the US, but don’t worry, you’ll pick it up in no time!

6) Politeness is at the heart of everything they do

Orderly queues, holding doors open and saying “please” and “thank you” are what the UK was built on.

Queue skipping and unorderly pushing-in are total no-go zones in the UK. Slamming a door in someone’s face is the height of rudeness, and not saying “bless you” when someone sneezes is almost a crime.

Conversely though, talking to people in the UK is also seen as a faux pas. Striking up a conversation on public transport is pretty unheard of, but some people are unashamedly friendly … it can be a minefield to navigate!

This can be a shock if you come from a hectic lifestyle where people mainly care about themselves. British people can be very passive-aggressive, so you’re likely to get the cold shoulder or sassy side eyes if you don’t abide by these unspoken rules.

While this may make it unclear where you stand with your new peers, you can at least find reassurance that people are unlikely to say start a confrontation with you.

British culture can be confusing to navigate and understand, but just put a smile on your face, try and make friends and you’ll soon be integrated in no time.

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