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Personal / Manners
Polite social behaviour in the UK
Small talk
  Food etiquette
  Business etiquette


In Britain you will find most people are kinder to you if you behave politely, respecting local people and customs. You may sometimes upset people by things that you say or do, even if these things seem perfectly normal in your own culture.

Queuing fairly is important in
the UK: if someone was there
before you, let him/her be served first

The Done Thing
Author: Simon Fanshawe
Publisher: Century
Date: June 2005
"The Times" Book of Modern Manners
Authors: John Morgan
Publisher: Times Books
Date: June 2000
A Modern Girl's Guide to Etiquette
Author: Sarah Ivens
Publisher: Piatkus Books
Date: August 2003
Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners
Authors: John Morgan
Publisher: Headline
Date: August 1999
Britain: a quick guide to customs and etiquette
Author: Paul Norbury
Publisher: Kuperard
Date: October 2003
The Britiquette Series [e-books, downloadable PDF files]:
- The Must-Have Guide to Posh Nosh Table Manners
- The Slightly Rude But Much Needed Guide to Social Grace & Good Manners
Author: S. Elaine Grace
Click here for other books about: etiquette

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When you first meet someone it can be difficult to know how to start a conversation, especially if your first language is not English.

Which topics are safe for small talk?

- Introductions, eg "Hello. May I introduce myself? My name is Mark"
- Travel, eg "Did you manage to find here OK?" or "Did you have a good journey?"
- Family, eg "How is your family?" (but only if you already know about the person's family)
- Hospitality, eg "Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
- The weather, eg "It's a lovely day today, isn't it?"
- Holidays, eg "Are you going anywhere this weekend?" or "Are you going anywhere on holiday this year?"
- Nature, eg "The garden looks lovely, doesn't it?"
- Pets, eg "What a lovely dog. What is his name?" (British people love dogs or cats)
- General news, eg "What do you think about the recent floods?" (but safer to avoid gossip and politics)
- Films, eg "Have you seen the film Bridget Jones's Diary?"
- Television, eg "Did you see The X Factor last night?"
- Music, eg "What sort of music do you like?"
- Books, eg "Have you read any good books recently?" (but only if you know the person likes reading)
- Sport, eg "Have you been watching Wimbledon?" (note that many British people, especially men, enjoy talking about football)
- Hobbies, eg "What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?"
- Business, eg "How's your business going?" (but only ask if you know the person has a business)
- Studies, eg "What are you studying?" (but only ask if you know the person is a student)
- Work, eg "What sort of work do you do?"
- Food, eg "I had a lovely Chinese meal last night - do you like Chinese food?"
- General matters about the person you are talking to, eg "Have you lived in this area long?"
- General matters on subjects that you know that interests the person you are talking to, eg cars, film stars etc

Which topics are best avoided for small talk?

You may need to be careful when you talk about some topics, especially with people that you've only just met, people who are older than you, people who appear to have strong religious or political views, or people who may have some personal problems or sensitivities. For example, be cautious if you discuss these subjects:

- Age, eg "How old are you?"
- Appearance or weight, eg "You seem to have put on some weight"
- Personal gossip about somebody you know
- Jokes that might offend (especially sexist or racist jokes)
- Money, eg "How much do you earn?"
- Sex (some people have strong religious views about this, or are embarrassed by the subject)
- Previous or current relationships, eg "Do you have a girlfriend?"
- Politics, eg "Who did you vote for at the last election?"
- Religion, eg "Do you believe in God?"
- Criticisms or complaints, eg "Why is British food so bad?"

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When should I leave a tip?

There are a number of situations in which it is common to leave a tip (sometimes called a gratuity), although you should not feel that you have to do this if you cannot afford to do so or if you were not happy with the service provided.

- Restaurant or café
Usually people only pay a tip in a restaurant or café when there is a waiter service (not for takeaway meals or self-service meals). Normally people add about 10% to the bill and make the amount a whole number of pounds. Check the menu and the bill to see if a service charge is already included in the price. For example, it may say: "A discretionary 10% service charge has been included" or "service is included", or you may just see that 10% has been added at the bottom of the bill (you can refuse to pay this part if you were unhappy with the service). If the service charge is not included the bill may say "Service charge not included" or "Gratuities are at the customer's discretion".

- Hairdresser's
It is common for people to leave a small tip (maybe one or two pounds) as a tip.

- Taxi
It is common to add 10% to the taxi fare. For more details about paying for taxis, see: Travel/Transport/Taxis.

- Hotel

You may want to give a small tip (perhaps 1 or 2 pounds) when a member of hotel staff gives you a special service. For example, a tip may be appropriate if a porter carries your baggage to your room when you arrive, if the concierge helps you (for example by helping you to buy tickets, book a restaurant or plan your shopping or sightseeing, or by keeping your bags safe before check-in or after check-out) or if a doorman finds a taxi for you. It is more polite if you do not show the money when you are giving it - put it in your hand, say thank you, shake the person's hand and press the money into the person's hand.

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Drinking tea (c) Heart of England
Teddy Bear Museum,

Afternoon tea at Harrods

Drinking tea
Do not pour the tea from a teapot as soon as it has been made; leave it for a minute or two.
If the teapot contains loose tea, place the tea strainer onto the cup before pourring.
Milk can be added to the cup either before or after pourring the tea.
Once the teapot is half-empty, or if the tea is too strong for you, pour the hot water into the teapot.

Eating scones
Use a knife to cut the scone into two halves. Put jam on each side (there is no need to add butter first), then spread clotted cream on top carefully. Eat the top and bottom halves separately (do not try to make them into a sandwich). Some people prefer to add the jam on top of the cream, although this can be more difficult.

Ordering food in a pub
See: Britain/Food/Pubs

Understanding the menu
"Could you explain what ____ is please?"
"Could you tell me what the soup of the day is, please?"
"Could you tell me today's specials, please?"

Using cutlery and plates
In general, if there are several pieces of cutlery, use forks, knives or spoons on the outside first
If there is a side plate for eating bread rolls, use the plate on your left-hand side. Put some butter on the side of the plate. Tear bread from the roll, then add butter just before eating it.
Eat soup quietly, without lifting the bowl off the table.

Eating peas
To be very polite, you should eat peas by squashing them against the reverse side of your fork

Asking for more
If at someone's home, you shouldn't ask for more unless your host offers it by asking, "Would you like some more?" or, "Would you like seconds?"
Possible answers include "Yes please", "Just a little bit, please", or to say no, it is best to say something like "That was lovely, but I'm full, thank you"

Dinner parties
If you cannot eat a certain type of food or have some special needs, tell your host several days before the dinner party.
Arrive on time, but try to avoid being early in case your host is not ready.
Take a bottle of wine or some flowers or chocolates to give to the host as soon as you have arrived.

Going to the toilet
"Excuse me. Could you tell me where the toilet is, please?" (in someone's house)
"Excuse me. Could you tell me where the ladies / gents is, please?" (in a cafe or restaurant)

Asking for the bill
"May I have the bill, please?"
If the bill says "service not included", it is usual to add about 10% to the bill.
In some restaurants, a 10% service charge is automatically added to the bill

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For a guide to British business etiquette, see:

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Traditional British events and customs: Ideas/Events
Improving your English speaking: English/Speaking
Pub etiquette: Britain/Food/Pubs
The countries of the UK: Britain/Countries

Home page: Home

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