In most social situations it is acceptable to address a person by their first name. First names are sometimes avoided among strangers in order not to appear too familiar. In very formal or professional situations, first names are usually not used until people get to know each other better. The best strategy is to use what they have introduced to each other. Officials (e.g. policemen or doctors), however, will always address you by your title and surname, e.g. “Mr Schmidt”.
The British can be extremely indirect when asking for things from people they don’t know. It is common for Brits to ask “right to left” when asking something: for example, you would be more inclined to say something like “Where can I find the cloakroom?” in a clothing shop than “Where is the cloakroom?”. Although it is quite common to ask questions directly, these can sometimes be seen as too blunt or even rude.
Similarly, saying “what” when you don’t understand something can be considered rude to authority figures or people you don’t know, so “excuse me” or “sorry” is more appropriate in situations with a stranger or superior. British people often apologise even when there is absolutely no reason to do so. For example, if someone accidentally steps on someone else’s foot, both people usually apologise. This is a British practice and if you harp on it (e.g. “What are you sorry about?”) you will be identified as a foreigner. Often a British person will ask for something or start a conversation with “sorry”. Not because he or she is sorry, but because it is used instead of “excuse me” or “sorry”.
Leave a personal space between you and others in queues and elsewhere. You will usually find this space in places like cinemas. Generally, you will find that unless people know each other, they will usually choose to fill each row of seats and keep as much distance as possible until it is necessary to sit right next to each other. Exceptions are high traffic situations where this is not possible, such as on the metro.
The greeting depends on the situation. In any situation that is not a work situation, a verbal greeting (e.g. “Hello (name)!”) is sufficient. Younger people usually say “Hello”, “Hiya” or “Hey”, although the latter is also used to attract attention and should not be used to address a stranger as it would be considered rude. Another British greeting (often used by young people) is “You all right?” or “All right?”. (sometimes abbreviated to “A” in the north of England), which is actually a combination of “Hello” and “How are you?”. This term can be confusing to strangers, but it is easy to either reply with a return greeting (which is much more common), or to say how you feel (usually something short like “I’m fine, how are you?”).
A greeting can sometimes be accompanied by a kiss on the cheek or, more rarely, a hug. The etiquette for a hug is somewhat complicated, so the best advice is to accept a hug (regardless of gender) when offered, otherwise a handshake is appropriate. In a formal situation or a first greeting between two strangers, a handshake is the right thing to do, it should be of appropriate (usually moderate) firmness.
For more details on unwritten rules about greetings, salutations, gossip, British hypocrisy, etc., read Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by anthropologist Kate Fox (ISBN 0340752122).
The Scots are Scottish, the Welsh are Welsh and the English are English. Calling them all “English” is not correct and can be insulting. Bear in mind also that most unionists in Northern Ireland do not want to be called Irish. On the other hand, most nationalists in Northern Ireland will identify themselves as Irish and register as Irish citizens and carry Irish passports, which all people born in Northern Ireland have the right to do if they so wish. You will also find that although all people in the UK are legally considered British, they often prefer to be referred to by the country in the UK where they were born rather than using the collective term British. It is also common to meet someone who may say “I am half Welsh, half English” or “my parents are Scottish and I am English”.
We have to avoid calling the Falkland Islands Argentine because it is quite a sensitive issue for some people: 250 British soldiers died in 1982 fighting to defend the islands against Argentine control. As the war was won by the British, the Falkland Islands remain a British overseas territory to this day. To a lesser extent, the same advice applies when it comes to Gibraltar, as Spain claims it as its own territory.
While many Britons regard the V-sign with the palm facing outwards as a sign of “peace” or “victory”, the opposite with the palm facing inwards is considered an insulting gesture equivalent to the raised middle finger.
Manifestations of same-sex affection are not likely to cause disorder or offence, except in certain rural areas or in the difficult neighbourhoods of certain cities. Cities with larger gay populations include London, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton, Bournemouth and Edinburgh. Cities such as Brighton hold annual Pride Festivals. Civil partnerships have been legal since 2005 and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014. However, a person looking for a fight may decide to use someone’s sexuality as an excuse. Try to avoid eye contact with drunk people in the city centre at night, especially if they are in large groups. It is also important to note that in Northern Ireland homosexual displays and activities are rarely shown outside of Belfast, where many people will still have conservative values. It should be remembered that in Belfast some areas are safer than others to show affection. Although ‘cross-dressing’ is not illegal in the UK, it is generally advisable to be modest in your choice of clothing unless you are familiar with local standards beforehand.
It is now illegal to urinate in public. If you are caught urinating, the police will caution you, fine you and in some places you will have to clean your own urine with a mop and disinfectant, which can be very embarrassing for offenders. In addition, “indecent assault” (defined as exposing genitals with the intention of shocking people who do not want to see them) is treated as a sexual offence.