Coronavirus restrictions have made it difficult to know how to greet people. Most people now just give a slight nod and say hello. People who know each other better give a sort of pretend hug from 1 metre away or touch elbows. If they really want to show warmth, they might give a very quick touch on the lower arm or an elbow/fist bump.
However, greeting people was confusing in Britain, even before coronavirus. That’s because there is no universal custom. Some people hug. Some people give one kiss. Some people give 2 kisses. Some people just shake hands. Some people pat other people on the shoulder. If a group of people meet up, it is very normal to have an awkward mix of many types of greeting.
It is common to use a question as a greeting, for example: “You alright?”, “How are you?”, “How you doing?” or (for upper middle class, upper class or royalty) “How do you do?”.
These questions are just a way to say hello, not a true enquiry. Replies are nearly always positive, for example: “Fine, thanks” or “Not bad”. Someone who is clearly very ill might say: “Could be better”.
Ideally, you should ask the same question in return.
It is rare to answer with your real feelings – detailed information is usually only for close friends and would probably be discussed at another point in the conversation.
In small towns, villages and rural areas, it is polite to say hello to strangers you meet while out walking/cycling. To do this, most people just nod and smile, or say “morning” or “afternoon”.
In southern big towns and cities, it is less common to say hello to strangers. In general, northern cities are friendlier.
The common exceptions are:
When you are with a dog and you meet another person with a dog
When a person is in their front garden
Early in the morning, before about about 07.00
Be aware, it is also common for people to ignore each other (even their friends!). They will pretend not to see you, or pretend to be on their mobile phone. Don’t be offended unless this happens a lot. Maybe they are shy or are having a bad day.
At a formal event you could say “May I introduce myself? I am xxxx”. At an informal event you could say “Hi, I’m xxxx”.
Be aware that British people rarely introduce themselves with their name. They will probably start a conversation with a question, for example “How do you know the host?” or “Is this the first time you’ve been here?” or “Isn’t it cold today?”
It is common for people only to say their name at the end of the conversation. This is because they like to feel they know the person before they share this kind of information.
If you forget someone’s name but don’t want to offend them, it is best to make it sound like it is your fault (otherwise the person could feel that they were not worth remembering. This might of course be true, however it is polite to act as though it was not).
A good way to solve this problem is to say: “I’m very sorry but I have forgotten your name, I’m not very good at remembering people’s names.”
It is OK to call people by their first name if they are younger or your equal (like work colleagues or at an informal party).
To show respect (for instance, towards an elderly person, medical consultant or the head teacher of your child’s school) you should use Mr/Mr/Ms [last name].
If someone is royalty, a peer, knight, member of the armed forces, judge or religious leader, there are special rules. Don’t worry if you are not sure the person belongs to one of these groups because they will probably correct you if you get something wrong.
‘My other half’ is an informal term for their romantic partner. In Britain, using the right words when asking about husbands/wives/girlfriends or boyfriends is difficult. This is because many people are not married, or because you don’t know their sexuality.
The word ‘partner’ is usually safest because it can be used for anyone – although when some people talk about their partner, they mean their business partner. My ‘other half’ is definitely a romantic partner.
This is a way of saying “would you like to come for a short visit”? You don’t have to have beer – it is OK to ask for water instead, or even tea or coffee (there might not be other alcoholic drinks available).
Many people rarely invite others to their homes, so if you are invited for a meal or party it is a great honour. The visit is likely to be 3–4 hours long.
It is customary to bring a small gift such as a bottle of wine, box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers.
It is unusual to arrive more than 15 minutes late. The exception is casual parties where people arrive throughout an afternoon or night. If you are not completely sure it is that kind of party, it is safer to arrive on time.
It is polite to say thank you for the meal or party. This could be a text message/email, or a card for more formal events.
Be aware that if you want to build a friendship with the person, you need to ‘return the invitation’ and invite them to see you within 6-12 months. This could be at your home, or at a restaurant, pub or café.
The most polite way to say no is to invent a reason why you can’t go, like this:
“Sorry, I am out that evening.”
“Thanks for the invite, but we already have plans.”
With British manners it is important not to make the other person feel that you don’t want to see them. Most people would understand that you are actually saying “no”.
One problem with this custom is that you if you are genuinely busy, you might not get invited again because the person thinks you don’t want to visit them. In this case, it is best to say “Sorry, I can’t come, but would love to come another time.”
There are several companies that offer courses to learn about social rules in Britain.
Often people in the upper class (and often also the upper middle class) consider these rules to be very important. They might also be important when attending events at smart hotels and venues, or high-end business meetings.
Look online for courses in British manners. The courses should give details on how to write letters, how to act at meals, what to do at smart social events and table manners.
It’s fine to go to someone’s house to say hello when you are passing or to drop off an item, however don’t expect to stay. Most people prefer to be asked first if it will be a longer visit. This is because they might be busy or they might not feel like seeing other people on that day.
If you want to meet up with someone, you could send a text message suggesting a meeting. This could be in a café or pub if it’s difficult to meet in someone’s home.
Don’t be offended if you are not invited to someone’s house. Some people never invite others to their home, even their good friends. Instead, many people prefer to meet their friends in a pub or a café. This is especially true in cities and large towns where friends might live far away from each other.
Greetings cards are an important social custom in Britain. Usually cards are carefully chosen to match the occasion. The prices are often very high, but see it as a part of your friendship.
For birthdays it is common to send a card with a joke, but don’t send this kind unless you know the person well and know they will like it.
At Christmas, it is customary to send cards to friends, family and neighbours you know – even if you are not a Christian. Many people also send them to their work customers/clients. There is no need for the cards to have Christian messaging or imagery – people are happy to receive cards with ‘season’s greetings’ or other more general terms that send good wishes.
At other times, see the guidelines below (the rules apply to family and close friends).
Always send a card: birthdays, weddings and funerals/deaths. A text message or computer greeting would not usually be a good alternative here.
Polite to send a card but also OK not to: leaving a job, starting a job, christenings, engagements, moving house, wedding anniversaries, or passing a driving test or exam.
It is also common to give a card to your mother on Mother’s Day (a Sunday in March, date varies). This day is based on the Christian festival of Mothering Sunday and is a different day to Mother’s Day many other countries. There is also Father’s Day (a Sunday in June, date varies).
Valentine’s Day (February 14) is seen as a celebration of romantic love. In Britain, there is a custom where people send a romantic card anonymously to people they would like to date. If they already have a partner, they might give a card to them. Valentine’s cards are very rarely sent to friends, usually only as a joke. Sometimes they are given to family members, but usually only between parents and young children.
It is very polite to send a card with a quick message, even if you were with the person when you opened the gift. A text message would also be acceptable, especially among friends. Saying thank you is always appreciated. Not saying thank you can seem rude.
High-ranking people (like the royal family, peers, ambassadors and important people in religions, armed forces or government) have special ‘forms of address’ (the way you write their name or speak to them).
There are also rules for their wives, husbands and sometimes children too. This is especially true in formal situations. Calling them ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ could offend them.
The etiquette specialist Debretts.com has a guide (be warned: the subject is very confusing!)
Formal rules about manners say that a handwritten invitation should have a handwritten reply. However these days, most people would be happy with an email. The reply should be as quickly as possible. It is rude not to reply at all or to reply just before the event.
British weddings can be very variable. Some weddings are very small, fairly informal parties. Others will be very big and expensive. The invitation can help – for example, expensive invitations or locations usually mean smart clothes.
There might be a dress code on the invitation, but if you are still not sure, ask the people who sent the invitation. It is possible to hire suits and other formal clothes if needed. Even at a relaxed wedding, British people will put a lot of thought into their clothes and accessories.
It is customary to give a gift and card. The invitation might have a ‘wedding list’ – items chosen by the bride and groom that they would like to receive as gifts. You can also give a gift of your own choice and bring it to the wedding. Giving cash is less usual although among some couples it is preferred. A gift voucher for a favourite store or holiday company is another common option.
Knowing how much to spend on a wedding gift can be difficult. A recent survey in the Guardian newspaper had people spending between £30 and £120. People said they changed the amount they spent depending on how well they knew the married couple, how far they had to travel and how much they could afford. The average gift was £66.