Britain’s reputation for politeness is completely unjustified

17:56Ciaran McCormick

As a native Brit, I have grown up with certain stereotypes. People expect us to act a certain way and we have internalised that and its become a part of our culture. Being polite, chatting about the weather, soaking up the food of other cultures because ours lacks flair. These are all characteristics that people think are distinctly British.

These stereotypes are a little bit closer to home than the more grotesque caricatures of top-hats, London buses and the Queen’s English. However, whilst even British people joke about our food and weather, they are often untrue. I think that the British reputation for politeness is particularly underserved. We often behave like we don’t deserve it anyway. Whilst I have many criticisms of Britain, its culture and the people, I am also proud and patriotic, without being a vulgar nationalist. Besides, self-deprecation is probably the most British thing you can find.

It was my recent trip to Japan that confirmed the theory. It took visiting a culture quite profoundly different to our own for me to understand where we go wrong. Indeed, in many ways, the Japanese people I met were far more polite than I have seen in a couple of decades of island life.



The British are known for a love of queuing. Nonetheless, the kind of pointless waiting in line that we indulge in is the sort where you queue for ten minutes at the bank. We don’t really have a love of queuing that I saw in Japan. At attractions, they queue for entirely unnecessary photo spots and wait in line for grocery stores without complaining. There is a certain pride in waiting for hours for something, because it makes the eventual destination even more worthwhile. We can’t handle queues really.

Our version of extreme queuing usually involves something tragic like camping outside a box office for tickets, or waiting in the mud for Glastonbury. Images of miserable Brits doing this and complaining are then morbidly traded around the press.

In terms of politeness to strangers, Britain is very poor. We are generally nasty people who abuse others in the streets, drink to excess and upset public decency at any available opportunity. Wandering the streets of Tokyo late at night is a very different experience. It is safe and the reserved and polite nature of Japanese people means that there is rarely any trouble.



The politeness of strangers is incredible in Japan. You get used to the constant bowing and a slight nod of the head becomes second-nature. As you might have heard, the service is legendary and I didn’t have a bad experience in a shop or restaurant. This is even more remarkable given that tipping is virtually nonexistent and actually a frowned upon taboo.

In Britain and other countries like America, it has become a cultural tradition to bribe employees to treat you well for good service. It just goes by a different name and has a lot of cultural and human resources baggage.

Cleanliness and resourcefulness are another couple of Japanese values that I respect and rarely see in the UK. We puzzle over phenomenons like the face masks that people wear there when they are ill, because the idea of cleanliness is so alien to us. It even gets demonised in the media as prompting a rise in allergies because of our desensitised allergies. Still, it is quite hilarious to see someone pull down their face mask to smoke a cigarette.



It was a struggle to observe some of the rules around cleanliness. For example, as we were constantly on the go during our trip, the unwritten rule that you can’t eat or drink whilst walking or on public transportation was hard. However, the spotless streets and pristine trains were impressive. The recycling is another incredible thing, as even if you ate on the move, you probably wouldn’t be able to find a bin. Japanese people simply hold on to their rubbish until they get home. When they arrive, after leaving their shoes by the door, they sort their waste according to a complex system of rules. Most British people don’t have the patience and discipline and dump it into a bin. I know that I do that more than I should.

We aren’t too different in many ways. The politeness in Japan is always limited by a certain uncertainty around foreigners. Whilst everyone was lovely and friendly, often quite excited and intrigued by British people, there is always a barrier. The Japanese culture is quite insular and cautious about being Westernised by outside influences, diluting their rich tradition and ways of doing things.


Nevertheless, Britain is really no different. Brexit is the manifestation of our fear of foreigners. Many Brits are ignorant of the world beyond their borders and little pocket of the world. We don’t like change. But our reputation for politeness is always a puzzle. Many people are lovely and we often celebrate the everyday heroes of our society. However, our default seems to involve complaining and a strain of rudeness and self-centredness. Perhaps we need to revisit our cultural traditions and build the next generation more carefully in a mould we would prefer.

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