Transitioning to UK College Life: Preparing for the Cultural and Academic Differences

12/07/20239 minute read
Transitioning to UK College Life: Preparing for the Cultural and Academic Differences

Visiting a new country on vacation and permanently shifting there for a couple of years are two entirely different experiences. One far more daunting than the other, and understandably so. The people are different, the food is different, and sometimes, even the greetings are different. Therefore, it is only logical that we equip ourselves with the necessary awareness to swim through cultural nuances, rather than stand out like a sore thumb – a very sore one indeed. To do just this, we will cover some key points on the differences in communication styles, etiquette, social norms, and the work culture in the UK and other countries.

Communication Styles

It is somewhat self-explanatory that communicating effectively and in a way that is culturally appropriate is important for building positive relationships. To put it another way: ineffective language is quite like speaking German to someone who only understands English. Keep it up long enough, and it's safe to say you may encounter challenges within your personal and professional lives. 

In the UK, a more direct and straightforward approach to communication is generally preferred – a marksman's arrow to its target. They usually tend to exclude unnecessary fluff in their speech and can come across as rather assertive, which sounds quite intimidating sometimes! After all, they say what they mean and they mean what they say – very little sugar coating involved.

In fact, a study led by Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD, noted that the UK is ranked highly on the direct communication scale. In contrast, many Asian and Middle Eastern countries are ranked relatively lower. You may notice that in your home country, there are more ingredients mixed up within speech to make it more indirect and polite.

Now, while one could point out that such features are also present in British communication, these cues are arguably an accessory to the conversation. In many countries, however, certain gestures and facial expressions directly reveal the deeper meaning of conversations. If we dive a little deeper into the whys, you’ll find that in many places, direct confrontation is seen as impolite, especially when respecting formalities and the company hierarchy are crucial elements of the working environment.

Though, don’t go mistaking directness for impoliteness in the UK, especially when the word ‘sorry’ leaps off their tongues like burning coals. A survey by the Leadership Factor in 2016 found that it is used eight times per day by the average person living in the UK. Sometimes, it could feel like nothing is exempt from their apologies, whether it’s saying ‘sorry’ when asking a question, expressing their emotions, or even remarking about the weather.

Another interesting quirk about British communication is their use of humor and wit. The art of quick thinking and skillful replies through sarcasm or wordplay is very much admired amidst their conversations. 

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While often skirted around, learning the etiquette of a country shouldn’t be overlooked. Being aware of how to act appropriate shows cultural respect, open-mindedness and helps avoid potential faux pas. After all, no one likes to be embarrassed, right?

Let's go through a few common etiquettes observed in the UK – starting from the beginning. When you first meet someone, it is natural to offer some sort of greeting. In business situations within the UK, it is common to greet someone through a firm handshake. 

In some countries, you may find that some people have strong individual preferences when it comes to greetings, such as graciously declining the hand of those of the opposite gender. In such cases, a popular alternative is to place your right hand over your heart and give a nod or a friendly smile as a form of recognition. By adopting the practices relevant to your country of study, you will be able to give a positive impression of yourself. 

Tying into this is the idea of cultural sensitivity, particularly when it comes to dress codes. In some countries people are encouraged to dress more modestly, and ensure their shoulders and knees are covered in public places such as malls and restaurants. The UK, on the other hand, is more laid-back in attire requirements, with individuals dressing according to the occasion.

Speaking of going out, whether it's a party with friends, a dreaded family gathering with that one irritating cousin, or a work get-together with colleagues, you should be aware of the reservation process in order to snag a table. If in the UK, you are advised to be proactive in making reservations, whether booking your tables online or calling ahead. This is especially since many restaurants don’t allow walk-ins on weekends, and reservations are the only way to secure a table.

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Social Norms

Understanding the social norms makes it easier to navigate through different social circles and contribute to society in a meaningful way. We are also better able to approach sensitive topics and have ‘drama-free’ interactions. 

Student life in the UK is brimming with tons of different activities, clubs and opportunities in general, which students are encouraged to embrace. Society socials, clubbing, and pub nights are generally more popular in the UK, with some of its big cities featuring vibrant nightlife.

When it comes to enjoying a meal – everybody loves to eat – you will be thankful to find that the UK also comprise a vast range of international cuisines. So you’ll never be far from home, or at least, not too far! You can even experiment with the food trends and experience their unique flavors, like trying shawarma or sipping some traditional Vietnamese coffee. Now, here’s a social tip you won’t be as thankful to know: in the UK, it is usually expected that invitees foot their own bills when attending events or celebrations.

Moving to a slightly different topic, let's discuss social activism – it seems to be all the rage in some parts of the world (for a good reason too). It is common to witness large strikes in the UK, and you might even end up joining some. The protests could happen due to a wide spectrum of pertinent social issues, but can result in some of your university classes being disrupted or canceled.

Now, if we have people passionate about promoting social issues, it must reflect a solid moral compass, so let’s delve into some of the value systems you may encounter. In the UK, you’ll soon realize that gender equality is placed on a high pedestal and that all individuals are encouraged to walk where their interests and talents lie. According to the UK’S Office for National Statistics, there is a gender pay gap in the country that stood at about 7.4% in 2020, though efforts are being taken to reduce the disparity.

In terms of family values, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that individual autonomy and self-sufficiency are highly regarded in the UK and nurtured in young adults. Most UK students choose to live away from their families when studying at university. 

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Work Culture

In this last section, we will go over work culture. Having a general overview of the working culture in a country, could be useful later on when working jobs or internships. 

Punctuality – a weak point for many, due to the less-than-exciting prospect of rising at 6:30 in the morning – is extremely important in the UK. It is seen as a symbol of professionalism and discipline, which goes a long way in building relationships at your workplace. The workday shifts are about eight hours per day, with many UK employees adopting the practice of a work-life balance and taking very little work home with them. It's also worth a mention that many UK offices have an open layout, with no visible markers of seniority, so employees can casually collaborate with one another regardless of rank.

Though, putting aside the mundanities, there are also opportunities you will have to socialize with the people of your workplace. In the UK, you may find that colleagues at all levels mingle with each other at events like birthday lunches or evening drinks, which give way to a friendly atmosphere.

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Final Thoughts

To round off, it should be quite clear now why understanding the cultural difference between other countries and the UK is relevant for university students as they steer their boat on the waters of personal and professional environments. Students should always observe the manner of communication in a country and the conversation styles of the specific people they interact with, in order to better adapt. As the points and observations noted here are merely generalizations, the same can be said for anything else: the types of etiquette, the specifics of work culture, and other accepted social practices. Familiarizing yourself with these simple norms will cultivate understanding and cultural sensitivity that will leave a positive impression of yourself as a global citizen, and well…it'll make life easier! 

Khushi Nagpal is a second-year History student at the London School of Economics. When she isn’t off gallivanting in fictional worlds, Khushi spends her time writing and self-studying data analytics, which she hopes to pursue after college.