Stereotypes and change

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Societies change over time while their reputations lag behind. Many things which are often regarded as typically British derive from books, songs or plays which were written a long time ago and which are no longer representative of modern life. One example of this is the popular belief that Britain is a 'land of tradition'. This is what most tourist brochures claim. The claim is based on what can be seen in public life and on centuries of political continuity. And at this level - the level of public life - it is undoubtedly true. The annual ceremony of the state opening of Parliament, for instance, carefully follows customs which are centuries old. So does the military ceremony of 'trooping the colour'. Likewise, changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace never changes.

However, in their private everyday lives, the British as individuals are probably less inclined to follow tradition than are the people of most other countries. There are very few ancient customs that are followed by the majority of families on special occasions. The country has fewer local parades or processions with genuine folk roots than most other countries have. The English language has fewer saying or proverbs that are in common everyday use than many other languages do. The British are too individualistic for these things. In addition, it should be noted that they are the most enthusiastic video-watching people in the world - the very opposite of a traditional pastime!

There are many examples of supposedly typical British habits which are simply not typical any more. For example, the stereotyped image of the London 'city gent' includes the wearing of a bowler hat. In fact, this type of hat has not been commonly worn for a long time. Food and drink provide other examples. The traditional 'British' (or 'English') breakfast is a large 'fry-up' preceded by cereal with milk and followed by toast, butter and marmalade, all washed down with lost of tea. In fact, only 10% of the people in Britain actually have this sort of breakfast. Two-thirds have cut out the fry-up and just have the cereal, tea and toast. The rest have even less. What the vast majority of British people have in the mornings is therefore much closer to what they call a 'continental' (i.e. European) breakfast than it is to a 'British' one. The image of the British as a nation of tea-drinkers is another stereotype which is somewhat out of date. It is true that it is still prepared in a distinctive way (strong and with milk), but more coffee than tea is now bought in the country's shops. As for the tradition of afternoon tea with biscuits, scones, sandwiches or cake, this is a minority activity, largely confined to retired people and the leisured upper-middle class (although preserved in tea shops in tourist resorts).

Even when a British habit conforms to the stereotype, the wrong conclusions can sometimes be drawn from it. The supposed British love of queuing is an example. Yes, British people do form queues whenever they are waiting for something, but this does not mean that they enjoy it. In 1992, a survey found that the average wait to pay in a British supermarket was three minutes and twenty-three seconds, and that the average wait to be served in a bank was two minutes and thirty-three seconds. You might think that these times sound very reasonable. But The Sunday Times newspaper did not think so. It referred to these figures as a 'problem'. Some banks now promise to serve their customers 'within two minutes'. It would therefore wrong to conclude that their habit of queuing shows that the British are a patient people. Apparently, the British hate having to wait and have less patience than people in many other countries.


Men and women | English versus British

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