British People: do we understand who we are?

By Supachai Chuenjitwongsa

Recently, on TV or in newspapers, it has not been uncommon to see a story about problems or conflicts between people or nations, which are caused by different beliefs and values amongst people. In the UK we often hear from people, especially politicians, that Britain is a multicultural country. People in Britain not only respect cultural diversity but also share a similar culture – ‘British Culture’. This raises a question that even lots of British people find difficult to answer: What is British culture – the culture that makes people in Britain feel they are ‘British’?

We know from academic literature that culture can influence beliefs, norms, and values of a society as well as the ways people in the society behave. In the business and education arenas, culture has been studied widely. Culture also influences how a firm or a university performs in order to achieve its goals and to compete at the national/international level. This is why the issues relating to culture and diversity are the core values of many business firms and higher education institutions in the UK. However, while culture has been of concern and studied extensively, the characteristics of British culture and British people are not mentioned very often especially in the media. This is why some people struggle to explain what is ‘British’ and what makes them ‘British’. Hence, based on academic literature, this article will give examples of characteristics of British cultural beliefs, values, and norms that British people have in common.

For several decades, Geert Hofstede and his team have developed a model that describes national cultures and characteristics of people within a nation. This model is well known in the academic arena and has been applied in many disciplines. For more information about the Hofstede model, please see In summary, the model comprises 6 dimensions representing different patterns of culture and people. In simplified terms, they are: hierarchy, identity, gender, truth, virtue, and happiness. According to the model, the characteristics of British national culture and people are represented as a score in each dimension (Figure 1).

Figure 1          British National Culture and People

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The hierarchy dimension that scores 35 suggests that British culture has low power distance. People are equal. Children do not have to believe in and follow everything their parents or teachers tell them. In business, a boss and his employees tend to work as a team rather than the boss telling the subordinates what to do. It is common to see young people and senior workers argue with older or senior people. However, whilst British society tends to value the equality of power, older generation people in particular might feel that they are not respected by young people.

Concerning a high score in the identity dimension, British culture is individualist, thanks to Roman culture and people who left this characteristic here in Britain! Being individualist means people normally look after themselves instead of asking others for help. In other words, people mind their own business. People separate working life from social life and personal life. It is not good to talk about personal things at work nor talk about work matters at home.

Regarding the gender dimension, British people tend to have masculinity traits; they like being challenging, they like advancement and acknowledgement. These traits can be seen in a workplace, in education, and even on TV. Quiz shows and reality programmes which allow contestants to compete with each other can be seen on almost every TV channel in Britain.

As for the truth dimension which scores 35, British people tend to accept that uncertainty in life is common. People respect personal differences and cultural diversity. British people feel comfortable with confronting and conflicting in order to solve a problem rather than avoiding or compromising a situation. This is possibly a strength of British culture as it supports the unity of a multicultural nation like Britain.

The score of the virtue dimension falls into the middle of the scale. This reflects the flexibility in the perception of time by British people. People are concerned about both the consequences of their actions in the present situation (i.e. take each day as it comes) as well as future situations (i.e. planning ahead for a better future). An example of this is how people deal with saving money. British people work hard to gain and save more money for their future (e.g. family, kids, etc.) but at the same time they know when they need to give themselves a treat by having a holiday or buying new/luxury stuff.

Regarding the last dimension – happiness – which indicates the gratification of basic human desire the high score represents the nature of freedom of speech and expression in Britain. People are comfortable to express their opinion, feeling, and identity to society. People can talk about everything as long as they give respect to other people.

One might argue that not all British people have the characteristics as described above. This is true because Britain is a multicultural nation where people have different backgrounds and live in different sub-cultures. However, the claim by politicians that British people share similar values is also true because they share the same national history and especially the sense of being ‘British’. The description of British people above possibly supports this claim as it represents ‘British culture and people’ as a whole nation rather than a specific sub-culture.

There are also other questions waiting for answers: while Britain comprises 4 nations (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), do these nations share similar ‘British culture’?, and while freedom of movement across Europe creates more cultural diversity in Britain, how do British people conserve their own identity and culture as well as allowing new culture to integrate into British culture? These questions are not only for politicians or the government. It is time for every British person to help answer these questions and make Britain the nation that we British are proud of.

  Supachai is a final year PhD student at Cardiff University. His research interests focus on training university academics how to teach, as well as the way in which culture influences teaching and learning in a university. He is originally from Thailand where he used to work as a full-time lecturer and a part-time dental practitioner. He speaks Welsh regularly and always encourages international students to learn Welsh. He was a volunteer at several Welsh festivals (including the Eisteddfod and Tafŵyl) to support Welsh learners. This is how he gives something back to the Welsh society.




Categories: Society / Cymdeithas

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