Communication Styles in the UK
Last month, I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in the United Kingdom, mainly in Edinburgh, Scotland, to complete some research alongside other MacEwan students. Although many Canadians think of the UK as being culturally similar, I noticed several differences during my time abroad, especially regarding communication styles. Customer service, stranger interaction, and academic environments are a few areas that stood out.
The most significant communication difference I noticed in the UK was their customer service style. I took for granted the priority Canadians place on customer service—tips certainly play a role in that! The first indoor space I entered was a coffee shop in London. Appearance-wise, it was very similar to one you would find in Edmonton. There were a few tables and booths where people worked, chatted, ate, and drank. When I approached the till, the woman behind the counter didn’t glance at me for a few minutes. In hindsight, I think I was supposed to start speaking anyways (still not sure). When she was ready to take my order, she didn’t say a word, waiting for me to tell her what I would like. After I blurted out my order, she told me my total, stuck out the machine, and retreated to her coffee machine. My coffee was ready quickly, and she yelled out my drink order as if I were sitting across the street.
As someone who avoids small talk with strangers at all costs, I enjoyed that interaction! It may not sound pleasant—and I was shocked at first—but I went there to get a coffee, so it was a success. A person’s personality will largely determine whether they would like to chat up their barista, but it doesn’t seem like an option in London!
Strangers don’t talk to you! Not in the same way they do in Canada. While in the UK, I noticed small talk with strangers was relatively uncommon. Interactions with strangers seemed purposeful. For example, if somebody drops something on the ground, you’ll let them know. If you’re lost, somebody will give you directions. But other than that, I had very few interactions with people I didn’t already know (outside of a customer service environment). Nobody dares to strike up a conversation at bus stops and train stations. Eye contact and casual smiles aren’t common either. Canada has made me accustomed to looking at somebody and smiling while crossing paths. I tried to do the same during the first few days of my trip, but very few people reciprocated!
Since the purpose of my trip was to complete research, I spent a lot of my time surveying students at a university campus in Edinburgh. Although the overall university feel was similar to a Canadian post-secondary school, the people interacted differently than they do here. When approaching students, they seemed very taken aback that a stranger was walking toward them. Based on my experience in Canada, if a student walked up to me on campus and asked me to complete a survey, it would be a normal part of my day.
Despite the initial hesitation, the students began to loosen up after a few minutes of discussion. Some weren’t interested (or just busy with schoolwork), but many were curious to learn about Canada and share information about their country. I was fortunate to engage in several pleasant and insightful conversations with other students my age.
Overall, I didn’t expect people in the UK to interact so differently than we do. I guess it’s to be expected, considering it is an entirely different part of the world. As an introvert who likes to keep to myself, I had a great experience abroad; it was a refreshing change of scenery, and I look forward to returning and visiting different areas!
Have you ever experienced a shocking communication difference while travelling? We'd love to here your stories on our social media accounts!