Visiting Britain in 2010 to open his Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate Modern, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, referred to Britain as a sophisticated society. In doing so, the artist was not necessarily commenting on any heightened cultural taste of his British hosts, more the layers of culture he had observed and how this, in his eyes, brought vibrancy and excitement to a culture that is both embracing and ever-changing.
The Institute founded by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede concurs that the British share a complex and often contradictory culture, when compared to other countries. The Hofstede Institute point to a number of cultural drivers which help to form the basis of British society and how these manifest themselves within the culture of the British people. Some of these are:
- The British are seen as being highly individualistic and quite driven people. Manifestation: The British are taught from an early age to think for oneself.
- The British have a deep-seated belief in personal freedoms, especially freedom of thought. Manifestation: The long tradition of British liberalism; the United Kingdom was one of few European countries to have neither a fascist nor a communist government in the 20th century.
- The British are inherently (perhaps strangely) curious; “what is different is attractive”. Manifestation: The creativity one finds amongst the British people and their strong desire to innovate.
- The British have a high tolerance (compared to other nations) of uncertainty and ambiguity. Manifestation: the common use within British society of expressions like “Oh, we’ll muddle through!”
- The British have a deep-seated sense of fair play. Manifestation: The Brits love of queuing!
This has led many commentators to reflect on the contradictions one finds when visiting Britain which, somewhat frustratingly leads to asking more questions than it answers, for example:
- How can you reconcile a culture where people are driven to succeed with a culture of modesty and understatement?
- How can you reconcile a respect for history and tradition but value quick solutions and short-term results (compared to other nations)?
- How can a culture that seems (to the outside world) to be riddled with a class structure have such a deep-seated belief in fair-play?
- How does a society of relatively few rules adhere so fiercely to the ones that do exist (e.g. love of queuing)?
- Why are you always 'reading between the lines' to work out what the British actually mean?
These questions and more await you, as you explore this vibrant and fascinating island!
While English is the primary language spoken in London, the city is bursting at the seams with diversity and people speaking many different languages. London schools have a host of languages from Punjabi and Urdu to Kurdish and Greek being spoken in the playground. Since their first arrival in the late 1940s, ethnic groups (of whom Muslims make up the largest sector, with Hindus next) make up 2.5 million people, the equivalent of the population of Wales and 500,000 new arrivals from the European Union (especially Poland) make up the new faces.
See how many languages you hear next time you walk around the capital.