The UK’s higher education system welcome over 400,000 international students per academic year.

World class UK universities offer a unique opportunity to enhance horizons, broaden knowledge and enrich professional and personal lives. Yet not only must students from abroad manage multiple social and academic pressures, they are also required to navigate the challenges of British humour, culture and language.

So, if you are an international student there are several quirky and unique British humour, language, custom and cultural differences that you should take note of.

The best way of learning is of course from experience but having some background knowledge on British culture will be invaluable in navigating your way through the British maze.

Being Polite

Learning your P’s and Q’s (please and thank you) is taught from a very young age. Traditional British custom states that ‘manners maketh the man’, so try to sprinkle as many P’s and Q’s into the conversation as you can. Being polite is always received well and will put you in a good light. Note that ‘please’ is almost always followed by ‘thank you’.


Brits value punctuality so being late is often regarded as the height of rudeness. For businesses and formal meetings, it’s best to arrive 5 or 10 minutes early. Try not to arrive late to lectures as no one appreciates being interrupted mid-flow. If you are late, enter quietly and don’t forget to say ‘sorry’! For less formal or larger gatherings like parties, being 5-10 minutes late is less of a problem.


The world sorry is possibly the most over-used word in the British language. In the UK we have a huge tendency to over-apologise, from when someone bumps into us on the train to the weather. A survey found that the average person in the UK says the word ‘sorry’ about 7 times a day, with some apologising up to 20 times.


Brits take queuing very seriously and have a strange habit of forming a queue wherever there is a large group of people. They wait their turn and go by a ‘first come, first serve’ basis. Please don’t under any circumstance jump or push in as you will be confronted with disapproving looks – be warned!


In Britain, we truly believe that almost anything can be cured with a good-old cup of tea. In fact, it is very much part of the fabric of British life. Offering a ‘cuppa’ is a great way to break the ice and make new friends. English breakfast tea is the most popular type of tea followed closely by the Queen’s favourite Earl Grey. The tricky bit is deciding whether one pours the milk or tea first.

British Humour

Brits are polite and generally do not express strong opinions, but occasionally they may not necessarily mean what they say. Often you will need to “read between the lines” because British sarcasm uses a mixture of mockery and irony in a humorous way. Sarcasm and British humour is context dependent, but one example is when someone expects something to happen and when it does, they say ‘well, what a surprise!’

Making new friends is easier if you can make them laugh, and if you can laugh at yourself you will be liked to. Regale your new pals with humorous tales of your near-misses and escapades and watch them envelop you with affection.

Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart is a Relationship Guru and founder of Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart Consultancy. Brought up in the Far East, she came to the UK to study law. She now practices family law and . is also on a mission to make society ‘relationship-smarter’ by helping people to have more fulfilling and contented relationships. She has travelled extensively and is well-versed in understanding and managing cultural diversity 

Twitter: @sheelamac / LinkedIn: Sheela Mackintosh-Stewart / Facebook: @sheelamackintoshstewart