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  1. The Staggers
12 August 2022

Do British stereotypes make any sense?

We don’t queue when it comes to visas, and we don’t apologise when it comes to colonialism.

By Bilal Aly

I personally have never understood British stereotypes. Yes we do drink tea, but beyond that I’m not sure how many of them are true – the weather here isn’t so unpredictable, and most people don’t speak like they’re in Downton Abbey. But even beyond that, there are some British stereotypes that not only feel flawed, but like complete paradoxes; to the extent that they should be turned on their head.

For one thing, it’s funny that we should have a reputation for loving queues – we so often invoke the glory of standing in line outside Wimbledon or tut when someone jumps the customs queue at a foreign airport. Yet on a global scale, we don’t actually seem to have much experience of queues. The British passport is actually the sixth most-powerful globally, and allows us to enter 186 destinations visa-free. It’s just not the case that British citizens have to, as is the case for many other nationalities, line up single-file outside an embassy, or spend thousands filling in lengthy application forms. It is particularly telling that, as a country, we raise our eyebrows at “queue-jumping” refugees – to the extent that we try to send them to Rwanda. Our obsession with queues, it seems, only really emerges when we aren’t the ones cutting in.

Then there is the British stereotype of over-apologising – memes abound online of people saying sorry for everything – even when it’s someone else who is at fault, for jostling them on the Tube. It is strange, then, that we are so inept at apologising on the bigger things – our country has left most of the world waiting for one. In a survey conducted by YouGov a few years ago, 59 per cent of our compatriots believed that the British Empire is “something to be proud of”, while almost half believe that its ex-colonies are better off as a result. Finally! We’ve found an inconvenience too small in our eyes for even the standard British “oh, sorry!

Lastly, there is the British reputation for a stiff upper lip. However, I’m not sure how true that can be. One survey conducted last October by the Institute for Customer Service found that half of those who regularly deal with the public had experienced abuse within the past six months, while 27 per cent had been physically assaulted. Furthermore, 10-20 per cent of UK citizens have been the victim of online abuse. 

Maybe it’s time we took a closer look at the British traditions and stereotypes that we romanticise. Like a lot of caricatures, they crumble under closer inspection. 

[See also: In modern day youth culture, conformity rules]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
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