Queuing Etiquette: Is this really what defines the British?

Matthew MacLachlan

11 Jan 2017

Can British culture be summarised as knowing how to queue and “being nice”?  The UK government’s integration tsar, Dame Louise Casey, certainly thinks so.  Her argument is that if we show newcomers to the UK when to put out rubbish bins, how to say please and thank you and how to queue we will help them integrate much more effectively into British society

Queuing Etiquette: The Defining Aspect of British Culture?

queuing etiquette

There are significant questions to be asked of those who subscribe to this perspective of cultural integration.  First of all, we need to ask on what basis we will hold new arrivals to the UK to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.

Reducing British cultural values (or that of any culture) to set of external behaviours overlooks the complexity of culture

We regularly receive letters from the council explaining when to take out recycled waste, or normal waste, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we forget, and we put non-recyclable plastic in the green bin, and paper in the black bin far too often.

There are many areas of our everyday lives when we expect others to uphold our supposedly British values much more stringently than we expect to do so ourselves.

Going below the surface

A second question we can ask, is which values does Dame Louise Casey consider important?  Where do we take our sample from?  Teaching someone to follow the values of Witney in Oxfordshire (David Cameron’s constituency) may well differ significantly from Chi Onwurah’s Newcastle constituency or Natalie McGarry’s in Glasgow.

Reducing British cultural values (or that of any culture) to set of external behaviours overlooks the complexity of culture.  The external factors, such as behaviour, language, dress, food are much less important than the values and attitudes that drive those behaviours.

Cultural experts often use the metaphor of an iceberg, but it may be more relevant to consider a tree.  We see the trunk, branches and leaves, but these are all fed by the unseen roots under the ground.  The roots often stretch over a huge area underneath the surface, and to a large extent determine the health of the tree and how it grows.

Changing Behaviour by Changing Attitudes

We can ask people to change their behaviour, but it does not address the issue of integration unless you can convince people to change their attitudes.  Society functions because our attitude to crime is negative, and therefore the majority of the population is law-abiding.  A change in behaviour can only be reinforced when we change attitudes and address the underlying thinking patterns behind it.

Diversity as an Asset?

We can ask people to change their behaviour, but it does not address the issue of integration unless you can convince people to change their attitudes

A more contentious question is whether it is entirely desirable for foreigners to completely integrate into the UK.  One of the significant benefits of migration is that it impacts the host country.  Purely superficially, the British economic boom in the early 2000’s happened at the same time as we saw high immigration from Europe.

Cultural diversity has been shown by numerous studies to have a significant positive impact on productivity – forcing outsiders to conform to the existing norm reinforces the weaknesses of the existing system, and dilutes the strengths.  By incorporating the best from outsiders into what already exists a society progresses at a much faster pace.

The current British citizenship test and many similar tests focus on learning historical facts, followed by simplistic do’s and don’ts.  Apart from achieving a purely political agenda, these do little to aid the adaptation of immigrants into the host country.

This millennium has been marked by integration and cohesion becoming a political hot potato.  It is surely possible that the attempts have failed so far because they have focussed on the negatives, and on behaviours, rather than values and attitudes.