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Brits Abroad: Cultural Competence

Do we as a nation represent ourselves well as travellers or expats? Maria takes a look at the stereotypes - often true - of Brits abroad, and discusses the importance of questioning our perspectives.

By Maria Mulder, Fourth Year Spanish and Portuguese

The Croft Magazine // Do we as a nation represent ourselves well as travellers or expats? Maria takes a look at the stereotypes - often true - of Brits abroad, and discusses the importance of questioning our perspectives.

Whilst studying abroad, I started learning more about the way British travellers are perceived by those on the continent. On one occasion, I attended a friend’s house party in Spain and got to know a Greek girl. We hit it off quite well. I then said I was from the UK and she began teasing me a little, describing to me the archetypal British holidaymaker coming to British enclaves (such as Benidorm) in southern Europe just to get drunk, cause damage and generally be a nuisance to local communities whilst not bothering to get truly familiar with the customs of their host country. I tried to avoid getting defensive; as an exchange student from the UK, I understood that I was still representing the country. I still didn’t know what to say in response, though.

The encounter did lead me to spend some time later reflecting on the image that many Brits perpetuate whilst spending time abroad. Indeed, it seems that Brits appear to be very culturally incompetent visitors in the eyes of many foreigners: loutish, entitled, inconsiderate and insular.

© Jonah Brown 

Of course, the loutishness can be attributed to the nation’s especially unhealthy relationship with alcohol and our numerosity – there are around 69 million of us. But a more profound discussion about the overall demeanour of many of our fellow citizens abroad is warranted. It seems that as Brits, we can afford to be complacent about our position in the world in a way that not many other nationalities can. Due to Britain’s colonial past, there are many far-flung places around the world that to varying extents, mirror our own country. If we think about the histories of Australia or America, for example, these places very much began as English/British outposts. England/Britain exported its people, primary language, religions, traditions, legal system and more to these places. This extensive legacy means that we have the privilege of being able to feel somewhat “at home” in many countries, which can lead to a general sense of entitlement when venturing overseas. We may subconsciously expect locals to cater to us rather than make the effort to adapt to their norms. I noticed this in myself a little, too – yes, even as a languages student with a bicultural family background!

The UK is also relatively individualistic. This is proven by the ways we seem to embrace detachment from others in our everyday lives. Our infrastructure is unreasonably car-centred whilst our public transport remains neglected, we prefer to live in houses rather than flats, we aren’t accustomed to living in multigenerational households, and so on. How we handled the coronavirus pandemic is another great example of an individualistic inclination: in England, mask-wearing regulations and practices have been fairly relaxed compared to many other countries. It is not far-fetched to assume this “every man for himself” mentality influences our behaviours abroad, which will of course be interpreted as disrespectful of others from the perspective of a collectivist society.

Moreover, our institutions are generally not noted for being encouraging of our exposure to other ways of life. This is supported by statistics: the proportion of school students taking foreign languages at GCSE has fallen from over 76% in 2002 to less than 50% nowadays, with an equivalent decline in Scotland. The picture looks bleak at university level as well, driven by reduced demand. And the UK is one of the most monolingual countries in Europe. According to an EU survey from 2016, 34.6% of 25-64 year olds in the UK reported an ability to speak a second language, compared to an EU average of 64.6%. Could these statistics explain our perceived insularity? After all, language courses are not designed to learn a language just for the sake of it. A language is a gateway to becoming familiar with a different culture, and such consciousness is essential to being a competent traveller.

© Finnuala Brett

Highlighting these realities, it is no secret that the UK can be inward-looking. Due to a series of unhelpful government policies underpinned by our national attitudes, it appears to continue on that trajectory. So, it begs the question: what can be done to change this? I’ll speak for England in saying that educational reform is a low-hanging fruit that is urgently necessary. If we consider the role of education, after all, it is ultimately to equip the next generation with the skills and knowledge needed to build a successful future in a globalised world. Recognising this, foreign languages could be taught from an earlier age than it currently is – the younger a child is, the easier it is for them to learn something new. They could also be reintroduced as a requirement at GCSE (the government of Wales already does this with the Welsh language). Efforts can be made to remove discouraging factors from our foreign language courses – for example, addressing the high grade boundaries and the sheer difficulty of language exams that are off-putting to students.

The more exposure to different people and ways of life we get, supported by an updated educational framework that reflects modern realities, the more self-aware we will become. Only then can we regard ourselves as prepared to navigate our travels beyond the UK in a more thoughtful and sensitive manner.

Featured image: Finnuala Brett

How else can we make our travelling more respectful and culturally conscious?