This is an article about the peculiarities of UK body language such as public displays of affection, bodily contact and proximity, some of which can cause confusions for people from other countries. For actual conscious use of gestures, see the related article 80 British Gestures:
A British handshake
In countries where handshaking is the norm, the general pattern tends to be that people who live far apart from each other, usually meaning in rural areas, shake hands with their bodies quite far apart from each other. This means that you have to stretch out your arm and lean your body forward a little to shake hands. This pattern is also true in the UK, but in Britain even people in big cities tend to stand quite far apart when shaking hands and therefore do so with their bodies sloping forward.
Unless you are feeling particularly passionate about seeing someone, a UK handshake tends to be quite short, with around three small shakes up and then down. There are also times when it can be shorter, maybe even just one shake up and down, for example when meeting a large group of people or when shaking hands again at the end of a meeting. Generally, too short is better than too long. In fact, people shaking hands for too long and/ or too far up and down is a very common sign of a character’s lack of social skills in British comedies.
The strength of the handshake is very important, with both too weak and too strong being viewed very negatively. The British can find American handshakes too strong, sometimes taking this to be a sign of aggression and/ or too much ambition, meaning something like “I’m going to kill you in this negotiation” or “Thanks for the job, boss, but I’m planning to take yours within the year”. People from countries where handshaking is not normal tend to shake hands too weakly, a style which has the nickname “the wet fish” as it feels a bit like holding raw seafood. This kind of handshake can be understood to be a sign of weakness, unreliability, untrustworthiness and/ or a lack of ambition.
The British tend to avoid any other bodily contact during handshakes, with the left hand not being used at all. For example, a hug and handshake at the same time is very rare in Britain. In the UK, grabbing the other person’s forearm with your other hand while shaking hands means something like “It’s a real honour to meet you” or “I am forever in your debt”, and tends to only be used in situations like someone being your hero. Holding the other person’s shoulder when you shake hands means something like “Are you holding up okay?”, for example after their partner has died, and so is also very rare. For most British people this is the worst thing about (some) American handshakes, as Brits find the extra bodily contact uncomfortable and feel that it is insincere to show so much passion when it doesn’t really match the situation and/ or your real feelings. Holding the other person’s hand with both of your hands isn’t common is either the UK or the USA.
Another issue is when to shake hands. The British tend to shake hands only when meeting someone for the first time or meeting again after a long time, often while saying “Pleased to meet you” or “(Long time no see). It’s so nice to see you again”. In other situations such as a second meeting the next day, just briefly raising your eyebrows and/ or one palm in a “Hi” gesture is usually more appropriate. The same is true in more informal situations and/ or when meeting a large group of people, where shaking hands might seem “too much” and/ or a waste of time.
People also fairly often shake hands when sealing a deal (while saying “Great, I can shake on that”, “I think we have a deal”, etc), and at the end of those kinds of successful meetings (saying something like “Thanks, that was very productive”). There are also other times when shaking hands is suitable when saying goodbye, but again Brits tend not to do so with very large groups of people or with people they often see.
Perhaps to make the process more predictable, British people almost always shake with their right hands. We only shake hands with the left hand if we really can’t use our right one, for example we have paint on our right hand or have injured it. In other situations, it is more normal to ask people to wait while you make it available (“Just a moment while I wipe my hands”, “Just a second, I’ll put this down”, etc).
To summarise, typical “mistakes” when trying to shake hands the British way include, in approximate order of how negatively they will be viewed:
- Shaking hands too weakly (the “wet fish”)
- Holding the other person’s hand, arm or shoulder with your left hand when you shake hands with them
- Shaking for too long
- Shaking too far up and down
- Shaking hands too strongly
- Trying to shake hands with your left hand
- Standing too close when you shake hands
- Shaking hands too often/ in the wrong situations
As British boys used to, you might want to practise shaking hands until you get it just right, especially if you are dealing with British people in a business setting.
Physical displays of affection in the UK
Having heard that the British are cold, unpassionate and/ or undemonstrative, foreign people are often surprised by the amount of hand holding, hugging, cuddling, kissing, etc that they see on the streets of London. This can sometimes even go as far as couples making out on the street or in a corner of a pub or club (although this tends to only the young and/ or very drunk, and is generally frowned upon). With your romantic partner, a kiss on the lips when you meet or say goodbye, holding hands, holding them around the waist or shoulders as you walk, having your hands across their shoulder as you sit next to each other on a sofa, etc are generally not even noticed by other people. Such public displays of affection are also becoming increasingly common between romantic partners of the same gender, although they may still attract stares or even comments in small towns and suburbs.
Holding hands in the UK
All of the public displays of affection mentioned above are mainly restricted to romantic partners, including holding hands. Apart from your husband/ wife/ partner/ boyfriend/ girlfriend, the only person a Brit is likely to hold hands with is a small child. Unlike in some countries, other family members and friends rarely hold hands, link arms, etc. The only major exception is if someone needs help walking along the street because they are elderly, have problems seeing, etc. British kids also tend to reject holding hands at an earlier age than in some countries, so a parent holding the hand of an eleven-year-old kid might get some looks.
Kissing in the UK
As mentioned above, kissing of your romantic other half in public is very common, particularly when saying hello and goodbye. Especially if no one you know is around, this can even be a fairly long and passionate “snog” without being commented upon.
For most people, kissing on the lips tends to be entirely limited to those kinds of romantic contexts, with even small children just getting a kiss on the cheek. Other family members might also give each other a (single) kiss on the cheek, especially during a hug and/ or after not seeing someone for a while. More “continental” kissing on both cheeks is not very common, and tends to be restricted to particular groups of people such as some groups of friends, stereotypically usually those in creative industries such as fashion. “Air kissing” (going to kiss someone on both cheeks but not actually making any contact with their cheek as you make a kissing noise) and cheek kissing between men are even more restricted, but again are sometimes used by particular sets of people.
Hugging in the UK
Hugging is much more common than cheek kissing in the UK, including occasionally in business situations such as a colleague’s last day at work, and it is often the only bodily contact between men and their fathers. However, a tight, strong, squeezing “bear hug” tends to be reserved for people who have been in danger, people who you thought you would never see again, etc. Instead, a British hug tends to be quite short and light, perhaps without the front of your bodies touching at all and/ or with a couple of pats on the back. Foreign people can take a British hug like this to be because of a lack of feeling between the people involved, but it shouldn’t usually be taken that way.
British bodily contact
Apart from the (fairly minimal) handshake when meeting someone, the general rule with strangers in the UK is “avoid absolutely all bodily contact”. This even outweighs other British taboos such as not wanting to talk to strangers. The clearest example of this is on the train, where making any bodily contact with people as you squeeze on or off the train is totally taboo and can get an aggressive or even violent reaction. Instead you should apologise (a lot) and ask “Can I get passed?” when getting off, and probably just wait for the next train if you would have to press against someone to get on.
The taboo against touching can also extend to people you know, particularly in institutional situations like schools and businesses. Physical punishment was made illegal in British schools a long time ago, but this is more and more turning into a complete taboo against teachers touching kids at all, and also sometimes against kids touching each other. Although I’ve never heard of a British version of the absolute no touching rule between kids rule that infamously made even a pat on the shoulder against the rules in some American schools, even two kids happily play fighting will generally be punished in UK schools. However, nowadays the teacher is unlikely to pull two fighting kids apart, as the parents of the kids are as likely to threaten to sue the teacher as they are to apologise for the behaviour of their kids. The same is also increasingly true of more affectionate interactions between teachers and kids, and a hug for a crying kid, little kids sitting on teachers’ laps etc are increasingly frowned upon.
With the exception of shaking hands, a goodbye (forever) hug and the occasional pat on the back or shoulder, there also tends to be little or no bodily contact between colleagues. A pat on the bottom will almost certainly be taken to be a sexual advance and probably the cause of a complaint of sexual harassment, and increasingly not only when it is a man doing it to a woman. In fact, you might even have to be very careful that even a helping up a colleague who has fallen over couldn’t be taken as sexual harassment.
Perhaps the one situation in which bodily contact is normal, including the occasional pat on the rear end, is in sport, particularly rugby. This may occasionally spread to workplaces where lots of people play sport together and/ or have a sporting background, so there is some variation in the general rules above depending on the work culture. This can also be the case in workplaces with mainly or totally one sex of employee.
Physical proximity in the UK
Generally, being too close to someone is considered almost as bad as touching. The taboo against unnecessary proximity also extends to the roads, where driving or stopping at a distance which is normal in some countries can get an aggressive reaction in the UK.
Sitting on a British train
The rules for sitting on the train have some similarities and differences with standing up and moving around the train. You should be careful not to bump into your neighbour when folding your newspaper etc. and falling asleep on their shoulder is an absolutely no-no. You should also be careful not to spread yourself out too much on the seat and not to sit next to someone when there are places with empty neighbouring seats available. However, standing up to avoid sitting next to someone can be taken as an insult, particularly if it could be seen as prejudice against disabled people, ethnic minorities, etc. Quickly moving away to another seat when it becomes free could also be taken as an insult by your former neighbour. On the other hand, continuing to sit next to someone when most of the train has become empty might be seen as a bit weird and perhaps some kind of sexual advance.
British standing and sitting position
Although our parents and teachers often tell us to stand up and sit up straight and Americans were traditionally criticised for slouching, the usual modern British standing and sitting style is most notable for how slack it is. For example, putting your hands in your pockets, sitting with your spine bent, sitting on the edge of a desk as you give a presentation or putting one knee forward as you stand so that one hip drops and your body leans to one side are all unlikely to be even noticed in the UK. You can even get a negative reaction by using too formal or “proper” body language. For example, a Japanese person in a British company who is sitting with a very straight back or standing with their hands in front of them in formal photo style might be told to relax.
British eye contact
When it comes to eye contact, the British are somewhere in the middle of the international range, with avoiding eye contact and too much eye contact being equally negative. In contrast to many places in Asia, you are expected to keep eye contact when apologising, and a teacher might even say “Look at me when I’m talking to you” if the student is looking down guiltily. However, too much eye contact can be seen as aggressive or a sexual come-on. For instance, many Brits are flattered by the amount of attraction southern Europeans seem to feel for them when in fact the Italians etc are just using their usual amount and length of eye contact (the length of time you look in someone’s eyes each time being a particularly contrast with the UK).