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The British - Cool, Aloof and Difficult to Know?

This article, which first appeared in British Council News, reports on two world-wide surveys published in 1999 and 2000 which suggest that the image of the UK around the world is still a very traditional one. If you want to explore issues surrounding Polish and British stereotypes, you can find lesson plans for activities in Language and Difference, and Let's Talk About from the 'Views of Britain' issue of our web pages. In this current issue, Defining the Nation also provides a classroom activity on the theme.

Forget Cool Britannia. For most of the world the British are a breed whose culture is defined more by the changing of the guard than by Damien Hirst and his pickled sharks. That is according to new research launched at the end of November 1999.

The findings are based on what is thought to be the biggest piece of polling in the world ever on the subject of how the British are seen abroad. Produced by the British Council in association with MORI, the survey forms a part of the Foreign Office's Panel 200 initiative on the UK's identity, and is intended to provide some hard data in an area where there has previously been little beyond received wisdom.

Such an exercise brings to mind the words of a Scot, Robert Burns, whose oft-quoted line runs 'Oh wad some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as ithers see us!'

The news for the English is fairly sobering. If they are to be granted the gift that Burns prayed for, they had better become accustomed to seeing themselves dressed up in a Beefeater costume. For the world's citizens, it is the traditions of England that come to mind when they hear the word 'England' - the Royal Family, the Tower of London and all the other age-old tourist attractions.

Sobering is not the word for the image of the Scots, because the third most popular association for Burns' homeland is 'whisky'. Second place went to 'the Highlands'. The image of Scotland that comes most readily to mind, to the horror if not the surprise of most Scots, is that of 'a man in a kilt'

In some countries, the man in question is in fact Australian Mel Gibson. Significant minorities (five per cent) in both India and China quote his portrayal of the revel nationalist William Wallace in the Hollywood film Braveheart as being their image of Scotland.

The bagpipes are much thought about in Turkey, although the survey does not record whether the fearsome instrument is regarded with fear or affection.

The good news for the Welsh is that few people think of the archetypal image of the welcome in the valleys, the male voice choir, leeks or coracles. The bad news is that very few people have any associations at all. To the question 'What do you think of Wales?' the most popular answer, if not in so many words, is 'I don't'. The Welsh passion for the oblong ball is, however, well known in like-minded countries - both France and New Zealand mentioned rugby.

Northern Ireland would perhaps settle for a period of anonymity, otherwise known as peace. Sadly, but again not surprisingly, the image of the north is dominated by words that call to mind the troubles: 'IRA' and 'conflict'.

The survey consisted of a sample of 3,000 people in thirteen countries. The aim is to survey the remaining fifteen of the British Council's priority countries next year and to revisit the questions at intervals in the future. 'What will be interesting,' says the Council's Robert Ratcliffe, 'is seeing the changes.'

As with all surveys, it produced some puzzling anomalies. It reveals, for example, that the Mexicans are particularly bothered by British sarcasm. Any suggestions as to why this should be, or any other observations on the poll or its results should be sent to us at:

The full Report, entitled 'Through other eyes - How the world sees the United Kingdom', is published by the British Council, ISBN 0 86355 4451 8

Produced in Poland by British Council 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.