Our second blog post in the series ‘What do British identities mean to me?’ comes from Daniela Vordermaier, who joins us from Austria.

It was a regular Saturday afternoon in a Scottish supermarket, when I first thought about British mentalities and the differences between manners and behaviours in the United Kingdom and my home country. People step aside when someone tries to reach for a product, nobody would ever jump a queue and the cashier greets you by asking how you are doing. It was the perfect opportunity to remember all the perceptions of polite, friendly and likeable British citizens that are taught in Austrian schools, universities or in everyday life. But what can be summarized by the term British identities? What is part of a special British way of communicating and thinking?

First of all, the expression British identities is composed of two terms and contains a question about the nature and characteristics of identity itself and about the meaning of Britishness. The term identity is widely used and can concern people as well as objects declaring the sameness and consistency of characteristics.[1] In this blog post identity is perceived as a sociological category that is defined by a set of personal characteristics such as age, class, gender, education, religion and moral values,[2] language and culture. These contribute to a collective or individual and personal comprehension of who someone is or what someone is like.[3] They are more or less fixed or can change from time to time depending on societies’ standards and regulations. Because of this, people tend to have multiple identities such as a religious, cultural or national ones, bound to educational backgrounds.[4] In contrast, the adjective British seems more secure at first sight. But it refers to the national belonging of a person as well as to the cultural environment they are part of. Which tribes, folks or populations were counted as British was equally a subject of change over time and varied from Welsh, Northern Irish, Scottish and English. Besides, it must be considered that there is a big difference between the identification by others or by oneself. This could especially count for many smaller groups, who do not consider themselves as Welsh, Scottish or English even if they live in the United Kingdom. In addition, there might exist special British behaviours and manners outwith Great Britain in the former British colonies[5] where people adapted to the local rules and traditions but mixed them with customs performed in the country of their ancestors. Therefore, there cannot be only one way of feeling and declaring oneself as British as Britishness does not have to be connected with a geographical region but more with self-definition and personal attitudes.

Proceeding from this understanding of the term identity and the adjective British, the expression British identities as a social and sociological category is, in my opinion, related to special mannerisms and personality traits of people living in the United Kingdom and other countries influenced by British traditions and behaviours. As I do not have any British ancestors and cannot consider myself as British, I see these identities from an outsider’s perspective. Focusing on the cultural aspects of mentalities, I look for differences between my home country Austria and Great Britain. For me Britishness is connected with friendliness, politeness and openness with other British citizens as well as for foreigners. It could be characterised with a great sense of humour, calmness and poise even in difficult or complex situations where an Austrian would already have given up or lost one’s trust in finding solutions. Another factor that distinguishes the inhabitants of Great Britain or the United Kingdom completely from Austria is the pace of life. While there exists a kind of competition about finishing education, carrying out jobs or holding personal meetings as soon as possible in Austria, the British keep on focusing and avoiding high stress levels in order to enjoy, live and feel free. Because of that, the way a British citizen communicates might differ strongly from the Austrian standards as they take more time to dive into topics, are more interested in their surroundings and more aware of their cultural heritage. But there is much, much more than that contributing to a typical British way of living and acting regarding to localities and individual cultural backgrounds. Therefore, I hope that I will have the chance to expand my so-far made experiences within the following months.

[1] James D. Fearon, What is identity (as we now use the word)?, https://web.stanford.edu/group/fearon-research/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/What-is-Identity-as-we-now-use-the-word-.pdf, accessed 11 / 09 / 2018, p. 7.

[2] Paulus Stanislawa, Geschlecht Kultur Gesellschaft vol. 5: Identität außer Kontrolle. Handlungsfähigkeit und Identitätspolitik jenseits des autonomen Subjekts (Hamburg: LIT, 2001), p. 108.

[3] Francis W. Deng, War of Visions. Conflict of Identities in the Sudan (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1995), p. 1.

[4] Karina V. Korostelina, ‘Cultural Differences of Perceptions of the Other’, in Daniel Rothbart and Karina V. Korostelina (eds), Identity, Morality, and Threat: Studies in Violent Conflict (Lanham and Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2006), p. 165.

[5] Paul Ward, Britishness since 1870 (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 142.