Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – Britain as others see us

So says British Council’s survey of 5,000 people. And don’t get them started on the weather...

Senior Reporter

The UK is full of heavy drinkers with bad eating habits who are ignorant, intolerant and too nationalistic – so it’s just as well that we are also very polite.

It might sound like a stereotypical list of national traits, but these are the views of more than 5,000 young adults from five different countries who were asked to give their opinion on modern Britain by the British Council.

Its report As Others See Us, published today, shows that the UK is struggling to overcome certain long-held negative perceptions about its poor weather and cuisine, which are viewed as its least attractive features. Culture and history are seen as its best qualities, with its best-known cultural icons cited as Shakespeare, the Queen, and David Beckham.

Worryingly, it seems that the UK is right to be worried about its binge-drinking culture and the loutish behaviour with which it is associated. Asked to name British people’s worst characteristics, 27 per cent of those surveyed ticked “drink too much alcohol” – a figure which rose to 34 per cent if the person had actually visited the UK and experienced the drinking culture first hand.

Other commonly cited negative traits included “bad eating habits”, “too nationalistic” and “ignorant of other cultures”, with “intolerant towards people from other countries” also ranking highly in the league table of ignominy.

But it was not all bad. Asked to name British people’s best qualities, 46 per cent mentioned politeness and good manners, while others ticked “educated and skilled”, “friendly” and “respect the rule of law”. The British sense of humour completed the top five. In general, perceptions of the UK improved among those who visited the country.

“They say ‘to know us is to love us’ and this survey shows young connected people around the world generally do,” John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, told The Independent. “But they also still believe the stereotypes – bad weather, hard drinking and most unfairly of all, bad food.

“The evidence is that the more we can attract people to actually visit the UK, study here or do business here, the better and more fully they appreciate us. That matters to our future prosperity and standing in the world.”

Overall, the UK fared well for overall attractiveness, finishing second in a list of 15 countries behind only the United States and on an equal footing with Australia, which the report’s authors described as an “excellent ranking”.

Asked to name someone associated with current UK arts and culture, survey participants mentioned musicians such as Adele, the Beatles, Paul McCartney and Elton John, while JK Rowling, Banksy, Tracy Emin and Winston Churchill were also popular answers

The report argues that an “important shift in influence” is taking place globally, making the way in which British citizens are perceived by other countries more important than it used to be. Young Britons should be taught the importance of having an “international outlook”, it adds.

“Power is drifting away from governments and being picked up by people, brands and movements; established hierarchies are being challenged by new local, national and global networks,” the authors write. “The international landscape is being transformed by hyperconnectivity, social media, and the rapid rise of direct people-to-people connections unmediated by states.”

More than 5,029 18-34-year-olds from Brazil, China, Germany, India and the US took part in the survey, which was carried out by pollsters Ipsos MORI via an online questionnaire on behalf of the British Council.

The worst of Britain

  1. Drink too much alcohol (27% thought so)
  2. Bad eating habits (23%)
  3. Too nationalistic (22%)
  4. Ignorant of other cultures (22%)
  5. Intolerant towards people from other countries (20%)
  6. Rude (17%)
  7. Unfriendly (13%)
  8. Complain too much (13%)
  9. Too pessimistic (11%)
  10. Lazy (10%)
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