One aspect that British society is known for its social class system, but how does this apply to foreigners? I will be in London and Manchester for a week, and knowing which neighbourhoods to avoid or to visit is seemingly a bit complicated. I know overall that these cities are safe, but some areas are known to be dodgier than others, and could be hostile to foreigners or "outsiders". On the other hand, some higher end places such as Bond Street that I might want to visit might not "appreciate" attention from outsiders. I do know that social class is a particularly complex topic, and I don't want any comprehensive explanation, just how foreigners fit into the larger picture and some possible do's and don't's.

Note: I will be visiting with my wife, and we are both Anglo-Canadian.

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    Class system doesn't apply to foreigners, they're exempt due to being foreign.
    – A E
    Nov 4 '14 at 18:17

I lived in London for four years. Perhaps I just didn't appreciate it, but I can't say I really was that aware of the class system on a day-to-day basis.

Sure, you were aware that in Peckham in South London there tended to be a lower socio-economic 'category' of people than say, Kensington. And yes in Mayfair there were the private members' clubs and the like. And certainly the race day events tended to attract certain people.

However, I, and others like myself who were there for a few years (from NZ, Aus, South Africa, Canada and more) didn't see it as a limiting factor. If we wanted to go to the races, we would, and just dress up for the occasion. Bond Street is just a place to shop, the prices are higher, is all. Nothing stopping you strolling along and having a look.

It's funny, every so often a comment would crop up about it. Someone at work would make a comment about not taking the bus because they weren't poor enough to need it (or the tube). Yet, the current Mayor of London bikes to work, and the previous Mayor used to take the tube (still does, last I checked). And most of us Kiwis or Aussies etc, whether from rich or poor backgrounds - we'll take buses, tubes without hesitation - they're quicker, convenient, and driving in London is awful.

'Class' certainly didn't stop me getting into the Buckingham Palace garden tea party :) In general, the UK has become (well, London, but other cities more and more as well) so cosmopolitan and multicultural that in some facets of society, the class system has all but melted away. That's not to say that some people don't still hold it true and fast and insist on it and campaign against it when a fast food restaurant wants to open in Highbury (it'll lower their class somehow?), but on the whole, most people you meet are welcoming no matter your background.

As some people have said, in London - nobody's a foreigner, because everyone's a foreigner!

  • 7
    You will need to brush up on the relevant etiquette if your doing either of the following: Meeting a member of the royal family Going to the races or other classic English sports event (Lords, Wimbledon, or Royal Ascot)
    – Stuart
    Jan 30 '12 at 11:19
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    Yeah, I pretty much agree with everything you said, Mark. I also got into a "Royal" event at the palace (got lucky with my landlords). The only time "class" (or its perception) was ever noticeable was while living in Mayfair (nothing fancy) - if you gave the address to a salesperson or whoever the attitude would change (much more deferential). But that was it - pretty banal effect for most of us.
    – gef05
    Jan 30 '12 at 15:48

What do travellers need to know about the British class system? Nothing. It won't come up. Don't believe everything you see on American TV.

The class system in the UK would be quite similar to the class system in the USA, Canada or other countries.

Certainly there are dangerous parts of some cities and expensive 'private members club' in the UK, and USA, and Canada, but this isn't feudal Japan. Unless you want to be the Head of State (i.e. King/Queen) there is no longer any offical class system. Lords no longer have a right to sit in the House of Lords now. It's just still called "House of Lords", but it's political. You aren't going to get people asking what your father does, and then decide if they'll let you into a restaurant.

  • 1
    You almost start down the path of "it no longer exists" - which is, of course, incorrect. But you are right - for the average traveler it is meaningless.
    – gef05
    Jan 30 '12 at 23:03
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    It isn't correct that "Lords no longer have a right to sit in the House of Lords now". All members of the House of Lords are 'Lords', but they are mostly appointed (mostly for reasons to do with politics and/or bribery). There are currently 677 appointed 'Life Peers', 88 'Hereditary Peers' (in general, these peerages can only be inherited by men), and 24 'Lords Spiritual' (senior bishops in the Church of England) - see this Wikipedia article.
    – James
    Mar 20 '12 at 12:36
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    It is correct that "Lords no longer have the right to sit in the House of Lords" since "lords" generally means "any member of the peerage", and most of those people are no longer in the House of Lords. However, all the members of the House of Lords are Lords of one kind or another. Jun 1 '14 at 1:12
  • I'm from East Asia and watch only a little American TV, but even I am well-aware of the infamous British class system. Don't blame everything on American TV. You can perhaps argue that it's not as bad as it used to be a century ago, but it still exists to some degree. Or at least it crops up often enough that the visitor is occasionally bemused and bewildered.
    – user8803
    Nov 3 '14 at 14:38
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    @KennyLJ Name a situation in which it has cropped up, causing a visitor to be bemused and/or bewildered. Jun 23 '15 at 19:48

While there are some areas which are distinctly richer or poorer, this is in the same way the some areas in any country, state or city are richer or poorer.

Class just really doesn't come up in normal day-to-day life here, anywhere round the UK. Bond Street isn't particularly high end, it has some nice shops, some less so - you will be welcome to spend money in all of them :-)

Just come and enjoy yourselves.


Kate Fox's "Watching the English" is a humorous look at English culture (with a focus on the class system) that may be helpful for travelers as well as expats. While you're unlikely to have to understand the intricacies of the class system on a brief voyage, being aware of the complex nature of English social life might enrich your trip and add meaning to your encounters. The book can be downloaded onto the Kindle.

Bond Street is full of tourists!


In the abstract and en masse, class distinctions in Britain are acknowledged and of wide concern. Media and politicians are always talking about "middle class people", "working class people", "a growing underclass", and so on. These are general terms. There aren't specific recognised definitions of classes within which every person can be formally placed, although various social studies do use particular definitions. Politicians themselves find that their habits and backgrounds are constantly scrutinised and assessed for anything that conceivably might mark their social class. Other kinds of celebrity not so much (although it happens, for example Benedict Cumberbatch got into a brief row with some paper about whether he's posh). Normal people even less.

The words "toff" and "pleb", referring directly to social class and the behaviours associated with class, are both generally understood as insults. Recent coinages such as "chav" are invented to express specific aspects of the contempt people feel for particular social classes. In most contexts it's undesirable to be seen as "upper class" almost to the point of being an insult. There's some dismissal of "middle-class concerns" even by the middle class itself, from house prices to the quality of Waitrose humous, as being slightly embarrassing exercises of privilege.

People socialise to a large extent within their own class, although this is an observable tendency rather than an explicit intention or any serious social rule. I don't know whether Canada would be any different if you substitute "income and education" for "formally recognised socio-economic group", but whether it's unique to Britain or not it does add up to level of intolerance and disrespect between groups that occasionally is ugly.

So there's potentially an extremely long list of "do's" and "don'ts" here which add up to, "don't exhibit a stereotypical characteristic of one social class while surrounded by another social class". It's not a faux pas as such, but it would make you stand out. There are vast numbers of such stereotypes and fashions change, so it's hard to make a list. You'll know you've done it when you tell a crew of builders in a pub that your favourite drink is a particular Tuscan red wine and they all laugh (excessive interest in either wine or Tuscany being stereotypically middle-class), or you mention to a group you meet at Glyndebourne that you're thinking of going to Torremolinos (a stereotypically mass-market destination) and they look slightly pained. There's no guarantee that any particular group will sneer at preferences they consider unusual, British people are far from universally unpleasant about it. And as a tourist you'll never see these people again anyway, so you don't need to care. But it's about as far as the class system manifests that a visitor will encounter.

On an individual basis, the distinction you might encounter is between "common people" and "posh people", and even that is subjective. Brits won't specifically peg each other as members of a particular social class except as part of a general assessment of whether they're like each other or not. So, if someone you meet who considers themselves a working person establishes that you live on the income of a vast inheritance, they might choose not to chat to you in an amiable way about the trouble people have with landlords. You can call this a class divide, and it could affect the way people react to you as a tourist trying to strike up a conversation, but of course such judgements and differences would still exist in the absence of recognised social classes.

People fit into this system on the basis of their broad circumstances of wealth, occupation, education, official titles, and to some extent birth. Leaving aside the titled nobility, probably the strongest of these is education, in particular private vs. state education and going to university vs. not. That is however just my opinion, I'm no expert in the subject. Social studies that talk about class usually use occupation as the primary marker, with education a separate social concern. But popularly, private education can be a touchy topic in the UK and is strongly bound up with class. That doesn't necessarily mean that privately-educated foreigners will be viewed the same as privately-educated Brits. If you went to anything that looks like a British boarding school, then be prepared that some state-educated Brits would give you some stick for that if you mention it to them.

Anyway a foreigner who is the son of a foreign king would be considered of the aristocratic class, albeit not our aristocracy. A foreigner who is a medical doctor would be considered of the upper professional class, unless their circumstances dictate otherwise (I don't know, hypothetically an immigrant with medical qualifications working as a taxi driver). A foreigner who mentions they went to a recognised top university (or any university at all) might be rated a bit posh by a group of people with no thought of university themselves. A foreigner acting as a tourist isn't really showing many signs of their occupation, education and so on, and might therefore evade judgement.

No establishment will let you in or turn you away directly because of social class. What's important is you meet the dress code (if any), can afford to pay, and don't do anything grossly offensive. In the unlikely event that you do get thrown out of somewhere for gross offence, you might be thought of as low class after the fact, but I don't think that's fundamentally different from thinking of someone as "being ghetto" / "white trash" / whatever in the absence of a recognised class system. One thing that might be class-related is when the place is over-booked. Showing signs of high social status or connections might (not necessarily) make it easier to get a reservation in some cases. Being clumsy about it probably won't, so it's not worth getting on your high horse.

If a British person asks you what you do for a living, this isn't as such because they're trying to peg your social class. It's much the same as anywhere else in the world, they're either trying to get an idea what sort of life you live or they're looking for something to make conversation about. My grandfather, when he was assigned to a unit in the second world war, was asked by his commanding officer what his father did for a living. This was an important matter for class distinctions at that time, and my grandfather believes he was assigned duties on the basis of the answer (which as it happens was skilled working class: his father was a blacksmith, and this could well have ruled my grandfather out of immediate consideration as an officer). It's not like my grandfather is deeply bitter about it, he was only in for a few years, but you can imagine the effect on those whose desired careers judged them that way, not so long ago that they aren't still around in Britain in large numbers. That type of class discrimination really doesn't go on any more in any official way. Individuals might have their private prejudices.

There are also situations in which British formal protocol and etiquette is informed by the class system, especially if you're planning to meet royalty or the aristocracy in a formal setting. If that happens, which it certainly won't if you don't want it to, there will probably be someone on hand to advise you. Ignorance is expected and catered for, but wilful disregard for what you've been told is rude. Most obviously you'll want to know what to call everyone: when you first meet them, in conversation and when referring to them in the third person. This is all about titles and only applies in formal settings or letter-writing. If you should chance to meet a vicar and a Duke in a nightclub, then both would pretty well certainly want you to call them by their first names in conversation, not "Reverend" and "Your Grace" respectively.

It's true that knowing what neighbourhoods to avoid can be tricky, but generally you'll do this on the basis of street crime and the issue of whether a stranger has any business wandering around a particular residential area, the same as any other country. If you don't go into a marked housing estate that is presumed mostly lower-class occupied, then it's for the same reasons you wouldn't go into a housing project in the US, not because of formal social class. If you don't go into a gated community (and there aren't many in the UK) then it's because you don't have an invitation from a resident, not because you aren't upper class. If you don't go into a high-end restaurant, then it's because you don't fancy the formality or the expense, not because they'll check your family tree at the door.

Be aware that especially in large cities and public spaces, British people can be quite reserved and dismissive. This might feel like they think you're the wrong social class, or you've unknowingly made some obscure error, or that Britain is very class- or protocol-bound. Typically they just didn't fancy talking to a stranger, and there's no social expectation they should have to if they don't want.

In short, you really don't need to know anything much about the class system to visit Britain. You might need to know a bit to follow some of the politics and the comedy.

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