As others see us

A recent survey carried out by IPSOS Mori on behalf of the British Council may go some way to explain the UK’s failure to complete the metric changeover.

“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 they 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.

The report, As Others See Us, published on Tuesday, 29 July, shows that the UK is struggling to overcome certain long-held negative perceptions. Commonly cited negative traits included “too nationalistic”, “ignorant of other cultures” and “intolerant towards people from other countries”.

But it was not all bad. Asked to name British people’s best qualities, 46 per cent mentioned politeness and good manners, and the British sense of humour. In general, perceptions of the UK improved among those who visited the country. John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council commented, “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”.

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”, the report adds.

So there we have it. If these perceptions have a basis in reality, then this may partly explain popular reluctance in Britain to adopt of the metric system, which is fundamentally international and is seen, mistakenly, by many to belong to cultures other than our own.

Needless to say, campaigners for the metric changeover have become accustomed to the polite and good-mannered responses from government which this survey would lead us to expect, even if they normally mean “No”.

The detailed figures from the survey

A total of 5,029 young people, aged 18 to 34, from Brazil, China, Germany, India and the US took part in the survey, which was carried out by pollsters Ipsos MORI via an on-line questionnaire on behalf of the British Council.

The worst of Britain:

Drink too much alcohol (27% thought so)
Bad eating habits (23%)
Too nationalistic (22%)
Ignorant of other cultures (22%)
Intolerant towards people from other countries (20%)
Rude (17%)
Unfriendly (13%)
Complain too much (13%)
Too pessimistic (11%)
Lazy (10%)

4 thoughts on “As others see us”

  1. I wouldn’t like to read too much into the results of this survey but some of the perceptions do seem to be born out by recent events in UK politics.

    For example:
    “too nationalistic” – Scottish referendum and the rise in popularity of isolationist groups like UKIP.

    “Intolerant towards people from other countries” – immigration bandwagon.


  2. I do believe that these results are not totally representative at all. Firstly, only five countries participated, and while they represent a large portion of the world’s population, large areas of the world are not represented at all (e.g. the whole of Africa and the Middle East, Russia and the CIS, Australia and New Zealand, to name a few).

    Secondly, the ‘worst’ British traits can be found in even larger concentrations in most if not all of these five countries. For example, being nationalistic and ignorant of other cultures surely applies to the USA far more than it does to the UK, so for the US to accuse the UK of these negative traits is a bit rich – the US I would suggest is even worse than the UK in respect of the top five traits in the ‘worst’ list. As regards China, I would imagine that the majority of Chinese know very little about the outside world, so their perceptions of the UK must be treated with some scepticism.

    While no doubt the UK is ‘guilty’ of some of the worst traits (as probably are the majority of countries in the world), I believe that a large portion of the UK population IS more internationalist in outlook than the average, and that the more educated sections of UK society are tolerant of other cultures. In short, I think these results have little value in adding insight to the metrication process in the UK.


  3. It is a sad fact that people in the UK have a poor understanding of how area and volume are measured. Units of length are often confused with the their cubic counterparts (e.g. rods instead of square rods for allotments, yards instead of cubic yards for skips). There is also a tendency to think litres are exclusively a liquid measure, probably a hangover from the obscure relationships between pints or gallons and cubic inches or cubic feet.

    No one can say for sure whether the measurement mess is the cause but it certainly wouldn’t help.


  4. @philh:

    You may well be right about whether the mess contributes to poor understanding of measurements. A couple of weeks ago in our local park, I was walking past some kids playing. I would guess they were 12 or 13 years old. I heard them comparing their heights – in centimetres. I congratulated them on using centimetres, when one responded that their teacher also made them learn ‘all that feet and inches stuff. And that’s a drag’ – with which her companions agreed. Notwithstanding their preference for using metric units (as well as using an expression that was popular in the ’60s!), you have here a handful of young people potentially hating the idea of measuring things altogether.


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