are british people actually polite?
well, asking a brit this is going to get a somewhat biased answer — but i'll do my best.
like any large group (65 million of us), we are not monolithic — some of us are right arseholes. some of us are lovely. however, we do seem to have an instinctive politeness drilled into us at a basic level.
there is a popular myth that british people are so polite, they will apologise to you if you bump into them whilst walking on the street. so a researcher tested this — she travelled all over the world…just deliberately walking into people!
the results of this (hilarious) experiment was indeed that 80% of people in britain will apologise to you if you walk into them. the only nation who came close was japan, with something like 60% apologies — though she did note that the japanese were much better at stepping out of the way and avoiding the collision! so the statistics do seem to indicate that we have a reflexive need to say “oops i'm sorry”, even when we know full well it was your fault!
for what it's worth, i would like to tell you a story, which i think might shed some more light on the matter…
just over a year ago, i was walking out of trinity college, oxford — where i lived at the time. i was making my way to the supermarket to buy some milk. it was about 4 in the afternoon. about 100m from my goal, a very drunk man stumbled into me — basically knocking me over. i of course apologised to him (despite him staggering into me, whilst i was minding my own business!)
the britishness complete, i turned to be on my way — at which point this blindingly drunk man, assumed i was starting a fight, so punched me in the face. so what did i do? i said “i'm sorry” again.
yep. i apologised to a man, after he punched me in the face.
now, this is mostly because my brain was about 3 seconds behind, and hadn't quite caught up with recent events — and so defaulted to “standard brit”. but the point stands as an interesting view into how deeply the words “i'm sorry” are drilled into our national psyche!