By Anne Bostanci

29 July 2014 - 17:00

Benedict Cumberbatch was one of the people associated with contemporary UK arts and culture. Photo (c) Sam, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Benedict Cumberbatch was one of the people associated with contemporary UK arts and culture. Photo ©

Sam, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

What makes people like a country? New research, released today, surveyed more than 1,000 18- to 34-year-olds in each of six countries: Brazil, China, Germany, India, the US and the UK. So what did people think of the UK? Anne Bostanci breaks down the results.

Is the UK the most attractive country in the world?

No, the UK does not quite come out top, but it is doing extremely well!

When respondents were asked to choose up to three preferences from a list of the top 15 economies, the UK came joint second with Australia at 36 per cent each. The US topped the table at 60 per cent as the most attractive country overall.

Looking at people, education and culture - important parts of what makes a country attractive - the UK comes second to the US with regard to its people and its education institutions, and fourth for its culture after France, Italy and the US.

What ingredients go into making a country attractive?

People's perceptions of a country are based on a combination of different factors -- and there are probably too many to ever capture them all.

But it is possible to identify an instructive range of things that contribute to making a country attractive, and the British Council’s research shows which are the most important. Among them are cultural and historic attractions, countryside and landscape, people, cities, arts, and a reputation for being safe and secure (all of which are mentioned by more than half of all respondents in the six survey countries).

They are followed by weather, history, language, technology and infrastructure, social and political institutions, economy and business environment, and education system and institutions, all of which are mentioned by around one third or more of all respondents.

‘Culture’ tops them all - but some countries have slightly different views…

Culture is a particularly important factor of attractiveness. It was mentioned far more often, even in response to an open-ended question, than any other factor.

This notion of ‘culture’ is obviously a broad one. For instance, when asked to name a person they are interested in and associate with contemporary UK arts and culture, respondents came up with the following:

  1. William Shakespeare (by far!)
  2. Her Majesty the Queen
  3. David Beckham

The list also included others as diverse as J.K. Rowling, Churchill, Mr Bean, Adele, Benedict Cumberbatch, Banksy, and Damien Hirst. This list illustrates the many aspects of a culture that play a role in shaping someone's impression of a country. Mr Bean is a fictional character rather than a real person; and Shakespeare, as a person, is not exactly ‘contemporary’. Yet the former enjoys continued popularity on foreign TV channels and the latter’s work is studied in more than half of the world’s schools.

Looking at a breakdown of findings by survey countries, cultural and historic attractions always feature in the top five things that make countries appealing. There are some other consistently highly ranked factors of attractiveness for those countries, such as countryside and landscape, and people.

A comparative outlier in the country breakdown is Germany: it is the only survey country that counts its cities as one of a country's three most important attractiveness features. But the most obvious exception is India, where ‘people’ take the top spot in the ranking, followed by 'technology' and 'infrastructure', and the weather (with neither of these factors making it into the top three in any other survey country).

The paradox: a country’s ‘people’ can be an asset and a risk to its reputation at the same time

One of the striking findings of this research is that a country’s ‘people’ seem simultaneously to be an asset and a risk to a country’s image abroad.

When asked (in an open-ended question) what made the UK attractive, its ‘people’ were among the top three answers. Conversely, when asked (in an open-ended question) what made the UK unattractive, its ‘people’ were also among the top three answers.

Although it might not be unusual for people to simultaneously hold opposing views about others, another finding from the report might give an additional clue for making sense of this: people who have visited the UK rate the characteristics of British people differently from those who have not been to the country.

There’s nothing like direct and people-to-people experiences…

When respondents have direct experience of the UK, some common stereotypes about British people, such as bad eating and drinking habits, seem to be confirmed (as percentage increases of ten and eight respectively suggest). However, people who have been to the UK are less likely to attribute traits such as excessive nationalism, intolerance of other cultures and rudeness to the UK’s people (the percentage decreases are one, five and three respectively).

This means that fostering direct contact and engaging people abroad with their UK counterparts is crucial to improving the UK’s image abroad.

Changes in perceptions come from changes on the inside!

Almost a quarter of respondents perceived British people to be ignorant of other cultures. Whether respondents had been to the UK or not did nothing to change their idea of Brits in that respect. We can therefore assume that there is a level of truth to this perception, so more work is needed to increase contact between British people and people from other countries to remedy that.

As an eminent commentator on the topic of international perceptions and attractiveness has pointed out, changing perceptions of a country is not a simple matter of communication campaigns, but always involves that country changing on the inside.

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