Cultural tips: UK

Tips on how to do Business with the British

  • Your strongest weapon is dry humour, supported by a cool laid-back approach. Don’t persist in looking too serious or taking things literally. The English like leg-pulling. Humour is important in business sessions in the UK and it is advisable for you to arrive well-stocked with jokes and anecdotes. People who are good at this should use their talent to the full.
  • Business and making money are serious matters, but one should always look casual about it. British often appear casual when in fact they are most serious.
  • One should be competitive, but there are unwritten rules about fair play. The English are very ambitious, but are not allowed to show it, they do not like to be seen working hard openly.
  • At meetings statements and actions should be low key. Everything should seem to be under control. The English don’t like chaos.
  • Open debate is OK but when wishing to disagree or even praise, it should be done obliquely. Sentiment, emotion and open criticism should be avoided in public.
  • On-the-dot punctuality may sometimes be seen as overdone, arriving a few minutes late is acceptable. Most meetings begin with 5-10 minutes’ small talk. Topics for small talk are: the weather, sport, the Royal Family.
  • Managers usually want to be considered one of the team but maintain a slight distance. English like orders to be given in the form of suggestions and hints.
  • In discussion Brits accept occasional ambiguities and are prepared to read between the lines. Remember the English use coded speech.
  • It is good policy to use self-disparagement with English people and laugh at yourself. It is also better to understate rather than exaggerate.
  • It is acceptable to hint at one’s connections, but one should never boast about them or indulge in name-dropping.
  • Do not talk too much or too loud; on the other hand do not lapse into silence too often. Don’t put forward very strong opinions.
  • Recent politics may be discussed, but don’t take sides, also not in class questions. Many English are politically polarized and class conscious.
  • Don’t push logic too much. English people pride themselves on their intuition. However, Common sense is a major factor with the English.
  • Put things in writing, generally after some oral discussion. The English like confirmation of agreements, minutes of meetings, thank-you notes and memos. Don’t forget Christmas cards, either.
  • Don’t rush them. The British, even in the absence of disagreement, will rarely make a final decision at the first meeting. “Could we have a decision at our next meeting?” is a good tactic.
  • When English people become vague, understand that they are probably stalling.
  • Remember Brits are more interested in long-term relationships than in quick deals. They are very interested in profits, but show patience in waiting for them.
  • Be prepared to accept some idiosyncratic or even eccentric behaviour. This is often seen as a sign of originality leading to inventiveness.
  • Say that you’re in trouble if he/she doesn’t help you or do the Brit a favour first, before telling him what you want.
  • Mention British efficiency before making a suggestion. Point out that other cultures would be e.g. less co-operative, slower, or more disorganized. Give more praise than you would to your own compatriot and admire their success.
  • Take sides with the British against the Americans (in a friendly kind of way). “The Americans are fast, but you British do things properly.” Also don’t speak with an American accent, unless you are American.
  • Set deadlines for tasks, but secretly allow for 2-3 days delay.
  • Initiate brainstorming with a view to action. Brits like brainstorming.
  • British people like to show themselves as family-oriented and it is normal for you to discuss children, holidays, reminiscences during and between meetings. But Keep a distance. Don’t reveal too many private details.
  • British rarely disagree openly with proposals from the other side. They agree whenever possible, but qualify it. You should watch for hidden signs of this.
  • Formalities (last names, jacket and tie, considerable politeness) are often maintained with non-English speakers while being abandoned at the second meeting with other English native speakers. Use surnames at first, but be ready to use first names at the second or third meeting if you get a hint.
  • British appear to be open and decisive, but do not play all their cards early on. They always have a fall-back position and like to keep their independence
  • Show your knowledge of and respect for British history and traditions.
  • Try to adapt to different types of behaviour (Northerners are more direct than Southerners) but don’t try to imitate any regional English accent.
  • Tell white lies to protect the face of others. This shows good taste.
  • Accept dinner invitations in English homes readily. You should usually take a bottle of (good) wine with you.

Remember there are many types of Brits. Most of the above applies to the southern English. People north of Birmingham, as well as Celtic Brits, tend to be more focused and hard-headed, show more openness and warmth and have less respect for class distinctions. You should take these factors into account and modify your own stance accordingly:

Do’s and Don’ts with Celtic Britons (Northern Irish, Scottish, Welsh)

  • Don’t call them “English”, talk “posh” or pull rank
  • Don’t try to be too sophisticated (show your rustic side!)
  • Say what you think (they attach much less importance to diplomacy)
  • Respect their nationalism and sense of separateness from the English.
  • Ask about their national traditions – they are proud of them.
  • Remember that Northern Irish are British, Southern Irish are not.
  • Be as hearty and as humorous as you can. Scots and Irish like to drink with you.
  • Remember that Scots tend to be very return-on-investment conscious. The Welsh less so. The Irish risk more.
  • Remember Scots hate to lose face. (Welsh and Irish worry less about this)
  • Beware of Irish charm and focus on what they do rather than what they say. Scots are doers, but shrewd in their attempts to achieve a win-lose situation. Welsh rarely use charm as a tactic but like to make you think they are naïve.

Source: CultureActive by Richard D. Lewis

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