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British Business Etiquette

Doesn't everyone speak English!

Gary Muddyman | 18th November 2016

Business in the UK tends to be relationship driven thing rather than transactional.

I think it’s dangerous to try to give a cultural perspective from the position of being an insider. It’s often more instructive to view oneself or one’s country from the perspective of someone on the outside. I may think that our seeming inability to say what we really mean is a doddle to understand – but then I get the unwritten code after 30 years doing business in the UK. People from other parts of the world are probably a little confused.

Similarly, I am often concerned by the sweeping generalisations and stereotyping that goes on in these types of articles. The march towards globalisation will continue (despite recent events) and with it a certain homogenisation of culture generally and business culture particularly. Consequently, the values, behavioural and attitudinal differences between us are narrowing. So with the excuses made in advance, I’ll give you my take.

Generally, us Brits are trapped somewhere in-between the comfortable standards of the past and the more dynamic and flexible working arrangements of the present. Therefore, we value punctuality, rather like it when someone bothers to wear a formal business suit and still cling on to organisational structures and hierarchies within companies. We like to try to be more cool than these formalities imply, so we pretend we don’t really mind, but we do.

Business in the UK tends to be relationship driven thing rather than transactional. So Brits like to get to know someone before they buy from them and a lot of store is put by trust and a handshake. Business relationships can last for many years and people tend to buy from people rather than organisations. Of course we assume EVERYONE speaks English and our strategy if they don’t is to say the same thing louder and slower – of course, a tactic that is guaranteed to make sure people understand.

The indirectness I referred to earlier can often be difficult for non-Brits to understand. So, be prepared that “would you mind” equals “you better do this” or “that’s an interesting way of dealing with X” can mean “are you crazy!”. It’s all in the subtext. Similarly, the British seem to have a greater fondness for idioms, colloquialisms and obscure cultural references than other cultures. Be patient and ask, we love to bore you to death with the etymology of a word or the origins of a phrase. Sarcasm and irony are staples of British communication and is often another excuse not to say what we really mean so look out for that too.

Finally, there is a lot of mixing business and social in UK business. We like to have fun, but it doesn’t affect our ability to make sweeping general subjective judgements on people. So think twice before having that extra beer or gin and tonic. Nothing we hate more than people who can’t hold their liquor. And of course be careful about that off-colour joke full of cussing and swearing. Get to know the Brit first. We may love it or we may hate it. Of course we are British, so wouldn’t tell you either way. And we would rather break a leg than cause a fuss.