Globalization has made our business world smaller, but it hasn’t closed the gap between our cultural differences. Understanding these differences is essential to effective communication in English and is at the core of building strong professional relationships with foreign clients and colleagues.
We recently shared our local insight on how to navigate US work culture and now we’ve compiled 8 practical tips to help you maximize your business activities in Britain:
Tip 1. Recognize and adopt the language of politeness
Politeness is incredibly important in the UK and this can add a layer of ambiguity to the language. A simple instruction or direction can be confusing for non-native speakers, who may be used to hearing a direct order. For example, ‘Do not’ is usually replaced by ‘would you mind not’ or instead of ‘close the door’ you might hear ‘if you wouldn’t mind, could you please close the door?’. You’ll also notice that indirect speech is regularly used to keep the tone of the conversation neutral and to remove any emotional context. For example, the phrase ‘I think our loyal clients may not like this change’ may be expressed as ‘that may not be appreciated by our loyal clients’. Communication is generally understated, so try to avoid asking very direct questions or you may get a vague answer. British people also use self-deprecation as a way of not appearing openly proud; while in the United States it’s common to boast about your achievements, in Britain this is considered impolite.
Tip 2. Understand dry humor
Dry humor has an established place in British work culture and is often used to break the ice in formal or tense settings. But it’s not always obviously funny because irony and sarcasm is delivered with a serious tone. Look for clues like overstressing adjectives and pay attention to the facial expression that follows the statement (a big grin is a definite giveaway!). Another point to remember is, you shouldn’t view the use of humor as a lack of respect or that the situation is not being taken seriously. Prepare for British humor by watching comedians such as Jo Brand, Ricky Gervais, Jack Dee, Sarah Millican or TV series like The Office and The IT Crowd.
Tip 3. Maintain political correctness
While dry humor and joking are common in British work culture, political correctness is always upheld – humor never crosses this line. Legally and socially, a lot of care is paid to avoid discrimination in the workplace and disparaging comments relating to ethnicity, gender, religion or disability will most definitely create a bad impression. Other cultures may place less emphasis on political correctness in conversation, so always err on the side of caution when in Britain.
Tip 4. Know how to address your counterpart
Academic titles are not used in business in Britain; the few who do list their qualification abbreviations after their name are often viewed as arrogant. For example, the Dr. title is typically reserved for medical doctors only. Greetings are generally on an informal, first name basis. If in doubt, you can always use Mr or Ms followed by the surname – for example, ‘Good afternoon, Ms Smith’. In this case, the person may reply with ‘please, call me Rachel’ giving you permission to use the first name.
Tip 5. Know your geographical names – Great Britain V The United Kingdom
Are you sure you know the correct use of the terms ‘Great Britain’ and ‘The United Kingdom’? Although they are often interchanged, there is a difference between the two. Great Britain is the landmass which comprises the countries of England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom is comprised of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) plus Northern Ireland. English, Welsh and Scottish people can also be referred to as British, while people from Northern Ireland are referred to as Irish or Northern Irish. England is the largest country in Great Britain and only people from this country can be called English. Make a good impression by referring to people using the correct nationality.
Tip 6. Avoid these small talk blunders
Navigating culturally appropriate small talk is arguably one of the biggest challenges professionals face when doing cross border business. In the UK, keeping things PC and impersonal is key. Asking direct personal questions is not a safe choice – for example, it’s not acceptable to ask a woman if she has children as it can be considered discriminatory. Nor should you ask anyone their age or relationship status as this is considered private information. Men shouldn’t make comments on a woman’s appearance, as this could be interpreted as sexual harassment. Apart from these red lines, the usual small talk topics such as weather, sport and things to see and do in the city are all very acceptable.
Tip 7. Be early for meetings and fashionably late for drinks
The UK is one of the most punctual nations in the world – time is money! Generally, people present themselves at least 10 minutes early for a business meeting. If you’re running late, you should always phone ahead to let your counterpart know. There is a low tolerance for wasting other people’s time. With social engagements, on the other hand, it is considered polite to be ‘fashionably late’ (but no more than 10 minutes).
Tip 8. Understand the etiquette of social business
In many parts of Europe, it’s common to take a long business lunch with the restaurant taking the place of the meeting room. However, in the British workplace, less importance is placed on lunch and often people take a break of just 30 minutes or even eat a sandwich at their desks. After-work socialising, on the other hand, is very important and this takes place in the local pub. Don’t be surprised if your British colleagues drink quite a lot without having food. The ‘rounds’ system is standard in British pub culture – each person takes a turn to buy everyone in the group a drink. As you can imagine, depending on the size of the group, this could equate to a lot of drinks! Don’t feel the need to keep up with this pace of alcohol consumption; it’s quite acceptable to order a sparkling water and although you may be teased, it doesn’t create a bad impression.
Want to impress clients with your business English and cultural acumen?
Following these tips will help you communicate more effectively, avoid misunderstandings and steer clear of cultural faux pas. At The Language Grid, all our trainers are mother-tongue speakers from a broad range of English speaking countries. We’ll always match you with the right trainer to support you in your international business activities.
Zoe Flaherty, Founding Director of The Language Grid
Image: © Roberto De Riccardis