WELCOME TO GREAT BRITAIN
The United Kingdom includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Despite some distinctive cultural differences with regards to the mentality of its inhabitants, one can nevertheless speak of a shared British business culture. The refined English manner is famous around the world and synonymous primarily with respectful and reserved behavior. Included in this is an unlimited politeness in every situation. Emotional outbursts of any kind are deemed embarrassing and compromising. Everyone who has received a reasonably good education knows how to retain his composure.
English culture also demands the creation of a pleasant atmosphere at all times. Thus, the English are masters of small talk. Their skill at having an animated conversation even about something very trivial is particularly remarkable. Since no business meeting can pass without this skill of having non-committal conversations, it might be a good idea to practice a little small talk. The aim is to establish a good overall mood and a personal relationship, before you get on to business. Calm and measured speech, without gesticulating wildly is particularly valued.
Despite the stiffness that the English are said to have, their humor is unbeatable. There are only a few taboos. Many things that the English can laugh heartily at, others may think of as going too far. English jokes are generally based on clever wordplay or everyday events that are exaggerated to the extreme. It is presumed that the listener is thinking on his feet. The punchline is thus not always as obvious as it might be in other cultures. Being able to laugh even about something morbid, one’s own weaknesses and oddities is always good for business relations. However, you should never lose the balance between polite behavior and English humor.
Another art that the English master very well is confident understatement: No one emphasizes his position or professional know-how. The English don’t demonstrate the effort that was necessary to achieve results. Whereas other cultures may put a high value on showing how hard-working they are, in England you can’t shine with such behavior. The motto is: You either are truly great or you are not. In day-to-day business, this means having to be able to listen carefully: If an Englishman, for example, knows something better than his colleagues or business partners, he will in all modesty only subtly make a few remarks regarding his doubts during a discussion. No more.
Despite the overall modesty in England, one should not underestimate the existence of a distinctive class consciousness. It is a good idea to be mindful when it comes to, for example, remarks about ancestry, school days or university studies. One could easily draw wrong conclusions about class affiliation that the speaker had not intended at all.
Gentlemanly behavior always aims to maintain a distance to others – in a physical as well as a personal sense. The social distance that is necessary in England is nicely demonstrated on the London underground: Despite rush hour, everyone tries to avoid touching or directly looking at others. If several seats are unoccupied, the English usually pick the seat that is furthest away from other passengers.
With this picture in mind, you should also respect the protection of English privacy. Misunderstandings can easily arise when it comes to this topic: Initial contact with strangers using small talk comes naturally to English people. They will immediately offer their help if they see you looking at a street map, and foreign business partners often say that they find it easy to make contacts in England. However, building on this initial relationship and deepening it, is often unsuccessful. This is due to the fact that many are mislead into believing that the extremely polite and friendly manner of the English is a sign that a personal relationship has been established. If you then go a bit further, for example by asking a personal question, you seriously infringe on privacy and become highly unpopular, more than you are made to believe. The understanding of privacy in England does not leave much room for interpretation. Included are not only private and family life, but also personal beliefs, opinions, preferences or the way one works.
Criticism is, similarly, only expressed in a very indirect way in order not to offend the other person and infringe on privacy. Be mindful about how you are communicating with English or British business partners and avoid asking critical questions or making critical remarks too directly. It is thus advisable to soften your words by speaking in an extremely polite manner during conversations with the English. Instructions should also always be expressed as polite requests.
In business life, the comparatively restrictive privacy of the English can moreover have the effect that well-meant advice, for example with regards to the organization of a joint project, can be interpreted as interfering with their work or their responsibilities. In principle, when it comes to work topics you can make suggestions, but never argue about what is right or wrong, better or worse. It is, however, absolutely necessary that you sufficiently praise good ideas or groundwork.
It is also crucial to listen carefully in negotiations. The English show only limited reactions if they don’t agree with something and will not further explain their rejection. They will, on the one hand, directly express their views with regards to a suggestion that has been made, but on the other hand, they will do so in a rather calm and subtle manner. Before they agree to an offer and the next round of negotiations can start, the English tend to take a lot of time to weigh all of the presented arguments. In circumstances like that, don’t make the mistake of applying more pressure by making use of additional sales tactics. This only very rarely leads to success. Instead, it is much better to further strengthen the sales pitch by using pragmatic and fact-based arguments. It is important to create trust and to convince with good information. The decision itself is generally made at top management level.
Even if you cannot become the perfect gentleman or the perfect lady overnight, traits like politeness, the ability to compromise, and tolerance build a bridge that helps establishing harmonious business relations. If you come from a more ‘blunt’ business culture, practice understating in order to avoid overwhelming the reserved English business partners or even scaring them off by communicating too directly. A good mixture of an interpersonal relationship built on small talk and an adequate focus on the task will certainly produce the desired results.