The UK is made up of four distinct entities, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and each is proud of its unique heritage. You should therefore be very careful about referring to your British business associates as “English”, unless you are positive that they come from England. Otherwise, you risk giving offense, and starting your business relationship off on the wrong foot.
When meeting someone for the first time, you should shake hands firmly and maintain eye contact. In British business culture, no formal ritual surrounds the exchange of business cards. You may simply accept the card and put it away after looking at it briefly.
The British are usually on a first-name basis with each other right from the start, although it never hurts to let your British colleague or business partner take the initiative here. Academic titles are not generally used in British business culture, except for medical doctors; if you use yours, it may be taken as a sign of arrogance.
The dress code in British business culture is usually fairly conservative, although this depends a bit on the sector you work in and how old your company is. Those in creative fields, as well as young companies and start-ups, tend to allow their employees to show up for work in “smart casual” business attire, unless they will be meeting with a client. More traditional companies, on the other hand, and especially in the finance sector, still tend to be very strict on the conservative dress code.
If you are not sure what you should wear, it is best to err on the side of caution and dress conservatively. For men, this means a dark suit and for women, either a dark suit or a conservative dress.
Indirectness is a key aspect of communication in British business culture. This is important for you to know when you’re speaking with business associates, but also for you to keep in mind when interpreting the actual meaning behind what British businesspeople say to you. The British have a strong aversion to creating open conflict, therefore, great measures are taken to remain polite. This often means making vague and indirect statements.
Politeness phrases are constantly used to avoid offending the other party. It is considered extremely rude to directly and bluntly disagree with someone. If you are too direct, you risk being perceived as overly arrogant and aggressive, which can prevent a good business relationship from developing.
But it is not only enough to avoid making direct statements yourself — it is also vital to your success in the British business world to be able to read between the lines of this indirect speech. For example, if you suggest something to your British colleague and get the answer, “Perhaps… that’s an interesting point,” the other party is probably not too taken by your idea.
Humor is also an important tool to master in British business culture. It is often used to lighten the mood and diffuse tension. The British especially like humor that is dry and witty, as well as that which is self-deprecating and taken at one’s own expense. It is important to be able to laugh at oneself. However, you should also be aware that the use of humor in a business setting does not mean that the situation is not being taken seriously.
The British are very reserved and seldom show strong emotions while doing business. They use indirect speech, humor, and understatement to keep business situations calm and low-key. Therefore, it might sometimes be challenge to understand how things, people, and situations are perceived by your British business partners. Keep your voice down when speaking and try to avoid making large, exuberant hand gestures.
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