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United Kingdom

United Kingdom
United Kingdom Essentials
Be prepared for indirectness in communication. For example, "May I suggest that . . ."
instead of "I'd like you to . . .". This politeness is meant as a courtesy, but can be
confusing to someone used to a more direct communication style. Pay attention to tone
of voice and facial expression as well as to what is said.
Expect there to be a high level of humour even in business situations. The humour is
often ironic - saying one thing, but meaning another. It can also be self-deprecating as
well as sarcastic and cynical.
Avoid asking too many personal questions about your British counterpart's background,
salary, etc. Privacy is valued. Typically, there is a distinction between work and the rest
of life.
Expect the British to value teamwork while also recognising the importance of individual
accountability for results.
Expect the British to have a strong sense of fair play. Typically, they do not appreciate
excessive bargaining or changing a deal once it's been agreed on. A win/win approach is
Avoid the hard sell in any presentations; it is likely to create distrust and resistance.
Expect meetings to begin close to the scheduled time. You can also expect meetings to
be structured, but not rigidly so. Typically meetings will begin and end with social
Expect the British workplace to be relatively informal with an increasingly 'flat'
hierarchical structure. First names are used very quickly. There is an increasing emphasis
on the manager as a coach who empowers others to make decisions and get things done.
After-work drinking is common and visitors will be encouraged to join in. This is when
your counterparts will really evaluate whether you are the kind of person with whom they
want to do business.
Don't interpret a detached manner as indifference; the British tend not to express
subjective feelings enthusiastically (in business).
© Country Navigator
The British Mindset
Britons are insular in nature, part of Europe but separate from it at the same time. The British
are hard-working, driven by deadlines and the need for material gain, and divided by an ancient
class system, the boundaries of which are blurring but nonetheless still in existence. The British
like their privacy but are also obsessed with celebrity culture and gossip. They are sceptical, with
a strong sense of irony. The spoken word is a minefield of nuance and understatement for
anybody not familiar with British English.
Most British people are relatively well-travelled, with a strong awareness of world events. They
are individualistic and nationalistic and can be pioneering and entrepreneurial. At the same time,
Britons are still considered very polite and formal by the rest of the world, and are driven by a
strong sense of fair play.
Characteristics of Society
While attitudes to Europe have changed, for the most part the UK sees itself as very distinct from
the rest of Europe. British people are nothing like as patriotic as Americans (except, perhaps, at
sporting events) but are nonetheless proud to be an island nation with a long and glorious past.
Individual countries which make up Great Britain, however, are highly nationalistic – Scotland,
Wales, Northern Ireland and even pockets of people from Cornwall in the far west.
British society is also highly diverse, with many second and third-generation immigrants forming
sizeable chunks of the population and ethnic ‘minorities’ developing a stronger and stronger
voice. Despite a high standard of living, the country does not win many awards for actual quality
of life. Working hours are long, property expensive and cities overcrowded.
Lifestyle & Aspirations
Leisure interests in Britain include:
Watching football - a national passion, with huge amounts of television airtime devoted to
it. Many people are members of clubs and will attend matches on a weekly basis.
Going to the pub. Britain's pubs are unique. Some are historic, some are themed, but for
many, the pub is a second home. New, more liberal licensing hours have increased this.
Eating out. Britain's cities have a vast range of restaurants serving every type of cuisine
imaginable. London has some of the finest restaurants in the world.
Going to the gym. Britain has a thriving fitness culture and many people, particularly
executives, belong to a gym and attend several times a week.
Outdoor pursuits. Walking, hiking and fishing are the most popular participation activities
in the country. Hunting (which has had a partial ban) is only practiced by a tiny minority.
Golf. Many people belong to a golf club and play regularly. Golf is expensive, but not
prohibitively so as it is in Japan, and less elitist than it used to be.
Cinema and theatre. London is recognised as having the world's finest theatre scene and
Britain has many excellent regional theatres as well. Cinema has enjoyed an enormous
revival in the last 20 years.
© Country Navigator
Travel. The proliferation of low cost airlines in Europe and the Eurostar rail link to the
Continent mean the British are highly mobile. Millions take at least one overseas holiday a
year, usually two, as well as several short breaks. Britain in the early 21st century
experienced a boom in overseas property purchases, too, with thousands currently owning a
second home in France, Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal or the USA. Even though the
country is now in recession, the family holiday is the last luxury to be cut.
Working with the British
In business, the British demonstrate a mixture of relaxation, humour and making time for
socialising, combined with extreme pressure and stress. They can be both welcoming and aloof,
good team players or mavericks, and will often say the exact opposite of what they mean and
expect you to understand.
Charisma and entrepreneurial spirit are admired, although flashiness and insincerity meet with
instant distrust. In meetings, the British prefer harmony to confrontation, which embarrasses
The British are target-driven with a short-term outlook, but prefer to cultivate long-term
relationships, so it is worth making the effort to socialise in the pub after work and get to know
people. A good command of English is important, as the British are generally relatively poor at
learning other languages and using them.
Making a Good Impression
Be prepared for a strange mix of open, friendly people who can also appear uptight and reserved,
and who often say the opposite to what they really mean. Trying to emulate this probably won't
work, but being prepared not to take the British too literally does help.
Don't make a gushing and effusive presentation. A lively presentation is good, but the British do
not trust anybody too sugary - they will hold them in suspicion instead. The same goes for
boasting about one's credentials, or the opposite extreme of apologising for everything, which
will make the British feel uncomfortable.
Dress smartly but with individuality. A garish or ironic tie is not out of place in many
© Country Navigator
Business Etiquette
The British are masters of understatement, with irony a favourite weapon, where a direct
question may encounter an evasive response. Another typically British ploy is to avoid stating the
obvious and to imply the opposite of what is actually said. Tone of voice or facial expression may
hint at what is really meant. This takes the term "reading between the lines" one stage further it is as important to pay attention to what is not said as to what is.
Do not underestimate the importance of humour in business discussions - a repertoire of jokes
and anecdotes can be a real asset. If they come naturally to you, then make good use of them.
In any case do not be taken aback by any seemingly inappropriate light-heartedness. The British
are also prone to using sarcasm, particularly the one-line dig, to ridicule an adversary or to
register disagreement or contempt. Aggressive 'hard sell' techniques or denigrating another
company's product or service are unlikely to be appreciated. Nor should you give unsolicited
gushing praise, since excessive enthusiasm is rarely welcome. Once they decide they want to do
business with you, the British are capable of being blunt and direct. Britain has a deeply
ingrained class system and while it’s bad form to discuss this, and many consider the system
completely irrelevant in the 21st century, visitors are still likely to be judged on their social skills
and manners.
Business cards
Increasingly, business cards do not indicate a manager's academic credentials. Name and job
title are essential, but a list of qualifications, such as 'MBA', can be perceived as 'showing off'.
Business cards are exchanged at the beginning or end of a meeting. There is no particular
etiquette governing their presentation or display on the table during a meeting; Asian visitors,
who value the ritual exchange of cards, should try not to be offended if a British manager stuffs a
card into his or her pocket soon after receiving it.
Body language
The British are not tactile. They often display discomfort with perceivably intimate physical
contact such as kissing, hugging, back-slapping or touching in a formal situation. Such actions
are for close friends and family only. Men and women, and women and women do exchange air
kisses if they know each other well enough, but not on the first meeting. Do not stand too close
to a British person when addressing them, or put your hand on their arm to make a point, as
they may shrink away feeling uncomfortable. The British are very territorial about their personal
space, whether it's their desk, their car or their seat on the London Underground.
Gestures are used sparingly and emotions are kept in check in a business environment, although
being so laid back as to talk with your hands in your pockets is considered very rude. Losing
one's cool is not a good idea as the British will be embarrassed - a 'stiff upper lip' is best.
Communication style
British managers tend to be focused, informed, pragmatic and rational in their communication
style, although their language is often characterised by indirectness, imprecision, and
unwillingness to ‘say it as it is’. The British are comfortable with open-ended questions. The
British communication style tends to blur reality and experience but it makes for more interesting
listening. British managers have a subjective rather than objective view of their jobs,
organisations, industries and company culture.
As a general rule, British managers prefer not to engage in open verbal conflict. Harmony in
meetings and discussions is important. If conflict is needed, it will be ‘managed’. Because the
British have a preference for avoiding conflict, they use a range of mechanisms to control
situations that might produce open conflict. The use of implied language: “Perhaps we could
consider some other options”, really meaning “I don’t like your ideas”, and humour as a tool to
defuse tension, are characteristics of British management dialogue. If somebody says something
is ‘quite good’, it probably means they really don’t like it at all. Irony is used frequently.
British people will not generally talk loudly to one another in public. Manners are very important
and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are frequently used in the workplace.
© Country Navigator
Gift giving
Exchanging of gifts between clients or suppliers is generally discouraged on a personal level.
Some companies have policies forbidding such practices because they place undue pressure on
employees when making commercial decisions. Civil servants (government workers) are not
allowed to receive gifts at all.
Conversely, corporate hospitality (inviting clients and suppliers to sporting or cultural events) is
widespread. The British corporate entertainment industry is worth millions, with companies often
taking a box at a rugby match, for example, and plying customers with drinks and fine foods,
although this trend is expected to reverse if recession continues.
Business Meeting Culture
British meetings aim to be pragmatic and exist primarily for sharing information and opinions and
making decisions. Meetings should be productive; those that merely evolve around general
discussion are seen as a waste of time. Such meetings are, however, frequently encountered,
because of the collaborative style of the British workplace. Most managers would prefer fewer
meetings, but this is difficult when trying to create an inclusive workplace.
British managers may not spend a great deal of time preparing for a meeting. Managers are often
happy to “wing it”, which means responding to a situation without preparing for it thoroughly.
This is a classic British management trait. Successfully “winging it” is a greatly admired
attribute. You, on the other hand, as a visitor, are expected to prepare thoroughly and have
presentation materials and facts at your fingertips.
Meetings usually follow an agenda and will often not finish until all the points on the agenda have
been addressed.
Planning a meeting
Notify people in writing where and when the meeting will take place and circulate an agenda. If
you are presenting during the meeting, make sure any equipment you will need will be supplied
and test it beforehand. Prepare handouts for distribution after the meeting/presentation.
Many large companies are set up for videoconferencing, which is an acceptable way to hold a
meeting. Conference calls by phone are also very common and may be a quicker way of
assembling a group of busy people.
During a Meeting
A chairman leads the meeting, usually the most senior person there, or the person who has
called the meeting. A secretary is appointed to take the minutes at a formal meeting; otherwise,
it’s up to the attendees to make their own notes. The agenda is followed, although there are
often deviations and interruptions and at times, chaos as everybody exercises their democratic
right to speak. People will take calls on their mobile phones in meetings, and may come and go
during the course of the meeting, which can be unsettling.
Following a meeting
The minutes of a formal meeting will be circulated to all who were present for approval. If there
are no minutes, it is a good idea to follow up with a letter or email, reiterating what was
discussed and concluded. If consensus was reached, make sure the decision has been signed off
by the relevant senior person. If more work needs to be done, circulate a ‘to do’ memo and
make sure you know who is doing what.
© Country Navigator
Motivating Others
Recent research suggests that results, performance and individual accountability are far stronger
today in British companies than in other companies in Continental Europe.
The British workplace culture is increasingly obsessed with measuring all that can be measured.
This is especially true in the area of individual performance management, where companies
identify and produce extensive lists of competencies around which workers are to benchmark
their individual contribution.
Increasingly popular tools for performance management are coaching and mentoring for key
managers, 360-degree feedback, regular staff appraisal interviews, assessment centres, and
training and development for all employees. Many aspects of British HR practice are perceived to
be 'leading edge' by European organisations, who increasingly use Anglo-American HR tools to
manage staff and create change within their businesses.
Effective Presentations
Their international colleagues frequently describe British managers as confident presenters, with
a natural flair for marketing ideas to an audience. This is because British managers often appear
more comfortable presenting in English compared to non-native English speakers, who may lack
confidence despite a better technical understanding. Many companies now recognise the
importance of presenter training and will pay for senior executives to attend courses. This is
especially true at chief executive level, where the CEO has to chair potentially controversial
shareholder events like annual general meetings.
The British place more emphasis on style over substance, but as a rule favour a less extroverted
and flamboyant style than many American executives when in a presentation. Realism, clarity
and avoiding unnecessary detail are all appreciated by a British audience.
Presentation Essentials
It’s important to pitch a presentation correctly to a British audience. A hard sell is not
appreciated. Nor is gushing praise for anything, exaggerated claims, or denigrating the
competition (although this does happen in internal presentations). Do not be put off if people are
doodling or looking out of the window during your talk; they are probably still taking it in.
While the British look to form long-term relationships, they are interested in quick results, so any
sales pitch must emphasise the immediate benefits. Back up your sales pitch with analysis and
figures; the British want to see real benefits, not just hype and novelty.
Audience Expectations
Not all British audiences have a very good attention span, so start by saying how long you are
planning to speak for and what you are planning to cover, and summarise this in a single slide at
the end. It is normal to allow questions at the end of a presentation. British audiences essentially
start listening to a presentation from a negative position and are not easily whipped up into a
frenzy of enthusiasm, so keep the presentation measured, interesting and throw in a few touches
of humour or drama to wake them up and make them pay attention. A large audience at a public
event like an AGM (Annual General Meeting) will not hesitate to voice its displeasure, as many a
chief executive has found to his or her cost. Humour is better avoided in these situations.
The occasional controversial statement should provoke a reaction after the presentation. There
may be reticence in starting the questions, so be prepared to start by asking yourself a rhetorical
question. When someone asks a question, listen to the question and talk to them, not at them, or
you will be perceived as insincere.
© Country Navigator
Managing Relationships
The British are very keen on measuring performance and benchmarking, and relationships in the
workplace are often governed by this. While the British can be highly subjective in making
judgements and business decisions, if a supplier is not performing according to the targets they
have been set, the relationship will be damaged. The same applies in the workplace; managers
and teams are often judged purely on their ability to meet targets.
Training, personal development, the use of sophisticated feedback techniques, mentoring and
coaching are all popular in Britain and all further influence relationships in the workplace.
Relationships with customers are considered of utmost importance. Companies spend a great
deal of money on customer acquisition and retention. On the other hand, when things go wrong,
consumers' legal rights are constantly invoked. British customers expect good treatment and will
become aggressive and litigious when they feel they are not getting it. Any company wanting to
do business in Britain must be aware of this culture.
© Country Navigator