United Kingdom: Culture
This guide to business culture and etiquette in United Kingdom is courtesy of Executive Planet
An introduction - geography and culture
The official, legal description of the nation-state that lies off the northwest coast of continental Europe has been the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland since 1927. Somewhat unsurprisingly this is not widely known outside the subjects of the Crown who possess a passport stating as much in a plurality of languages of which the German Vereinigtes Königreich Grossbritannien und Nordirland probably sounds the most incongruous. For most of the global population the UK is simply England and its people are English or sometimes, and more generously, Britons or just British. Even Great Britain, however, consists of three distinct entities: England, Scotland, and Wales. England has existed as a unified kingdom since the 10th century and the union with Wales was enacted in 1284; the Act of Union of 1707 led to Scotland joining England and Wales as Great Britain.
Although described in the CIA’s World Factbook 2002 as ‘slightly smaller than Oregon’, the UK is culturally and ethnically diverse. For the most part such differences will not be readily apparent to the visitor but it is important to avoid offending those who value their particular identity. Any form of discrimination is, of course, taboo but many Welsh and Scots - particularly in more rural areas - will take exception to being called English. Such a proud sense of local identity may also be found in the English regions furthest from London and the 'Home Counties' (the area of southeast England within 60-70 miles of London), especially the northeast around Newcastle, Merseyside, and the West Country. These regions also have strong local accents, and even dialects, that may be difficult for the foreign ear to pick up on first hearing. In Wales, moreover, a quarter of the population speak Welsh (a Celtic language like Gaelic and unrelated to modern English); all official notices etc. are written in both Welsh and English but Welsh is the first language of choice in many parts of Wales and many Welsh-speakers deliberately use their mother tongue to exclude ‘outsiders’ (i.e. the English). Perhaps 60,000 Scots know their own version of Gaelic but it is unlikely to be heard outside the Highlands and Islands.
This question of cultural identity is doubly problematic in the case of Northern Ireland where the historical consequences of centuries of British involvement in Irish government remain unresolved. All of Ireland belonged to the United Kingdom from 1801 until the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 resulted in the formal partition of the island; this established the independent Republic of Ireland (Eire) in the south with Dublin as its administrative capital whilst Ulster or the six counties in the north remained part of the UK. The ‘Troubles’ that have dominated Anglo-Irish affairs for over three decades have their origin in the frequently violent opposition between nationalist republicans from the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland seeking (re-)union with Eire and loyalists or unionists from the Protestant majority (two-thirds of the population in the north) who are bitterly opposed to any link with Dublin and fiercely attached to the British Crown. Whatever the solution may be - and, despite difficulties in the continuing negotiations, at least the violence has subsided - it is recommended that any visitor to Ireland (north or south) tread very warily through this minefield of sensitivities. It would also be wise to exercise similar caution in Glasgow where football symbolically but very obviously, divides the second city of Scotland between supporters of Celtic (Catholic) and Rangers (Protestant) along ancient tribal lines and can lead to aggressive confrontation when the two teams meet.
An introduction - legislation
With regard to legislation, it should be noted that England and Wales share the same legal system rooted in common law and, although Wales now has its own Assembly, all Welsh law is still made in Westminster. Scotland, on the other hand, has a separate legal system and the Scottish Parliament has considerable devolved authority, including fiscal powers. The Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended.
All UK legislation, however, is increasingly subject to the primacy of European Union law. The United Kingdom joined the then European Economic Community in 1973 and, despite sometimes difficult relations between London and Brussels (or, usually more precisely, Paris and Bonn/Berlin), is a signatory to the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 that established the European Union (EU). Like Sweden and Denmark, however, the United Kingdom has not adopted the single currency (the euro) and recent political developments suggest that the UK will remain outside the eurozone for the foreseeable future. Indeed the UK has a rather ‘semi-detached’ attitude to the EU and Europe as a whole. The topic divides the population into ‘Europhiles’ (in favour of greater European integration and embracing the single currency) and ‘Eurosceptics’ or ‘Europhobes’ (in favour of maintaining British sovereignty, against adopting the euro and, in extreme cases, hostile to the entire European project and even anything European). According to opinion polls the latter group constitutes the majority view. Again, if you are unsure where your interlocutor stands, it is best to avoid the issue completely or risk being subjected to the forceful expression of strongly held beliefs.
In theory, official working hours are normally 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday to Friday. In practice, most employees work considerably longer hours; many will be at their desks by 8:30 a.m. and executives rarely leave before 7:00 p.m. Professionals like lawyers and consultants may not arrive before 9:30 a.m. but, on the other hand, they may not leave the office until the following day. Generally, the British prefer to stay late in the office than to take work home with them even if they do carry a briefcase (their ‘executive lunch-box’).
Government offices close for lunch between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. but stay open until 5:30 p.m.
The opening hours for shops are almost completely deregulated, though there are some restrictions on Sunday trading, and many outlets are open 24/7 even outside the major urban areas. Banks are generally open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Appointments should be made at least a few days in advance and, ideally, confirmed on arrival in the UK. Most British businessmen are not so jealous of their diaries that they will decline to meet a visitor even at relatively short notice. Grander members of the so-called 'Establishment', however, may have uncooperative PAs to shield them, whilst jet-setting entrepreneurs may be genuinely too busy. Cold calling is not appreciated.
It is best to avoid July and August when those with children are almost obliged to take their annual vacation. Easter is also popular for holidaying and there are two Bank Holidays in May that may catch the unwary visitor [especially in a year when Easter falls in late April]. UK industry closes almost completely between Christmas and New Year.
Otherwise the UK has only eight national holidays a year, which is the lowest number in Europe.
The easiest times of day to arrange an appointment are probably mid-morning (say 11:00 a.m.) and mid-afternoon (say 4:00 p.m.). Breakfast meetings are rare outside London and other major cities and it is unlikely that an initial meeting will involve lunch (or dinner).
Punctuality is appreciated but no one really minds if you arrive a little late [up to 15 minutes] for a one-to-one meeting. Obviously, though, if several people are involved then there is a greater likelihood that someone will have another engagement to attend. On the other hand, you should not arrive too promptly for social events - but aim to arrive a respectable fifteen minutes after the specified time; thus, if a dinner invitation states '7:30 p.m. for 8:00 p.m.', it means that you will be expected at about 7:50 p.m.
Finally, it should be remembered that the UK led the world with its transport infrastructure in the 19th century. Much of it survives intact. This means that journeys in London and the South East in particular may take considerably longer than advertised and/or expected. The London underground (the ‘Tube’) and long-distance rail services are the worst offenders. The flow of traffic in central London has improved greatly since the introduction of congestion charging [drivers must now pay £5 per day to enter the clearly marked inner zone] but many main roads resemble car parks at peak times even without accidents. The M25 is notorious in this respect, especially now there are major roadworks on the western section near Heathrow airport. So, the more important the meeting, the more time you should allow for almost inevitable delay.
Guidelines For Business Dress
Conservative dress is the norm for both men and women in British business culture where darker colours (black, dark blue, charcoal grey) and heavier fabrics (wool) predominate. No one wears a morning suit and bowler hat to work nowadays but the traditional pinstripe is still immensely popular.
In some ways, the British often appear indifferent to both style and fashion but there remains an almost snobbish awareness of ‘quality’. Thus, senior bankers, civil servants, lawyers and accountants are still likely to shop at smart outfitters in London's West End: bespoke suits from Savile Row (pure wool, double-breasted, two vents, four buttons on the cuff of which two are functional and the other two decorative), shirts from Jermyn Street (pure cotton, full-cut, double cuffs with links) with silk tie, and hand-made leather Oxford shoes.
Other occupations dress differently. For example, those in advertising or the media are prone to wearing something rather more flamboyant, though still stylish, from a leading designer. Middle management is more likely to be driven by cost than fabric or style and hence to shop in one of the High-Street chains. It will, however, still entail a subfusc suit for both men and women. Women may wear trousers (including trouser-suits). Neither sex should wear denim.
Some British firms have introduced the concept of ‘dress-down’ Friday with its code of ‘smart casual’ but it is not universal and it is better to err on the side of being over-dressed (you can always take off your jacket). IT departments dress down all week.
Do not imagine that the British businessman or businesswoman dresses as if he or she is about to go off hunting or shooting. Tweed, corduroy and comfortable brown brogues do belong in the country but they should remain there (or in the more ancient universities). Similarly, with the possible exception of lairds and gillies, the Scots do not wear kilts to work; they may be strongly associated with Scotland’s cultural heritage but they are only ever seen at Highland weddings and other social gatherings and when Scottish sports supporters travel abroad. The rest is another outdated cliché.
Nevertheless, the British still like donning the appropriate uniform for certain social functions. A day's horse racing at Royal Ascot, for example, demands morning dress and a top hat whilst an evening at Glyndebourne opera house requires a dinner jacket and black tie (preferably not a white tuxedo). The rules are becoming more relaxed but London clubs and smarter hotels and restaurants may still require gentlemen to wear jacket and tie (supplied by the concierge if need be) and ladies not to wear trousers. Weddings and some dinners may be formal (if so, the invitation will state this) but, if you have travelled half way round the world to be there, no one will mind if you did not bring your morning suit or dinner jacket. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to hire suitable attire; your efforts would be appreciated and you would also feel less out of place.
The specification 'Lounge suit' on an invitation in the UK occupies the sartorial space between 'Black tie' (i.e. formal) and 'Smart casual' (jacket/blazer and tie). Since the men will probably be wearing their business suits, women can legitimately imitate them, perhaps with the addition of a smart accessory.
Two tips for men:
do not put pens, pencils, etc. in shirt or jacket breast pockets (you may, however, wear an ornamental silk handkerchief in your jacket pocket);
avoid wearing striped ties (there is a risk that the stripe may 'belong' to an institution such as a school, university, club or military regiment of which you are not a member).
Finally, a Briton's choice of casual wear is one of those shibboleths that confirm the persistence of the class system at least in matters of taste. It is no wonder that we continue to prefer the uniform of a suit at work and the visitor should not be surprised at anything the natives might choose to wear when off-duty.
Most Britons are reserved by nature and often find it difficult to indulge in small talk with a complete stranger. Indeed, there are situations where idle conversation is actually frowned upon, for example when travelling on the London underground; in these circumstances, a newspaper will act as a defensive tool in public whilst also providing potential material for subsequent social intercourse in private.
On the whole, northerners tend to be more immediately friendly than southerners, although true Scottish Highlanders will hardly say a word until you get to know them better and Welsh farmers can be especially taciturn. You should not be offended if people outside the 'Home Counties' of southeast England address you in apparently familiar or overly affectionate terms such as ‘dear’ or ‘love’ (whether you are a man or a woman).
For the most part, the British speak in low, moderate, measured tones without raising the voice or gesticulating wildly for emphasis. They also like to maintain their own personal space and will shy away from those they find invasive.
Although not all Britons are particularly articulate, you should make an effort to speak in complete sentences; the British generally find the North American habit of trailing off in mid-sentence rather irritating. Nor should you interrupt someone; intonation conveys one has finished speaking and, in British English, the voice normally goes down at the end of an affirmative sentence.
Britons prefer to avoid animated discussions; if an argument does become heated, it is quite likely to have been fuelled by alcohol and it may be time for you to make your excuses and withdraw. For this reason, unless you are desperate for human contact, it is usually best to avoid sitting or standing at a bar. Obviously, this is doubly applicable for women. In any case, a newspaper or some work to look at should again afford a degree of protection from bores and boors alike.
It is always advisable to try to initiate conversation with open questions rather than an assertion of a personal point of view. The British are largely tolerant and open-minded but every nation has its bigots and many Britons derive their opinions from the tabloid press, which typically expresses itself in black-and-white terms (the UK’s sometimes fraught relationship with the EU and continental Europe generally represents a prime example of the way in which opinion can divide into two extremely entrenched camps). This phenomenon is exemplified by the archetypal London taxi driver whose often extreme opinions should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Almost all Britons, however, are proud of their culture and heritage and this should be respected not mocked.
A major difficulty in effective communication can be the British predilection for self-deprecation, which manifests itself frequently in the form of irony and litotes. Usage reflects the level of educational attainment but everyone tends to understate everything, whether good or bad. A pensive ‘hum’ may convey enthusiasm or hostility - or indifference. This may be disconcerting for foreigners, especially Americans, who are more accustomed to a forthright directness that Britons find embarrassing.
Welcome topics and those to avoid
Humour is a vital feature of all aspects of British life. In a society that finds it difficult to express genuine personal feelings, humour often acts as a defence mechanism but it is almost never out of place in a culture that is averse to seriousness in all circumstances. You need not strive to be interminably witty yourself, but you should not be surprised by what you may consider coarse or inappropriate levity.
The British are much less politically correct than North Americans who may be offended by some of the natives' banter and 'wit.'
The UK (especially, but not just, London) is a thoroughly multiracial and multicultural society. You should not make any assumptions about a person's background, nationality or origins.
Welcome topics of conversation
the weather (always a safe starting point)
sport (particularly football/soccer)
animals (usually safe - though beware vegetarians if you like to eat them)
British history, culture, literature, art, and popular music
your immediate surroundings and positive experiences in the UK
how good the food is (things have changed in recent years!)
real ale (i.e. traditional British beer)
Topics to avoid
religion (especially if you are in Northern Ireland, Glasgow or Liverpool)
the monarchy and the Royal Family
the European Union, ‘Brussels’ and the euro
the Middle East
personal questions about a person’s background, religion, occupation, etc.
class and the class system
race and immigration
sex (particularly homosexuality)
Addressing others with respect
Despite their reputation for stiff formality, the British are in fact quite informal and the immediate use of first names is increasingly prevalent in all walks of British life, especially amongst the young (under 40-45 years of age) and in the newer industries.
Nevertheless, you should always wait to be invited to use first names before doing so yourself. Quite often the invitation will be spontaneous but it may never happen at all. Until then - and not all Britons like the up-front American approach - you should be careful to follow strict protocol, especially when dealing with older members of the 'Establishment.' No one is offended by exaggerated correctness whereas premature informality may be deemed presumptuous. Equally, it is best to avoid the American habit of constantly repeating someone’s name in the course of a conversation once on first-name terms.
Exhaustive manuals such as Debrett’s Correct Form set out the full intricacies of how one should properly address the Queen, a lord, a bishop or an admiral but a simple and effective guiding principle in ordinary circumstances is to follow the title given on a business card or the one given when first introduced.
The same principles apply to writing letters. You should start off formally and continue until your correspondent hints (e.g. by signing off with just his or her first name) that it is appropriate to switch. Some correspondences, however, may continue formally until the writers actually meet. Subordinates may never feel comfortable addressing their superiors by their first name either in writing or orally.
The rules for e-mail are more relaxed but there are some who write e-mails as if they were writing a ‘normal’ letter. In any case, there is no excuse for not using the spellchecker.
Different conventions apply when it comes to official documents, meetings, conferences etc. where it is common practice to use full titles even if all the participants would ordinarily be on first-name terms. Thus: ‘Mr Chairman’, ‘the Commander-in-Chief thinks’, ‘the Prime Minister is mistaken’, and so on.
Feminist concerns can add to the confusion. It is usually best to address a woman whose marital status is uncertain as ‘Ms’. By extension, you should also perhaps avoid the suffix ‘-man’, which logically should result in such ugly expressions as ‘Ms Chair’ (in practice, though, this usually translates as ‘Madam Chair’). In general, the older generation remain happy, and may even prefer, to use ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ whereas ‘Ms’ is current amongst those born post-1960.
Some professions - government, the military, the Church, academia - are still devoted to titles denoting rank or academic achievement and these should be respected but this is the realm of the Establishment and rarely impinges on British business protocol.
There is a persistent tradition amongst very close (male) friends, who have usually attended the same (public, i.e. private) school or (ancient) university, of using only their surnames. This practice is not to be emulated. In the absence of any professional title you should always use at least the courtesy titles ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, etc. when using someone's surname.
‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ are used by shop assistants, waiters, receptionists, etc. to address customers.
Knights, however, tend to like being called ‘Sir’ largely because a knighthood usually recognises real achievement rather than political patronage. Incongruous as this may seem, it is therefore not uncommon to come across knights in the business world. When John Smith is knighted, he is known as 'Sir John' but his wife is 'Lady Smith.' The female equivalent of a knight is a ‘dame’ and the correct mode of address in this instance is ‘Dame’, followed by her first name only. To add to the confusion, the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl is a 'Lady' and also addressed by her first name only.
Selecting and presenting an appropriate business gift
Giving gifts is not a normal part of British business culture. Indeed, British business colleagues are quite likely to feel embarrassed to receive any gift at all. The only exception would be at the conclusion of a deal when it might be appropriate to give a unique commemorative item to mark the occasion. Such items might be gold, silver, or porcelain with a suitable inscription. Again, to avoid embarrassment on the part of the recipient, the object must be restrained, tasteful, and not ostentatiously expensive. It might be helpful to ask yourself whether the recipient would gladly display the gift in his living room or consign it to the attic at the earliest opportunity.
Small gifts such as a pen or a book, again suitably inscribed, would be suitable tokens of genuine gratitude and flowers or wine/champagne suffice to thank (junior) colleagues for their services. Do not, however, appear patronising or unduly forward (especially if the recipient is a woman).
Alternatively, it will often be appreciated if you invite your hosts, or others you wish to thank, out for a meal or to the theatre/opera.
It is always good form to buy a round of drinks for your colleagues after work. (This is also the most common way of celebrating someone’s birthday.)
Business gifts are never exchanged at Christmas but it may be appropriate to send a card, particularly as an expression of thanks to your business associates but also as a means of maintaining valuable contacts. Bear in mind that the UK postal service was founded at about the same time as the antiquated railways so ensure that your cards are mailed in good time.
In the unlikely event that you yourself receive a gift, you should be sure to reciprocate. Assuming that you have been caught unawares, you will not have an offering of your own to hand so the best option is to extend an invitation to dinner or, if time is really short, then run to the nearest wine merchant for a bottle of the best champagne you can afford.
If you are invited to a British home, it is standard practice to bring wine, flowers, and/or chocolates for your hosts. Do not feel offended if the host does not open your gift of wine that evening but adds it to his cellar; it does not mean that the gift is unappreciated (or that the host would rather drink your fine vintage claret on his or her own at a later date) but quite simply that he or she has probably already chilled the white wine and opened the red that are appropriate for that meal.
Champagne, though, is never unwelcome and can always be put quickly in the fridge for an after-dinner toast.
Spirits, on the other hand, are a matter of personal taste and best not given as a present. A bottle of your favourite bourbon may languish unopened in the drinks cabinet for years.
The usual European caveats apply when giving flowers: no red roses, white lilies, or chrysanthemums.
If you know that you are going to stay with a family, it is a good idea to bring something from your own country. Your hosts are letting you into the intimacy of their home, so a coffee-table book about your area or some artefact that typifies it would constitute a way of letting your hosts into some of the secrets of your own home. If you are unprepared, then your time in your hosts’ house should allow you to think of something they would really appreciate even if you have to mail it from home on your return.
Whenever you have been a guest in a home, you should definitely send a hand-written thank-you note. Indeed, it is a thoughtful gesture to thank your hosts in writing for any hospitality, even a short drinks party.
What you should know before negotiating
Whilst younger, junior employees are perfectly capable of conducting negotiations at a distance, it is always desirable to send older, senior representatives to the United Kingdom for face-to-face discussions. This is not to say that British businessmen believe young people are incapable of performing the task, but there is an element of distrust of whizz-kids straight of business school with a gleaming MBA. This is particularly true of the manufacturing and financial sectors where many senior managers and even executives may have relatively few formal educational or professional qualifications but have worked their way up from the bottom. Attitudes are changing gradually but there remains a strong tradition in the UK of learning your trade ‘on the job’ and valuing experience more than certificates. Consequently, older people are often better able to assume the air of dignified authority that is respected in British business culture.
Similarly there are industries, notably manufacturing, in which there are comparatively few women in senior managerial positions even though women make up a higher percentage of the total workforce than in other EU countries. Sex discrimination is, of course, unlawful but many companies - particularly outside London and the major cities - are still dominated by somewhat unreconstructed older males. In order to command respect and to assure counterparts of her competence, the travelling businesswoman should maintain a professional demeanour, display a detailed knowledge of her field and dress conservatively at all times. Regrettably, some of this advice is also relevant for non-whites.
In keeping with their undemonstrative nature, British businessmen approach their work in a detached way that regards objective facts and solid evidence as the only legitimate forms of persuasion; feelings and personal relationships are usually irrelevant.
Thorough preparation is important: you should bring a plentiful supply of business cards [which are normally exchanged at the end of a meeting] and ensure that you have the proper materials for making effective presentations.
Meetings can sometimes appear rather anarchic with little apparent structure or direction. This is in keeping with Britain's proud democratic tradition that allows everyone his or her say, but it can also be misleading. Whilst teamwork is important, British business culture remains essentially hierarchical. A wide range of input is valued and a consensus may be reached but the final decision still rests with the most powerful (usually, but not always, the most senior) individual who may or may not be chairing any given meeting.
Nevertheless, despite this traditional view of British business as a hierarchical, pyramidal structure with a vertical chain of command, notions of a quasi-military organisation are increasingly out-of-date. Whilst it is true that in the past the British did have a rigid respect for authority, they have never really liked systems and modern practice prefers a more fluid approach that respects individuals as valuable members of the team. Organigrams are rarely clearly defined and job descriptions often bear little relation to functional reality, which reflects the British preference for 'muddling through' without a conceptual template.
Further on what you should know before negotiating
Senior executives continue to make the 'big' decisions, sometimes unilaterally, but there is greater scope for input from junior staff. At the same time the 'younger generation' (under 40-45 years of age) is simply less respectful of their elders whom they no longer regard as necessarily their betters. This does not mean that the boss is a more approachable 'friend'; managers still manage, especially in the older industries where there is minimal delegation of real responsibility. The British work well as a team and reach team decisions but the boss remains somewhat apart from the team.
Modern British business is driven much more by results than by the application of strict process. This is largely the product of the 'Thatcherite' reforms of the 1980s that brought about a market-led shake-up of received wisdom and practices, encouraging a 'can do' mentality that cuts through bureaucratic inertia.
Although British businessmen tend to emphasise short-term results rather than long-range objectives, they are generally interested in long-term relationships rather than quick deals.
Precedent plays an important part in decision-making. The British tend to follow established rules and practices and company policy is the primary authority at all levels of the organisation. A proposal stands a better chance of success if it conforms to the way things have been done in the past. Decision-making can be a slow, deliberate process and rushing or putting pressure on the decision-maker is usually counterproductive; in the end, the Managing Director (the most senior executive in the majority of British companies) will reach a final decision that may be unilateral and is effectively irrevocable.
Attitudes to change and time tend to vary according to an age-industry matrix. Some older industries have the agility of a dinosaur and can bury new ideas in red tape for weeks if not months; on the other hand, younger enterprises can arrive at a plan of action for immediate implementation when the management team meets around a table. 'Now' means 'now', but 'I'll put it in the post' or 'I'll get back to you' may mean a long delay and maybe 'never' (rather like 'we must have lunch some time'). Agreements lead to contracts; if the British businessman is really serious, the lawyers will set to work instanter. On the other hand, delivery may still not be as rapid as hoped or even agreed.
During initial meetings, facial expressions are kept to a minimum and it may be difficult to perceive what the other participants are thinking but you can be sure that they are observing intently even when they appear to be doodling absent-mindedly. Thus, as always, it is important to remain guarded and professional even when a meeting seems to slip into informality, and to give your British counterparts the necessary time to make a full assessment of you as an individual, as well as of your proposal and your company. In turn, you should also note how the participants interact and try to ascertain who are the key players for the success of your project. The British are relatively taciturn by nature and it may be that the quietest person around the table actually wields the most influence and/or power.
Some final tips
Be aware in your dealings that the British are masters of understatement and that irony is a favourite weapon. Direct questions may encounter evasive responses and other typically British ploys are to avoid stating the obvious and to imply the opposite of what is actually said. Tone of voice or facial expression may sometimes hint at what is really meant but not always and it is equally important to pay attention to what is not said.
Humour also plays an important role in business discussions; having a repertoire of jokes and anecdotes can be an asset and good raconteurs should make the most of their talent. In any case you should not be surprised by any seemingly inappropriate levity. On the other hand, the British are prone to using sarcasm, particularly the one-line jibe, to ridicule an adversary or to register disagreement or even contempt. This may be hurtful at the time but the British do not harbour long-term grudges for the most part.
Aggressive techniques such as the ‘hard sell’ or denigrating another company’s product or service will not be well received. Nor should you give unsolicited praise since it is rarely welcome. And do not gush - the British 'stiff upper lip' does not appreciate excessive enthusiasm.
Finally, once they decide that they want to do business with you, the British can be blunt, direct, and probably will not hesitate to speak their minds. They certainly will not be slow to say ‘no’ (however politely or obliquely).
Entertaining for business success
The guiding principle must always be St Ambrose’s dictum, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’, i.e. follow the lead of your hosts.
There was a time when managers would frequently go out for an often boozy lunch. Now he or she is more likely to eat more modestly in the staff canteen or to send out for a sandwich and mineral water to be consumed at his or her desk (quite possibly in the middle of the afternoon). If that is your British counterpart’s regular working practice, then you should follow suit.
However, although there is a greater likelihood that you will be invited to a dinner party at a private home in the UK than in any other European country and whilst it is inadvisable to discuss serious business in public, most business entertaining is still done in restaurants, pubs and smarter cafes.
These remarks, therefore, are a guide to going out.
The best time for a serious and productive business meal is lunch. Breakfast meetings are not popular (even in London). After-hours drinks or a light supper afford the opportunity for informal soundings and gossip but are not really appropriate for earnest discussion. Dinner tends to be reserved for more sociable or celebratory entertaining when spouses are quite likely to be invited and talking shop is mostly off the menu.
Lunch is generally taken between noon and 2:00 p.m. and dinner between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. in most restaurants. Cafés, some pubs and cheaper restaurants may serve food all day. Obviously, you will find greater flexibility and greater variety in the more cosmopolitan areas but you should be warned that it can be difficult to eat at all much later than 9:00 p.m. in the provinces and/or that your choice will be very restricted.
(‘High tea’, by the way, is actually a substitute for dinner taken between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.; it consists of a savoury hot dish plus finger sandwiches, scones and cakes. Nowadays it is rarely served outside the grander hotels, country houses and Oxbridge common rooms.)
More valuable guidelines for entertaining
It used to be the case that you did not invite a business associate out until you knew him or her fairly well and that a woman would never invite a man, but such barriers have largely been dismantled (although it is still perhaps advisable for a businesswoman to invite a male colleague out for lunch rather than dinner). Perhaps only two taboos remain:
- invite only people of the same background and professional level (unless, of course, you are entertaining the whole team);
- do not discuss business (unless, of course, it is a working session or your guests bring up the subject).
Symptomatic of the greater informality in British business culture is the not uncommon habit of socialising in the local pub with one’s colleagues for an hour or so after work.
Beer is the most popular drink on such informal occasions. Traditional British beer is usually served at cellar temperature, may appear flat, and is usually available in an extensive range of varying brews and strengths. ‘Bitter’ is the most common style and most bars offer several brands. If none of your colleagues is able to guide you, then the barman will provide advice. Normally the alcoholic strength is clearly displayed at the bar; if you are still unsure, and want to keep a clear head, just ask for nothing stronger than medium (typically about 4% alcohol by volume). Alternatively, and bitter can be an acquired taste, you might prefer a chilled, lighter, fizzier ‘lager’ which is the English term for most imported beers [and their British-brewed imitators]. Again the alcoholic strength can vary greatly from brand to brand. On average the alcoholic content of most beers available in the UK is slightly higher than in the USA (sometimes considerably so). When ordering beer, women traditionally ordered half-pints and men pints but this custom is changing and it is now accepted practice for women to order full pints, too. By the same token, the rather macho British drinking culture frowns on men drinking halves.
Some final tips
British cuisine is not what it was. Fortunately this erstwhile gastronomic desert has been transformed in the past twenty years and some of the best restaurants on the planet can be found in the UK. Unfortunately the best are also the most expensive and they are concentrated in London and the Home Counties or, at least, in the major cities. It is possible to eat well in the boondocks but it may require some research to find a suitably decent restaurant. The advent of the 'gastropub' - a pub serving food of restaurant quality but at lower prices - is a distinct blessing and these can afford excellent value with fresh local produce. Otherwise the provinces may offer little beyond standard pub fare (often spelled 'fayre' and usually not served after 9:00 p.m.) and Indian or Chinese restaurants that are open later but may be full of refugees from the pub desperate for solid sustenance.
Sadly, though, British cooking has become distinctly international in flavour and there are relatively few traditional dishes left. Haggis is a famous Scottish delicacy (sheep’s stomach stuffed with suet, oatmeal, seasoning and sheep’s innards) traditionally served on Burns’ Night (25 January) and laver bread (seaweed) is an ideal accompaniment for scallops or cockles in South Wales. Otherwise seek out the best local produce, whether meat or vegetables, cheese or fruit, and, if a name is unfamiliar (it is as likely to be in French as in English), do not be afraid to ask for a description of what is on the menu.
Interminable books have been written on the subject of dining etiquette in the UK. Most of the rules are archaic and downright silly. Good manners are founded in respect for your fellow humans and are largely universal (or at least prevail throughout any given culture); they do not require instruction manuals. The only sensible rule is to behave in such a way as to cause neither embarrassment nor annoyance (at the risk of seeming hypocritically prescriptive, this might include making an effort to eat and drink at the same pace as the rest of the group, not speaking with one’s mouth full, not stretching across the table, not waving one's cutlery about and not licking one’s knife). If you are a guest, follow the host’s instructions and/or lead; if you are the host, whatever you say goes. Act with confidence and, however bizarre your behaviour, the worst that can happen is that your British companions will regard you as an eccentric foreigner.
Acceptable public conduct
Britons, and the English in particular, are notoriously undemonstrative. The ‘stiff upper lip’ is not just the stuff of fiction and emotional displays, positive or negative, are generally frowned upon. Gestures such as backslapping and hugging are discouraged and a wide distance should be maintained between participants in a conversation. Maintaining eye contact may be necessary when you are trying to emphasise important points but you must avoid any temptation to ‘eye-ball’. Talking loudly is unacceptable and shouting is beyond the pale. Some old-fashioned interlocutors may not hear you if you have your hands in your pockets. The British do not gesticulate frantically.
Introductions can be tricky. Ideally the British prefer third-party introductions but, in certain situations like a drinks party, it may not always be possible and, though awkward, you may just have to go ahead and introduce yourself. Firm handshakes are the norm as part of a formal introduction but may not be expected at subsequent meetings or on social occasions; a gentleman should always wait for a woman to proffer her hand before squeezing it gently. The continental habit of exchanging kisses has gained currency especially amongst the young and the affected but is not recommended for visitors - even the natives are unsure of the correct procedure.
‘How do you do?’ is a greeting not a question. It is used when people are introduced for the first time only and the correct response is to repeat ‘How do you do?’ Such conventional usage is not to be confused with 'How are you?' etc. which is a more or less sincere enquiry as to your well-being.
This emotional detachment or even apparent indifference also explains British abhorrence of Americanisms such as ‘Have a nice day’. The objection lies not in the sentiment itself but in the lack of sincerity that is implied to the stand-offish British mentality.
If the British use few words, it is because they prefer to mean those they do use. They are polite and courteous for the most part. They expect to be treated with respect, in return for which they will treat you with respect, so:
- if there is a queue, go to the back of the line and wait patiently; and
- do not use the ‘V’-sign [raising the index and middle fingers] unless you are sure which is the Churchillian version signifying peace or victory (palm outwards); the use of the alternative version (palm inwards) is less common nowadays but it is still vulgar and offensive.
A service charge of 10-15% is almost always included in hotel and restaurant bills and you should be wary of establishments that leave the credit card slip open for you to include an additional contribution (if you wish to reward exceptional service give cash directly to the staff). Do not tip bar staff in pubs where there is no table service. Otherwise taxi drivers (especially in London), hairdressers, porters, etc. will expect 10-15% or a couple of pounds, whichever is the greater.