Despite politicians trying to smear their very own people as foul, anti-globalisation villains, the United Kingdom is open, amicable, and welcoming towards expats. And with so many working opportunities and a strong currency, your wallet will thank you if you attempt to learn a thing or two about their business culture.
It’s true — the United Kingdom is a diverse region, and so is their business culture. Comprised of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, each nation is unique, and people are patriotic and proud of their identity. They might have their differences in business etiquette, but many norms are shared across each region. And understanding the cultural norms across the UK will give you a leg up while doing business — or landing a job — with the British. We’ve compiled all the details you need to guide you through UK business etiquette.
Punctuality and work hours
The British may be more relaxed about punctuality at social events, but this is far from the truth in business settings. UK business culture considers time to be a precious resource. Consider arriving a few minutes early for business engagements. Calculate a bit of extra time if you are travelling by car or bus in winter, as the snow and icy roads may squander your timely arrival, but the Brits won’t accept this excuse. If you are in London, using the subway (or tube as locals say) is an efficient way to navigate the city, provided you mind the gap between the yellow line and the platform. If you do run late, however, you should politely inform others by calling or sending a message.
Work-life balance is important in the UK, with plenty of holiday time. By law, all companies must provide 25 days of paid leave annually, plus national holidays. They’re the inventors of the staycation, and don’t be surprised to learn your London colleagues have spent the weekend by the English Channel. Additionally, there's a focus on the quality of work rather than the number of hours worked. Working outside regular hours is not celebrated the way it is in other cultures. However, lunch breaks can be limited, with some people eating at their desks or picking up a sandwich on the way to work.
Fair business practices
In the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, the United Kingdom holds the 18th position out of 180 countries, on par with Belgium and Japan, both sharing the same score.
Neatness, cleanliness, and a well-put-together appearance are valued in UK business etiquette. Dress code varies across industries and locations, but most people dress fairly conservatively, with traditional business attire in dark and neutral colours. Some industries allow more casual dress, but the safer bet is to dress professionally and test the waters before opting for a business casual look. “Smart casual” is standard, involving a blend of business and casual clothing.
A firm handshake together with a smile is the preferred business greeting, whereas hugging or kissing is to be avoided. Use formal language in business, avoiding slang, and acronyms until you know how informal people are in your specific company or area. Do not brag, be overly optimistic or loud, this might be off-putting to your British colleagues. Being humble and understated is the norm.
What the British say
What the British mean
What expats understand
I hear what you say
I disagree and do not want to discuss it further
They’re accepting my point of view, awesome
That’s not bad
I’ll bear it in mind
I’ve forgotten it already, lad
They will probably do it; I should circle back
Some expats note that British people might be unfriendly at first. This is known as the “British reserve”. In many situations, especially while conducting business, communicating too directly or expressing too much emotion is considered inappropriate. Learn to read between the lines: Instructions often appear as polite requests in the United Kingdom. You’ll hear phrases like: “That’s interesting. We’ll consider it later,” or “We’ll bear it in mind.” Most likely, the person is trying to reject your idea without offending. Expect jokes, including those about your culture and yourself, but avoid being malicious, all jokes must be light-hearted.
Some stereotypes are true, as Brits are courteous, using “sorry,” “thank you,” “pardon,” and “please” frequently. Overly friendly and peppy behaviour can be considered intrusive, Brits dislike loud voices and big gestures. However, small talk in business settings is common, acceptable, and part of the British essence. Avoid very personal questions or sensitive topics like politics, environmentalism, Brexit, or other agenda-driving issues, since politicians have tapped those to polarise voters and win elections. People are right to feel irritable about those.
But do talk about the weather, holidays, and general culture. This also accounts for physical personal space, so you should stay away from touch outside of handshakes unless given explicit permission or introduced themselves with it. Because the British have a dry sense of humour, these titles are often met with a laugh and the green light to call them by their first name.
The UK is typically considered the land of events, presentations, and off-site weeks, but networking is commonplace in the United Kingdom. Email, contacting people through social media platforms, or cold calling are not considered abrasive. Introducing yourself at networking or meetup events is perfectly acceptable, so take advantage.
British humour in business
Humour is a big part of British culture as a whole, so bring a sense of humour to work and avoid taking yourself too seriously. This varies by region — the North seems to have a better banter game than the South — but, generally speaking, sarcasm, irony, and self-deprecating humour are all welcome in UK business settings. Humour and understatement are used to avoid arrogance or rudeness, which can help to release tension and avoid conflict between colleagues. Jokes made at their own expense do not imply a lack of confidence or ability, nor a lack of seriousness toward work, it's just part of the constant British banter. You are welcome to make jokes about yourself. You can even make jokes about someone else after having grown to know them.
Who Brits Like to Banter With
No one most often in particular
However, you should be careful with the complex relationship between the countries and regions in the UK. Until you understand them, try not to join in on those jokes — you might offend someone.
Remember how Churchill made his secretary laugh with an obscene hand gesture he thought was harmless? You could be his successor and make people laugh out loud — or get into trouble. Certain hand gestures can be inadvertently offensive in the UK. Forming a peace sign with the index and middle fingers together, then raising them, is equivalent to flipping someone off in the US. It has historical significance, representing the bow fingers of English archers cut off in past wars. Turning the peace sign upside down is another obscene gesture to avoid, as it represents Nero’s Cross. Tapping the side of your head may signify intelligence, but in the UK, it implies someone is stupid, so think twice before bringing up your pub gesture repertoire.
A small detail—but a big mistake—is to use incorrect spelling in your emails. To be taken seriously in the UK, use correct British spelling. You don’t need to know all the rules by heart, just use an online spell-checker tool available on the internet, such as LanguageTool.
Telling a Scottish person they’re English: Not advised
Great Britain is the island England, Wales, and Scotland are in. Ireland is the smaller island to the West. The UK includes Great Britain, additional islands, and the country Northern Ireland (home to Belfast, the capital of banter). Some Western media still say “British” to discuss any of these nations, including the Northern Irish, who, to be fair, do consider themselves British for the most part. British is sometimes used to talk just about the English. So, take this interchangeability with a grain of salt depending on where you’re working or with whom.
The Scotts and Welsh feel more represented by those terms than by “British,” and would definitely not enjoy being called “English” by a newcomer, just as someone from Manchester won’t like being compared to a person from London. Don’t let success junkies mix their nationalities or regions up.
Gifts and social etiquette in the UK
Gift-giving is not a central part of UK business. Still, small gestures like a thank-you gift once negotiations end are appreciated, but they should not be costly. However, In social settings, you should bring something if you are invited to a colleague's home. Flowers, chocolate, or wine for the hosts are a common go-to.
Inviting colleagues or business counterparts to lunch, dinner, or events is not required, but it is common and well-regarded. Whoever invites should pick up the tab. “Pub culture”, on the other hand, is enormous in the UK, so having drinks after work is typical. Some people like to go drinking straight after work without eating. So be prepared to be half drunk and starving by 8 pm. Pub culture is a great way to build relationships with your British coworkers. Buying a round for everyone is not necessary, but it will make a great impression.
Business meetings in the UK
The UK’s relationship with meetings is known for being less uptight than some of their European counterparts. Meetings are scheduled a few days in advance, and objectives are usually communicated ahead. However, a few minutes of small talk before starting a meeting is a British staple and banter is welcome. Productivity may increase towards later decisions in meetings. Whoever is in charge is responsible for the transition from casual conversation to business matters.
British courtesy is often considered a device to evade confrontation. This means that disagreements will be met with indirect, dismissive responses or irony. You will also find that UK business culture is frequently analytical: Facts and figures are more effective than emotion-based arguments. This is their well-known stiff upper lip, where exhibiting too much emotion is deemed uncouth. Be armed with data, cost analyses, and spreadsheets, and avoid generalisations.
Consider working for a UK-based company!
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