The Quirky Side of Doing Business With the British

One of the less obvious rewards of travelling is catching a glimpse of your own culture through the prism of other nationalities’ perception. For many in business here in the UK, a placement abroad is an expected part of the job and with that comes some form of cultural training relevant to the destination.

Imagine what it must be like coming to Britain.  Business etiquette can be confusing anyway, but add in a foreign culture and even the most experienced business people can find themselves at a disadvantage. For many of our 1:1 coaching clients who use English as a second language, getting an insight into the quirkier aspects of doing business with the British is of great interest. Here are some commonly asked questions:

1) Why do the British small talk about the weather?

It’s what we do! We talk about the weather incessantly – at work, at home and at play. Sometimes we will talk about the weather for a genuine reason – when arriving at a meeting totally soaked by a snap ‘scattered shower’, or because 2cm of snow has paralysed the transport system.   However, the British will often just use the weather as a small talk opener to squeeze past their social inhibitions (even if nothing particularly eventful is happening with it), although to be fair to us, given its inconsistency it really is important.

2) Do the British Mean What They Say?

Not necessarily. The British are world experts at understating everything. Be aware that politeness and a sense of informality can be deceptive and that the British rarely talk straight. Here’s a typical example of how language can be used in a work situation that can be potentially baffling to non-native speakers:
A: “Option one might be worth considering.”
What they really mean: I recommend you choose option one
B: “Yes, no, it’s certainly an interesting option and one that is definitely worth considering in the longer term and we should absolutely not take it off the table”.
What they really mean: No
This is a topic that I have explored in more detail in do the English really mean what they say, but is a constant cause of confusion for visiting business people.

3) Why do the British like to joke?

The famous British sense of humour is a sign of our national resilience. The ability to laugh through the bad has carried the nation through to the good times. However, the British also use humour as a tool, sometimes a weapon, when conducting business. Sometimes it serves to put the other person at ease, lighten the mood or break the ice. However when ‘weaponised’, it can be an intentional ploy to play down status, put a negotiating partner off guard and gain some leverage in the course of a business discussion.

Bear this in mind next time you ponder what goes on in the Brexit negotiations!

Luan de Burgh

February 2018

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of de Burgh Training – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.