Demonstrating an awareness of and respect for different cultural behaviour is one of the first things an international business prospect needs to know if they want to look intelligent and refined (and who doesn’t).
Many expatriates of non-UK English speaking countries have found it difficult to adapt to UK customs which can be subtly confusing when compared to more obvious differences in countries such as Japan. There seems to be an expectation of similarity between countries that speak the same language and these assumptions can cause embarrassment or a bad reputation.
Gesturing is one of many types of cultural nuance that can create an impression. For example, the ‘thumbs up’ gesture, which represents positivity or an affirmative in Western culture, can mean the equivalent of a ‘middle finger’ in other cultures. First impressions, communications and meetings are all topics that have specific etiquette guidelines to conform to whilst in the UK. Seeing as the British love manners, it’s a good idea to swat up on UK business etiquette.
Meetings in UK business have been described as inconclusive and frequent. Very often they are used as a forum for open debate as opposed to other cultures which may use meetings for assigning tasks and delegation. By comparison to other countries, there is a lot less preparation done prior to the meeting, which means you are expected to use the time in the meeting to demonstrate your usefulness – no hiding behind an agenda or slacking off or sleeping!
UK meetings are still quite formal and require usual common courtesies such as punctuality, committing to appointments, not interrupting others and listening to others
Overlapping meeting times
As it is impossible to measure the length of a debate, it may be difficult to determine how long a meeting is going to be and therefore there is a slight chance it will stop short or overrun. It is probably wise to leave a considerable length of time between meetings in case one overruns, or you have transport difficulty, i.e. you miss a train.
Meetings are usually around lunchtime but may be held at breakfast or dinnertime. Generally, people do not meet for food the first time, but it is common to meet for food and drink at other times, whoever calls the meeting is usually expected to pay for the meal.
When you are the guest, make sure you print a map of directions to the restaurant, as it’s easy to get lost in a city and with technologies like Google Maps and smartphones, getting lost is no excuse for lateness or absence. Also make sure you allow spare time in case of bad traffic or congestion on the roads/buses or at some times of the day, the tube.
Drink with that?
If offered alcohol, it is best to follow whatever the contact is doing, especially if they are the host. You may feel inclined to sample British Ale and maybe even encouraged to do so if your host is particularly keen to welcome you to British culture. Larger amounts of alcohol are consumed at dinnertime, but in both cases, you are not expected to drink if you do not wish to.
When it is your turn to arrange the appointment, it is safer to book a table at a nice place, but not too expensive as it may seem like you’re showing off or it may intimidate your contact, which you don’t want to do. Take recommendations from your hotel if you are staying at one, friends if you have any in the area or perhaps ask the contact themselves to see what they recommend, that way you will know it’s a place they like! Some sectors, such as the media sector, prefer venues that have a cool reputation but that will allow less formal clothing.
Business is a contact sport
Waiting for an email reply or going to ring from a different country? Fact: most business hours in the UK are Mon-Fri 9am-6pm with lunch generally around 1pm-2pm, so consider this if you are having difficulty contacting a UK business from another country.
The best way to find contacts is at a networking event or through social media. If you prefer more traditional methods you may go off word of mouth or through a telephone/advertisement directory.
For making initial contact, networking events or social media are best. Networking is important to many different sectors of different-sized companies. Using social media to promote your business or find contacts demonstrates forward-thinking and shows you’re involved in a medium that is growing in popularity and opportunities.
More direct or formal approaches would be through a speculative email. It is usually better to email before phoning a new contact, as it gives them a chance to conduct research about you and your query (nosy at your LinkedIn profile) and prepare for any questions you may ask in a phone call. If a query is complex you may want to speak to somebody about it on the phone in order to explain yourself more easily, but it is not commonly acceptable to take up a lot of someone’s time on the telephone unless it is a planned conference call.
Contacting somebody through writing is not a common practice anymore, since the popularisation of email and the time saving, cost-cutting and paper-saving benefits it offers. If things can’t be embedded or attached to an email then fax is an acceptable way to send things urgently, if a fax machine is available and if you can bear that strange dialling tone they make.
Chit Chat: Bad Topics
Disagreeable topics to discuss at meetings include:
- Personal questions – some people you meet may share information with you about their background or marital status, but usually if information is not mentioned, then it is inappropriate to ask. Some people are very protective over their private lives and they may not answer your questions, which would make the conversation very uncomfortable.
- Class/race/gender/orientation/disability – these are sensitive issue and best avoided in case you offer an opinion which offends. The UK is a country which promotes diversity and equality as best it can. There are so many other topics of conversation available that even if you’re not being discriminatory, you still may come across as prejudiced if you mention one of these issues.
- Religion – religion is a source of dispute and violence across the globe, and so may be an upsetting or aggravating topic. Never assume somebody’s religion, it may be offensive and you’re likely to be incorrect. The UK is an extremely diverse and cosmopolitan place with a whole manner of religions. If you wish to share the fact that you are religious that may be fine, but don’t do it in too much of a direct way as it may seem aggressive and discourage potential business interaction.
- Partisan politics – whatever your political beliefs, unless you are a politician there’s not really place for them to be discussed in the workplace subjectively. As with religion, you cannot assume somebody’s political preference. If someone you are doing business with has opposite partisan beliefs then they may not want to do business with you.
- Finances – personal finances within UK culture are similar to others – in that it is not discussed unless on extremely good terms with the person involved. As with other western countries credit is a predominate mainstay. The payday lender SimplePayday reports that this takes the form of credit cards, of course payday loans, car loans, mortgages and doorstop loans.
Chit Chat: Good Topics
Favourable topics to discuss include:
- Weather – the quintessential Brit talks about weather. Mainly to praise any form of sunshine and denigrate any precipitation. It is a perfect topic, as everyone knows something about it and discussion of it will rarely offend.
- Current affairs – grabbing a newspaper (many in the cities are free) or watching TV to catch up on the latest news (regional, national and global) is a fantastic way to have basic fodder for conversation. Even if you have only one paragraph’s worth of knowledge on an issue, replying “yes” when someone asks, “have you heard the news about…?” opens up the conversation where you can learn more about a recent event or story and share opinions on it, if appropriate.
- Sport – football/soccer is a particularly hot topic amongst fans. Others may find it tiresome and so it might be useful to mention a popular inclusive event like the Olympics. The topic of sport can be a useful conversational tool if you are a sports fan, as you can bond over team support or have a light-hearted joke if you have opposing views.
- British history, culture, literature, art, and popular music – if you are in Britain, why not mention the things you are seeing/doing/reading/listening to. British people might be surprised if you know something about their culture that you have learnt and they do not know. If you really know about this topic of conversation and don’t just base your conversation on cultural assumption then you will look involved, interested and intelligent –people will want to do business with you.
- Food and Drink – most people love food and being positive about British culinary experiences is likely to be well-received by your business contact. In turn, they might recommend a fantastic restaurant or bar and may even schedule a meeting with you there. That has to be a positive!