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Understanding the Brits

Labels are dangerous so this article comes with a warning. It is written from my experience as a Brit, working with Brits and with other nationalities both in the UK and overseas, However, the UK business, cultural and social landscape is constantly changing so be aware that all may not be as it seems. Flexibility is key.

What is the UK?
Many visitors to the British Isles don’t understand the difference between England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom and then upset Scottish or Welsh people by calling them English, or inadvertently ignore the Northern Irish. So what’s the difference between the United Kingdom (UK), Great Britain and England?

Officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the UK has a population of approximately 64.1 million. It is made up of four countries, which have distinctive identities: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The capital cities are London (for England and the UK), Cardiff (for Wales), Edinburgh (for Scotland) and Belfast (for Northern Ireland). The main language spoken is English, although there are 60,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, and roughly a quarter of the Welsh population speak their own language. Great Britain equates to the UK without Northern Ireland.

British versus English
Being British is not the same as being English; Andy Murray, the 2013 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Champion, is British and Scottish but not English. The term ‘English’ refers to people from England. The Scots or Scottish (Scotch is the drink) are people from Scotland and those from Wales are Welsh. The Irish may be from the Republic of Ireland (Eire), which is not part of the UK, or from Northern Ireland, which is. Some Northern Irish people are happy to be described as British whereas others are not. Who said this was going to be easy? You might want to watch this video, which is largely correct and quite funny.

Who are the Brits anyway?
Britain is a very diverse country, having welcomed immigrants throughout its history. The UK is a multicultural society and manages to combine a rich cultural heritage with a modern and enterprising outlook. This country has a long and fascinating history. Settlers from Europe invaded it more than once in prehistoric times, and since then Romans, Germanic tribes including the Angles and the Saxons, Danes, Norwegians, and the Normans (from Normandy in France) have conquered all or part of it.

Today, the UK is home to second, third and fourth generation descendants of people who emigrated here from all of the continents of the world,  and live in its major cities as well as in rural communities – so most visitors to the UK will not be the first from their countries to have made it to the UK. The UK has large communities from China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and many parts of Europe, with different styles of dress, cuisine, language, religion and cultural background.

This can all make it difficult to define what being, British means and people may sound British, may associate with being British but have a different cultural heritage. The fact that the nation’s favorite dish is now an ‘Indian’ curry (Thai is getting increasingly popular too) and that it enjoys some of the best Mexican, Turkish, and French cuisine, highlight the cultural changes in modern Britain.

Business relationships
The British are easy to work with: they are usually polite and courteous and often have a wicked but understated sense of humor. It is sometimes thought that the British are formal, but this is an outdated view (and can vary between industries). Relationships in Britain are very important and the young and old build networks (people and social) and prefer to work with those they like and trust. Although the young do not have the networks of the older generation, there is still a desire to build long-term relationships. The British have a strong sense of fairness and so you will only get one chance to screw them over. If you want a long-term relationship then make sure you are seen to be dealing even-handedly. For example, the British are not stupid and they can work out exchange rates, so don’t pretend that a dollar equals a pound if you want to be successful.

Increasingly, European influences mean the British have now become far less formal and, for example, have adopted a peck on the cheek greeting with friends and close female associates, they shake hands when they meet colleagues after a time apart (rather than just on first meeting) and men will hug close male family members or friends, something rare even 20 years ago.

Ability is respected and ‘rank’ has become less important in most circles. However, Business people like to deal with the decision-maker so don’t pretend you have the final say if you don’t; be honest and this will pay you back over and over again with most Brits.

Social class
Ignore it because you won’t understand it and it bothers the British less these days than in the past. It is still true that a small minority (between six and seven per cent) of children receive private education, which is one measure of class. (It is important to note that in the UK the term “public school” is a misnomer, actually referring to a prestigious school which charges fees, and is therefore only open to the children of rich members of the “public”; education is one of the few areas where public and private can actually mean the same thing.) This type of schooling is still undoubtedly privileged, for all sorts of reasons, some less tangible than others

However, there is now increasingly the “nouveau riche” in the country alongside the traditionally wealthy upper classes. Every year in the UK, the Sunday Times publishes a “rich list”. The last of these contained an interesting mix of millionaires, the richest of whom owed their wealth to oil, football, property, retailing, food packaging, steel, transport, mobile phones, brewing, motor racing, banking, and bloodstock.

Understanding what the Brits mean
The British speak English and not UK English, which appears to be an invention of Microsoft to differentiate the spelling of English from US English in Office or some such software.

Although the British would not “dis” US English, it is in reality a subset of English for the majority of US citizens whose English routes are non-Anglo. Whereas English has a rich diversity of words and phrases to mean similar things (with subtleties in meaning), US English speakers often have a more simple vocabulary that is only to be expected, given the diversified heritage.  Some words have a different meaning on each side of the Atlantic; ‘neat’ is an example (US fine: UK tidy).

In the UK, many love to discuss the nuances of ‘their’ language, but are less bothered than US counterparts if the spelling in business materials is in US English or English – Brits can cope with color (for colour) or airplane (for aeroplane) and can manage licence as both licence (noun) or license (verb). Indeed many would not know the difference because of the influence of American English on popular culture.

The British don’t speak the Queen’s English
Regional variations exist in the use of words and phrases. Intonation (the use of pitch) and accents are the most obvious differences. For example accents which can be heard in some regions feature short clipped vowel sounds (such as bath and path with a short “a” sound) while others may have longer vowel sounds (so the same words would be pronounced “barth” and “parth”). In the centre of the UK accents may be more nasal, in Scotland or Wales perhaps they are more rounded and lilting.

Confidence is not arrogance
It has to be said. ‘Strident’ isn’t a style that, as a rule, goes down well in the UK. What might be regarded elsewhere as confidence, will probably be seen here as arrogance or self-importance. The people in the UK are very subtle and will soon get fed up with an over-exuberant approach, so tone things down. Subtlety manifests itself in other forms too. As we show later, it is what is not said that may be as important as what is being said and body language such as adjusting your tie, stroking your nose or avoiding eye contact at the wrong time may be taken as signs that you are uncomfortable, evasive or just down right shifty.

Finally, here is our top tip: DON’T BE LOUD. Respect pauses in the conversation – you don’t have to fill the space either.

Masters of the understatement
You should be aware that most British are masters of the understatement and often qualify what they say with ‘probably, ‘perhaps’ or ‘it could be’. This is apparent when talking about the weather: ‘a bit nippy’ is likely to be sub-zero temperatures and ‘rather damp’ could describe the heavens opening and dumping buckets of water on your head. The example, “I’m feeling a little under the weather” has nothing to do with the rain but refers to health and might actually mean: “I am totally bedridden and feel like death”. You will need to learn how to read between the lines and understand that the British love speaking or writing in an ironic way and even have a phrase for it. Tongue-in-cheek (if your tongue is in your cheek you can’t laugh) is used to imply that a statement is humorous or not seriously intended, and shouldn’t be taken at face value. Do not confuse this with under-reaction, lack of pride in the product or service, or a failure to be serious. Do look for the emotion and sense of drama.

The British are circumspect
Be aware, also, that some words don’t mean what you think, for example, ‘interesting” probably means that the speaker isn’t at all interested. Other phrases that you might come across are: “I hear what you say” (but I don’t agree and will not discuss this further), “with the greatest respect” (you’re an idiot), “I am a bit disappointed” (you’ve done yourself no favors) and “I’ll bear it in mind” (no chance – I’ve discarded this already). When the Brits say, “that’s not bad” what they actually mean is “that’s great”, whereas “I almost agree”, means that they don’t agree one bit.

From the US side be careful too. If you don’t mind where you go for lunch don’t say, “I don’t care” because this means “I don’t give a ….” in Britain. You might also enjoy this video.

So these are some things that will give you a better understanding of the British. If in doubt engage someone who knows. kc@alliantus.com gets me. Too pushy? No I’m British.

Kevin Coleman

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Soraya Jones
CEO Cambridge Wireless