People talk about “the stiff upper lip” which is used to describe the traditional British reserve and restraint. There is no doubt that public displays of emotion have traditionally been rare. However, the British do show their feelings as witnessed by the public outpouring of grief over the death of Princes Diana or George Best or the joy at winning the Olympic bid, World Cup Rugby Championship or Ashes Test in Cricket. The grief over the London bombings in 7/7 was clear to see.
In business situations, you may find that your counterparts may have an air of formality or detachment but don’t confuse this with a lack of interest.
What people often confuse with ‘formality’ is structure so it is worth mentioning timing first. Being on time is very important in business. However, people know that travel can occasionally be difficult, but still expect you to be courteous and call ahead if likely to be delayed. Aim to be 15 minutes early and be prepared to wait. Check in at reception, explain you are early and then take the time to use the bathroom or enjoy the tea or coffee you will be offered. If you are kept waiting a few minutes, this is not a snub and people will appreciate your effort (it is another mark in your favor).
There’s always an agenda
Meetings should have an agenda. This could be that you start the meeting by briefly listing what you want to talk about and inviting your opposite number to add to it, that is agreeing the agenda together. More professionally it is best to email a set of points or items to be discussed in advance and accept any changes so that both sides have time to prepare. The way meetings flow will depend on the numbers in the meeting, the industry sector and your attitude.
Small talk is not so small talk
The British will use small talk to make you feel at home. “How was your trip?”, “first time to xxx?”, “what do you think of the weather?”, or “congratulations on winning yyy award”. Be careful to engage with this and not rush to the major part of the meeting, small talk is about finding out about you. It’s about building the relationship, so have your own small talk prepared.
Death by PowerPoint
You may wish to give a presentation and this should be very professional. It doesn’t have to be PowerPoint but no matter how you choose to present don’t exaggerate what you claim and have the right facts to hand, because it is these that will be used to inform a buying decision. It is also worth knowing that the Brits hate to be sold to. They know the tricks, it is interesting to note that they have been doing international business for longer than the US has been in existence, so they invented lots of these. They hate false promises, gimmicks such as “sign up for free” (just enter your credit card) and boasting.
Follow up no matter what
When the meeting has come to a close, thank your hosts and when you get back to your base make sure you send a follow up email or letter outlining the points made and what was agreed – even if this was only that you would come back next year.
The safest approach is to shake hands with everyone upon arrival. Be firm but don’t break hands and it is convention to have a lighter touch with women. Make sure that you keep eye contact when shaking hands but don’t move in too close and don’t double grip. Ensure that you have business cards to give out too but don’t be surprised if they are just put away without study.
The Brits aren’t hung up on titles
If you are a medical doctor or a member of the clergy you may use your title, Doctor, Reverend, etc. Some military people retain their title too.
However, when addressing people face-to-face they would introduce themselves as John Smith and not Mr John Smith, for example. Although, most Brits don’t mind being addressed by their first name, they do like to be asked before you go ahead and use it. In correspondence, most people would expect to be addressed on the envelope by title such as Dr, Mr, Mrs Miss or Ms followed by their initials and surname. (Notice too that all of these titles are words in their own right in English and don’t need a period or full stop). In an email people would use a first name, such as ‘Hi Sally’.
If someone has been knighted, they are called ‘Sir’ followed by their first and surnames or ‘Sir’ followed by their first name. It’s unlikely that a young person would call anyone except a male teacher, ‘Sir’, which is not the same as the USA. Incidentally, spouses are always referred to by their first names and Brits do not use “He’ or ‘She’ when talking about them, they find this a bit odd.
How to dress
This is changing, business attire is less conservative than it was and in some industries such as technology, design or digital media it will be very informal. You can’t go wrong if you are a man and wear a dark business suit, or smart trousers and a jacket. A tie is increasingly optional, especially in the summer. Women should dress smartly and conservatively.
You might like this video about doing business in the UK.
Bribery is a criminal offence in the UK, so make sure that you cannot be accused of this. Although gifts are nice to receive there is no culture of business gift giving. If you do choose to give one make sure it is of good quality.
Although, you may be invited to dinner or lunch, be careful that this cannot be construed as trying to influence a deal. If you are working with local or national government employees, check they are comfortable with receiving hospitality and don’t be surprised it they offer to, or insist, on paying for their own meal.
Some nitty gritty
Materials – print sizes
The most common size for print materials used in UK business is A4, which is part of the ISO 216 paper size system. In this series, the height divided by the width of all formats is the square root of two (1.4142). This means that A0 has an area of one square metre and A1 is A0 cut into two equal pieces. In other words, the height of A1 is the width of A0 and the width of A1 is half the height of A0. Everything else works the same way and the size of A4 is 210mm times 297mm. Geeky eh! All you need to know is these are different to standard US paper sizes.
Does size matter? Not really, Europeans like A4 but cope well with other formats such as American sizes. Using A4 really means that your information can be filed easily.
Business cards can also take a standard form but again so long as the layout is clear and your card can be stored nobody minds whether it is landscape or portrait, printed vertically or horizontally or on one side or both. 85mm by 54mm is a fairly standard size.
Government offices usually publish hours from 9 – 4:00 or 5:00. Staff often work flexi-time so that the office is in operation but the phone is not answered.
The published working hours for most corporations is between 9:00 and 5:30 but most managers will work beyond this. SMEs may work across multiple time zones, particularly if they are in the start up phase. Lots of large companies will have telesales or support service lines that are open until 8 p.m.. 24/7 telephone banking is common. UK companies support international markets from the UK or offshore offices in their own time zones.
Retail opening times
Traditional opening hours are 9:00 – 5:30, Monday to Saturday. Sunday working is now common (but the opening times allowed depend on floor area). The large supermarket chains are often open 24 hours a day for six days of the week and on Sundays are allowed to be open for six hours during the day, which may vary. Convenience stores may be open until very late and open longer on Sundays. See, nothing is ever simple!
So these are some things to get you going. If in doubt contact me for help. firstname.lastname@example.org gets me.
PS. You might enjoy this. Aren’t Stereotypes wonderful?