It is polite to give a simple firm handshake as the standard greeting (for both men and women) on business occasions. The response to a first introduction is normally 'nice to meet you', or 'pleased to meet you'. Generally colleagues call each other by their first names. Once you have been formally introduced, managers will most likely expect you to address them by their first names. Exceptions are very senior managers. You should always wait to be invited to use first names. Until you have established a good working relationship or have learned enough about the company culture, it is probably best to stay formal on first contact with any business contacts.
Privacy and ‘personal space' are important in the UK and people normally keep a certain distance away from each other when they are talking. It is also considered inappropriate to touch others in public when in conversation unless you are really familiar with them.
Mostly people do not talk loudly in public and try not to disrupt others, e.g. in open plan offices, on the train, bus etc. Also, staring intensely at another person or asking personal questions is not considered appropriate. Individuals usually do not openly discuss their salaries at work.
When you are at work you may find that direct questions will receive indirect responses, and conversations may be ambiguous and quite subtle. So, it is important to pay attention to tone of voice and facial expression, as this could be a way of telling what people really mean. For example, when you are asked to do something it might not be obvious that it is a request because it is said in such an indirect and polite manner. Sometimes understated language is used, often in form of ‘qualifiers’ which is a word or phrase that precedes the adjective, such as 'perhaps', ‘possibly’ or 'it could be'.
The UK is made up of four identities, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; each region has proud and unique heritage. You should therefore be careful if referring to British business associates in a blanket manner as ‘English’, as this may cause offense.
In recent years, British management styles have become more varied. Managers strive for consensus, but they are ultimately the decision makers. Teamwork is deemed important and negotiations with multiple stakeholders within organisations are encouraged. Managers can be indirect and direct in their actions. Managers often give instructions to subordinate workers in an indirect way, preferring to request assistance rather than to be explicit.
Under the 2010 Equality Act it is a legal requirement in the UK that men and women are treated equally in the workplace and in wider society. A key body for equal opportunities in the UK is the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This is a governmental group that promotes equality and human rights. It provides advice and guidance, works to implement an effective legislative framework, and raises awareness of an individual’s rights.
On the whole, people in the UK are renowned for their courtesy. This is a basic element of UK culture and is part of the communication style. You will have noticed that people say 'sorry' often - when they pass too close to you or when they accidentally bump in to you. It is also polite to hold open doors for others that are nearby.
Often quite dry and somewhat sarcastic, humour is very important in general communication and is present at every level and almost every occasion at work and socially. Mostly British humour is witty and self-deprecating, and can often be a defence mechanism. It can be highly implicit and in this sense is related to the British indirect communication style. Much use is made of irony so do listen carefully for cues and do not take all comments literally.
'Stiff upper lip'
This term is often used to describe how reserved, restrained and stoic people can be when faced with difficult situations. In British culture open displays of emotion, positive or negative, are not always looked on as appropriate. During meetings this means that your colleagues may approach difficult business negotiations with an air of detachment.
Business meetings in the UK are often structured but not too formal and begin and end with social conversation. Punctuality is essential. Meetings are a very important management instrument and are usually scheduled well in advance. All important decisions will be brought up, discussed, negotiated and approved during meetings. Generally the most senior member of staff will make the ultimate decision following a group consensus. The established rules and practices are followed and, as a result, decision making may appear slow. In negotiations a 'win-win' approach is favoured. Minutes are generally taken during meetings and circulated afterward for reference.
This will vary from job to job and some workplaces insist on informality while others are formal but may have a dress-down day. Those in the creative fields, new companies and start-ups tend to opt for ‘smart casual’ attire. Whereas traditional companies in the finance sector for example run a conservative dress code. The term 'Business Casual' has become increasingly popular in recent years and is a middle ground between the two styles of dress. This entails wearing attire that is smarter than casual wear but less formal than typical smart business wear. If you are ever unsure what you should wear, it is best to dress conservatively.
Generally speaking, British work culture involves taking a proactive approach, welcoming change and not being afraid of making mistakes; people are prepared to ‘give something a go’ and move on if the desired outcome is not achieved. This is in contrast to some European work styles that tend to favour inaction over than making mistakes. Similarly, other cultures prefer to ‘save face’ rather than being seen to make mistakes.
In the UK, written communication follows certain rules of protocol. Initially, correspondence should remain formal unless the writer knows the recipient. Letters should open using the person's title and surname and close with either ‘yours sincerely’ or ‘yours faithfully’. Communication over email is also initially formal and remains so until both parties become familiar with each other. The British will not use slang or abbreviations of the English language in an email.
Other useful links
You may also like
- Morrison T (2nd revised edition, 2006), Kiss Bow or Shake Hands The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries, Adams Media Corporation
- Axtel RE, Briggs T, Corcoran M, Lamb MB (1997), Do’s and Taboos Around the World for Women in Business, John Wiley & Sons, Inc
- Cushner K, Brislin RW (2nd edition, 1995), Intercultural Interactions: A Practical Guide, Sage Publications
- Dresser N (Revised edition, 2005), Multicultural Manners: Essential Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century, John Wiley & Sons, Inc