If you want to be successful in business in the UK, you need to do more than simply improve your business English.
You need to understand the business culture in the UK and the etiquette that is usually expected.
Without this, you could be confused by people’s actions, accidentally offend someone or deter a potential client from buying your product or service.
Here are my top tips for better understanding the British business culture:
Be mindful of manners
Politeness and manners are highly regarded in British culture. What may seem like excessive politeness in another culture, is seen as standard in the UK.
At the very least, always say ‘please’ after a request and ‘thank you’ when someone does something for you, no matter how small!
It is important to greet a new business acquaintance with a handshake whether they are male or female. Making eye contact as you shake hands shows respect.
When you know someone well, you may greet them with a kiss or a hug but this is only usually between two women or a man and a woman. Men will still usually greet each other with a handshake.
Business cards are usually exchanged at the end of a conversation when first meeting someone. However, they are exchanged at the beginning of a formal pre-arranged meeting.
In some companies, formal business wear is still considered important. This is typically a suit and tie for men, and a suit and blouse for women. It is typical to choose a dark colour for your suit such as black, grey or navy.
However, in many industries, more informal wear or ‘smart casual’ is acceptable. This usually consists of casual trousers or smart jeans and a smart shirt and jacket. If you are not sure of the dress code, it’s best to be more formal than too casual.
Table Manners are important. If you are invited out for a meal with a client be sure to:
- wait for everyone to receive their food before you start eating, or wait for your host to say it’s ok to start
- use a knife and fork where possible – sandwiches and burgers are acceptable to eat with your hands
- avoid talking with food in your mouth or making noise when you eat – this is seen as impolite
When it comes to paying the bill, the host will probably pay but it is always polite to offer to pay or pay half each.
It is also usual to tip 10% of the bill if it was good service. However, tipping is not compulsory.
Use less direct language
One way British people show politeness is by using indirect language.
When making a request, it is important to say ‘please’ but you could also frame it as a question.
So instead of saying “Send me an email” you could say “Please could you send me an email?”
If you are very direct in your requests, a Brit may interpret this as you being rude.
They may also use indirect language to avoid saying ‘no’ to you.
If you make an offer to a potential client, they are unlikley to say ‘no’ directly (unless in a formal negotiation).
They may say “maybe”, “I’ll consider it” or “that’s interesting”. In most cases, this will mean that they are not actually interested but are just being polite.
Avoid direct selling
When you meet someone for the first time, don’t try to sell your product or service straight away. This is especially true at networking events.
Giving your business card to someone without speaking to them first is seen as impolite
Get to know the person first. Make small talk, ask them questions and listen. Towards the end of the conversation, ask for their business card. This shows you are interested in them and this will help to build rapport.
Going straight to business is seen as impolite and could actually deter a potential client forever!
Be respectful of people’s time
It is important to be punctual. It is good practice to arrive at a meeting 10 minutes before the start time. If you are speaking to someone on the phone, don’t speak for too long and if you think it will be a long conversation ask them if they have time to speak.
At the end of a meeting or phone call, always thank them for their time. You could also do this in a follow-up email.
If you are at an event, don’t spend too much time speaking to one person. Excuse yourself and let them speak to other people.
Make small talk
“Small talk” are those seemingly insignificant conversations you have when you first meet someone. These are usually about the weather, the food at an event, or their journey to the meeting.
It is important to talk about neutral topics and avoid politics, religion or very personal questions, which may cause offence.
These conversations are NOT insignificant! They are essential to ‘break the ice’ and build rapport.
Some small talk is important in all situations: when you first meet someone at an event, at the beginning of a business meeting, or a job interview. This short conversation at the beginning could be the key to having a successful meeting or interview.
Humour is an important part of building relationships in business contexts. Even in the most serious meeting, some humour is welcomed to ‘lighten the mood’.
But it is important to follow the lead of the people you are with. Self-deprecating humour and understatement are common ways Brits add humour to a conversation. For more information on this, read your guide to British humour in business.
So if you want to avoid causing offense or potentially losing a sale, follow these tips and build stronger connections with your potential British clients.
For more tips on how to navigate British culture and develop confidence in your speaking skills, join my coaching programme: Essential speaking skills for business success. Find out more here.