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Understanding business etiquette in the U.K.

As a global economy, the U.K. is home to a large number of expats, employed across a wide range of fields.

Home to a diverse range of cultures and nationalities, the U.K. is generally very open and welcoming to expats. However, it still does help to have an understanding of some of the cultural norms associated with British people.

Understanding the way in which British people communicate with each other — in business and in life generally — could help you fit in more quickly and avoid embarrassing mistakes.

One country, many regions

The U.K. is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This distinction is sometimes lost on outsiders — but each one is fiercely proud of its own identity. A common mistake that some expats make is to refer to everyone as “English”. Unless you’re sure someone is definitely from England, it’s a good idea to use the word “British” to avoid causing offence.

Different regions and cities also have their own unique identity. For example, it is commonly said that people from the North of England are more down to earth and direct than people from the South. It’s likely you’ll meet many people who don’t fit in with the stereotypes. But doing a little bit of homework on how certain areas are seen by others — and how they see themselves — could prove extremely useful.

You may also find rivalry between some of the bigger cities — particularly if they are close to each other. Generally, this will take the form of light-hearted jokes at the other’s expense. Until you’re aware of the complex relationships between countries, regions and cities, it’s best not to try to join in — just in case you cause offence!

The famous British reserve

Once you get to know them, Brits are a friendly and welcoming people who will help you negotiate their culture and remain respectful of yours.

That said, some expats do find that British people can seem unfriendly at first. This is probably down to the famous “British reserve”. Communicating too directly — or showing a great deal of emotion — is considered inappropriate in many circumstances, particularly when doing business. Politeness and good manners are highly valued. This can mean that some Brits will offer a vague or inconclusive response, rather than criticise or disagree too openly – which could be considered quite rude.

When working with Brits, you’ll need to learn to read between the lines. You’ll hear phrases like: “That’s interesting. We’ll consider it later.” This could mean exactly what it says. Or it could be that the person is trying to reject your idea without causing offence. If in doubt, it’s best to let the point drop. If they don’t return to it later, you can always pick it up with them in private, without causing awkwardness during a meeting.

Understanding British humour

A sense of humour is important to British people. They take great pride in being self-deprecating and able to laugh at themselves. But don’t mistake any jokes made at their own expense for a lack of confidence or ability, or as an indication that their work is not being taken seriously. Brits use humour and understatement to avoid seeming arrogant or rude — which can help to keep communication between colleagues calm, professional and mostly free of conflict.

Doing business in Britain

While there aren’t many formal rituals surrounding business meetings, there are a few common behaviours that will help you fit in.

In a business setting, Brits value punctuality and planning. Meetings will generally be scheduled with plenty of notice and it is expected that you will be on time. If you’re running late for a meeting, it’s considered polite to call or message and let someone know.

Introductions are generally made by maintaining eye contact and offering a brief handshake. Hugging and kissing will usually only be reserved for family and close friends.

It’s also considered polite to exchange some small talk before the meeting formally begins. Common topics include the weather and your journey to the meeting. Whoever is hosting usually takes responsibility for moving from casual conversation to business matters.

British people are usually on first-name terms with the people they do business with. It’s very rare for people to introduce themselves using their title.

Dress to impress

What British people wear to work varies greatly across industries and locations — although most dress fairly conservatively. If in doubt, it’s a good idea to stick to traditional business wear such as a dark coloured suit for men and a similarly smart suit or dress for women. If you find you’re dressed too formally for a particular context, this will likely be taken as a sign of respect and still appreciated.

You might find that people are dressed “smart casual”. This generally involves a combination of business and casual clothes — such as a formal shirt worn with jeans. If this is the case, you will almost certainly be welcome to dress in this style if you would prefer.

Getting help and advice

Despite their reputation for reserve, you will find that most British people are friendly, helpful and open-minded — and they’ll expect the same from you. Don’t be afraid to ask them to explain anything that is confusing. A polite question to a friend or colleague could help you to avoid accidentally being rude to someone else in the future!

The culture and etiquette aren’t the only distinctive things about the country. The U.K. also has a unique health care service that combines public and private providers.

Luckily, Aetna International can help to guide you through your health and wellness options before you move — making sure you stay healthy and happy as you start your new life. Get in touch for a quote today.

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