Cultural Tips for Doing Business in England

Low Angle View Of Big Ben Against Sky

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A few years ago, I lived in England for six months. It was a terrific experience, and I love to go back and visit when I can. With world-class business centers like London, it's no wonder that lots of business travelers end up heading to England as well. 

To help business travelers avoid cultural problems when traveling, I interviewed cultural expert Gayle Cotton. Ms.Cotton is the author of the bestselling book, Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. Ms. Cotton is also a distinguished keynote speaker and an internationally-recognized authority on cross-cultural communication. She's President of Circles Of Excellence Inc. Ms. Cotton has been featured on many television programs, including NBC News, PBS, Good Morning America, PM Magazine, PM Northwest, and Pacific Report. Ms. Cotton was happy to share tips about how to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling to England.

What tips do you have for business travelers heading to England?

  • Don’t assume all British English words and phrases mean the same as words and phrases from North America, Australia or other English speaking countries. Many of British English words and phrases have different or even opposite meanings! Spelling may be different as well.
  • British English pronounces consonants more clearly than many other English speaking countries. Avoid speaking too quickly or slurring words or you could come across as unprofessional.
  • Make an effort to speak in complete sentences. The English generally find the North American habit of trailing off in mid-sentence irritating.
  • Try to maintain a low, moderate tone of voice at all times.
  • More detached, businesslike approaches are the most welcome and respected.
  • English businesspeople are generally interested in long-term relationships rather than quick deals.
  • Once they decide that they want to do business with you, the English can be blunt, direct, and probably will not hesitate to speak their minds. Before this transition occurs, however, it is important to give them the necessary time to make an assessment of you, as well as of your proposal and company.
  • During initial meetings, facial expressions are kept to a minimum and, consequently, it may be difficult to perceive what the other participants are thinking.
  • Be aware in your dealings that the English are "masters of understatement." Direct questions may result in evasive responses.
  • Aggressive sales techniques such as the "hard sell" or denigrating another company's product or service will not be well-received.
  • Humor is often an important part of business discussions in England, and having a repertoire of jokes and anecdotes can be an asset. Moreover, people who are good at telling jokes and stories should make the most of these abilities.
  • Characteristics of British humor include not stating the obvious, as well as implying the opposite of what is being said. Consequently, paying attention to what is not said or done is often a necessary part of appreciating this style of humor.
  • Be warned: the English can use humor, especially irony or sarcasm, as a weapon in ridiculing an adversary or showing disagreement or even contempt.
  • Although English business culture is intensely hierarchical, teamwork remains important, especially in influencing decisions.
  • Be aware that the English won't hesitate to say "no."
  • Refrain from giving unsolicited praise, since it is not necessarily welcome.

What is important to know about the decision making process?

  • In decision-making, the English tend to seek guidance from established laws and rules, rather than their own personal experiences or feelings. Moreover, company policy is the primary authority for businesspeople at all levels of the organization.
  • Objective facts and evidence are the only legitimate sources of truth; feelings are usually irrelevant.
  • Again, precedent plays an important factor in decision-making. That is, your proposal stands a better chance if it conforms to the way things have been done in the past.
  • Usually, a consensus is reached before presenting the final decision to the individual highest in power.
  • Decision-making tends to be a slow, deliberate, process. Rushing or putting pressure on the decision-making process is usually counterproductive.

Any tips for women?

  • Foreign women will have little difficulty conducting business in Great Britain.
  • Don't be insulted if someone calls you love, dearie, or darling. These are commonly used and not considered rude.
  • Crossing your legs at the ankles, not at the knees, is proper.

Any tips on gestures?

  • During initial meetings, facial expressions are kept to a minimum and, consequently, it may be difficult to perceive what the other participants are thinking.
  • The British are not backslappers, and generally, do not display affection in public.
  • Hugging, kissing and touching is usually reserved for family members and very close friends.
  • The British like a certain amount of personal space. Do not stand too close to another person or put your arm around someone's shoulder.
  • Staring is considered rude.

What are some good suggestions for topics of conversation?

  • Positive experiences in England and other travels.
  • Your immediate surroundings including nature, architecture, food, ambiance, weather, etc.
  • Soccer, polo and other sports
  • English history, and any current events
  • The English love animals, especially dogs. Family pets are always a good topic.

What are some topics of conversation to avoid?

  • The English enjoy talking about current events, however, avoid getting into discussions about politics, particularly relating to Scotland or Northern Ireland.
  • Do not be the first to bring up the subject of the Royal Family.
  • Refrain from making inquiries regarding a person's occupation, birthplace, religion, or other intrusive personal questions.
  • Discussing your "family tree" is frowned upon here. Also, avoid bringing up the British class system in conversation.
  • The reputation of British food has improved significantly, so avoid the stereotypical comments about its mediocrity.
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