Cultural Tips for Doing Business in Scotland

Scotland, Edinburgh, Bank of Scotland.
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Compared to some international locations for business, heading to Scotland should seem easy to most business travelers, since they don't really have to worry too much about the language. But that doesn't mean that you business travelers heading to Scotland shouldn't pause to consider the cultural aspects of conducting business in Scotland.

To better understand all the nuances and cultural tips that can help a business traveler heading to Scotland, I interviewed Gayle Cotton, author of the book "Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication." Ms. Cotton is an expert on cultural differences and a distinguished speaker and recognized authority on cross-cultural communication. She's also President of Circles Of Excellence Inc. and has been featured on many television programs, including NBC News, BBC News, PBS, Good Morning America, PM Magazine, PM Northwest, and Pacific Report. Ms. Cotton was happy to share tips with readers to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling. 

Tips for Business Travelers

  • When doing business in Scotland, make an effort to speak in a low, moderate tone of voice. Talking too loudly in public is sometimes considered offensive and embarrassing.
  • The Scots tend to be a very soft-spoken and private people, and it may take longer to develop a rapport with them. They become friendlier and more open once the relationship is established.
  • Scots are very respectful when standing in lines. Some people around you may ask you questions, but you should limit any “small talk" which may be disturbing to others.
  • The Scots are very proud of their culture, which has strong traditions. Avoid making comments that group the Scots with the English. Scots are very proud of their distinctive heritage.
  • Learn something about the Scottish culture to contribute to the conversation. Refrain from making jokes statements in jest about any aspect of their culture.
  • Refer to things that are of Scottish origin as “Scottish.” Be aware that “Scotch” is not the correct term to use and may cause offense.
  • While first names are becoming more commonly used in business, before presuming to use a Scot’s first name, wait to be invited.
  • Keep in mind, the title “Sir” should be used when addressing a man who has been knighted by the Queen, followed by his first name. For instance, Sir Andrew Carnegie would be addressed as “Sir Andrew.”
  • In Scottish business culture, it is important to be punctual at work and in social situations. Also, arrive on time if invited to a dinner party.
  • Business cards should be printed in English, the national language. Ensure that you bring a plentiful supply since Scottish businesspeople tend to be keen to exchange them.
  • The most senior executives in the majority of Scottish companies are known as “managing directors.” They are responsible for making final decisions.
  • One way of understanding the “chain of command” is by observing the amount of deference given to others during a meeting. While the managing director will be instrumental in the final decision, carefully watching how the participants treat each other can often be revealing.
  • Even if a meeting becomes informal at times, it is still important to remain professional.

5 Key Topics to Use in Conversation

  • The weather or beautiful countryside of Scotland - which is lovely even in the rain!
  • Your travels in Scotland, Europe, and other countries
  • Scotland’s history, literature, architecture, and art family is a good t topic of conversation,
  • Outdoor activities and sports are always of interest
  • Interesting experiences you may have had

5 Key Topics or Gestures to Avoid in Conversation

  • Comments that compare the Scots with the English
  • Using the term “Scotch” to refer to the Scottish may cause offense.
  • Inquiring about a Scot’s family, until they bring it up first
  • Asking what a person does for a living unless it’s a business related question for business
  • Politics, religion, and Northern Ireland

What is important to know about the decision-making or negotiation process?

  • During business presentations and negotiations, always pause and allow for “question and answer” periods throughout.
  • It’s an asset to have visuals such as charts and graphs in any business negotiation materials.
  • Shortly after a negotiation or meeting, it is a good policy to provide follow-up by sending a summary of the results to your Scottish contacts.

Any tips for women?

  • If you are a woman, you may be referred to as “deary” or “love” once you’re considered an acquaintance or friend in Scotland. Don’t be offended -- these expressions are considered acceptable and endearing.
  • Although Scottish women participate in the workforce, there are typically fewer in managerial positions. Women business travelers should maintain a professional demeanor, dress somewhat conservatively, and show a strong knowledge of their field.

Any tips on gestures?

  • In conversation, the Scots tend to downplay hand gestures and other physical expressions.
  • Keep your hands out of your pockets when standing and walking, as this is impolite.
  • Scots tend to be a ‘low-contact’ people. Rather than touching or getting too close, it’s more appropriate to remain one arms’ length distance from your Scottish counterpart.


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