Great Britain is not renowned for its culinary perfection or prolonged meals in the same way as France for instance. Nevertheless, there too, business meals with colleagues and business partners are by no means uncommon.
However, they do not serve to continue the negotiations or finish the discussions which took place earlier on in the day, or to convince your business partners of your own ideas and concepts, as some may wrongly assume. A business meal is intended to give you the opportunity of getting to know each other better, of creating a pleasant working atmosphere or of celebrating decisions that have already been made.
The British like to use the time for socialising. Leave it to your business partner to decide whether you want to talk about work or not, otherwise, you might quickly be perceived as being a hopeless bore. By the way, the men often remove their ties and/or their jackets at the table in order to further underline the relaxed atmosphere.
Good to know: The word ›dinner‹ does not only mean the hot meal with accompaniments eaten at around 7 pm. A hot main meal with a dessert in the middle of the day is also called ›dinner‹. A quick meal in the middle of the day is ›lunch‹. During the lunch break, which is not as sacred in Britain as in some other countries, people are quite happy to eat a sandwich at their desk or they go to the in-house canteen. A simple meal around 5.30 or 6 pm is ›tea‹.
Invitation To A Restaurant
Business meals in Britain take place in a restaurant. When you enter the restaurant you normally wait in the reception area until you are shown to a vacant table. It is considered impolite to walk directly towards a free table.
At the table, you should wait until everyone has been served and the host starts eating first. ›Help yourself‹ is the polite invitation for you to start serving yourself from the food on the table.
In many countries, people wish each other a good appetite before they start their meal (e.g. ›bon appetit!‹ in France) but this does not exist in English. You often hear people say ›enjoy!‹ because they feel it is impolite not to say anything, but that too is most unusual. It really is alright not to say anything.
When you start your meal you should not add salt and pepper without trying it first. That is impolite because it makes it look as if you do not trust the abilities of the cook. If you want to pass something on to someone, please do not reach across someone else. Give it to your left-hand neighbour.
Usually, the host at home pays for the meal. If, however, your British business partners have not yet visited your country and you have been invited to Britain several times, by saying ›it’s my treat‹, you can immediately make it clear that you would like to have the pleasure of paying for the meal this time.
If no one seems to be the host and no one feels responsible for the bill, it is divided up (to go Dutch). That means the final sum is divided equally among all participants. There is no ›I had the steak for £ 13.50 and you had the fish for £19‹. That would be very insulting.
Tips in Great Britain are often much higher than in other countries. 15 per cent of the total bill is normal. Caution: rounding up the bill does not exist.
If a card reader is brought to your table it will ask you ›gratitude yes / no‹, i.e. whether you want to give a tip and if so, how much. Then the amount will be added to the total sum. You do not need to give a tip in a bar where there is no waitress service. If it says ›service included‹ on the bill, there is no need to give an extra tip either.
When engaging in small talk during your meal you are bound to have the opportunity of speaking about national dishes or regional specialities – and of trying them. The national dish in Scotland is Haggis. The ingredients are not for the faint-hearted. It is made from the stomach of a sheep (paunch), which is filled with heart, liver, lungs, lamb suet, onions and oatmeal.
Anglo-Indian Chicken Tikka Masala (CTM) is celebrated as a real British national dish, a curry made from grilled marinated chicken pieces in a spicy tomato sauce. Incidentally, the English word ›curry‹ does not mean the ground yellow spice, it is the overall term used for Indian hot pots.
Of course, you must not forget Britain’s unofficial national dish: Fish and Chips. The fish is fried in batter and eaten with thick fried potato sticks.
Even in long-standing business relationships, you will normally not be invited home. ›My home is my castle‹ holds true.
If you hear ›You must come over for dinner!‹ you should not fall into the trap of thinking this is a serious invitation. It is purely rhetorical, a polite phrase and should only be taken seriously if a precise date is mentioned.
If your business partner really does invite you to his home, contrary to expectations, you should ring the next day to say thank you for a wonderful evening – or send an e-mail or even better a card.
British Pub Culture
Even if you are tired in the evening, you should at least join the others for a pint at the pub (especially in London and Edinburgh), if you are asked. You do not necessarily have to stay until the end, although your colleagues will do everything they can to persuade you to do so.
Large amounts of alcohol are consumed in Britain in the presence of colleagues and business partners. If you ask for a non-alcoholic beer you will probably be looked at in disbelief and will be served with lemonade. However, no matter how many pints you consume, yesterday was yesterday.
The following day you are ›back to normal!‹ That also means that you should not assume that the relaxed behaviour of the evening before is still valid the following day. Nor should you be surprised if you find yourself in a pub after work on the table with a striptease dancer, surrounded by respectably dressed men and women who want to have a good time. In view of the occasion, colleagues have probably arranged this dancer as a present. This type of entertainment is not only for men. Women, too, enjoy such events, willingly with a male dancer. The easy atmosphere in a pub gives you a good opportunity of getting to know your British colleagues or business partners better, of breaking the ice, building up trust or just doing a bit of socialising.
The topics of conversation jump cheerfully from one thing to another, are likely to concern anything except work, are politically inoffensive, amusing and entertaining. People dread debates on fundamental issues, they want to spend a pleasant time with one another and to have fun. ›It was fun‹ or ›We had a good laugh‹ are British expressions to describe joint activities which were enjoyable, even if they were of a business nature. In other cultures, one might say: ›it was very interesting / enlightening / pleasant‹. The word fun might not appear serious enough to foreign business people, after all, it is a matter of work.
It is interesting to note that much more happens in a pub than just heavy drinking and celebrating. People watch sports broadcasts or play on gaming machines, sing Karaoke, play bingo, they get to know new people and forget others. Not everyone you meet becomes a friend for life.
As you will probably spend more time in a pub during your business trip or working stay in Great Britain than you would at home, you should know that Ale is the overall term for all top-fermented beers in Britain, except stout and porter. Lager is the name used for the mostly bottom-fermented, imported beers.
The unit of measurement for beer is half-pint (usually ordered by women) and pint (usually ordered by men). A pint equals 0.568 litres.
Rounds In The Pub
Drinks and snacks for everyone are usually ordered and paid for at the bar. Bills are not split according to mine and yours. It is considered to be very impolite and self-centred if you nevertheless insist on separate bills.
In Britain, the host pays for the first round of drinks and then everyone takes it in turn to order another round for everyone. It is often difficult to finish one glass before the next one is put in front of you. If you have a low tolerance for alcohol, drink slowly but remember not to miss your turn when paying for the next round.
British pubs today no longer close at 11 pm, but in many places the gong still sounds, calling for last orders.
Individualism or not, the British feel very comfortable in a team and therefore like to surround themselves informally with people who enjoy the same things.
In order to achieve this, there are numerous clubs and societies on the most unbelievable topics. You can find anything from the Anti Caravan Club to the British Button Society or the Society for Prevention of Inadvertent Transatlanticism. It is not really a case of doing something productive and sensible or of getting to know each other in-depth but of enjoying human warmth, support, solidarity, companionship, and group identity – only for the time of being together of course. For this reason, you will also come across many different associations in larger companies in Britain.
Charity is a big issue in Britain. Relatively large sums of money are given to charity. Even at work, you can be called on to take part in all manner of activities in order to raise money for charity.
Betting is another popular leisure activity after work. Today’s betting shops and the people who meet there are entirely presentable. Horse racing is especially popular. Is there anyone who has not heard of The Royal Ascot? It was founded in 1711 by Queen Anne and has been firmly anchored in British culture ever since. This five-day event takes place every year in the third week of June and is opened by a royal procession – the arrival of the Queen.
Other important sporting activities are cricket, golf and of course football. Sport is always a topic for conversation when engaging in small talk.
Extract from Business Culture Great Britain, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag