The complete Oxford Dictionary contains 500,000 words. This may easily lead to the conclusion that the repertoire of linguistic expressions is very differentiated and varied in English. Furthermore, there are approximately 340 million people worldwide today, who speak English as their mother tongue not to mention all those who speak English as a second language.
No wonder, that the British, who can basically travel the whole world and continue speaking their mother tongue, feel very comfy due to this fact. Surely, you can deduce a certain amount of self-confidence of the British soul from this which should not be neglected, since the linguistic facts speak for themselves. And since the feeling of comfort is very popular in Britain there is a wide range of possibilities for sidestepping in order to linguistically dodge unpleasant matters. For example, instead of saying you need to go to the toilet, there are several euphemisms such as ›comfort break‹, ›make use of the facilities‹ or nice excuses, such as ›wash hands‹ or ›answer the call‹.
There Is More Than One Way To Skin A Cat
The British are individualists inside. They like flexibility, they like to be able to choose, they like options. This is also reflected in their communication. The British very rarely think in terms of black and white but rather in grey tones. They don’t like to be driven into a corner nor to be pressured, they don’t like to commit themselves for eternity.
Even if you have a clear idea of something, don’t emphasise this too much in your communication. Show flexibility in thinking and acting. Have several options ready and don’t spend too much time elaborating on your idea in the beginning. It is better to put out a few feelers to see whether your idea is well received without revealing that this is your best option. If you offer various options you are most likely going to be asked which option you would favour. This is the moment to uncover your tendency. However, still don’t overdo it: The more you argue in order to convince the more sceptical your British counterpart will get. Less is more!
It is of vital importance to keep to the restraint of going toe-to-toe with others! The British like to feel comfortable even when disagreeing. They also like to meet at least in a neutral atmosphere in subsequent encounters. Actually, this is nothing different from keeping face, as it is found in Asian cultures though in far more distinct and varied ways.
They like for everything to go smoothly in terms of language, without creating a stir or getting on the wrong side of someone. This is why inconveniences are ›wrapped up‹ in friendly words. This way of communicating is called coded speech. In this respect it is not enough to say ›please‹, ›thank you‹, ›you’re welcome‹ and ›sorry‹ as often as possible. The following example sentences in this chapter will give you an idea of all the facets of this indirect communication style.
The British apologise permanently. Even if something isn’t their fault: ›Excuse me!‹ is used if you are about to do something that will cause inconveniences. If e.g. you have to get something straight/correct something: ›Excuse me, that’s not quite right!‹ Also, if you have to leave a meeting early or you need to get through a crowd of people ›Excuse me, please!‹ is appropriate.
›Sorry!‹ is correct if you have already done something that has caused inconveniences. If e.g. you have stepped on someone’s foot or you arrive late at a meeting, you say ›Sorry for being late.‹
You choose ›I’am afraid!‹ if you are about to say something unpleasant and are aware of it: ›I’m afraid, I’m going to have to say no.‹
›I/We apologise!‹ is formal and can often be found in correspondence e.g. if something went wrong: ›I apologise for any inconvenience, this has caused to you.‹
Or: ›Please accept my sincere apologies.‹ ›Apologies!‹ is also used frequently if one is late.
If you would like to postpone an appointment the following phrases will help you:
›I think Monday is a bit too optimistic. Tuesday is more like it.‹
›I can do Tuesday instead. How does that sound to you?‹
Give your reasons:
›I’ve been tied up with a computer course all week. Would this coming
Monday be possible for you?‹
The meaning of ›I don’t understand‹ may often be correct, however, it sounds very impolite. There are better alternatives if you want to make sure everyone is on the same page:
›I’m not sure, we’re actually talking about the same thing. What do you mean by …?‹
›Could you explain that one more time, please? I’m not sure, I’ve truly understood you.‹
›Just to make sure, that there are no misunderstandings. You think we should …? Or do you mean we shouldn’t …?‹
›Just to make sure, that we are still on the same page.‹
No matter what you need to remind someone of – a pending reply, a report, a due payment, an appointment – a great method is to ask questions instead of making statements. Moreover, offer your help, simply out of politeness.
Reminding of appointments:
›We’re looking forward to your visit tomorrow. Is there anything, you would like us to prepare for you?‹
›Only one week to go, so this is just to ask you if everything is on track?‹
›Are we still on for Friday next week?‹
›HR need the report tomorrow. Do you think you can get it to them on time, or is there anything, I could do?‹
Reminding of something that remains to be done:
›I am not sure, but didn’t you want to get that document to me by Friday? If you need further details, please let me know.‹
›I just wanted to check, whether you have everything you need to provide the necessary information?‹
›Do you think it would be still possible to get this done by Monday?
Voicing Opinions Or Criticism
When it comes to voicing your opinion directness isn’t very popular in Britain. Hence, you ought better not to state your view as a fact but rather phrase it moderately. Instead of ›I find, that …‹ or ›My opinion is, that …‹ it is better to say: ›Perhaps we should consider…‹ ›Could I propose, that we …‹
›Could I suggest, that we take a devil’s advocate position and consider doing exactly the opposite?‹ As you can see in the ultimate example sentence the British e.g. also like to seek a fictional third person (the devil’s advocate) to express their objections. In terms of criticism, they also maintain a low profile. They want their counterpart to feel comfortable and that’s why they use the one or the other ›wrapping‹ to communicate negative feedback. Since it is frowned upon in Great Britain to assign guilt to other people they also often rhetorically blame themselves.
Typical sentence beginnings when voicing criticism are:
›It’s probably me, …‹
›I might be wrong, …‹
›I see where you are coming from … ‹
›Good point. Have you also thought of …‹
›I might not be up to date …‹
›I can’t find the sales figures in your report.‹
›Is there any reason why … hasn’t been done?‹
You should, however, also voice your positive view as often as possible.
If e.g. a meeting went well, express this at the end with a kind sentence:
›Well, I think our session was quite productive. What do you think, James?‹
›I certainly think my trip has been worthwhile. Do you feel we’ve left anything uncovered?‹
In general, the British like to praise frequently. Praise functions as motivation in any situation.
Dealing With Complaints
In everyday business, smaller or larger complaints might always occur. No matter who or what they are about, do not automatically go into counterstrike but have a look at the following procedure as an alternative:
1) Show empathy:
›I’m sorry to hear that.‹
›I see what you mean.‹
›I can understand that you are feeling upset.‹
2) Ask for further details, so the other person can vent his or her displeasure:
›Please, tell me, what happened.‹
›Can you tell me when all this was?‹
3) Apologise, no matter if it was your fault or not or if you have entirely understood the background story.
The following sentences are supposed to be soothing:
›I’m sorry this happened.‹
›That was entirely my / our department’s fault. I apologise sincerely.‹
4) Explain the situation short and precise from your point of view and emphasise that you will find out about the causes:
›I don’t know how that happened, but I will definitely find out and let you know.‹
›We’ve been having teething problems with our new computer system.‹
5) Show immediate initiative:
›I’ll tell you what I’m going to do right away …‹
›I’ll go straight to the … department and see that they send you the missing parts.‹
›Of course we will give you compensation for the damage.‹
6) Ask for cooperation. This aspect is especially helpful if you are dealing with upset persons who demand impossible things. Involve them in the solution process and address fairness:
›Let’s try to reach an agreement. What do you think would be fair?‹
7) Give thanks for their openness:
›Thank you for (calling and) letting me know.‹
›Thanks very much for pointing this out to me.‹
No way! Losers have problems – winners face challenges! This is why inconveniences tend to be played down linguistically and by no means made an issue of. Instead of talking about ›problems‹ rather talk about ›challenges‹ and thus, the world looks a little brighter. If someone talks about ›slight inconveniences‹ don’t let the word ›slight‹ hide the fact that there is a need for action.
Emotional behaviour (working oneself up, being annoyed, being stressed out etc.) is considered highly unprofessional in British business culture. ›Keeping one’s composure!‹, is the name of the game or ›Stop complaining!‹, ›Be positive!‹, ›Be professional!‹ ‒ and if you do kick over the traces the following sentence will help: ›I am sorry. I think I got carried away!‹
The Glass Is Always Half-full
No matter how bad it is; there is something positive to be found in every negative aspect. That is the preferred attitude towards life in Great Britain. And indeed, it is almost always possible to phrase negative wording positively. Have a look at the table:
There is always a distinct touch of irony, sarcasm, self-mockery or morbidity to British humour (black humour)! It doesn’t only serve to have fun but it is also a popular ›lubricant‹ in even the smallest of tricky situations. Even, in business a good sense of humour is important, especially in risky situations. Negative emotions are kept under control and a good atmosphere is maintained through humorous comments. No one should lose face. You should therefore be able to laugh at yourself and shouldn’t be too full of yourself.
Questions As An All-round Tool
A wonderful means of broadening your horizon or questioning ideas, visions and suggestions are questions, questions, questions. For the British, questions are something positive, they enable a change of perspective, self-reflection and they allow you to reveal blind spots. Typical questions are:
›What makes you think that …?‹
›Have you already thought of doing …?‹
›Have you thought of other options?‹
›What did you experience before?‹
›How do you feel about …?‹
For people from other countries it may be difficult to recognise Britons giving feedback as it is imparted very softly and indirectly. Since the British are very proud of their feedback culture subsequently a couple of explanations will follow to outline what the sandwich method is about, according to which feedback is often given with pleasure:
1) Positive introduction:
First of all, they praise everything that went well. Even small details are acknowledged.
2) Working out development areas:
They place importance on promoting the employee’s self-reflection, to lead him to self-awareness and to give him the opportunity to address potential performance obstacles himself. It is about working out development areas together and not about confronting the employee with what you might consider his weaknesses.An elegant means of getting there, again is skilful asking!
A question can hint at specific development areas such as:
›How would you describe the current interaction with your colleagues?‹
›How do you feel about your last presentation?‹
If you as the person giving feedback would like to voice your opinion in the course of the conversation, make sure you choose your words carefully do not offend the person receiving the feedback. You might beginn as follows:
›From my point of view, I would say that you …‹
›To me, it seems that you …‹ or ›I have the impression that …‹
3) Encouraging, praising and offering support:
Finally, it is about giving the employee the feeling that he is not left alone with his performance goals but that you are approachable and interested in promoting him. British managers consider themselves people mangers and it is their task to care about ›their‹ people. A boss is only as good as his staff.
Communicating Problems On The Phone
First of all, it is necessary to mention that the British tend to answer the phone without saying their name. That may be irritating, however, this has got nothing to do with being impolite but is simply common practice. When asking international businesspeople if they prefer to get on the phone or to communicate via e-mail with their British business partners and colleagues, the honest answer is often the latter. This is often due to the fact that the British can speak very fast, the connection is bad or maybe because of the variety of different accents or dialects they are confronted with. In the business world people simply don’t always speak Oxford English.
This is why it keeps coming to communication problems, which you shouldn’t neglect. It is better to establish clarity with the help of the following sentences:
›Would you do me a favour and slow down a little bit?‹
›Sorry, I didn’t hear what you said. Would you mind repeating that for me, please?‹
›I’m sorry, but it’s rather noisy here. Could I ask you to speak up, please?‹
›Sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you said. Come again, please.‹
›I’m afraid, the signal is breaking up.‹
›This mobile connection is bad. Can I call you on a landline instead?‹
›May I read that back to you to make sure I got it all right?‹
›Could I ask you to confirm that by e-mail, please? Just to make sure I got it all right?‹
›I’m not sure I understood you correctly.‹
›Just a moment please. I would like to take the details down.‹
›Can you read that back to me, please?‹
›Just to make sure that I’ve got that right, I’ll repeat it.‹
›Would you mind spelling your name, just to be sure?‹
›Excuse me for interrupting. May I have a word?‹
In order to generate trust it is sensible to get on the phone more often than writing e-mails. The more often you do so the sooner you will get used to the various dialects and the speaking tempo. Have courage!
In contrast to the usual so decent, genteel and polite way of British people they keep their e-mails fairly objective and short. The politeness that is of such great importance in personal meetings seems to be almost completely abolished in e-mails. Don’t get upset, if you are not addressed by your name in the one or the other e-mail, they hardly exchange any personal words, the valediction and the name of the sender is missing. Also it is common practice to address each other by first name immediately and has nothing to do with impudence or a friendship-offer.
Extract from Business Culture Great Britain, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag