Even though Great Britain counts to the individualistic countries in this world, the British like to stick to traditions – more or less as an opposite pole. ›Traditional‹ means that something has sustained the change of time, and it has proven successful. A bright new tomorrow, bathed in the warm glow of yesterday – that is what Britons strive for. No wonder a good cup of Earl Grey or English Breakfast Tea is not only considered taking up liquid, but it is also far more than that: a long-established panacea in any situation of life or business, popular across all boundaries.
Even though there is no room for long ceremonies with preheated teapots in the business world, you ought to accept a cup of tea (preferably with milk and sugar) at the beginning of a business relationship with thanks. And vice versa, if you should welcome British visitors in your own country one day, besides coffee, you ought to offer some good black tea, too.
One characteristic worth mentioning in British business life is understatement. It means that you shouldn’t be too full of yourself, shouldn’t show off your skills, titles, qualifications, or achievements. Maybe ›modesty‹ is an appropriate synonym, which by no means should be mistaken for lack of self-confidence. The British are well aware of their identity inside, and they are proud of their history and success – simply with the difference that they don’t show it off. That would be considered bad manners.
This means in the first personal appointment, they face their business partners very discreetly, overly grateful, most apologetic and extremely polite. In doing so, any form of body contact is avoided. The British are not very tactile, which means even a handshake can often only be seen at the first meeting. At first sight, the British may appear stiff and unapproachable.
This may also be due to their uniform dress code: dark suits, ties and shirts with a calm pattern for the men and classic ladies’ suits or trouser suits for the women. You will meet this appearance even in places without direct customer contact. It is part of common courtesy and expresses professionalism.
Business cards are exchanged in a relaxed way, and with little ceremony, people address each other by their first names and not their surname and even less by any titles that might be on the business card such as ›Dr‹ etc. This would contradict the idea of understatement. The British are more likely to be embarrassed if too much fuss is made about them.
The British don’t get on to business immediately during their first conversation with new business partners. They prefer to create a positive atmosphere first and find common ground. So what would be more suitable than small talk?
Non-compromising topics such as your journey and the weather are always popular. However, you should always refrain from expressing your honest opinion if it has a slightly negative touch. Even statements such as ›London is well known for its fog.‹, or ›My arrival was somewhat strenuous, as unfortunately there is no direct flight to Liverpool‹.
The same applies to exchanging fundamental points of view, even if they are totally unimportant. The main goal in small talk is accordance, and that begins with small things. If the small things are not right, the British can imagine just nicely what it will be like with you when dealing with important business matters …
It is vital not to overload your British business partners with too many details. Please don’t try to convince by going into specialised details! If you do so, only one thing will happen: your British conversation partner will stop listening without you noticing. His polite way will still give you the impression he is interested though in fact, you have already blown your opportunity.
In your first conversation, win your British business partners over by being affable and unagitated, be just nice! Do not urge for decisions. Give your counterpart time to position himself and leave space for alterations in the agenda concerning product requirements, deadlines, actually everything. You will score with flexibility and calmness! Even if the first deal might not work out, the British will remember you at the next opportunity. Especially if you loosely keep in touch.
In general, the British are interested in long-term business relations. That is why networking and building relationships are the keys to success. Get on the phone more often rather than sending e-mails. Personal contact counts double. Getting on a plane and meeting in person always has the most significant impact. Sometimes the impression might occur that the British don’t take work too seriously. This is probably because business issues don’t get to them easily. They don’t take work too personally, and they are emotionally little involved.
When maintaining contact, prove that you are a positive thinking, affable person with whom it is also possible to have fun. In this way, you can be sure to create a basis for future projects or commissions. I have hardly ever heard Britons speaking badly about others, let alone casting aspersions on them. They do, however, emphasise the people they like. With them, they do the most business; they are willingly recommended, they will come a long way.
Extract from Business Culture Great Britain, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag