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Business Etiquette In The United Kingdom

London skyline in the evening

As a whole, the nations that make up the United Kingdom have their own unique cultural differences, but they also share many similarities that foreign companies should be aware of when planning to do business.

Dress Conservative, But Laid Back

The British tend to be a little more laid back, meaning formal dress is not an incredibly stressful part of business meetings. However, it is still important to maintain a professional appearance. And a little extra effort is always appreciated.

For men, a suit is generally the best bet. Colors can vary, but men are better off sticking to conservative colors like black, dark blue, or gray. While you might be able to get away with an open collar, it is safest to wear a necktie, preferably in a solid color. Avoid striped ties, which are seen as too informal.

Women should dress conservatively as well, but they should feel free to experiment a little more with colors. Business suits are always acceptable, but are never required.

Differences Between The UK And The US

While the United States originated as a colony of Great Britain and the two nations share many similarities, there are a few key differences that businesspeople should prepare for to make their trip smoother.

American English Versus British English

For the most part, language will not be much of a barrier for these types of business meetings. Whereas non-English speaking countries often mean hiring a translator, you should be able to have a perfectly normal conversation with your host without one.

However, be wary of slight differences in the language. Everyday words in American English do not always carry the same meaning in the U.K. For example, in the U.S., a coach is someone who manages a sports team. In the U.K., it is actually what they call a bus.

In most cases, you’ll be able to get past these double meanings, but not understanding the differences can lead to some awkward situations. Before you leave, familiarize yourself with common words that have different meanings. Or, at the very least, avoid using the word “pants.”

Personal Space And Privacy

The British will generally stay a few feet away from other people. This is not meant to be offensive, but instead indicates a respect for personal space. Likewise, you should remain a few feet from your host and avoid unnecessary physical contact.

Though not technically personal space, you should also avoid prolonged eye contact. While this is considered respectful in the United States, it makes people uncomfortable and can, at worst, be seen as intimidating.

While conversing, avoid topics that are even remotely personal. The British value their privacy, and even innocent questions about their personal history or life can be seen as prying.

National Differences

The United Kingdom is made up of four nations: England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

While there are many similarities across the four nations, they each have unique personalities that should be considered and respected when doing business.

Understanding “Britishness”

Be very cautious when referring to people as British or English.

While “British” is an overarching description for the four nations that make up the U.K., cultural trends have started to question the idea of Britishness to the point where individual national identity is coming to the forefront.

Additionally, do not assume that everyone in the U.K. is English. The term English only applies to people from England. Each country has their own demonym: Scottish for Scotland, Irish (or Northern Irish) for Northern Ireland, and Welsh for Wales.

While it’s not unusual for foreigners to be unaccustomed to these differences, using the wrong description can be insulting. Getting it right can also go a long way towards earning respect.

Scottish-Specific Differences

The Scots are proud of their nation’s history. If you can learn something about Scottish culture before your meeting, do so and try to incorporate it. Always be complimentary of Scotland and avoid any conversation that might lead to negative events.

You should also never group the Scots with the English. The two nations have a contentious history and pairing them together is often seen as insulting.

English-Specific Differences

While doing business in England, you might be invited to a pub for lunch. This is a good sign, but keep in mind that this is largely a social encounter. Avoid talking about business unless the host brings it up.

At the pub, it is generally expected to eat a light meal and, usually, drink a pint. While the pint is optional, doing so is not considered unprofessional and lends to the camaraderie of the event. However, refrain from toasting, particularly if you’re toasting someone who is older or out ranks you.

At The Meeting

British meetings are not all that different from their American counterparts, but you should familiarize yourself with the processes to make sure that you know exactly what to expect before you enter the office.

Formalities Are Optional

British business meetings tend to be punctual and direct. Arrive a few minutes early or call ahead if you’ll be late.

There may occasionally be brief small talk prior to the actual meeting, but the meeting itself will generally focus on only what needs to be discussed.

Typically, greet your host with a firm handshake. Like in the United States, a firm, short handshake is better than a limp or extended one. You might also exchange business cards. This process is highly informal, so it is acceptable to glance at the card and then put it away immediately.

As a rule, do not refer to someone by their first name unless they ask you to do so. You’ll also want to be aware of any honorary titles someone might have, such as “Sir” or “Dame” for anyone who has been knighted.

Expect Professionalism And Directness

Whether you’re having a conversation or giving a presentation, understand that the British value professionalism. Do everything you can to make sure your business appears as professional as possible. Ideally, have the senior most member of your group do the majority of the talking. If you’re presenting anything written or graphical, make sure it looks exactly how it is supposed to look.

When speaking, lean more towards hard facts rather than impressive promises or ideal goals. The British prefer data and statistics over gut instincts.

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