English social habits

When dealing with the English you might experience difficulties when you go about things the way you’re used to at home. As I discovered to my peril when I arrived in the UK, things are not always what they seem to be. So, what do you need to know when you deal with the Brits?

The English are (in)famously indirect
Brits don’t want to offend anyone, so they will not say what they really think. You really have to read between the lines. For instance phrases such as ‘We must meet up’ or ‘We must have lunch’ are often polite ways of indicating the absolute opposite! I initially totally misunderstood this and whipped out my diary only to get very puzzled look. If you’re not sure what they mean, check by asking very politely. Try not to be direct!

In English you can say the same thing in a hundred different ways, using different and often totally unrelated words. This is partly driven by the British desire not to offend and put across a message in a subtle way. You can only learn this by living in the UK and experiencing it on a daily basis. No textbook will prepare you for this.

The Brits are not as formal as the French and Germans. The don’t differentiate between ‘du’, ‘Du’ and ‘Sie’. However they are not as easy going as the Dutch or Danes. There still is a lot of formality. You are e.g. expected to thank you hosts formally after a dinner party by writing to them, even if these people are your best mates.

Respect is the key word in many occasions. There is a lot of respect for older, more experienced people. Brits respect their police, soldiers and the Royal family. Although officially class does not exist anymore, reality shows that the class system is still a force to be reckoned with. You can often tell someone’s background by the way they speak.

Unlike in some other countries, the English like to start a conversation by talking about the weather, football teams, etc., rather than launching straight into the topic to be discussed. This gently eases the way into a potentially difficult conversation. This can be very frustrating if you come from a culture where things are called by their name, but dismissing this chit chat can easily offend the other party. Play along and gently say ‘shall we discuss ….’ if the intro lasts too long.

Dress down Friday is a concept that came over from the USA, but has only caught on in the creative industries, where they now wear leisure wear the whole week. In other industries you still need to dress conservatively, i.e. a dark coloured suit and matching tie. Loud shirts are becoming more acceptable as well as bright ties, but this will vary according to the type of business. In the City you can be more brash in your dress code, but in the legal profession you can’t.

This word makes most English people shiver! The English positively hate the up-front style of brash networking. The way most English network is done via social chit chat with a vague mention at the end about their business or a casual suggestion of exchanging business cards. A full on assault without any warming up is likely to lead to your card being binned without the details being recorded!

Networking the English way is mostly done via social circles. Where you went to university, which cricket team you’re playing with, the right golf club, etc. These will all help you to meet the people you need. It often is ‘who you know’, not ‘what you know’ that will make or break a business or personal relationship. Mix in the right circles and doors will open for you.


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