Doing Business in the UK

“Britain: the land of embarrassment and breakfast.” – Julian Barnes

The subtleties of British manners can be a source of bewilderment and consternation to many foreign visitors. Avoid ‘dropping a clanger’ and embarrassing your business partners with Today Translations’ helpful guide to getting by in the United Kingdom.

*The UK (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a ‘country of countries’, comprised of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each has their own capital – London, Cardiff, Glasgow, and Belfast respectively.

* Many foreigners mistakenly use ‘English’ as a blanket term, referring also to the others countries of the union. A Welshman and a Scotsman are both Brits, but neither is an Englishman. Each country has its own identity and customs, and for the uninitiated, references to these cultural nuances are best avoided. The issue is particularly fraught in Northern Ireland.

*The total population is around 65 million, and the currency is the Pound Sterling. You may encounter sterling notes printed by the Banks of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and while these look different to English sterling, they are legal tender throughout the UK.

Business Mentality

– Working hours in the UK are typically from 9am – 6pm.

– The British business culture can be characterised by an esteem for rank, age and authority. Be respectful to everybody you meet, but try to gauge the seniority of the person you are dealing with and react accordingly.

– Patience is a great British virtue. Do not rush people or attempt to coerce them into snap decisions.

– Contracts are important. Expect agreements to be formalized in writing.


– For both introductions and departures, a firm handshake and assertive eye contact are appreciated.

– Politeness is at a premium in the culture. Simple gestures of courtesy, such as holding doors open for others, are appreciated. (Although there is a fine balance. Do not hold open a door for someone at the other end of a corridor, as this will oblige the person to quicken their pace, and can be madly irritating.)

– The degree of formality will vary between sectors and companies, but the best protocol is to do as others around you do.

– ‘Hello’ and ‘Good morning/afternoon/evening’ are all safe, neutral greetings. Curiously, you may hear in very traditional, upscale settings the greeting ‘How do you do?’ This is not really a question, and the person asking this is not enquiring after your health; the only appropriate reply is a ‘How do you do?’ in return.

The Art of Conversation

– While it is impossible to capture the diversity of manners, accents, and styles you will encounter across the regions of the UK, the modus operandi of communication tends to be understatement, especially compared to more direct styles ‘across the pond’ (i.e the Atlantic Ocean.) Be prepared to infer a lot of what is meant.

– If you take everything that is said at face value, you might not catch our drift. For example, if a Briton deems something ‘quite good’, this can often mean ‘a bit disappointing’, while ‘not bad’ can often mean ‘exceptional’. “With the greatest respect” is often a prefix to a scathing takedown. Pay attention to tone; if someone says your proposal is ‘very interesting’, they are not necessarily impressed. And if someone asks “Could we consider some other options?”, do not take this to mean that they still have not decided. In all probability, they just don’t like the idea.

– Accordingly, your own criticisms will still be understood if they are indirect.

– English is spoken, and people are proud of it. While the large cities are very multicultural, business in the UK is strictly monolingual. Come expecting to conduct a deal in English, as people will not be appreciative if you exclude them by speaking your own language over them. People may in fact have some command of a second language, but could be afraid to risk making mistakes publicly; do not take this to mean that there is no chance you will be understood.

– Introductory small talk about mundane subjects is quite normal. While in other European countries, initiating a topic of conversation as banal as ‘today’s weather’ can offensively suggest that the person is boring, in the UK it is par for the course.

– The British are known for their distinctive brand of humour, which tends to be laced with irony, and often values eccentricity. Moreover, British humour in conversation can be very self-deprecating in a way that is unthinkable in other cultures. A related issue is that boastfulness is not appreciated.

Topics to avoid

– Political affiliations, salaries, and the sad truth that we invented the world’s most popular sports, but rarely win at any of them.

Business Meetings and Meals

– Business attire is formal and conservative. An evening event described as ‘black tie’ does not require a long necktie; this is funeral dress. Wear a black bowtie instead.

– Please be advised of the prevalence of the ‘stiff upper lip’ phenomenon. Some Brits, upon having a bad experience, are so averse to making a scene that they will put up with the situation rather than complain. Stay attuned to this unease with directly expressing displeasure.

– Outside of the business environment, people may gather in a pub for a pint or ‘a swift half’. It is wise to accept invitations to join, as this is the best way of forming relationships. Do not be alarmed if your pint of Great British beer is served at room temperature; it is better that way.

Business facts

– In the worldwide “Doing Business” index for 2016, the United Kingdom was ranked at the 6th easiest country in which to do business.

– The UK is the world’s 5th and the EU’s 2nd largest economy, and has a total GDP of around $2.945 trillion US.

– While once a leading manufacturer, the UK’s leading commercial sectors today are in the service industries, which in 2014 accounted for 77.8% of GDP. Financial services in particular make a large contribution to this.

Other Fun Facts

– The last successful invasion of Britain was the Norman Conquest in 1066; and for the subsequent 300 years, the official language was actually French!

– The British Empire was, by total landmass, the largest in human history with a peak of 13 million square miles. Some of these miles came more easily than others; The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 lasted a grand total of 38 minutes, making it the shortest war in recorded history.

– In 1915, the millionaire lock-maker Cecil Chubb bought Stonehenge for his wife. She didn’t appreciate the gift, so in 1918 he bequeathed it to the nation.

– The history of the UK is long and complex, and the statute books still contain many medieval laws that are technically valid. Did you know that it is illegal to die in the houses of parliament? Or that it is legal in the city of York to murder a Scotsman if he is carrying a bow and arrow? However, there is little cause for concern. These laws are rarely enforced.

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