Business communication

UK flagBusiness Communication

The business practices discussed in this section will apply to the majority of everyday business dealings and situations. However, it is crucial to bear in mind that these recommendations are general indicators of best practice and are subject to contextual and regional variations within.

For further information, please see below:

Face-to-face communication

Introductions depend upon the circumstances of a particular situation. Generally, the best practice is to be introduced by a third party, although this may not always be possible. A handshake is the typical greeting for a new introduction and should not be expected at subsequent meetings. For example, colleagues don’t shake hands every day at work.

Beginning a conversation with someone new may be a daunting proposition because of British cultural norms and expectations. It is generally advisable to open a conversation with a neutral topic, such as the weather or something dictated by the immediate situation, such as asking for a recommendation on something to do, eat or drink. It is good practice to start a conversation with open questions rather than subjective assumptions or personal points of view as the reaction of your counterpart is not always predictable. As you will find, many British people are tolerant and open-minded. Some people may derive their opinions from the tabloid press that often depicts the world in black and white terms.

In order to create good business relations, you should allow conversations to develop organically, following the lead of the person you are talking you, asking permission if you’d like to talk about potentially sensitive subjects and not being overly negative or sarcastic.

As a general observation, people tend to be more open and friendly outside of London and in the North in particular; in fact, there is still a north-south divide in terms of cultural openness in the UK. Some exceptions exist, for example Scottish Highlanders or Welsh farmers will hardly say a word until you get to know each other. Discussions tend to be emotionless and may become tense, with the parties politely excusing themselves and withdrawing.

Another difficulty in verbal communication may come from the British penchant for understatement. This sometimes shows itself in seeming self-deprecation and presents a challenge in understanding how things, people and situations are really perceived by the British. For example, what might be described as ‘a bit expensive’ may well really mean  ‘very expensive’ and ‘a little problem’ might actually constitute ‘a huge stumbling block’ for a British counterpart.

Language Matters

English is the official and predominantly spoken language in the UK. It is unlikely that many of your British counterparts will speak other languages and even if you speak English, there will be some linguistic differences. Although the majority, especially the younger generation, will have had some language training at school not all of them feel comfortable making mistakes in front of others and therefore pretend that they don’t speak other languages. However, be aware that this does not mean that they can’t understand what you are saying.

Thus, it is important either to have at least some knowledge of the language or to ensure that appropriate interpreting facilities are available. Although the UK does not constitute a great land area, accents and dialects vary considerably from region to region, which may present even native English speakers with difficulties in verbal communication. Therefore, although it is advisable to become familiar with at least some common phrases, it is completely acceptable to ask for an explanation of anything that you do not understand, or indeed to ask your host to speak more slowly.

Foreign language competence amongst British managers is generally poor. This characteristic seems to have its historical roots in times when British companies traded mostly with other English speaking nations and dependencies. At that time, there was virtually no need for knowledge of other languages. In the vast majority of British companies, this historical legacy manifests itself as managers being reluctant to speak any language other than English. If your English language capabilities are not at a satisfactory level, it is strongly advisable to travel with an interpreter. However, using this service deprives you of the unique opportunity of direct contact and, in some cases, may not allow you to develop the business relationship in the way you desire.

However, there is some probability that you will encounter a business professional speaking a foreign language as their numbers are continually increasing. More and more managers are becoming aware of the fact that ignorance of foreign languages represents a serious barrier when attempting to expand their business abroad. Even the government realises the importance of this issue and is concerned that poor language skills may severely hamper the country’s ability to promote and protect interests abroad. In the current business environment, it is possible to encounter managers who speak Polish, German, Spanish, Italian or French. Asian languages, including Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi and Gujarati, are also spoken by 2.7% of the UK population. Chinese community is also large with many major cities having “China Towns” and many managers are now learning Mandarin as their foreign language.

As with any other languages, when it comes to specific business, legal or technical terms especially when communicating with people from different disciplines, misunderstandings are common. To avoid disputes, you should elaborate and clarify meanings to the point where there can be no room for misinterpretation and no need for assumptions.

Business Relationship

In the UK, an agreement will not normally be final and complete until a written contract has been formally signed and witnessed. Thus, it is crucial to ensure that all the terms and conditions are included in a formal contractual document. In many cases, depending on the size or value of the business, a contract will be subject to review and approval by a solicitor or other expert in British contract law. This is simply a matter of procedural correctness and “due diligence”, which should not be taken personally nor does it cast doubt on the seriousness of the proposal. In fact, having a full written contract that has been professionally reviewed and approved demonstrates both the sincerity of the signatories and their intent to establish a significant and often long-term agreement.

Generally, there is a strict separation of business and social matters and therefore you do not necessarily need to make extensive efforts to establish familiarity outside of the business relationship. On the other hand, it is essential to create an atmosphere of trust, reliability and fairness, as those are values the British appreciate.

Following established protocol is critical to building and maintaining business relationships in the UK. Verbal communications are usually confirmed in writing where exact details are set out. Business communications can be difficult to read since the British do not like to offend their business partners and sources of disagreements are not always obvious to detect. British businesspeople often operate an open-door policy. People tend to work with their office door open although counterparts are expected to knock and wait to be invited before entering.

In British business, hierarchies are becoming flatter with business units having delegated autonomy, which increases overlapping and means loosely defined responsibilities and fewer distinctions between roles and departments. British management style has a reputation for taking calculated risks and this mentality is at the heart of the innovation drive in many British organisations. Professional rank and status in the UK is generally based on an individual’s achievement and expertise in a given field. Academic titles and backgrounds are not as important in business.

Expect a great deal of written communication, both to confirm and to maintain a record of discussions and decisions. Even if you have a friendly or casual relationship with colleagues, you should remember that on-the-job correspondence means that an e-mail is a business letter, in which professionalism should not be forgotten. However, this varies and some individuals might not have a greeting in the email and sign themselves with a single letter – abbreviating their first name. This is increasingly widespread with the adoption of smartphones and tablet devices.

In The UK, it is generally not customary to state your full name including first and last name when you answer the phone. In accordance with corporate identity trends, the customary way to answer a phone at a British company is to state the name of the company and a greeting.

Making Contact

For the British manager, a handshake is the usual form of greeting on introduction. However, if you are working with someone on a project and meeting over several days, it is possible that you will not be offered a handshake each time – but would simply be greeted verbally. In the same way, after a business meeting if you are going to meet again the next day you might not be offered a handshake.

When introduced to someone new you would be expected to shake their hand and say “Nice to meet you” or the more formal “How do you do?” These phrases would normally be responded to in a similar fashion: “Nice to meet you too” or “Fine thank you, how are you?” The handshake should be firm, but take into account the hand of the person you are greeting and match the strength of their handshake. A kiss is not an acceptable greeting in a typical business situation.

The normal greetings in the United Kingdom are “Good morning/afternoon/evening.” These are usually followed by another common greeting “How are you?” Do not be tempted to give a full account of the state of your health, as this is simply a courtesy greeting and not usually an actual question.

You should not be offended when people address you with a seemingly over familiar name such as “love”, “pet”, “duck”, “chuck”, “mate” or “darling” – these terms vary across the UK. Here you are dealing with regional dialects and cultural conventions that have no deep or hidden meanings.

Traditionally, the British are seen as an emotionally neutral nation. The “Stiff Upper Lip” is a characteristic, which is defined by emotional restraint and courage in difficult situations. Public displays of emotion are still widely regarded as unprofessional and unbecoming, particularly in a business environment.

Increasingly, with the influence of North American popular culture, self-disclosure and the sharing of private and personal information is considered to be a form of bonding. The death of the Princess of Wales in 1997 marked an unprecedented moment in British culture, where people felt compelled to share their outpouring of grief in public. The London 2012 Olympic Games also went a long way towards changing foreign perceptions of British culture and demonstrating the warmth and welcoming nature of the British public.

For foreigners, it is advisable to avoid explicit gestures and physical contact such as backslapping or hugging and to maintain a sufficient distance not to invade the personal space of anyone around you, except where this cannot be avoided (such as when using public transport, during the rush hour).  Unnecessarily long eye contact is also considered an invasion of privacy and can be interpreted as anything from being rude to being a sign of aggression and should therefore be avoided.

 Personal Titles

People in Britain usually address each other informally in day-to-day communications using their first names. This is the result of increasingly flat organisational structures and the encouragement of a friendly working environment which is intended to facilitate better team work. This also depends on the culture of the individual organisation and may be dictated by situations, such as at extremely formal events or occasions where a certain naming etiquette must be observed.

In addition to social titles (Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms), professional and academic titles (Prof. and Dr.) the UK makes use of honorary titles (Sir, Dame, etc.) and hereditary titles (Duke, Earl, Lady, etc.).

When meeting your business partners for the first time it is more appropriate to use their surnames following the title for example: Mr (for men), Mrs (for women) and Miss or Ms (for unmarried women). If in doubt it is advisable to be more formal and do not use first name terms until you have been invited to do so. Usually, you will be invited to use someone’s first name at the first meeting; but sometimes it may not happen at all.

When referring to women and you are not aware of their marital status use “Ms”. It is worth noting that titles should be used in conjunction with a person’s surname.

To address a man in public without mentioning their name use “Sir”. The equivalent form of address for a woman is “Madam”, but the connotations associated with the word means it has fallen out of common usage and may not always be well-received depending on the context.

Written correspondence tends also to start with a formal address “Dear Sirs” (if you don’t know the names) and signing with “Yours faithfully”. If you do know the names, the form is “Dear Mr/Mrs X” and ending with “Yours sincerely”. Particularly in email exchange if it is a follow up reply, the need to use “Dear etc.” is not as important and some might simply write the main body of the message and end with “Best wishes” or “Kind regards”. With the increasing use of social media the use of “Dear” and names on networks such as Twitter are not necessary.

Overall, it is  good practice to keep to a formal form of address until your correspondent indicates that it is acceptable to use first names by signing off a letter or email with their first name only or by inviting you to use their first name when meeting or speaking in person. When sending a business email, it is important to use British English, as opposed to American or US English. Similarly, you are encouraged to use the same format of the person’s name as they have signed in their email.

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