Did you know about business culture in the UK? Watch this video animation to find out some interesting facts.
Business culture in the UK is characterised by business communication, business etiquette, business meeting etiquette, internship and student placements, cost of living, work-life-balance and social media guide.
The acronym UK is the abbreviated form of “United Kingdom” or officially the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. The UK is made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and is a member of the European Union (EU). The term UK is often confused with “Britain” or “Great Britain”, which actually refer to England, Scotland and Wales without Northern Ireland. To add to the confusion, citizens of the UK are called British.
The UK is located in the north-western part of Europe and covers an area of 243,610 km2 (94,060 mi2). The home nations (England, Wales and Scotland) and the north-eastern part of Ireland (Northern Ireland) are based on the two large islands of Great Britain. The only land border that the UK shares with Europe is in Ireland, where Northern Ireland shares a border with the Republic of Ireland also known as Eire. The UK is surrounded by water, the English Channels to the south, the Irish Sea to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the northwest and the North Sea to the East.
London is the unofficial capital of the UK, and is also the country’s largest city, in terms of population, and one of the most influential centres in world politics, finance and culture. London however, is the official capital of England, in Scotland the capital is Edinburgh, in Wales it is Cardiff and in Northern Ireland it is Belfast.
The 2011 UK census estimated the population of the UK to be over 63 million people and this has grown to 68.5 million since then.
There are two official languages in the UK, English and Welsh. However, over 90% of the population speak English and for the most part Welsh is only spoken in Wales. Other languages and regional dialects exist; for example, Gaelic is spoken in some parts of Scotland, although it is not an official language.
The UK can be described as a multi-faith society, although a majority of 59% classed themselves as Christian (down from 71% a decade earlier). The second most prevalent religion is Muslim which is practised by approximately 5% of the population.
The UK is in the Western European Time Zone and observes Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) (CET – 1) during the winter months and British Summer Time (BST) from March to October, to accommodate Daylight Saving Time (DST).
All four seasons are experienced throughout the UK, although the climate and temperatures vary according to region. Winters are usually damp and cold, especially in Scotland, with lots of snow particularly in the mountainous areas of the North. Summers are moderately warm and wet. Being an island, rain is a persistent feature for the majority of the country with the North West being the wettest and the South East tending to be the driest.
For further information, please see below:
- General information:
- The British Council http://www.britishcouncil.org/ [en]
- BBC Facts about the UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18023389 [en]
- Political and Economic environment
- The official site of the Prime Minister’s office http://www.number10.gov.uk/ [en]
- The Economist: http://www.economist.com/topics/united-kingdom [en]
- European Union: http://europa.eu/about-eu/countries/member-countries/unitedkingdom/index_en.htm [de] [en] [bg] [cs] [da] [et] [el] [es] [fr] [ga] [it] [lv] [lt] [hu] [mt] [nl] [pl] [pt] [ro] [sk] [sl] [fi] [sv]
- Statistical data
- 2011 UK censuses: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/census/2011/uk-census/index.html
- Datasets available from all central government departments and a number of other public sector bodies and local authorities http://data.gov.uk/ [en]
Xenophobia: being a foreigner in the UK
First of all, people in the UK do not like to be embarrassed. In many cases, they simply fear they may say something that the other party finds offensive or which results in a misunderstanding. They reason therefore, that the best way to avoid this uncertainty is not to start a conversation at all. Foreigners often find conversations in the UK to be shorter and about general topics such as the weather, which is always popular and often used as an “icebreaker”.
Privacy and personal space
The people of the UK value their privacy highly. Although they may appear to be very open in public, the implicit message permeating the culture is ‘please do not interfere with my personal space’. Although the UK is multi-cultural, this privacy requirement forces many people to be rather wary of making new friends. If a foreigner really wants to adapt to British culture and make some valuable connections, they need to be patient and realise that creating such friendships may take longer than anticipated. The high value put on personal space is also visible in everyday life, as when people will avoid sitting next to someone else on a bus or apologise if they touch someone accidentally.
Foreign business partners may find that their UK counterparts may even be too polite. People in the UK do not normally criticise or openly complain in public; or even provide negative feedback, when asked for their honest opinion, irrespective of whether or not such comments are warranted. It is therefore essential to read between the lines and seek out the honest opinions of relevant parties. Similarly, foreign business partners need to ensure that they are sending a clear message, so that there is no room for assumptions and no hidden meanings that could be misinterpreted. The British also value politeness and courtesy and, as a matter of course, will express a significant amount of respect when interacting in a business situation, either out of sincerity or simply because they are adhering to cultural norms.
Generally, it is probably impossible to develop a thorough understanding of British culture during a short business trip. In order to develop a valuable business relationship with your UK counterparts, you should take a long-term approach, respect their values of privacy and politeness, and look for shared interests.
International business in the UK
This section examines the general business environment of the UK. The first section will focus on the attitudes and values of the people. The second section will concentrate on the education system, training and placements in the UK, with particular emphasis on business-related matters.
Education is of a very high standard in the United Kingdom, where the majority (74% of adults aged 25-64) have achieved the equivalent of a high-school diploma. A significant proportion of the population go on to acquire a university education, where a typical undergraduate degree can be attained in three years, in contrast to most other European countries where undergraduate study normally lasts for five years. An undergraduate degree also known as a Bachelor’s degree may be undertaken in any subject, primarily within the schools of Art (BA) or Science (BSc), and is the pre-requisite for entry onto a Master’s degree program. A Master’s degree can normally be completed in twelve months (full time) or two years (part-time) and is usually necessary for acceptance onto a doctoral program or PhD. A Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA) is often a stepping stone for professionals who wish to advance into a management role within their respective company or industry.
Generally, undergraduate degrees are seen as a basic entry qualification to a career and many business professionals seem to put greater emphasis on the status acquired through experience rather than academic achievements. This is even more evident amongst the more senior staff of an organisation. Therefore, the use of academic titles is uncommon in signatures or on business cards. Very often this is in contrast to the practice in many other European countries where to gain a respected professional status, success needs to be based on a solid academic background.
With respect to computer literacy, it is possible to conclude that the younger your colleagues are, the greater the chances of them being proficient and experienced, although there are exceptions.
For further information, please see below:
- UK Education System: http://uk.internationalstudent.com/study_uk/education_system/ [en]
- Education System in the UK: http://www.kaplaninternational.com/resources/education-system/uk-guide.aspx [en] [cz] [de] [es] [fr] [it] [pl] [tr]
- High School equivalent comparison http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_school [en]
The UK’s Higher Education System is one of the most developed in the world with some of the leading universities educating business leaders in Business and Management Schools. Due to the highly developed private school education system, comparisons between schools are usually made, especially as to whether someone went to a private or public school (fee paying) or a State school (free of charge). These decisions are made by parents, and in the majority of cases are based on financial factors (private education in elite schools such as Eton, Harrow and Marlborough is very expensive), and often shape the destiny of their pupils. Overall, quality indicators of the educational system, in reading literacy, maths and science, as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), are currently slightly above the OECD average.
OECD Better Life Index: United Kingdom: http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/united-kingdom/
Other issues such as transport infrastructure
For the success of your business endeavours, it is essential to use the correct terminology when referring to the national identity of your counterparts. It is advisable to call people coming from Scotland “Scottish” (not ‘Scotch’ which should only be used when referring to whisky), those from Ireland “Irish”, those from Northern-Ireland “Northern Irish” and those born in Wales “Welsh”. Calling some members of these nationalities “English” may produce surprise or resentment.
Travelling By Public Transport
Major cities in the UK have an integrated transport system combining a rail network, tram or metro system with buses and taxis. Outlying and rural areas are predominantly served by bus services, where frequency and reliability often depend on the profitability of an individual route.
Travelling By Train
The UK has a comprehensive national rail network, which is privatised and different routes are operated by a number of private companies. It is normal for tickets for intercity routes to be purchased in advance for specific journey times, often with reserved seating. Tickets for short journeys using a regional network are typically purchased as Day Returns at the time of travel and are available from machines or ticket offices at the departure station or from a conductor on board the train.
For details and latest train routes and timetables contact National Rail Enquiries: http://nationalrail.co.uk [en]
To purchase tickets online:
Travelling by Taxi
The traditional British taxi is also referred to as a hackney carriage, London Taxi or Black Cab. These are different from private hire vehicles, also referred to as minicabs or private hire, which are licensed to carry people. Hackney carriages have special dispensation to be able to be hailed on the street or hired from a taxi rank. However, minicabs may not be hailed on the street and some can only be used if pre-booked. A tip of 10% is normally given on top of the fare.
To find a cab service that serves an area near a certain train station:
Travelling By Car
The UK is a densely populated country with a road network of varying quality and capacity. Unlike most other European countries, people drive on the left hand side of the road in the UK. This is not a problem if you are arriving from mainland Europe and intending to hire a car, but it is something to be aware of as it may cause confusion, especially in rural areas or where roads are unmarked. There are a few toll roads and bridges and congestion zones in Central London and Durham that foreign drivers should be aware of, but most roads are free of charge.
Seat belts must be worn all the time whilst driving and also by all passengers both front and back. You can legally use hands-free phones, satellite navigation systems and 2-way radios when you are driving. However, if the police consider that you might be distracted and not in control of your vehicle whilst operating these tools beware – you could still be stopped and fined.
The UK has very strict alcohol limits for drivers, it is advised especially if you are driving in a foreign country to not drink and drive since the penalties are severe.
For further information:
Travelling By Plane
As a global centre for international trade, the UK has a number of international airports. Major cities such as London have several airports and all have excellent bus or train connections to local and regional transport networks.
The Airport Guides:
Although the United Kingdom has a generally open culture, there are some behaviours and topics that are best avoided, particularly at the beginning of a relationship.
Behaviours to avoid:
- greeting strangers with a kiss
- gestures such as backslapping and hugging strangers
- spiting in public
- asking personal or intimate questions such as “How much money do you earn?” or “Why did you divorce?”
Discussion topics to avoid
- The historical conflict in Northern Ireland
- Religion (especially if you are in Northern Ireland, Glasgow or Liverpool)
- The monarchy and the Royal Family
- Partisan politics
- The European Union, ‘Brussels’ and the Euro
- The Middle East
- Personal questions about a person’s background, religion, occupation.
- Class and the class system
- Race and immigration
- Appearance or weight
- Money (“How much do you earn?”)
- Criticism or complaints in general
You should also be aware that many of these questions are regulated in the business environment under various employment and equality laws that are designed to prevent discrimination in the workplace.
Focus on Brexit
On the occasion of the referendum of June 23rd 2016, the United Kingdom voted in favour of leaving the European Union at 51.9% of the vote.
On 29 March 2017, in writing to European Council President Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister formally triggered Article 50 and began the two-year countdown to the UK formally leaving the EU (commonly known as ‘Brexit’).
The European Council agreed to respond to the request made by the UK Government for an extension of negotiations regarding the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, originally scheduled for 29th March 2019. United Kingdom ‘brexited’ from the EU on the 31st January 2020. When the withdrawal agreement was ratified, European Union law ceased to apply in the United Kingdom.
Do you want to learn more about business culture in the UK?
- Business communication
- Business etiquette
- Business meeting etiquette
- Internship and student placements
- Cost of living
- Social media guide
- Arts in London