Think local: a guide to British business etiquette

Financial Times

FEBRUARY 19, 2020

To kiss or not to kiss? London is a global city but it still has its own rules on how to meet, greet, drink and dress

Brits are said to be polite yet unfriendly. We are happy to report that this, for the most part, remains true. Increasingly, though, they are shedding their reputation for “Le fair-play britannique”. Perhaps it is the Americanisation of business culture. Or maybe this reputation was never justified in the first place.

It is easy to be sucked into thinking a globalised culture exists. And then Taylor Swift releases “London Boy”, her song in which she (an American) reveals that actually, despite having an English boyfriend and visiting the UK capital multiple times, outsiders don’t quite get the nuances. So allow us to prevent you from making any grievous errors of etiquette.

Greetings

There is something rather glorious about watching an unprepared Brit negotiate a cosmopolitan cheek-kiss at the start of a business encounter.

A few outliers embrace it enthusiastically, some venturing a double-kiss — after all, London is supposed to be the sixth-biggest French city. While the traditional British stiff upper lip might have softened, it is still (thankfully) not quite poised to purse in a business context. Brits will comply with the greeting, some may accidentally bump noses, their cheeks reddening.

On the whole, it is far better to proffer a hand to be shaken than a cheek to be kissed. If you really are desperate to impose a kiss on a Brit, make sure you treat men and women the same.

Meetings

Brits aim to start meetings promptly, though inevitably they will let them spill over the end-time. This will make you late for your next meeting, particularly if you then insist on taking a taxi rather than the tube, London’s underground railway.

(Pro tip: above ground, gridlock; below ground, speed and relative efficiency, though the tube is deceptively polluted. And don’t rule out walking, which can be quickest of all in central London — but take an umbrella.)

No one will mind if you try to bring a meeting to a close, because there is one truism that transcends borders: everyone would rather be somewhere else than in a meeting.

Indeed, British business meetings have transatlanticised to the point that general practice varies little between London and New York. (And if it happens to be a transatlantic meeting, expect it to start between 1pm and 5pm so the US can be “patched in” — with the predictable technological confusion.)

As Britain’s cuisine has improved over the years so have its meeting snacks. Biscuits are on the way out, as part of wellness drives, though some companies still serve a full range of brownies, fruit and sweets. If you do want to tuck into the snack platters, make some self-effacing comment such as: “Might just help myself to another one.”

The old breed of British fat cats might have been replaced by gym bunnies, but The Great British Bake Off has created a wave of feeders in workplaces across the country — Brits will be sympathetic to snacking in meetings.

At meetings, there always lurks the threat of banter — or “bants”, defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a term used to justify hilarious yet completely inappropriate and unacceptably abusive behaviour between friends, usually males . . . typically used by British people, specifically the upper classes and teenagers”.

At worst, bants will trigger an intervention by human resources; at best, it will be funny but probably exclude most people in the room. Bants is a minefield foreign visitors should avoid.

Self-deprecation remains a characteristic of British discourse, though it is on the wane as people believe social media gives them licence to boast or humble-brag about their achievements.

Brits are generally less likely to big up their employers in public, and more likely to denigrate them in private when the boss isn’t listening.

Socialising

Despite a reputation for politeness, Brits are notoriously bad at inviting overseas guests out. They will not ask you round to brunch at their home on a Saturday, or organise a weekend of sightseeing. The only exception to this lack of social largesse is after work.

Formal evening events tend to last longer than in the US, for example. Expect to get out at 10pm at the earliest, possibly leaving British guests still bantering (qv) over wine and coffee. Gala dinners, especially those with interminable award presentations, can extend to 11pm or even, shock, 11.30pm.

Refusing a drink is no longer code for being an alcoholic, but alcohol is still Brits’ favourite social lubricant, even if it has largely disappeared from business lunches.

If you find yourself in the pub, be prepared to stump up for a “round”. For the uninitiated, that means buying everyone in your party — yes, everyone — a drink. If you don’t, or you leave before it’s your turn, stand by for some light-hearted but crushing jokes about your meanness.

If you don’t buy a round, stand by for some light-hearted but crushing jokes about your meanness

If there are 10 colleagues with you, the prospect of buying up to 11 drinks can be anxiety-inducing. Make a calculated switch early on to non-alcoholic drinks. There are far worse countries to be drunk in than Britain, but if you want to do business the next day it is best to restrain yourself.

Sport, particularly football (of the non-American variety), is still a favourite topic of conversation. The weather — it’s a cliché for good reason — will keep you going for a few minutes. But steer clear of Brexit to avoid the risk of the business relationship turning sour.

For an informal business get-together, breakfast is less common in London than, say, Manhattan. “Coffee” — morning or early afternoon — is the safe option. “Tea”, traditionally taken from 4pm, sounds quintessentially British but tends to fall into a dead zone as Brits race to finish their work before the rush-hour journey home.

Dress code

At daytime meetings, a suit and no tie is now the norm for men, though plenty carry an emergency tie, just in case, or are ready to shed neckwear if the majority are going tieless.

“Business casual” is meaningless, and tends to be covered by jacket and no tie for men. A dwindling number of London’s “gentlemen’s clubs” insist on a tie and by tradition carry a garish selection guests can borrow.

You are more likely, though, to be invited to one of the rash of “modern” private members’ clubs that have sprung up in the UK capital to milk the upwardly mobile executive of fees in exchange for overpriced access to spaces where they can work — a no-no in gentlemen’s clubs — and socialise.

For formal events, “black tie” is rarer and rarer, but means tuxedo and bow-tie for men. Even then, variants of “formal business attire” — ie, dark suit, plain (white) shirt, and tie — will usually be tolerated.

Women are cut more slack, but this often just causes paralysis at the array of options. A capsule dress for the day, jazzed up by a pair of earrings for evening events, could probably see them through most possibilities. “Black tie” means a slightly snazzier dress, though unless you are up for a Bafta (the British Oscars), don’t worry about packing a full-length evening gown.

The bottom line is: if in doubt, unless you are a tech billionaire or chief executive, dress smarter rather than more casual.

Correspondence

First names are fine unless you are addressing a titled individual, in which case, for safety, address them as “Sir Stanley” or “Dame Doris”. If they care that much about the title, they’ll smile smugly, if not, they will smile smugly and say “Stanley will do.”

Keep emails short and to the point. Don’t ask about the recipient’s day — it only breeds suspicion.

As everywhere else, text-speak has infiltrated British emails. “Hi” has replaced “Dear”, but the most noticeable change is the rise of the kiss (‘x’) sign-off’. Strictly speaking, kisses are only for your romantic partner. But in a business email they might be misconstrued or convey a cringe-inducing chumminess. Worse still is that once you’ve started you can’t stop. An omitted kiss will feel like a withdrawal of affection rather than a lapse of memory.