Doing business in Britain: Essential etiquette tips

Doing business in Britain: Essential etiquette tips

For Canadians, doing business in Britain will be affected by the country’s period of transition as the U.K. leaves the European Union. Canadian Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne has, however, said Canada is in informal talks with the U.K. ahead of Brexit, even though the U.K. is barred from direct bilateral trade negotiations as long as it remains a member of the EU.

Olga VovkOlga Vovk
Senior Regional Manager,
U.K. and Western Europe

But that won’t stop Canadian exporters from seeking opportunities in the U.K. so, to that end, we offer a primer on what you need to know to navigate the U.K. like a pro, thanks to Olga Vovk, senior regional manager at Export Development Canada’s offices in London. She welcomed the opportunity to talk about something other than Brexit.

1. Master U.K. subtlety and understatement: “In terms of communication, messages may be conveyed in a more subtle way than you’ll find in Canada,” Vovk said. “I find Canadians much more direct in emails and face-to-face communication. It wouldn’t hurt to understand those subtle differences.”

For example, she said, if you ask a Briton how the meeting went, and they say “it was hardly ideal,” they probably, in fact, mean it was a complete disaster. If they say “it was not too bad,” they might mean it was actually pretty good.

“There are a lot of understatements and subtleties,” Vovk said. “It helps to keep this in mind if you’re negotiating.”

2. Know your geography: When dealing with different parts of the U.K., it’s essential not to use the word England as a blanket term to describe the whole country. If you’re in Scotland, call it Scotland; if you’re in Wales, call it Wales. Calling someone British is okay, but it’s preferable to call a person Scottish if they’re from Scotland, and Welsh if they’re from Wales. Whatever you do, don’t call those folks “English.”

3. Keep the small-talk circumspect: Britons will ask questions in indirect ways. For example, if they want to know where you live, they might ask if you have travelled to the meeting from far away. In New York, you might end up talking about how much money you make, but that would never happen in the U.K. Keep that information to yourself. Britons generally guard their privacy. Small talk about the weather, however, is as much a British pastime as it is a Canadian one. There’s a saying about British small-talk, which states their main topics are: “Sunshine, rain and complaining about the train.”

4. What to wear: Dress code is important, Vovk said. “In Canada, even on Bay Street, you see men in blue suits wearing brown shoes all the time. In the City of London, it’s a sartorial faux-pas. Same goes for loud ties.” Women have more latitude, of course. Dresses are very common in the business environment. Further on the dress code issue, it wouldn’t hurt to be mindful of the differences between British and Canadian English. “Trousers” is a better word for what is referred to as “pants” in Canada, to avoid being mistaken for talking about underwear.

5. Mind the clock: Britons are generally punctual, but those in bigger cities are patient about transportation slowing you down. They’ll accept the news of your lateness best if you send a note as soon as you realize you’ll be late.

6. Healthy respect for privacy: “Live and let live is a prevalent attitude and that goes hand in hand with a healthy respect for personal space and privacy,” Vovk said.

7. Getting wired: You’ll find Wifi in the usual spots — public institutions will often have it, as do Starbucks and other chain coffee shops. The Tube trains also started introducing Wifi, but the service can be spotty, Vovk said, and added that you can buy widely available hotspot services on a daily basis.

8. Business cards are essential: In Canada, quite often, business cards have just the area code and phone number. In the U.K., everyone uses a country code because if you’re dealing internationally, one needs to know the country code to dial. Canadians would use +1 before adding the rest of the phone number.

Categories Editor's Pick, Exporting

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