Etiquette in British Culture – Remember these 5 points
Every culture has an unwritten code of conduct that governs how people behave. An important part of working in a new country is learning these unwritten rules, and putting them into practice through your interactions with others. Although we can get the gist how to behave through trial and error, knowing these rules of British culture beforehand gives us an added advantage, and can avoid unnecessary awkward moments!
Below are 5 points of etiquette to remember while working or doing business in Britain.
Don’t make a fuss
One of the most important features of British culture is an aversion to “fuss” – a term for needlessly expressing emotions, and causing a commotion. It is this hatred of fuss that lies behind the famous British stiff-upper lip and politeness; these are both techniques for keeping fuss to minimum. Bragging, being loud, or getting emotional in stressful moments all count as “making a fuss”, and so may annoy your British colleagues. Avoiding fuss doesn’t mean you need to cover-up matters of genuine concern or dodge conflict however, it just requires that subtlety and tact are used as far as possible.
Respect personal space
Personal space is one of the most physically obvious ways in which cultural norms are expressed. Someone standing too far away can seem “weird” and unfriendly, too close can come across as intimidating. Across Europe, there is a personal space “gradient”; broadly speaking, the further north you go, the further people tend to stand away from one another. Like other Northern European countries, personal space is very highly respected in British culture. A firm handshake is the normal greeting in a professional context – any physical contact beyond this is inappropriate – and people tend to stand at around 2-3 feet from one another when engaged in conversation.
Talk about the weather
It’s a cliché, but it’s true – British people do talk a lot about the weather! But this does not reflect some deep-seated passion or anxiety; after all, the climate in Britain is pretty mild. Rather, talking about the weather is simply a convenient neutral topic, unlikely to cause offence, that the British use to express a willingness to speak to someone else. Asking “Lovely day, isn’t it?” or “Terrible rain, this, hey?” is code for “I’m happy to talk to you!”, while responding “Oh yes, absolutely!” is code for “I’m happy to talk to you too!” For this reason, you should be careful about how you respond to this seemingly innocuous question. If you vocally disagree with someone about the weather – a break in the established formula – that may be construed as rudeness. But if you use the formula correctly, it can be a quick and easy way to demonstrate friendliness to your coworkers.
British people highly value punctuality in the workplace, and it is expected that if you commit to meeting someone at a certain time, that you will meet them at that time. If you are running late due to unforeseeable circumstances beyond your control, it is polite to let the person you are meeting know.
Say you’re sorry
“Sorry” is a little word that does a lot of work; it’s frequently used in crowded environments when you unavoidably need to squeeze past or bump into other people, as a way of excusing the slight offence of violating other people’s personal space – very useful on a crowded morning commute. It’s also used as a synonym for “Can you repeat that?” or for other small mistakes. For more formal apologies, “sorry” should be qualified (“I’m so sorry”), otherwise it can sound sarcastic.