Working with The English: Three Things You Need to Know

Most people underestimate the difficulty of working with English people. Americans are often misled by the similarities to assume that it is going to be easy. Neighbo(u)rs in mainland Europe are likewise fooled by the proximity; if someone is so close how can they be so different, they ask.  But in fact there are some significant yet non-obvious differences in English culture that can easily derail your attempts to do business with English people.

You are not going to master the entire culture of a nation after reading a single article, but there are three key concepts that tend to cause the most problems. In workshops and coaching on this subject they are the most frequent sources of misunderstanding I have encountered over the years.

INDIRECT COMMUNICATION. One of the most difficult facets of English culture for outsiders to understand is the reliance on indirect communication. Some people take pride in their plain and direct speech, saying what they mean and meaning what they say. This is not mainstream in English culture, where most of the time all you will get are delicate hints.  Your English colleague might remark that a proposal is "interesting", meaning that they believe it is complete nonsense, or they might say that it is "one way to do it", meaning the worst idea they have ever heard. 

CONFRONTATION AVOIDANCE. Less challenging, perhaps, but more insidious is the unwritten rule that you should avoid open confrontation. When someone says something, even if it is wrong it would be impolite to contradict that directly. You might ask if they are sure, say "Oh really" with a question mark face or just raise an eyebrow. To openly disagree would at best make everyone feel uncomfortable and can also be interpreted as a provocation. Because of this you might miss a key message from an English colleague. But, more dangerously, your English friends are always searching through what you say to try to find meanings that you perhaps did not intend. 

HIDDEN EMOTIONS. Raising eyebrows is a typically English gesture because it is so understated. You are allowed to have emotions in England but you are not supposed to show them. You will often hear people talking about a "stiff upper lip", the capacity to maintain a neutral expression even through your world is collapsing around you. Manifest displays of emotion like raising your voice or waving your arms in the air will just cause embarrassment and undermine your credibility. But you are allowed to show your emotions through smaller, controlled gestures like the infamous raised eyebrow. This means that you perhaps need to keep your own emotions under control but at the same time be alert for small signs like raised eyebrows in other people. Sometimes that is the only answer you will get but it is also the most valuable.

These are the three most important things you need to know about English culture, but this is only the beginning. If you would like to learn more then the best place to start is to read anthropologist Kate Fox's wonderful book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.

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