Mind the gap: exploring British cultural approaches

culture cuppa british cultural approaches

Communication is a hot topic right now, especially in many countries including the UK, where we are in lockdown 2.0 & need to work effectively virtually. How do we communicate? What is the best way to connect? How do we make our messages clear & still build relationships, rapport & team spirit for people based in separate locations?

For international teams this has always been the challenge. People based in different countries, communicating via email, telephone or video conferencing, and only getting together occasionally, but wasting quite a bit of time travelling & being efficient.

You are probably aware that we all have our own particular style of communication. Our preferred way to get in touch with other people, writing or calling, with video or just audio, short or long interactions.

But have you ever stopped to think about how your home culture might be influencing how you communicate?

The culture we grow up in has a great effect on how we see the world, even if we can’t see it clearly for ourselves. We communicate & use language in different ways, it’s not just a case of translating word for word.

Understanding what drives others’ communication is critical if you want to avoid misunderstandings, interact successfully & reach a good result in your communication. Particularly important if that communication is business-critical such as a pitch or client meeting, or when experiencing challenges that need resolving.

So, what are the factors which vary between cultures when thinking about communication approaches? Are you clear on what your natural preferences are, influenced by your own culture? If you are working with British teams, do you have the insight into their usual preferences, so you can communicate & connect effectively?

Explore some key factors here in this introduction & learn how to build cultural bridges to your British teams:

  1. Choice of platform to communicate: some cultures have a natural preference to write lots of emails & that’s the key way to share information, whether one to one or one to many. The British are quite well known for their volume of emails, which are usually short & to the point, while other cultures prefer voice or visual interaction, such as phone or online meetings, to connect & make sure the communication is clear.
  1. Greetings & making small talk: you may already be aware that the way to open conversations can vary greatly between cultures. IRL (in real life) it is important for some to make physical contact (hand shakes, kisses on cheeks, hugs) such as in southern Europe, for others the greeting is a gesture of respect & is more physically distant (for example bowing to each other in Japan), while there is a third group which shows some emotion but little physical contact (smiles, which you can expect in the UK). In online meetings people sometimes forget how important small talk still is & that it definitely should not be left out, just because the interaction is online. In the UK expect 5-10 minutes small talk at the start of the meeting & bear in mind that some small talk, no matter how brief, is still important at the end of the meeting to maintain the connection.
  1. Talking about your personal life: for some cultures it is really important to share with colleagues details of your family, leisure time, personal ups & downs, as well as future plans. Other cultures prefer a clear line dividing work & private life. The British are somewhere in between. Generally British people can come across as quite private to start with, even hard to get to know & you may only learn superficial details initially about their family & personal time, but get them down to the pub (IRL: in real life) & you notice that they become more open about who they are & what they think.
  1. Formality & Structure: are you conscious that formality & structure in meetings can dial up & down depending on the culture? Even in virtual meetings there can be expectations about who leads the meeting, the agenda & whether AOB (any other business) can be included. For other cultures, it’s more important to have the flexibility to explore what comes up as the discussion develops & anybody can jump in at any point with their view, even if this means interrupting somebody else. Generally, meetings are quite informal in the UK with some limited structure, maybe a few bullet points on an email as an agenda & somebody allocated to lead the conversation. However, I find meetings are usually more structured online to prevent confusion & people talking over each other.
  1. Rational vs. Emotional arguments in presenting: what wins in persuasion in your culture when presenting your ideas? Is it better to present the data & facts, logically presenting the reasons, or is it better to talk from the heart, with emotion & passion about why your audience should buy your ideas? Depending on the context, usually you can expect British individuals to be more rational in their persuasion style, presenting a recommendation first, backed up with principles, data & logic.
  1. Expressing your opinion: Is it OK in your culture to say directly & openly what you think, even if it’s a negative opinion? Or is better to express criticism in softer language, with a focus on wrapping up negative points in positive messages, so your feedback will not damage the relationship? Can you express negative views openly to somebody in front of the team, or it better to do this in a one to one situation? You may find the British tend to soften negative feedback, use vague language & avoid saying ‘no’ directly, as the criticism of another person’s idea can feel personal. This is particularly true in face to face or online meeting situations. Feedback may be delayed & given in writing after the meeting to avoid confrontation.
  1. Body Language & Personal space: You might notice this particularly varies between cultures, for example how closely somebody stands to you, whether they reach out to touch your arm for emphasis while they talk, how strong their eye contact is, how expressive their face is, or whether they use certain gestures to layer meaning to their words. The British like some personal space, avoid touching each other, smile & nod frequently to indicate listening (but that doesn’t necessarily mean they agree!) & use some limited hand gestures to add emphasis. Although personal space is not so relevant currently for online meetings, body language is even more important to support the communication of the key messages.
  1. Voice: this includes a wide range of dimensions including speed of speech, volume (loud or soft voice), how frequently a speaker pauses & pitch variance (making you voice go higher or lower for emphasis). I’m sure you can imagine some cultures naturally speak with a more measured, regular rhythm & pitch which can sound rational & logical to their ears, but monotone & unemotional to others. The British generally speak at a balanced pace, not too fast or slow, are aware of not speaking too loudly in public, and use their voice to add emphasis & meaning by adjusting volume & pitch to create a variance in intonation. One place people usually notice this aspect of culture IRL (in real life) is on public transport: the British usually speak quietly to each other on the tube or bus & don’t like to draw attention by speaking at high volume.


So, I hope you found this introduction to cultural factors impacting communication insightful & British preferences useful for thinking about your interactions & communication style with your British teams. What have you learnt about your own personal preferences? What will you approach differently now, especially in online interactions? I would love to know, so do feel free to drop me a line back with your comments: Victoria@perfectcuppaenglish.co.uk.

Want to learn more about how I can help you or your team communicate & connect well with your British contacts & teams? Set up time with me for a virtual cuppa & let’s talk about British cultural training.

You might also like reading:

Language & Communication in Online Meetings

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