A rough guide to dealing with Brits in the workplace

Posted on 9 May 2014 by attica_writing

Many of life’s great questions continue to baffle us. Are we alone in the universe? What happens when we die? Why is Kim Kardashian famous? But perhaps the greatest enduring enigma is how to deal with the British.

Communication in the workplace, whether written or verbal, is a tricky business. Things aren’t getting any easier due to an increasingly globalised world and the diverse cultural nuances that come together in the modern office.

I should set out my disclaimer to appease the more sensitive readers. In this post, I will deal in stereotypes. These are not universal truths but somewhat useful generalisations and, at the very least, occasionally amusing.

My own experience at London Business School highlighted just how hard it can be for other cultures to understand the British.

Of the 400 MBA students in my cohort, less than 10% were Brits and over 60 different nationalities were represented. The benefits of such a culturally diverse student body were immense, but it was sometimes a bumpy ride as different nationalities attempted to work together. Chief amongst the trouble makers were of course the British.

The Brits tend to lace their conversations with colloquialisms and obscure cultural references. In one session, we were brainstorming start-up ideas. Trying to be funny and motivate the group, I dropped in Del Boy’s ‘This time next year we’ll be millionaires’. I was confronted with a room of blank faces and a bemused silence; someone helpfully pointed out that there were still 18 months left of our course.

Assuming you successfully navigate the British sense of humour and references to ’80s sitcoms, how do you begin to understand the British psyche?

To start, you have to consider the factors that have helped shape it. These include our rich history, our obsession with class, our dreary weather and our preoccupation with etiquette, to name only a few.

So what advice can I offer those who struggle to deal with the British, particularly in the workplace? Here are three things to keep in mind:
1.  Read between the lines
We are not fond of saying what we really mean. As such, we have developed a code to circumvent any necessity to be blunt (or as we would see it, rude). An amusing and helpful summary can be found here:
2.  Appreciate that we aren’t as miserable as we seem
There is passion and excitement in there somewhere – we just struggle to let it out. Don’t wait for the animated celebration, the empathetic hug or even the congratulatory ‘high five’. You might be waiting a while.
3. Have a heart
We are a nation that is struggling to find our place in the new world, a world we once presided over as the British Empire. Now we are an island of declining influence that can’t figure out whether to look east to Europe, west to Uncle Sam or to forge our own increasingly irrelevant path. We can’t figure ourselves out at the moment, so don’t feel bad if you have trouble too.

Whilst there may be truth in stereotypes, they are becoming increasingly redundant.

Our networked world has brought us all together, and there is an emerging generation of ‘global citizens’ spread across the major cities of industrialised countries and beyond. These people have been educated in multiple countries; they have travelled extensively; they speak a range of languages. Their cultural influences are more likely to be informed by Netflix, the Economist and Twitter, than by whatever nation they were born into.

Perhaps this is progress. Or perhaps we are all converging to create a bland, sanitised and beige future. Conceivably the next great enigma will be how on earth do we all communicate?

Let’s hope that somehow we retain and celebrate our funny little cultural nuances. And we British can do our part. Otherwise it’s just not cricket, is it?

About the author

James Osbaldeston, Founder of Celebdex
James is the founder of Celebdex, providing consumer perception data and analysis for brand marketers to facilitate celebrity endorsement campaigns.

He has an MBA from London Business School and formerly worked as a strategy consultant at JRBH Strategy & Management (now Board Intelligence).
If you would like to write for the Attica blog, please email us at info@atticawriting.com.