Doing business in England can be a disconcerting affair.
Aside from the obvious and much-publicized cultural differences, American executives doing business in the British Isles are placed in the peculiar position of speaking a common language but meaning things that are entirely different from the British interpretation.
Say you want to “table” a meeting. A British executive will think you want to begin the discussion, rather than postpone it. Bringing your “English” English up to speed before doing business there can save you many misunderstandings.
Dress as conservatively as you can. A suit is always appropriate. Men should wear laced shoes, not loafers. Wear shirts with no pockets. If you must have pockets, make sure they are empty. Avoid striped ties; many British regimental ties are striped, and yours may look like an imitation.
Make it a point to be punctual — the English are very particular about time keeping. To be late is considered inconsiderate and discourteous. In larger cities like London, traffic can crawl at snails pace so leave yourself plenty of time to get to your appointments. If a delay is unavoidable, be sure to call and inform your associate that you will be late, and remember to ask whether this is convenient.
Greet your business associate with a firm handshake; this is acceptable for both business and social occasions. If your associate is a woman, wait for her to extend her hand first. Women do not necessarily shake hands.
Business lunches are usually conducted in a pub — the meal itself will be light. Senior executives, however, typically dine at the finest restaurants or in the company’s executive dining room. Dinner is from 7 to 11 p.m. in most restaurants. When you socialize with your associates, do not bring up the topic of work unless they do; you will be considered a bore. If you are their guest, you must initiate your departure — your hosts will not indicate that they wish the evening to come to an end.
Do not carry gifts with you; they are not part of doing business in England. Instead of gifts, invite your hosts out for a meal or a show. Anything else is considered inappropriate.
Finally, remember that decision-making is slower in England than in the United States. Don’t try and rush your prospects into making a decision — chances are they will be offended and turn your proposal down.