The golden rules of British politeness in the workplace
“Hi, terribly sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you would mind just quickly sending me the document we were talking about earlier?” Even though this might be a little exaggerated, British people certainly have a tendency to express themselves in a very polite manner. When working and living in the UK as a foreigner, the way the British express themselves can instil a whole range of feelings, be it a very cosy feeling because you are being treated so kind-heartedly or a feeling of amusement about the seemingly exaggerated forms of politeness. You might also feel confused because you don’t know if their request is urgent or just a gentle reminder.
If you want to prepare for a very British form of politeness it can be helpful to understand what drives these unwritten rules.
Nobody enjoys feeling embarrassed or awkward. The British, however, seem to have developed an especially strong aversion. British people tend to do a lot to make sure others feel comfortable and ensure they save face. This might result in phrases like “Oh, don’t worry, that was entirely my fault!”, even if we all know it wasn’t.
The amount of caution and understatement that Brits sometimes use can come across as very reserved at times. This convention of not ‘rocking the boat’ is to avoid causing offence or to help keep up the team spirit at work. To a foreigner the phrase “Hmm...interesting idea” will probably sound like your British colleague likes your idea. In fact, they may well have meant “I’m not at all sure about this idea”. They will most likely use an indirect approach which can easily be misunderstood if you don’t know how to read between the lines.
Making others feel important
Many Brits value modesty and prefer not to ‘blow their own trumpet’. Instead they prefer to give the floor to their counterparts to make them feel heard and let them shine. It could make them feel incredibly rude to rush ahead in a conversation and not leave the stage to their counterpart. The answer to a question about how, for example, their food was could simply be a short “Very good.” From there on, they might want to direct the conversation to the other person. However, to someone from abroad this can come across as reserved or unfriendly.
Bearing all this in mind, remember that if you are working in the UK, it will be important to:
Read between the lines
Often the British prefer an indirect communication style. Be careful about taking things at face value and try and notice what is not being said as well as the words they use.
Observe body language and facial expressions
To be surer on how you should interpret certain behaviours or expressions, take a closer look at people’s body language and facial expressions. If you feel like the message is not clear don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
Be aware that getting to know a new culture and all that comes with it takes time. Be patient, because even when you think you understand the cultural norms you won’t always be able to read behind the politeness and understand the real intention.
You can also develop behaviours that will help you to integrate into your British workplace as easily as possible:
- Say sorry
This doesn’t only apply to the workplace of course. It could be on the bus, in the street, in shops or with your neighbours – you will notice that the little word “sorry” is used very often. Even if you are the one bumping into someone, they will still say sorry. Before you know it, you will find yourself using it very often as well!
- Say please and thank you
This may sound like your parent’s advice but don’t underestimate the power of these two words. Being grateful for what people do for you is key. Not only in the UK, of course, but here it is really crucial.
- Be punctual
Keeping someone waiting or being late for a meeting is regarded as rude and impolite in Britain. The Brits value punctuality so try to add this aspect of British politeness into your new repertoire of behaviours.
It maybe is the stereotype we all know about the UK and adopting it as a foreigner will go a long way. Be it at your lunch break at the buffet or when boarding the bus – the Brits like queuing. This comes from a sense of fair play and justice. Jumping the queue is a cardinal sin!
- Don’t get too personal right away
Wait until you know a colleague a little better before asking them questions about their personal life. Avoid asking questions about their relationship status, their age and especially their salary. If you do, you may notice your British colleague avoiding the topic. Discretion is key. So, let conversations be organic and build up trust first.
This will help you get the most out of working for a British company. Just remember that it will take some time. But as long as you observe your new colleagues and friends, you will learn how to apply the right amount of politeness in your everyday life.
And then the day will come when you catch yourself replying to your colleague: “Oh, no, honestly, my fault! I’m so sorry I forgot to send the document. I’ll send it right now. Thank you!”
Sophia was born and raised in Cologne, Germany. She is completing her degree in Multilingual Communication at the University of Applied Sciences Cologne. Sophia has previously worked for several radio stations in Germany and decided to move to London and work for LSIC to broaden her horizons.
Working with the British
- Are you relocating to Britain or working with British colleagues and partners? Develop the knowledge, awareness and skills to build effective relationships through our tailor-made training and coaching.
British culture quiz
- How much do you know about Britain and British culture? Test your knowledge in our interactive quiz!