October 11, 2013
When some of us think of England, it is safe to say that among the things that pop into our minds are posh members of aristocracy who drink tea and sarcastically complain about the weather. It is enough to google “English stereotypes” to confirm that most of the world would enumerate the following – tea, royal family, fish n chips, Shakespeare, The Beatles and bad weather.
But how true are these images and how do they manifest at the office?
A tale of two countries
To begin with, I believe it is very important to separate London from the rest of the country. The capital city might be the most emblematic for England, but it is also the most non-English place of them all. In a way, London has become a country on its own, flocking together people from all backgrounds and all shades of skin colour. Statistically speaking, more than half of its 8.3 million population is foreign. I still remember how surprised I was to see I only had three English persons in my university class of 35. London is not like Paris or Vienna, it will not sink into sentimental history, nor will it be very clean. But London is where things happen.
And then you have the city-rest of London division. Should you take the central tube line to the east, you will enter a world of Gotham-like buildings, filled with bankers and other professions which make London the world’s biggest financial centre, next to New York. At lunch time, the streets and mini parks are packed with individuals dressed in grey or dark blue suits, running for sushi deals and a coffee top-up. This world contrasts deeply with the laid-backness of Brick Lane’s entrepreneurs or Camden’s alternative artists, drinking organic smoothies in their local cafes and sporting the biggest range of mustard-coloured trousers I have ever seen.
Of England and its people
Still, with all this variety of styles – and even accents – the English do seem to share a few traits. There is definitely a certain worldliness about them that few other nations have. The English can be very confident, pragmatic and geared towards finding solutions. Looking at history but also at present developments, England – or Britain as whole – has always been a pioneer in research and technology. After all, it is enough to look at how many things the English have given the world, to understand that innovation and the desire to outdo themselves is deeply ingrained in this nation’s mentality. Where would we be without industrialization, toothbrushes and the Spice Girls?
The English can also be very polite (when they are not drunk in a pub after working hours). For once, I have never heard so many “sorrys” in my life. Whether in rural Essex or in the buzzy crammed City trains, the English can be strangely apologetic for things that most people would not bother with. But while this may seem unnecessary for some, it can also be a good indicator of how much they value personal space. Coming from a country where I would always feel at least three people breathing on my neck on public transport, I found it refreshing to see the English keeping a decent distance. A warning though; at peak times trains tend to be really crowded and maintaining distance can be tricky. This is why it is all the more fascinating to observe the English doing a magnificent circus-like contortion to fit in the small compartments, while still managing to read their free paper and thus, successfully avoiding the much-maligned eye-contact.
One stereotype I truly want to dismantle though is the English adulation of the royal family. While some would still camp outside the Buckingham gates to see the future (lion) king baby being raised to the media and the adoring crowds, quite a big chunk of the English are very critical of royalty or – as some like to name it – undeserved privilege. But yes, from a touristic (and economic) point of view, the image of a posh couple who sips tea and shoots pheasants might seem very romantic and even sell well.
In the office and business meetings, one thing I personally noticed the English seemed good at is presenting. Besides the obvious advantage of speaking in their mother tongue, the English are used to presenting in front of people and sticking to the requirements. The key is simplicity – less slides, less minutes talking and give people a clear structure of what you plan to tell them. Oh, and careful about being asked “how are you?”. If you are preparing to actually say what you’ve been doing, stop. It is meant to be more of a “hello”. But do engage in small talk, that is a national sport. In this sense, weather is a great subject. From the 50 shades of gray and cloudy days to the always unexpected snow (which shuts down literally everything), the English are capable of never-ending meteorological evaluations.
The English do not criticise, or not openly anyway. Sometimes you might not even know what hit you. But do not believe this is (always) a matter of dealing with cunning individuals. Think of it as a well-rehearsed politeness. In the end, do we really want someone to shout at us in front of everybody, or do we want someone who can play down a mistake and maybe even offer some constructive criticism? Not that they are not perfectly capable of being straightforward – and even rude – when involved in a project, but think how badly the project must have gone in order for them to have such a reaction. The English are very professional and they expect nothing less of the others they are working with.
To avoid a serious meltdown, make sure you catch the polite (but actually quite negative) remarks they make in meetings or e-mails. These are clear signs they are getting anxious. It is definitely a matter of taste, but I personally love the English understatements. Nothing is ever a disaster, instead “things didn’t quite go according to plan” and your presentation is not “utter rubbish”, you just need to “keep up the work”. If you feel like criticizing, invest some energy in finding something – anything – positive and then insert a “but, we could instead…”
The same divide and passionate debate arises with mentioning Europe and the European Union. If you work with EU funds, it would be useful to know that the English have mixed feelings about being part of a large European family, holding hands and celebrating the differences we’ve left behind after the world war. Unlike on the continent, where there are arguably more people who embrace the cultural aspects of the EU, the English prove again to be very pragmatic and look at the EU as an economic union and market for British products…at best. Nevertheless, despite their moaning, the English are very active in the EU financial scheme and are also very professional when joining a consortium.
Do pay attention to conflicting views as to what a project results should be, though. If the discussed compromise is not to the taste of the English partners, there is, unfortunately, the possibility that they might look for ways to achieve what they want in other ways, possibly outside the consortium. If you want to avoid the situation in which partners go astray, make sure you establish from the very beginning what each objective is and who and in which way it will be dealt with.
In a way – and as a side note -, the attitude towards the EU can be related to the colonial past. As a former and present world power (together with the rest of UK, 6th in the world in terms of GDP), the English will be very much in tune with what is happening in the world, especially in places like America, the Middle East and Asia. Less so in Europe, or not as much as continentals would be. It would be very tempting to call them ignorant but what I have learned is that they simply know about other things. Should we really criticize them for something, it is their ambition not to speak any other language than their own.
With all the long list of bad traits and unpredictable weather, the balance sheet is still positive and rightly so. England is a mix of many things, caught between the European market and a special relationship with America. Some imagine tradition, some think of innovation. I believe England is one place where there is plenty of room for both. I personally think this comes from pragmatism – you work with what you’ve got and invent the rest that you need.
- The English can be very serious but also extremely fun to work with. Keep the balance by being professional and relaxed at the same time
- To break the ice, do small talk; preferably about the weather and world politics
- Despite being critical of the EU, they are among the top performers in attracting and utilizing its funds
- Do not criticize directly, focus on the good things to open up a discussion on the negative
- Make sure you pay attention to their subtle criticism; if unhappy, they might look for solutions outside the project
- Be ready to switch from milk tea to a couple of lager pints