Planning Politely: 7 Gaffes to Avoid When Working with Brits
One of the great joys of event planning is getting to work virtually anywhere in the world to make an event or meeting come to life, sometimes in just a matter of hours. One of my favorite cities to work in is London, not only because my French is lousy and my Italian worse, but also because our shared Anglo-American history makes logistics easier to manage. However, that’s not to say that the Brits and Americans are culturally the same—not by a long-shot. There are a number of subtle but critical behavioral differences that can catch US-bred planners off-guard and create problems that can impact a British event’s success. So, how not to cause an international incident the next time business takes you to the UK? Follow the advice of our UK colleagues and they’ll be singing your praises, quietly of course:
1) Get your timing right.
I’ll admit it, when at home in NYC, I’m perpetually 5 minutes late, which in this city is reasonably acceptable. In London, however, my slightly-always-lateness probably won’t endear me to the locals. Says Claire Norrish, Director of the London-based Claire Norrish PR firm, ‘British people are really hot on punctuality. If you’re running late, a notification is a must, but keep in mind it’s never cool to amble in to a meeting 20 minutes late and assume it’s OK – because it’s not – no matter what we might say to your face.” In business dealings, real on-the-nose punctuality is more important to your British colleagues than it might be to an American, so be on time. But, if it’s more of a social event, timing is a bit more fluid, says London financial wiz, James R. (*). Events are often arranged as a “9 a.m. for a 9:30 a.m. start” or the equivalent which translates to a few people arriving at 9 am to get first dibs on the breakfast buffet, followed by the majority of the group arriving at about 9:15 a.m., with a hard start right at 9.30 am. To see the “9 for 9:30” phenomenon played out in hilarious detail, check out this clip from the film “The Trip” (starting at 1:09).
2) Curb your enthusiasm.
When working in London, consider reigning in the Kathie Lee Gifford / Richard Simmons/ Kelly Ripa-style just-popped-out-of-a-cake enthusiasm. High-energy and high-volume showmanship can be off-putting to the locals. Says Norrish,‘Brits get a bit flustered if people get overly excited or are too shouty.’ In other words, you’ll never go wrong in the UK if you dial it down a notch. Heading out to an event across the pond? Then also leave the Spring Break-style whoo-hoo’s and war whoops at home, especially at English ‘social calendar’ events like the Henley Regatta or the horse races at Ascot. Says Claire, “we tend to be a bit reserved. Even if our horse is winning, we resist the urge to screech or yell.” We planner types would be wise to do the same and play it cool.
3) Hold your fire.
Unless you’re Bill Clinton, when meeting British colleagues, skip the overly-friendly hugs, arm-grabs or air-kisses, advises James R. Though it might feel a bit overly formal to us, James assures me that a good handshake is best on the first meeting – and possibly beyond, depending on the industry. For example, most British fashion types will eventually warm up to air-kissing colleagues (all that time spent in Paris and Milan rubs off, you know), but not so much with more traditional business and financial clients. With them, you’re better off sticking to handshakes for the foreseeable future. However, if your British client eventually becomes comfortable with a friendlier greeting style and makes the first move, then, by all means, follow their lead and hug it out like those chaps from Entourage.
4) Like your momma told you – be polite.
“Nothing will trigger a work slow-down or possibly a mutiny better than someone – American or otherwise – coming in and ordering staff around with little regard for their feelings,” says Jennifer Q. (*), a New York-based office manager who spent 3 years running staffing in her legal firm’s London office. “A ‘get-it-done-yesterday and make-it-snappy’, high-handed approach will sink you before you even hit the water. Same-day turnarounds, though do-able, don’t go over particularly well either.” To build a successful event crew across the pond, “you’ll need to be unfailingly and exceptionally polite and crystal clear about the mission, the details and your expectations.” Brit staffs are used to more formal and hierarchical dealings, which can make the pace a bit slower than an over-caffeinated American planner (guilty as charged) might be accustomed to. As a work-around, Jennifer recommends that American planners “add a little extra time to your production timeline, make your directives specific, and always treat the crew with dignity and respect.” One more thought: always lead with a smile. Come to think of it, that works well stateside too.
5) Keep it light – and brush up on your small talk.
The over-share and the concept of TMI (too much information)—we Americans invented it (thanks Oprah!). The British are just the opposite, being much more comfortable with keeping things light, particularly in a business setting. Says James, “Small talk is important here and the cliché about people talking about the weather is true.” The weather is common ground, it’s not too personal a topic and everyone can discuss it ‘til it’s time to settle down to business. As your professional relationships become closer over time, that’s still not a license to probe Brits on more personal matters. James also reminds us not to expect Brits “to ever talk money, earnings, wealth, how much they paid for their house, etc. They’ll never tell you anyway and asking is considered bad form.” However, it is OK to ask people which part of London or the surrounding suburbs they live in, but don’t pretend you know it well unless you actually do. Also, “feel free to ask if that’s north/south/east/west/central or further out, as Brits are often quite proud of living in a certain area and happy to share their pride of place.” Another small-talk tip from Claire, “We love to talk briefly about personal life before a meeting starts but soon want to get down to business, so make sure your kids/dogs/weekend stories don’t go on too long.” Good advice, no matter which side of the pond you’re on.
6) Hold your highballs and forget the early-bird special.
From personal experience, I can tell you, do not try to go drink-for-drink with the Brits. It’s a game you will not win. If you’re taking your client out for a night on the town, drink at your own pace and maintain some semblance of sobriety (not to mention dignity). Also, if you’re picking up the tab, remember, in the UK, a service charge of up to 15% is added to most large restaurant and bar bills, so you don’t need to add a tip unless the service has been particularly exceptional. What time is dinner? Says James, “we generally don’t like eating early. Dinner before 7.30 p.m. is unusual. But don’t go Spanish style and organize late dinners as people may have a long commute home.” American planners should also keep in mind another grand British tradition, says James – “ alcohol is usually consumed in quite significant quantities at events, as people love something for free,” so American planners should order accordingly.
7) Cool your jets.
Lastly, the Brits have a naughty little secret: underneath it all, they do, for the most part, like Americans, though their traditional reserve may keep them from leaping into your arms upon first meeting. Says PR guru Claire Norrish, “it’s about building relationships. We like to take time to get to know someone, so don’t try to rush friendships and networks. It might take a bit of time, but once you’re in, you’re in, so no need to hurl yourself up the business or social ladder – you’ll get there eventually.”
(*) Name has been changed.
Photo credits: Shutterstock
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