With a GDP of US$2.7trn in 2016, the UK is the second-largest economy in the European Union after Germany. It’s a major international trading power with a highly developed, sophisticated and diversified market. In 2016, the UK was the tenth-largest goods exporter in the world and the fifth-largest goods importer. It is also one of the most globalized markets in the world.
The UK comprises four distinct entities, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each is proud of its unique heritage. Be wary of referring to British business associates as ‘English’, unless you are certain that they are. To do so is to risk giving offense.
Generalization, rather than specialization, tends to typify the British approach. Less merit is placed on pure technical ability than in some other countries.
Meetings are often inconclusive, with the final decision being that another meeting needs to be held. In fact, rather than a being seen as the place for a final decision, meetings are often seen as a forum for debating potential solutions. They frequently start with seemingly meaningless small talk. This is seen as a good way to start business in a harmonious manner.
The British can come across as quite reserved, distant and lacking emotion at first. Polite phrases are constantly used to avoid offending the other party. To be direct and bluntly disagree with someone is considered extremely rude. Being too direct is perceived as overly arrogant and aggressive, and can prevent a good business relationship from developing. This emphasis on diplomacy over directness in communication can make the British seem evasive. In reality, British business people are often searching for a way of saying something negative in a positive way. The exceptions to this rule are when dealing with data, numbers and legal policy, which are discussed with minimum ambiguity.
To succeed, you also need to be able to read between the lines of this often indirect way of speaking: for example 'that’s interesting' is often a coded way of saying that someone doesn’t like something.
Humor is also an important tool, often used to lighten the mood and defuse tension. The British especially like dry, witty humor, or comments that are made at one’s own expense. It’s felt to be important to be able to laugh at oneself. Remember, humor in business doesn’t mean that the situation isn’t being taken seriously.
It is better to be self-deprecating than self-promoting: people who are verbally positive about themselves and their abilities will probably not be believed and will almost certainly be disliked. It is, of course, acceptable to be positive about your company and products.
The British like to be part of a team and they like the team to have a friendly atmosphere. Teams are expected to take a holistic interest in the project, rather than just confining themselves to their allocated role.
The US-UK investment relationship is the largest in the world with cumulative bilateral stock in direct investment valued at more than US$1trn in 2014. More than two million jobs, approximately one million in each country, have been created over the years to manage and drive this investment. The UK market is the largest in Europe and the fifth-largest in the world for US goods exports. It also happens to be the largest market in the world for US service exports. US exports to the UK of goods and services combined were estimated to be worth about US$121bn in 2016.
Just as important as knowing your counterpart is understanding the numbers behind them. Our downloadable PDF contains in-depth insight and analysis to help you make the most of cross-border trading with the UK.