Understanding the UK

Robert Armstrong, the Financial Times’ chief leader writer, recently left the UK to head back to his native US. Just before he went he wrote an entertaining, insightful article for the FT’s Weekend Life & Arts section, setting out his thoughts on how and why the vote for Brexit happened.

Some elements reminded me of that diagram about ‘what British say and what British mean’ that we often come across in presentations whenever someone is explaining the UK to international businesses looking to make the UK their next market.

Although this piece was not specifically aimed at this market entry audience, it’s an interesting read for anyone looking at the UK to do business. If you have time, do have a look at the complete article (you’ll need to subscribe) https://on.ft.com/2OxTJKg. In the meantime, here are five of my personal favourite quotes:

·     “Generalising about the British is hazardous.” That’s true, but there are definitely some national characteristics that affect the way we like to do business.

·     “The residents of these islands do not like being told what to do. They are stubborn, intractable and uppity.” That doesn’t have to be a negative: the British are often single-minded and determined, and not an easy pushover. But as a business partner that can make us loyal allies.

·     “The British, in sum, are not intrinsically polite. They behave politely and frequently resort to euphemism, because in a country where people take their autonomy seriously, a little formality and deference is only prudent.” This is something that is often difficult to understand for anyone from a country where directness, saying exactly what you mean, is an asset. In Britain we hide our directness behind a veneer of civility. So perhaps don’t take the first answer you’re given as the absolute truth: ask more questions, probe a bit further…

·     “The phrase ‘this is quite good’ must sometimes stand in for ‘this is pretty bad’.” A classic case in point .

·     “British humour is not defined (as widely supposed) by irony, but by subversiveness.” Again, Robert Armstrong is right. British humour involves a bit of teasing and straightfaced wind-ups: don’t take any of it personally!

Understanding the UK customer is vital to business success. How and why doing business in the UK is different to their home territory is a question I always ask international business people. In general, the desire to succeed and a willingness to learn (whether that’s market intelligence or just how things are done differently here) is what makes market entrants such an entrepreneurial and fascinating bunch of people to work with.