Business Etiquette in London: The Dos and Definitely Don'ts
From explaining the ‘no brown in town’ rule, to considering when to air-kiss or handshake, we’ve got you covered
The English capital is full of history, culture, charm… and somewhat passive aggressive people. Want to get on in the working world? Smile politely and make your enemy your best friend. Disapprove of someone pushing in front of you on the Tube - or, God forbid, not letting you back on if you ever so politely stepped off only to let someone else out (sacrilege!)? Not to fear. Quietly tutting and maybe even muttering under your breath will get you a long way in living the London life. We’ve compiled every detail down from how to greet people (never a hug), to how to master the art of the after-work drink, so that all your questions regarding business etiquette in London are already answered. And you can trust our advice, as here at Plum Guide, we absolutely love doing the hard work for you. You’re welcome.
Master the after-work drink
Pub culture is inextricably linked with British culture. If a colleague, or more importantly your boss, asks you for a drink after work, there’s only so many times you can politely decline. Always say yes, but have an excuse ready should you need to escape (nanny, dog, in-laws - whatever you need to say). And always, always when getting to know your new colleagues, make sure that they get more drunk than you. If it’s a work party, never be the first one there, nor the last one to leave. Whether you’re necking champagne in the city, or reclining outside a pub in a Fulham beer garden, there are plenty of spots. So finding the watering hole to perfect your British business etiquette - whether for entertaining contacts and clients, or just somewhere for you to escape - should be a priority once you touch down in London.
Perfect the art of greetings
With the assumption that a time might come when human contact can recommence, we'll talk you through the art of the oh-so-British meet and greet. Firstly, this isn’t Paris - this is London for crying out loud. Britons most certainly do not opt in for exaggerated greetings, so you can forget La Bise over here. A sturdy handshake will do. Be warned that if you’re not blessed with a firm grip and have the handshake of a moist, wet fish, you will be judged. Quite rightly.
Prepare for plenty of small talk
Ah, yes. Small talk; the most classic of British idiosyncrasies. Whether talking to colleagues, clients or contacts, make sure you brush up on your blathering pleasantries. If you’re stuck for things to say, we have just one word for you: Weather. Is it going to rain? Isn’t it mild for this time of year? Terrible, this global warming situation isn’t it? Take it from us, the English are preoccupied with the weather, so a quick glance at the week’s forecast can give you at least an hour’s worth of conversation, even with the dullest of company.
Wear appropriate attire
‘No brown in town’, so the adage goes. Workers in the City of London are shunned should they opt for brown shoes. The saying dates back decades, and, we believe still rings somewhat true. The shoes a gentleman working in the capital’s financial district opts for are one of the most statement-worthy pieces of clobber that he can sport. In order to appear polished, stick to the classics. No loud ties or cheap, uncomfortable suits. If you want to show your personality, stick to statement-worthy socks, glasses, coat and suit linings and pocket chiefs. Now wait for the compliments to roll in. For women, smart dress codes are far more relaxed and uncomfortable high heels are somewhat old-fashioned, so don’t feel like you need to hobble all over the Tube. Stylish Londoners travel to work in pumps or trainers and switch to smarter shoes once they arrive in the office.
Get your timings right
You can forget your romantic Mediterranean lackadaisical nonsense. Business etiquette in London dictates that 7pm means 7pm. Perhaps, at a push, 7.02pm is permissible. Lateness is seen as the height of bad manners, and, as they say, manners maketh the man. Don’t be late for business meetings, interviews, seeing friends or colleagues. Just don’t, ever. If you stand on a Tube platform and an announcement reveals that the Northern line is facing five minute delays, the passive aggressive looks, mutters and body language will tell you all you need to know. Londoners are always in a rush. Don’t waste their time.
Respect the unwritten rules
‘No, no, honestly, don’t bring anything, just yourself’ is a phrase that’s rarely ever true. If you’re invited over to someone’s house for dinner, the correct business etiquette in London dictates that you should at least bring a token of your appreciation - and not just a bottle of booze that you’re secretly hoping the hosts will open. Wine, chocolates, biscuits, tea, coffee and fancy preserves usually do the trick. If you’re stuck for ideas head over to the Foodhall at luxury department store, Fortnum & Mason, and it will be difficult to make a wrong choice.
Learn how British humour works
The Great British sarcasm is quite possibly the nation’s greatest export. Not quite as well-loved as their ‘stiff upper lip’ - where showing too much emotion is considered rather uncouth - a sense of humour will get you very far. Self-deprecation is very, very important, so if you think you’re God’s gift, get ready to laugh at yourself. At the same time, be aware that Londoners use humour to avoid seeming arrogant and often as a means of avoiding conflict. Sharpen your wit, but make sure you’re not too dry or you could inadvertently end up offending your audience. During business meetings, prepare yourself for banter - or ‘bants’ as it is unaffectionately known. If you’ve never heard of this, avoid it at all costs. Actually, just avoid it anyway.
Treat people with politeness
Good manners and a healthy dose of politeness is highly valued in Britain. Despite Londoners having a rather brusk reputation, a simple ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ works wonders - especially regarding business etiquette in the capital. The flipside of this is, of course, because Londoners are quite adverse to being directly rude, don’t expect direct answers from everyone. Take a vague or inconclusive response as a 'no'. Most Brits would rather leave you hanging than criticise too openly. Which is rather bizarre, but there you have it.