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31 May 2018
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4 minutes

Cultural considerations of doing business in the UK

The United Kingdom is a multilingual, multi-ethnic society, with notable cultural differences between its capital London and the regions. An understanding of the variations in approach is important to UK business success.

The UK covers an area of 243,610 km2 (94,060 mi2) and has a population of 65.64m (2016). It is made up of four separate countries: England, Scotland, Wales (making Great Britain) and Northern Ireland.

Great Britain is sometimes called just ‘Britain’ for short, although technically Britain refers only to England and Wales. The capital of England is London, Scotland has Edinburgh, Wales has Cardiff and Northern Ireland has Belfast. However, London is the unofficial capital of the UK, being the largest city in terms of population and influence – specifically in finance, world politics and culture.

UK personality

The countries in the UK see themselves as distinct entities, which they are proud of and which can engender an element of competition - for sporting events, such as the six nations rugby tournament, as an example! It is important to take care not to refer to your British business associates as ‘English’, unless you are positive that they come from England, otherwise, you risk offending and starting your relationship off on the wrong foot.

The UK population see themselves as a civilized, well-mannered, well-educated and understated people, who are class conscious. They can come across as cool, detached and often hard to read. They tend to have an understated, dry or sarcastic sense of humour and understanding their real meaning can be a challenge!

It is important to read between the lines. The main language is English; however, local accents and dialects vary quite substantially.

Meeting etiquette

When meeting for the first time, shake hands firmly and maintain eye contact, repeat this when leaving the meeting. In British business culture, there is no formal ritual around exchanging business cards. The British are polite and formal with people they have just met; small talk at the start of meeting, particularly about the weather and your journey, is a good warm up to the main conversation, but don’t be too casual or familiar. Punctuality is very important for business meetings; however, it is considered polite to be a little late (around 15 minutes) for social events such as a dinner. When doing a ‘cheers’ over a drink, it is also very important to maintain eye contact with each person you say ‘cheers’ to and clink the glass. It is considered unlucky by some to say ‘cheers’ with just water.


Generally, the British are comfortable using first names with each other right from the start, however, when being introduced to senior or more mature people, it is advised to start with a formal greeting, using their surname and appropriate title, allowing them to invite you to use their alternative. Academic titles are not generally used and using yours may be viewed as arrogance. Ideally, business introductions are initiated through a connected third party. In older companies, business can still centre around the ‘old boy network’ with schools, universities and family ties being important. Newer companies are more progressive. Most business entertaining is done in restaurants or pubs over lunch, with the host, who extended the invitation, paying the bill.

The dress code for meetings in the UK very much depends on the sector and how long the company has been established. The creative industries, young companies and the technology start-up worlds tend to be casual and more fashion conscious. Professional services (finance, legal, accountancy) are still conservative and formal. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and dress formally.


Gifts are normally not exchanged in business settings due to compliance regulations such as bribery laws. However, in a social setting, if invited to someone's home, always bring a small gift for the host or hostess such as flowers, chocolates or wine.

Business hours

Working hours in the UK are regulated under the Working Time Regulations Act of 1998, which states a maximum working week of 48 hours. However, there is an ‘opt out’ clause, or waiver, which many businesses leverage. Business hours in the UK vary, particularly regionally and of course, by sector.

A wide generalisation is that London is viewed as more of a 24/7, ‘always on’ culture, whereas the regions run more of a 9am to 5pm schedule. There are, of course, exceptions. Retailers have the option of Sunday opening, which many take advantage of.

Talk to us

TMF UK has a range of administrative support services and can help you to identify and address relevant cultural aspects that are important to your business success.

Whether you want to set up in the UK or streamline your existing operations, we have the local knowledge to help. Make an enquiry with us today.

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