UK/US Business Etiquette & Small Talk

Excerpt from Chapter 4 of “Pond Business: How to Succeed Across the Atlantic” by Mark Sutherland, available from Dunrobin Publishing on Amazon and Amazon UK and in bookstores in the UK and the US.

As we have already established, American and British ways of communicating and doing business are different. Business people, and especially lawyers, in the UK like to abide by a process and are quite methodical and intentional in terms of next steps. You will find the need for a lot of communication back and forth on the process and until there is an agreement on process, an American company should not expect to move forward to the substance of any particular deal.

Going the other way, British companies should not take the American desire to get working on the deal the wrong way. There is a high level of optimism and building something together from the American perspective. America has always been the land of dreams, and the sky is the limit for a lot of businesses. The reality is always somewhere between the aspirations and the worst-case scenario, but the optimism and vision of American companies can be somewhat disconcerting to British business people.

Things to keep in mind as you enter this initial phase of relationship building, because that’s really what it is, is that both of you, regardless of which country you are from, are most likely doing something you’ve never done before, or you wouldn’t be reading this book. You are walking into a process you’ve never done, with a culture you have probably made inaccurate assumptions about, in a deal that could make or break your career. No pressure.

So, big questions need to be answered. What to expect, how to manage different perspectives, and what the heck the other culture actually means by the words they use. Communication and a trusting relationship are key to your success. And that takes time to build.

Some advice once given to me by an American lawyer who works a lot of UK-US deals on behalf of a successful British business leader is that he always tries to take a deferential approach, and actively works to avoid any perception as the “ugly American” who wants to “dictate” how things should unfold. He recommends asking a lot of questions of the British company representatives, such as “How do you see this unfolding?” or “How do you see this progressing?” with a goal of at least starting a substantive conversation that can move things forward. 

You can read more about my cross-Pond experiences and insights on how to succeed in your cross-Pond business ventures from corporate, governmental and organizational leaders in both countries in “Pond Business: How to Succeed Across the Atlantic.”