How to “Keep Calm and Carry On”



Last week Lady Margaret Thatcher passed away at the age of 87. This conspicuous former UK Prime Minister was also known as The Iron Lady because she never feared taking unpopular decisions. “If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”

In her speech shortly after the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984, Lady Thatcher stated “We are shocked but composed”. To me it seems that this typical Stiff-Upper-Lip talk could indeed only have come from a Brit. Keeping a stiff upper lip means one displays courage and resolution in the face of adversity or even tragedy. With five people killed, the Brighton hotel bombing can certainly be called a tragedy.

Colin Firth says it all in “The King’s Speech”

Why is a stoic appearance linked to the upper lip? Because one of the first signs of fear or another deep emotion overcoming a person is the upper lip starting to tremble. Preventing the upper lip from trembling makes a person look calm and composed. According to BBC News Magazine, Colin Firth’s portrayal of King George in “The King’s Speech” conforms to the stereotype Hollywood has of the Brits (author’s note: as does big a part of the rest of the world) – emotionally cool and reticent, unruffled by the ordinary flood of emotions that roil lesser mortals.

(picture: Jay Galvin, Flickr)

Journalist Ian Hislop explains in a 2012 BBC documentary on this typical British phenomenon that the British haven’t always given great importance to keeping their emotions bottled up and their countenances cheerful. In the 18th century, being called sentimental was a term of praise for a person who displayed their emotions openly. It was associated with taste and refinement.

Hislop explains in BBC News Magazine: “The evolution of the stiff upper lip is unexpectedly complex, emerging out of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars as a reaction to what Britain’s rulers felt was a dangerous unleashing of unrestrained passion on the continent. After the success of the Duke of Wellington, this model of stoic self-control was then rolled out from top to bottom in society.” Like any society, British society also shows change over time. Looking at the national outpouring of emotion after Lady Diana’s death, and the astounding celebrations of some following Lady Thatcher’s demise, we can hardly say a stiff upper lip is still maintained throughout society.

Calm, cool and collected is the way to go in business with the Brits

A display of emotion nevertheless remains inappropriate in most business dealings and should therefore be avoided, be they positive or negative.  In doing business with Brits it is important to remember one key rule: never, ever “rock the boat” (cause a stir). Rocking the boat challenges the stiff upper lip, it may cause confrontation or embarrassment which should be steered clear of at all times. It is this tendency to protect face that takes the Brits, with their otherwise strong linear-active traits, slightly right in the Lewis-model, towards the basically Asian reactive category.

build trust model richard lewis

The British rarely disagree openly as this may cause embarrassment, confrontation and therefore “rock the boat”. They agree whenever possible, but will qualify their agreement. In the qualification you will find nevertheless their true opinion. For many foreigners British English (as opposed to American English) appears to be a secret code of some sort; the infamous British coded speech. An excellent example is “That idea sounds really interesting”, the speaker’s way of expressing your idea is most likely anything but.

There are however signs that indicate that things are not going ahead as smoothly as you may think in negotiating a business deal with Brits. Signs to look out for are:

  • Vagueness in reply
  • Understatement indicating the opposite “we may not be quite with you on this” meaning: we don’t agree
  • Humor
  • Silence: often used to convey a negative message

Vagueness is often used to stall, confuse opponents or delay the business. Asking for clarity will not be the solution as they are likely to respond by telling you a story that may confuse you even more. You would do well to show you understand the relevance of the story, for the story will not be randomly picked.

Be prepared to arrive at the meeting stocked up with plenty of stories yourself. If you are good at anecdotes do not be modest in using your skill. Matching their story with a story of your own will result in an atmosphere conducive to doing business.

It will work like magic as a German client of Richard Lewis, chairman of Richard Lewis Communications, experienced when moving to Australia to fulfill a senior management position. Prior to his move, Mr. Lewis had helped him with many anecdotes that could be of use. Months later, when sailing the Mediterranean, Mr. Lewis received a text message saying: “Ran out of stories, please send more.”

“We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that perspective.” (liberally quoted Diogenes Laertius)

The best advice I can give you on how to deal with coded speech is to listen for subtleties, not only in the story itself but also in your interlocutor’s body language (which will likely be limited) and in their tone of voice. To make it more complicated, what is not said by your business partner might be even more important than what is said. Working out the real message is a particularly difficult task if you are from a direct-speech oriented culture as most linear-actives are (Dutch, Nordics, Germans). Continue to listen carefully, share stories with them, avoid confrontations and the chances are, you will build a valuable long-term business relationship.

Do not underestimate the power of humor in the Brit’s arsenal. They are good at it and there is a reason why British humor is an important export product (think of comedies like Monty Python broadcast all over the world). Humor is used to break up tension or to criticize a superior without running the risk of losing one’s job. It is also used to speed up a discussion when it is dragging on through excessive formality. It may also be used as a trial balloon to introduce slightly crazy ideas. These are only a few examples of situations in which humor is effectively brought into play.

Apart from further developing your listening skills when dealing with the Brits, some other useful tips are:

  • Respect personal space and apologise if you accidentally overstep the boundary, even if you think it is silly
  • Arrange your meetings several days in advance
  • Punctuality is essential, although a few minutes late will cause no harm
  • Always shake hands, it is impolite not to
  • Bring your business cards
  • Respect privacy, do not inquire after salaries for instance

One last piece of advice, and one certainly not to be taken lightly, is to be careful whom you call English. The UK is bigger than just England and includes Wales and Scotland. People from Wales and Scotland may take great offence at being called English as they rightfully want to be addressed as Welsh and Scots. A Scots friend of mine visiting The Netherlands was once asked if he was English. His reply was “I speak English”. For any Brit his offence would have been clear from the emphasis on the word ‘speak’. Unfortunately the one asking the question was Dutch and completely missed the point made.

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About the author

Marianne Mol

Marianne Mol is the founder of Munro Coaching & Training. She delivers leadership and team development tracks that improve effective co-operation throughout the organisation. Marianne lived and worked in the U.K. for a number of years, where she gained a wealth of cross cultural experience through coaching team leaders from various cultural backgrounds with NCR Ltd. a global American corporation. Marianne is a Licensed Partner with Richard Lewis Communications, a leading organisation in the field of cross cultural awareness, knowledge and skills. Find Marianne Mol on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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