23 February 2018

Subtleties of British Culture in the English Language


In the previous two articles, we focused on the most important European languages for UK businesses.

This week, we will delve even deeper into this topic by discussing the subtleties of the English language for business negotiations.

Any business that deals with a UK based entity, needs to be aware of certain guidelines, and hidden meanings of certain words and expressions in order to efficiently decode the meaning behind the words. Additionally, being aware of the underlined meaning can help one avoid certain expressions and make the negotiation process tilt in one’s favour. Our tailored business English courses can fast-track this process and can help you make the most of your business opportunities.

Universalism vs Particularism

Before we go any deeper into language analysis, it is recommended to understand how Britons think of a personal or professional relationship, and what their expectations are in accordance to each. When it comes to social constructs, there are two different approaches a culture can take. Each approach is radically different and directly impacts the interaction process and what is expected of both parties.

Universalism can be described by the following statement: “What is good and right can be defined and always applies.” Therefore, universalism dictates that both relationships are equally important, and they generally have the same guidelines.

Conversely, particularism is defined by having different guidelines and values for different situations. An applicable example would be the business and personal relationships. A particularistic mindset would dictate that stronger relationships such as friendships, would take precedence over other societal constructs.

The results of a survey published in 1997 reveal that 91% of all British respondents opted for a universalistic system.

Therefore, whenever you are negotiating with a Briton, please bear in mind that they see you as a friend. This ultimately means that they expect your interaction to follow the same guidelines as a friendship. This goes in contrast to American beliefs where it is believed that business is business, and friendships are a different chapter.

The English Understatement

This is, above everything else, a cultural trait.

If you are relatively new to the UK market and are undergoing negotiations with a British company, it is recommended that you read between the lines to get a more accurate idea of what is being conveyed.

In negotiations, the British will do their best to let you down easy. You are more likely to get a vague response (such as, “I’ll think about it”, “I’ll chew on that”, or “We’ll call you”) rather than a categoric no.

As a foreigner, it might be slightly harder to identify verbal buying signals when negotiating the price of a product/service due to the English Understatement.

Generally speaking, if you have raised their interest, they will start asking questions about the product/service. However, when looking for buying signals from a Briton, it is generally easier to judge by the body language and the tone of voice, as those are much clearer giveaways than what is being said.

If you are negotiating with a British company, or are a UK-based company yourself and are negotiating with a foreign party, you should keep in mind language particularities (such as the English Understatement) in order to fully dispel confusion when negotiating. You should express yourself in a clear and forthcoming way but remember to be polite and amenable.

Denotative Vs Connotative Meaning

Words tend to generally have more than one meaning. The literal meaning of a word is referred to as the denotative meaning. The connotative meaning of a word points to a metaphorical interpretation.

This applies to most languages: one may run into a bit of trouble understanding what the connotative or the denotative meaning of an expression is. The English language can have quirky, and sometimes downright strange idioms that a foreigner would not be able to decipher without say, an English course for business.

Take ‘raining cats and dogs’ for example. There is no denotative meaning behind it, however, it would be a day to remember if cats and dogs start randomly falling from the sky. You should watch out for heavy rain, instead.

‘A chip on one’s shoulder’ actually refers to an ingrained feeling of resentment derived from a sense of inferiority, sometimes marked by aggressive behaviour and not an actual object or fragment resting on one’s shoulder.

English is a beautiful and sophisticated language, that can take weeks to learn and a lifetime to master. However, once you do put in the effort to learn it, you will probably find it rewarding in both personal and business relationships.

All of our English teachers are native speakers with, on average, over 15 years of teaching experience. If you want to strengthen existing business relationships or create new ones – a business English course from SIMON & SIMON will help you and your organisation become even better, smoother negotiators. Talk to Simon & Simon today to find out more about our language learning courses in Central London and beyond.

Article Name
The Subtleties of English
Any business that deals with a UK based entity, needs to be aware of certain guidelines, and hidden meanings of certain words and expressions in order to efficiently decode the meaning behind the words.
Publisher Name
Simon and Simon International
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