One of the most amusing adjustments for expats arriving in a British office is the ritual of tea and biscuits.
Chilean architect, Camila Rock, said there is a bell at her London architecture firm that rings at 16:30 every day, at which point the office grinds to a halt for an office-wide teatime, prepared by different teams each week.
“I was told right from the start that if I don’t add a drop of milk I am not having a proper (cup of) tea,” she said, adding that she relishes this social moment in the day.
It's no laughing matter. The Brits take their daily “cuppa” seriously; it crosses industries and age groups. And while it may be an old-fashioned tradition, the tea-break is making a comeback.
“It’s a really friendly tradition,” French fashion analyst Irwin Welcman said. He moved to London from Paris in 2013. “Each time someone in my team is going to have a tea, they ask the whole team if anyone wants one and now everybody knows each other's tastes.”
A study by biscuit baker, Thomas J Fudges, of 2,000 British workers, revealed one in four would be more likely to close a deal in a meeting because of the biscuits provided, with shortbread, chocolate bourbons and flapjacks all likely to win a favourable reaction.
James Field, senior training manager at Debrett’s Training Academy, said Brits also feel that it’s important to be able to offer clients a tea “because it can be a daunting thing coming into your office. They’re not in their space and they may feel a little on edge, so to get the best out of them, it’s important to serve them well.”
A different kettle of fish
Other nuances of British workplaces are far harder to get to grips with.
Corporate culture is often thought of as a universal language, but many expats in the UK agree that Brits have their own dialect.
Small talk before a meeting, no matter how important the discussion, is as British as the tea and biscuits. Field noted that the weather, the turnout and the food you just ate are all common icebreakers in the UK.
Idle chitchat, however, can prove challenging for expats from places like the US where being assertive and quickly getting to the point are considered admirable leadership skills at work, both in person and online.
Adding to the confusion, talking too much can also get you in trouble.
When Rock moved to the London office of her company four years ago, she was struck by just how quiet the office was. It was a massive workspace — bigger than any she’d worked in in Chile — but it was utterly devoid of sound.
And even when her new colleagues did speak, they seemed to be forever apologising for something, for not leaving enough personal space in a queue, or to preface a question. “In Chile there are always people messing around in the office, but in the UK everybody is really, really silent and really, really polite,” the 32-year-old said.
Lost in translation
Lawyer, Sean FitzGerald, who moved to London from New York in 2012, said he knew an American who became a censor for fellow expats at her firm who were struggling with the subtleties of British exchanges. “The Americans would even run emails by her and she would say: ‘Oh no, no, no. That’s too forward’ Or: ‘That’s too aggressive’.”
When it comes to conflict in the workplace, Fitzgerald said Brits tend to be more passive-aggressive than their American counterparts.
“There is definitely an emphasis on formality, on being overly polite and, to a certain extent, deferential,” the 31-year-old explained. “I remember one or two contentious calls where it was amusing for me to hear how the British challenged one another on the phone in the most kind and polite way possible.”
American Amy Peterson said Brits use “countless catchphrases and passive semantics all in the name of trying to convey an annoyance with someone without actually saying ‘you’re annoying me’”. If a manager is unhappy with a project, she explained, he wouldn’t say he disliked it. Instead he might say: “I see what you’re trying to do here, but let’s chat about what else you could do.”
And there’s nowhere to hide. When Peterson relocated from Washington to London eight years ago to work in marketing analysis, she found that the cubicles she’d grown accustomed to in the US capital were replaced in the British capital by an open plan office with long communal desks.
“It felt like I had no privacy,” the 37-year-old recalled of the change. “Trying to be on the phone was a bit of a nightmare and you often felt like everyone could hear your conversations.”
Peterson likened the overall transatlantic culture shock to “lots of little things that add up to an overall feeling that things are different.”
One thing most expats agree on is that the British have mastered the art of work-life separation.
A typical workday for Erkan Atay in his native Turkey could stretch from nine in the morning to nearly nine at night. It’s not that he had more work to do than anyone elsewhere in the world; the reason for the long days was almost purely social. There were long lunches with colleagues or extended coffee outings to break up the monotony of the day.
Atay got “such a big surprise” when he moved to the UK three years ago to work as a business partner in commercial finance. His colleagues at the London telecommunications company left the office at 17:00. “I thought to myself, everyone here is working like a machine, eating breakfast and lunch in front of their computers and only interacting in a very professional way,” the 31-year-old recalled.
It’s been quite an adjustment from life back in Istanbul, but Atay said he really appreciates the balanced life in England. He likes leaving at 17:00, not checking work emails over the weekend and not dealing with fiery “Mediterranean-style” debates in the boardroom.
"Good manners are really important in the boardroom,” said James Field at Debrett’s Training Academy. “Once we’ve moved from small talk to business, we still subconsciously recognise... the way you are looking at someone, how you sit in your chair, how you engage with someone, how you pass water around the table.”
That said, Atay misses some of the workplace camaraderie of Turkey — and finds UK office temperatures so cold he has to wears jackets year-round. But, he said, he’s finally getting into the swing of British business life.
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