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Learning British Culture

“Nobody queues like the British,” Crispin Harris said recently to an audience of career advisers. At the time, the 50 of us in the room were, in fact, standing in a queue — a single-file line that snaked around the room, formed within seconds from a chaotic group milling about.

The significance of this might be lost on some, but to an expat (like me), standing in a queue to, say, get on a bus is a uniquely British behavior. Harris and his colleague Pete Bailie are co-directors of VOX Coaching, which runs courses and workshops on giving presentations, networking, and managing relationships. They’ve recently teamed up with the University of Manchester to develop a course on British culture. The point of the queuing exercise was to emphasize that recognizing such subtle, ahem, cues about behavior can be a key to understanding a person’s and a country’s culture.

“Very often people just find the English hard to read,” Harris said in an interview after a workshop, “Culture Club: Why Are the British Like That?” at the Vitae Researcher Development Conference held in September at the University of Warwick. “It’s not that they find the behavior difficult or challenging or threatening; it’s that they find it incomprehensible. They can’t read it, so they can’t learn.”

Recognizing cultural differences in behaviors and ways of conducting business can help people interact better with the others around them, Bailie added. “A lot of the information that we’re giving off is through our vocal tone and our body language, and that’s where we make judgments about people,” Bailie said. “So you have to think, OK, what of that is them personally, and what is them culturally?”

This comes into play particularly in the lab, both with supervisor relationships and with relationships with lab peers, who may be from very different regions of the world and have to work closely together. “In terms of management style, the British management style is to give quite indirect suggestions, often with a bit of humor, in a very roundabout way, and then muddle through, whereas the model in Germany or the USA or Japan is very different,” Bailie said. “In the States, communication is much more direct and … people appreciate a bit more inspiration and a bit of sell. In Britain, that really doesn’t go down well.”

At the September session, Bailie and Harris handed out a worksheet that divided certain cultural characteristics into three groups: linear active, multi-active, and reactive. Do the people around you talk half the time, talk most of the time, or listen most of the time? Are they polite but direct, emotional, or polite and indirect? Do they use limited body language, unlimited body language, or subtle body language?

Acknowledging these types of differences in the people around you is the goal of Bailie and Harris workshops, rather than telling people how to adapt their behavior when they come to Britain, Harris emphasized. “We’re not saying that people will learn how they should behave,” Harris said. “[They will] just understand some of the processes whereby they will learn by observing, by questioning, by asking for help, and by trying out different things.”