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Baffled by the Brits

The Guardian
Frantic snogging at office parties, eating at our desks, always staying late. No wonder colleagues from overseas find us a funny lot. Helena Pozniak hears about the peculiarities of UK workers

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2003/mar/31/careers.jobsadvice3

Sick jokes, tea runs, microwave meals and rampant sexuality - we Brits are a funny lot to work with. And despite an entire industry based on preparing expatriate employees to hit the ground running, nothing can quite prepare them for the behavioural quirks of the British office.

"You can find out all the 'corporate' stuff," says Andrea McKinney, who left the United States more than a year ago to head up online PA community Deskdemon.com. "It's the things they don't tell you. Like, nobody in Richmond makes eye contact. They won't leave the office until the boss does, and you can forget ever having your dinner at five."

Unsurprisingly, we unsettle overseas workers with our restraint and reserve, which demands that anyone from a more strident business culture makes an automatic shift of gear. Australian television journalist Ernestine Lavalle had to put the brakes on her language when she joined a London-based newsroom. "I did find it hard to relate to people here, they were definitely wary of brash Aussies stomping around and swearing."

Reserved we may be, but discreet we're not. Australian receptionist Kate Dwyer has discovered the myth of the British as private people. "You're not repressed at all, I hear more intimate details than I ever wanted to know from the people I work with - it's really strange but quite refreshing."

This peculiar mix of indiscretion and repression strikes a chord with Portuguese architect Paulo Marto, who has worked in London for the past eight years. "It was the Christmas party that really floored me. The booze, the laddishness, the snogging. I felt like a lemon - 40 people at a restaurant going for each other with no discrimination. And the next day nobody spoke to each other, they all went about as if nothing had happened, just an absolutely horrible silence. Most peculiar."

Sexual tensions aside, our need to confide and bond at work may be because we just spend so much time there. "We use work as therapy like no other country," says business coach and author Judi James. "It's the psychiatrist's couch. But it's because we virtually live there - we're second only to the Japanese at not being able to leave the office."

McKinney, a habitual late worker, discovered this when, after her first weeks at work, received a quiet plea from her secretary. "She said, 'I can't go home until you go.' I looked up and there were all these people sat at their computers, waiting for me to leave. I sent them home immediately."

British workers love parameters and conformity, and our desire to be seen to be following the rules clashes with the results-driven cultures of other countries, says Ron Bracey, a consultant clinical psychologist. "We've all but lost our manufacturing culture, but not the psychology of it," he says. "You can get away with all sorts of time-wasting as long as you're there from nine to five. If you can deliver in less, it's threatening. Play on the internet, make personal calls, but for God's sake, whatever you do, don't rock the boat and leave the office early." Hand-in-hand with slavish devotion to rules goes a limitless capacity to whinge.

"We could win an Olympic medal in it," says James. "Americans just can't understand it." And if, as an expatriate worker, you think you speak the same language - you don't. Whole websites are devoted to explaining the nuances of "Britspeak" - luvvly jubbly, wonky and stonking; jammy and scrummy; blagging and skiving.

"When people used to say 'Y'alright?', I thought they were asking 'What's wrong?'," says New Zealander Melanie Smith, a senior administrator at recruitment company Joslin Rowe. To combat the language problem, McKinney's office has compiled a 34-page document translating her South Carolina vernacular. "They hear me on the phone to someone from Glasgow - the conversation goes, 'I'm sorry, could you say that again?' My office is filled with sniggers."

The British flummox other nationalities with a self-effacing vocabulary and a tendency for false modesty, says James. "It confounds all foreigners, they find it very weird and don't get it. We begin our business statements with: 'I know this sounds stupid but . . .' or 'This prob ably isn't a good idea . . .' They think we're complete idiots." In a similar vein, we are quick to think new ideas and projects won't work. "It's amazing any idea ever came off the ground in Britain," says James.

But nowhere do British offices display their foibles more than during the lunch hour, says Dwyer. "In Sydney it's normal to go out, to go jogging, to go to the gym or buy sandwiches," she says. "But here, people bring meals in pots to microwave and eat in. One colleague even brought a piece of fish to cook."

"It's quite bizarre," agrees Smith. "We sit at our desks and work and eat - no one takes a proper hour. But everyone gets excited at what you've got for lunch - I've never seen so much enthusiasm." And woe betide you if you neglect the tea preferences of your colleagues during the obligatory tea runs. "E.G.B.O.N.M." one South African manager was emailed by an employee before a trip to the canteen (Earl Grey, bag out, no milk).

But amidst the kowtowing, the griping and the diffidence, surely there must be some endearing traits to British office life? "Cynicism and humour," declares James. "We use them well at work. The only public speaker who doesn't have to be funny is the Queen, and even she throws in a joke or two." British workplace humour is therapeutic, indiscriminate - and doesn't travel. "You know you're going native," says the website americanexpats.co.uk, "with the thrill of finally understanding inside jokes of British humour."

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