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- Economist.com | LONDON
LONDON is not a difficult place to do business. Forget the stereotypes you might have heard elsewhere: in general terms, the transport systems work, the weather is okay and the British are a tolerant bunch. These tips below (part of a series) should help you to stride into meetings with that extra bit of confidence. Stiff upper lips and old-school ties are much rarer than they used to be, but Londoners are still relatively shy. Buy a round of drinks in the pub later in the day, though, and you'll find the reserve starts to crumble.
Meeting and greeting
• London is a multicultural city. It is worth finding out where your contact is from. You are quite as likely to be dealing with an Indian or an Australian as you are with a born-and-bred Londoner.
• Business cards are typically exchanged at the end of a meeting. But it is not unusual for a Brit to forget about them entirely. If your contact fumbles around for his card, or fails to produce one, don't take it personally.
• The British tend to be punctual, and meetings generally follow the Anglo-Saxon norm, with brief chit-chat swiftly followed by a focused, action-oriented discussion.
• E-mails perfectly suit the famous British reserve. In general, they are promptly responded to and are often the preferred method of communication, at least at the outset. As a relationship strengthens, and certainly if complex negotiations are involved, expect face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations.
• The strongest relationships are forged after work—be that in a pub or at an informal evening meal. The line between work and private life is not as clearly delineated as in America, and the British tend to socialise with colleagues quite regularly. Drunken behaviour on a Friday evening will be laughed off the following Monday, and in some cases is quite the norm.
• The woes of public transport are a sure-fire way of reviving flagging conversation. London’s motorists have to pay a congestion charge to drive into the city. Your contacts will be sure to have an opinion on whether the experiment is working.
Eating and drinking
• A business lunch can just as easily mean a quick sandwich and coffee as a slap-up meal in a smart restaurant. Breakfast meetings are rare. Most Brits subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s claim that “only dull people are interesting at breakfast.”
• Midday drinking has declined, but it is still normal to have a glass of wine or a beer, with food or without.
• Likewise, smoking has fallen off dramatically. Smoking was banned in all public spaces (including restaurants and bars) from July 2007 and the smoky haze that used to be a feature of many pubs is but a memory. If you want to smoke, you have to be outside.
• When in a pub, do not expect table service, unless you are seated in the restaurant area. And don't tip the bar staff unless they bring the drinks and bill over to you.
• Table manners are keenly observed as a subtle sign of good breeding. Never talk with your mouth full; never reach across the table; do not wave cutlery around or yell “I’m done” to the waiter.
• London’s top restaurants are expensive (£100 a head is not unheard of). Furthermore, an increasing number insist on taking credit card details before accepting a booking.
• The British are less politically correct than their American counterparts. Wittiness can still mean an agility with sexual innuendo, with a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Our correspondent offers more thoughts about doing business in London in this interview.