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United Kingdom

Published on 12/01/2005

The Netherlands' status as the fourth most important trading partner for the United Kingdom helps seal the myth—'we', that is British and Dutch people, are made for each other when it comes to business dealings. But what is that nagging feeling that warns of hidden complexities lying just beneath the surface?

“The British are much more formal than the Dutch – they would never ever utter direct criticism but would graciously package their comments,” says Edwin Welman, a Dutch banker working for ABN-AMRO in London, who also worked for several years in the US.  “Dutch people just tell you what they think and would never opt for polite phrases to explain a situation.”

Margaret Moes, Managing Director of LSS Relocation Limited, who is also Dutch, observes, “the biggest difference in doing business with the Brits compared to doing business with Dutch people is the total lack of directness with the Brits. We are in the UK now for 24 years and the Dutch straightforward mentality is completely opposite to the refined, considerate, and well-mannered way of doing business here in the UK. In business dealings the Brits refuse to commit themselves right away. In fact they are quite inscrutable.”

The Japanese of Europe?

Are the British the Japanese of the North? Not many Dutch people would argue they do not understand the Brits, but maybe that is one of the problems, as Moes explains.

“I’ve seen many Dutch people making the mistake of assuming they understand the English language. Many however seem to forget that most of their familiarity with the English language is American-based.

“If a British person says ‘very interesting’, they mean in fact the opposite. For a Dutch person this is very confusing as we are not used to playing with language in such a manner,” says Moes.

To help you understand the real meaning behind some statements commonly used by the Brits, refer to our quick reference guide table within this article.

British humour

The British sense of humour is another striking difference and humour is very evident in all areas of life, on every level and at every occasion. It is not considered flippant or disrespectful to use biting humour in a business situation.

In fact, humour may be used more or less constantly. As an outsider you do not have to take part in this, but you should not be surprised either when jokes seem to land on you.


Although British companies are becoming less hierarchical, the power clearly lies with the board of directors, and compared to the Dutch organisational structure the British organisational structure is a traditional pyramid, consisting of many layers and a strong vertical hierarchy.

Often the hierarchy is based on which meetings you are invited to attend and less on your job title. The British seem to be fond of committees and commissions and prefer working with a group of people they know, and can rely on and identify with.

They do not seem to like taking individual initiative or to be tied down when they are not sure if the group supports them. This implies a strong sense of duty and personal dedication to the group and there is little automatic respect for authority. Consensus is important, and if you try to achieve it you will be respected.

My home is my castle

Be aware that the British are masters in recognising someone’s social status. Foreigners have to keep in mind that there are large perceived differences between social classes in the UK.

British people observe status in nuances, such as the way someone talks, someone’s manners and the way someone dresses. The school someone has attended still remains important in British business and social life. School and university form the basis of networks that often sustain people through their working lives.

Moes remarks, “Although the Brits are very open and friendly to foreigners, we are still ‘from abroad’ after 24 years in this country!”

Welman adds, “There is a clear distinction between work and private life – ‘my home is my castle’ makes it for foreigners difficult to become part of the British way of life. British people are standoffish.”

British Heidi Philippart-Alcock and Annie Cox, who together run a bi-lingual kindergarten in Amsterdam, confirm this impression. “Brits seek out Brits. An English-speaking environment abroad is essential for many British people. That’s why we started several years ago with Two Voices, a school for young children from families where two languages are spoken.

“And let’s be clear about this; Britain remains an island with not too many foreign languages around you, so it is not strange for British people to look for people that understand their language.”

When asked for a clear distinction between doing business between British and Dutch people both Philippart-Alcock, who has been in the Netherlands for 11 years and Cox for 13 years, refer to the difference in work ethic.

“When a Dutch person is not feeling well they will not show up—the Brits will come in even when feeling really sick. The Dutch are so aware of their rights— maybe also due to the good social system—that they sometimes forget about their obligations,” say Philippart-Alcock and Cox.

“We see the differences in our teachers; the British teachers are more responsive to unexpected events, whereas the Dutch are more bureaucratic; a 30-minute break is a 30-minute break.”

Moes agrees that she was surprised by the way the Dutch handle part-time working. “If someone works three days in the Netherlands, there is no one that takes over the tasks – you just have to wait in getting an answer till that person is back in the office again,” she says.

Decision making

History is very important to the British, both in terms of the myths and the reality.  Because of this, the British business culture is sometimes seen as being rooted in the past and disliking change and risk.

If you want to initiate change, be prepared to be patient and attend a lot of meetings. Meetings are the essential and yet time-consuming management instrument.

All somewhat important decisions and instructions will be brought up, negotiated, approved, passed through and to some extent implemented during the meeting.

Meetings are not experienced as an interruption of the real work. Most meetings are set long in advance and there is an extensive agenda.

Planned meetings are altered with meetings planned on a short term in which specific business is handled. However, the decision-making authority lies with the board of directors.

Even decisions that can be made at a lower level need the approval of the entire board of directors. It can take quite a long time to actually reach an agreement. However, decisions are always well considered.

The concept of time

At meetings the British are always on time, but they have also formalised being too late in a social sense. It is almost impolite to be dead on time!

People are often up to ten minutes late for work, lunch and so forth. But never later than around ten minutes.  Appointments and meetings are set well in advance. Because people are regularly not in their offices due to the high number of meetings, email memos are frequently used. The British seem to prefer using the phone than meeting up face-to-face.


What the British say What the British mean What the Dutch understand
I hear what you say. l disagree and do not want to discuss it any further. He accepts my point of view.
With the greatest respect… I think you are wrong (or a fool). He is listening to me.
That’s not bad. That’s good or very good. That’s poor or mediocre.
Quite good. A bit disappointing. Quite good.
Perhaps you would like to think about…
I would suggest…
This is an order. Do it or be prepared to justify yourself. Think about the idea, but do what you like.
When appropriate locally… Do what you like Do it if you can.
Oh, by the way…
The primary purpose of our discussion is ….. This is not very important.
I was a bit disappointed that…
It is a pity you…
I am most upset and cross. It doesn’t really matter.
Very interesting. I don’t agree / don’t believe you. They are impressed.
Could we consider some other options. I don’t like your idea. They have not yet decided.
I’ll bear it in mind. I will do nothing about it. They will probably do it.
Please think about that some more. It’s a bad idea: don’t do it. It’s a good idea: keep developing it.
I’m sure it’s my fault. It is your fault ! It was their fault.
That is an original point of view. You must be crazy. They like my ideas!
You must come for dinner sometime. Not an invitation, just being polite. I will get an invitation soon.
You’ll get there eventually. You don’t stand a chance in hell. Keep on trying for they agree I’m heading in the right direction.
I almost agree. I don’t agree at all. He’s not far from agreement.

January 2005

Expert in labour mobility issues Nannette Ripmeester is a consultant to the European Commission and the governments of Belgium, Finland, Ireland and the Netherlands. She has been extensively quoted in newspapers and journals including the Wall Street Journal, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Het Financieele Dagblad, and the International Herald Tribune. Ripmeester started her international career at the European Commission, has worked on a project basis in 17 countries and is founder and Managing Director of Labour Mobility ( She co-authored the book ‘Looking for work in the United Kingdom,’ (ISBN 90-5896-0242).

Subject: Doing business with the British