We were watching the new Apple TV series Ted Lasso (one of the best new shows this decade I might add), and I kept having to pause it to laugh or share a story with my better half. If you have worked with the British, you will get the jokes quickly and start to empathize with Coach Lasso’s journey. If you haven’t been surrounded by British culture, it is still funny, but not the same.
Advice for When You’re Across the Pond
It made me think about what advice I would give anyone that was getting assigned to work in the UK or work on a majority-British team anywhere in the world. I was assigned as an advisor-assistant to a senior British leader and spent a busy year surrounded by other UK defense, diplomacy, development, and intelligence folks; and I was pulled deep into their culture. Here are a few tips.
1. Brown Water Breaks
They really do take their tea seriously. As an American who only drank coffee once a week, having tea 3-5 times a day was a big shift. Unlike Ted Lasso, I grew to like the leaves in hot water. Tea time is constructively used to sort out problems and check in on people. I observed a lot of coaching, mentoring, counseling, and planning during tea breaks. Don’t ask for cream and sugar in your tea—you want milk; cream is short for clotted cream, and that is for scones. Don’t get me started on the foods that go with the tea. Oh yes, and tea also means an entire meal, so be sure you know what you signed up for.
2. Late to Rise, Early to the Pub
The day starts a bit later in British culture. As Americans pride themselves in being at work before the sun comes up, Brits pride themselves on working efficiently within a small window of time during the daylight. Although most didn’t roll in until after 830 AM the work still got done every day. I enjoyed the bristling against micromanagement and the absence of needing to arrive early and leave last. In my experience, it was a good sign if the boss beat you to the pub and had some drinks ready to be downed already on the table. Much more work gets done at the pub, but it doesn’t feel like work.
3. People Know your First Name
If you enjoy working in an environment where people are more interested in good ideas than your rank or position on the team, you will love working with the Brits. When you hear junior leaders refer to the senior leaders as “General Jocko” or “Admiral Rupert” it will catch you off guard. But when the leaders start to call the men and women by their first name (that isn’t on their nametag) you will realize they actually focus on knowing their people. I was utterly impressed with the concern leaders had for their team-mates and the extra time they took to call-in favors to take care of their people. The time they spend giving heart-felt “thank yous” and mementos of appreciation are moments well spent.
4. No Early-Bird Specials
If you grew up in the Florida lifestyle where people are eating a steak at 4:30 PM, you will have a shock when you get a dinner invite. I actually felt like I was eating all day between all the tea-snacks and the appetizers and cocktails before dinner. But don’t be surprised when your host invites you to show up at 7 for drinks and snacks (too many snacks and too many drinks) before you settle in to a dinner meal at 830 at night. And there will be desert. They will tempt you with deserts for every meal—even breakfast might be followed by a pastry. So, eat light during the day and be prepared to stay up a little later to digest the dinner that ended at 945 PM.
5. Don’t Trust the Irish and Remember the French are the Real Enemy
The British don’t seem to trust all their neighbors and even their military allies; hell, the English don’t even seem to trust the other parts of the United Kingdom. To clear up your eighth grade geography lesson – the United Kingdom is a nation, made up of the countries of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (which is not the same as Ireland). So, all the UK folks can be safely (mostly) called British, but don’t call a Welshman English, or ask the Scots why they want to leave the UK. Beyond the Kingdoms, the one thing you cannot forget is the deep distrust of the Irish towards the Brits and the Brits towards the Irish (Northern or regular it seems). Also obvious is the deep memories of French disagreements and wars with the British. Last but not least as you travel the globe with the British lot, you will notice many in their old empire just call them English. It is complicated on this little Island with so many cousins.
6. You will be Welcomed on the Team
I was amazed how quickly I felt at home with my British bosses and colleagues. They are a nice people, with an interesting language. Once you master some of the vocabulary and slang, you will even be able to understand what they are saying in a group discussion. Yes, the “dog and bone” refers to a phone; and while you won’t wear a fanny-pack, you will wear pants daily even with your shorts and skirts. Brits just have a way of making you feel special and needed, and not because of your rank or station (mine was very lowly in comparison to my team-mates). I liked how they just got down to business with the people at hand and were polite enough not to make you feel awkward or unwelcome. They will listen to you and are quite open of new ideas from any source.
Be a Good Mate
While you may not get to visit Number 10, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, ride on the Queen’s plane and sample from her beverage cart, or see Teddy Roosevelt’s elephant foot garbage-bin gift at Chequers—you will enjoy the hospitality of a sometimes-quirky lot on a beautiful island. So, raise a pint, enjoy your tea time(s), be a good mate—and squeeze in bollocks, tosh, proper, and lost the plot into a conversation where you can. If you ever figure out how to use “and Bob’s your uncle” correctly, let me know. If by some chance you end up coaching UK football (round ball with nets) and you are able to figure out what “off sides” means, also please explain it to the rest of us.
P.S. Look right before crossing the street.