How do British People Communicate Differently to Those of Other Cultures? Does Exposure to the British Lessen Such Differences?

Typical Business Phrases and Their Interpretation

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2017

22 Pages, Grade: Conference Paper Peer Reviewed



1. Background

2. Purpose

3. Methodology

4. Findings

5. Summary






Research by Meyer detailed in the 2014 book “The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business,” describes specific variations in how people from different cultures communicate and consider ideas at work. Using online surveys, telephone interviews and focus groups with English speakers from a wide range of countries our research assessed whether, as Meyer had found, British people interpret typical business phrases differently to other nationalities. We move on to identify whether regular exposure to British people negates any such differences. The findings confirmed those of Meyer regarding the preferred level of context when communicating and differences in providing feedback. In addition, a statistical analysis of phrase interpretations shows a strong correlation between British respondents and non-British respondents who have had regular exposure to the British. The paper concludes that managers with staff in other countries, plus those involved in Brexit negotiations, should be aware that those with little exposure to the British are more likely to misinterpret business communications from a British person.

Keywords. Erin Meyer; British communication; indirect feedback, Brexit negotiations; downgraders; global communication

1. Background

In the bestselling 2014 book “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business," INSEAD Professor Erin Meyer describes specific differences in how people from different cultures communicate and consider ideas at work. Meyer, ranked 27th most influential thinker 2016 by HR Magazine, categorises these differences along 8 scales, as shown in this summary by Shaw (2014).

- Communicating – Are they low-context (simple, verbose and clear) or high-context (rich deep meaning in interactions)?
- Evaluating – When giving negative feedback does one give it directly or prefer being indirect and discreet?
- Leading – Are people in groups egalitarian or do they prefer hierarchy?
- Deciding – Are decisions made in consensus or made top-down?
- Trusting – Do people base trust on how well they know each other or how well they work together?
- Disagreeing – Are disagreements tackled directly or do people prefer to avoid confrontations?
- Scheduling – Do they perceive time as absolute linear points or consider it a flexible range?
- Persuading – Do they like to hear specific cases and examples or prefer holistic detailed explanations?

The eight scales are not graded low to high, neither are they better in one direction versus the other.Instead each specific rating has value from its own perspective and is used to allow comparisons between cultures. Meyer conducted hundreds of focus groups allowing her to identify typical, but not undeviating, interpretations of common business phrases and ideas. Meyer (2014a) describes her methodology thus, “The eight scales on the map are based on decades of academic research into culture from multiple perspectives. To this foundation I have added my own work, which has been validated by extensive interviews with thousands of executives who have confirmed or corrected my findings.”

While Meyer makes no attempt to suggest that all people from certain cultures think alike she does identify sufficient similarity of response from focus group members to place a variety of cultures against each of the eight scales. For instance, those shown in Table 1.

Table 1 –Overall Pattern of Four Cultures against Eight Dimensions of Behaviour (Meyer, 2014, p. 246)

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Meyer (2016) concludes that Managers should look to “increase the awareness of their team members about how culture impacts their effectiveness.” While the book primarily identifies differences in interpretation and the difficulties that can ensue, Meyer also adds this recommendation “When you look at your team, consider not just the difficulties that might arise from the gaps but also the strengths that the differences provide. Managed with care, cultural diversity can become your team’s greatest asset.”

As author of this paper and a full time management consultant, the book resonated with me as it attempts to give a practical model that can be used by my British clients with their non-British stakeholders. I have found Meyer’s model to be more effective in generating a discourse with international senior leaders than Hofstede’s cultural dimensions (Hofstede, 2003). Managers from a variety of global and pan European organisations have indicated that they find Meyer’s eight scales and easier and more practical means of predicting potential differences in approach when dealing with international stakeholders. This view is in line with that of Duguleana (2010) who concluded that Meyer’s eight dimensions lend themselves better for analytical use when explaining cultural differences.

Meyer’s findings have allowed me to engage with senior leadership teams and debate whether some of their employee engagement issues are in part due to communication between British managers and their foreign stakeholders. In having these discussions feedback was provided that while it was a likely factor, familiarity with British people negated such differences. In particular there was a common view among my clients that Meyer’s first two scales (communicating and evaluating) were likely to be the cause of issues across international sites, particularly as email was the communication media of choice and that this method didn’t allow for others to question the wording or use non-verbal clues to assist with interpretation. They were equally adamant though that if the receiver was familiar with the British then their interpretation was more likely to be as the British manager had intended.

In light of this feedback we were interested to know if there was any evidence to support the idea that familiarity with British people helps non-British people to interpret British communications more effectively. Meyer (2016) talks of raising awareness of the eight scales as a means of reducing confusion but does not argue that such situations are reduced by exposure to those of another nationality.

Our interest in this notion was further increased by the current socio-economic climate in which Britain finds itself, namely Brexit. Two years after publication of Meyers work, the Brexit vote reinforced the notion that a large number of British people differ in outlook to many fellow Europeans and maybe use of language is a component of that difference. Negotiations over the next two years to agree a post Brexit deal are already experiencing differing levels of rhetoric, with opposing sides providing “feedback” to each other via the media. Journalists are then having to interpret the feedback for their audience to avoid any further confusion. For instance, British Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that “No deal is better than a bad deal” which was interpreted by some as a logical, pragmatic stance while to others it was a threat. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson appealed for calm by stating "If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie, then I don't think that is the way forward”. Needless to say this use of words was interpreted very differently across Europe (France24, 2017).

British negotiators find themselves in a difficult position partly as it is forty years since the British have had to negotiate a trade deal (that was the responsibility of the EU) and once the split is complete it will be necessary to replicate the process with all other trading nations. If Meyer’s scales do indeed apply, then communication, language and potentiality familiarity with the British might be key to the success of such negotiations.

2. Purpose

Therefore, against the backdrop of Brexit and to improve communications between British managers and international stakeholders, we offer the following three hypotheses regarding communication from a British person to a non-British person.

- Hypothesis 1: That there is a common interpretation by British people of six typical English phrases.
- Hypothesis 2: That non- British people interpret six typical English phrases differently to British people.
- Hypothesis 3: That non-British people who have had regular exposure to British people are more likely to interpret six typical English phrases in the same manner as a British person.

3. Methodology

To investigate these hypotheses an online survey was combined with telephone interviews and face-to-face focus groups. Participants were asked their nationality and if not British, then additionally their level of exposure to British people, selecting from “regular exposure, some exposure and very little exposure”. Then, six phrases mentioned in Meyer’s work (2014, p. 67) were used to form the rest of the survey, the core topic of the interviews and the focus groups. The phrases used were:

1. With all due respect
2. I was a bit disappointed that
3. This is very interesting
4. Please think about this some more
5. I’m sure it’s my fault
6. That is an original point of view

In the survey, possible interpretations were provided plus the option of respondents inserting their own. These possible interpretations were randomised in order to reduce the likelihood of respondents simply picking the first response. The potential given responses are shown in Table 2.

Table 2 – Possible Interpretations Given In Online Survey

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No context was given to these phrases although most respondents knew it was likely to be in a business situation. In addition, survey respondents were asked: “In your dealings with British people are there any words or phrases where the way you interpreted them was different to what you then found out the British person meant? If so, please tell us more about them here.”

The wording of this was designed to make the question easier to understand for those with English as a second language. Earlier attempts such as “Have there been instances where you have interpreted British words or phrases in a way that is different from the speakers intended meaning? If so, please list some examples” were found to confuse a number of our trial non-British respondents. Interestingly, some of the British respondents then commented that they found our final version to be “poor English”, which in itself highlights that what the British believe to be correct English might not be as easy to understand for their foreign colleagues. This reinforces a point made at last year’s GABC conference in San Luis Potosi, that those who have English as a second language often find it easier to understand other second language English speakers than native speakers, partly due to the sentence construction.

The online survey was distributed by direct contact with colleagues in a variety of countries and was posted on LinkedIn. The only stipulation was that respondents had to possess a business level of English language skills. While responses are still arriving, at the time of writing there have been three hundred and thirty three responses. In addition, a total of sixteen telephone interviews and eight focus groups (average five people in attendance) have been completed at this point and the process is ongoing. The majority of focus group and interview participants had not completed the survey. During the interviews and focus groups the same six phrases were given in the context of a manager referring to a proposal that had been sent by the foreign colleague. The phrases were given with a slight inflection on any key words, such as “interesting” or “disappointed”. Initially no potential meanings were offered and they were asked to explain their interpretation. Once that information had been gathered the same potential options given in the survey were provided. At the focus groups, each individual wrote their interpretation before the discussion commenced in order to avoid group think.

Analysis of data was carried out using Stata 13MP, a statistical software package1.

4. Findings

Three hundred and thirty three people completed the survey. The nationalities of those who took part are summarised in Table 3.

Table 3: Nationality of Survey Participants

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The Chi-square and Fisher’s exact test were used to compare interpretations by British people to other respondents. Both tests compare proportions with each interpretation across groups. However, the Chi-square test performs poorly when sample sizes are small (in particular when there are less than five respondents in any one cell in the table being compared) and here the Fisher exact test is used instead. Either way, a p-value <0.005 in the following tables indicates statistically significant differences in responses of British and other participants.

The telephone interviews lasted on average thirty minutes and were held with the following nationalities (Table 4).

Table 4: Nationality of Telephone Interview Participants

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The focus groups lasted on average forty minutes and were generally comprised of one nationality apart from two groups where a mix of French and Belgians were present.

Table 5: Nationality of Focus Group Participants

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In Table 6, the responses of British people were compared to all other nationalities combined. It is evident that for each of the 6 phrases, with British respondents (n= 87) there was a clear preference for one interpretation. For the six phrases, on average 60.55% of British respondents selected one particular interpretation with the range being 47.1% to 78.2%. When the phrases were put in to a context and spoken with a slight inflection on key words to British participants, the common interpretation increased to 90% however there was only a slight change in the responses from non-British participants.

Table 6: Comparison of Responses of British and non-British Participants

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As the focus groups and telephone interviews concluded that providing a context and a slight inflection did little to vary the responses away from those given by non-British participants in the online survey, the data analysis from now on concentrates on that gained through the online survey.

There was a significant difference in the interpretation of “With all due respect”. Three quarters of British people interpreted this as “I think you are wrong”, compared to less than half from other nationalities. In fact, among non-British respondents, slightly more people interpreted this phrase as “I truly respect your idea however I have a few comments.”

Similarly, 70% of British people interpreted “I was a bit disappointed that” as meaning “I am very upset and angry about this” compared to only 47.8% of other nationalities. “This is not that important, my disappointment is minor” was an equally common interpretation by non-British respondents.

The interpretation of “I’m sure it’s my fault” differed between the two groups with half of British respondents interpreting this as “It is not my fault” whereas the most common interpretation in others was “It really is my fault.”

“That is an original point of view” was interpreted differently between the two groups, with 59.8% of British people interpreting this as “Your idea is stupid” while only 24% of other nationalities interpreted it this way.

There was no difference between British and others in the interpretation of “This is very interesting” or “Please think about this some more.”

In light of the British interpretations, detailed above and shown in Table 6, it is possible to confirm Hypothesis One.

- That there is a common interpretation by British people of the 6 common phrases

Next, responses by people of each of the other nationalities were compared to British responses and are summarised in Table 7. Apart from Belgian (Dutch speakers) there were significant differences between British and all other nationalities for at least one statement. It should be noted that the Belgian sample size is small and so only large differences would be detected as significant.

For some nationalities, many people interpreted phrases differently from the common British interpretation. For example, in Brazil, 90.7% interpreted “I’m sure it’s my fault” as “It really is my fault.”

Overall, taking into account responses from “other nationalities” (Table 6) and individual nationalities (Table 7) it was apparent that there were varying degrees of difference in interpretation of the 6 phrases and therefore it is possible to confirm Hypothesis Two.

- That non-British people interpret six typical English phrases differently to British People.

Table 7: Comparison of British and other Respondents by Nationality

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Finally, responses of British people were compared to those who have regular, some and very little exposure to British people, with the results summarised in Table 8. There were significant differences between British people and non-British who had regular exposure to British people in the interpretation of four of the six statements. However, the differences were greater in those with lower exposure. For example, 78.2% of British people interpreted “With all due respect” as “I think you are wrong”. Among those with regular exposure, 61.5% also interpreted the statement this way. However, this fell to 41.2% in those with some exposure and 27.6% in those with very little exposure.

Table 8: Comparison of British and other Respondents by level of Exposure to British People

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It is therefore also possible to confirm the 3rd hypothesis

- That non British people who have had regular exposure to British People are more likely to interpret six common English phrases in the same manner as a British person.

Other Phrases That Lead To Misinterpretation

The final question in the survey, interviews and focus groups related to other phrases or words that non British people had found difficult to interpret as the British speaker had intended. A sample of these is shown in Appendix A. While not unique to the British, it was quite apparent that there were many such words and phrases and a common theme was that spending time with British people allowed the non-British person to not simply learn those phrases but to acclimatise and interpret similar ones correctly. This reinforced the findings of the data analysis that exposure to the British helps with interpretation.

Many of the suggested phrases were idioms such as;

- Start from square one
- Let's get this ball rolling
- Bite off more than you can chew

While others were often vulgar slang such as;

- Bollocks
- Pissed

However the bulk of comments related to what Meyer (2014, p. 65-67) describes as either “Downgraders” (understatement) or phrases with a double meaning, such as the ones used in the survey. Other examples given were;

- I hear what you say: (I'm not interested at all)
- Sorry (not necessarily sorry)
- I'm quite upset (furious)

5. Summary

The results show that non-British people interpret the given common statements differently from British people. However, among non-British nationalities the most common interpretations vary. Furthermore, differences between the interpretations of British and other nationalities increases as the level of exposure to British people decreases. It can also be reasonably inferred that the same would occur with many other typical English phrases, not just those used in the survey.

Implications for British Managers with International Stakeholders.

The findings reinforce Meyer’s conclusions that people from different cultures communicate and consider ideas at work differently. Her advice that managers should familiarise themselves with such differences and adapt their communication accordingly also holds true. In addition, as familiarity with British people also appears to negate any confusion on the part of the non-British person, more cultural exchanges, secondments and international assignments are likely to be beneficial.

While a slight inflection was found to only have a small positive impact on interpretation by non-British participants, it might be advantageous for British communicators to highlight particular words in emails and to give more than a slight inflection when speaking. At the very least this might cause the non-British listener to question why the inflection was given and seek clarification.

The data shows there is not an undeviating view of interpretations from any nationality so managers should also take on board Meyer’s advice that not everyone thinks as per their cultural norm, “These profiles reflect, of course, the value systems of a society at large, not those of all the individuals in it, so if you plot yourself on the map, you might find that some of your preferences differ from those of your culture. (Meyer, 2014a).

Implications for Brexit and Trade Negotiations.

At the time of writing there is still debate about the official language to be used for the Brexit negotiations (Brun, 2017). Michael Barnier, the chief EU negotiator has had to rebut via Twitter media reports that he is insisting the negotiations would be in French.

"Never expressed myself on negotiation language. Work as often in English as French. Linguistic regime to be set at start; to be agreed between negotiators," (Guarascio, 2016).

Language in trade deals has long been used as a means of gaining advantage, with Babylonian traders creating polygot negotiation teams (Brun, 2017). Britain has long depended upon English being the Lingua Franca as far as business is concerned and struggles to compete when it comes to foreign language skills. Deficient language skills and the assumption that ‘everyone speaks English’ are costing the UK economy around £48bn a year, or 3.5% of GDP, according to research for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (Foreman-Peck, 2013).

A British Chambers of Commerce survey, (2013) backs up Foreman-Peck's claim of "a substantial negative effect on exports that must be attributed to language complacency". It reveals that 62% of non-exporting companies looking for international opportunities regarded languages as a barrier to doing so, while 70% of exporters had no foreign-language ability in the countries in which they operate.

Therefore negotiations being in English will be a key requirement for the British Brexit negotiators and with subsequent trade deals. Assuming that Brexit negotiations will be in English and taking in to account the findings of this paper that familiarity with British people improves understanding, a quick look at the initial lead team (to be supported by hundreds of civil servants) shows a mixed level of exposure (Whitehouse consultancy, 2016).

The EU’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier was France’s Europe Minister in the 1980s at the same time as Britain’s lead negotiator David Davis held the same role for the UK. Since 2010, Barrier has been the internal market commissioner having oversight of the City of London, so it appears that he has had considerable exposure to the British.

Sabine Weyand is Barnier’s deputy and she studied at Cambridge in the 1980s so again appears to have great familiarity with the British. However they are just two of a vast negotiating team and according to Politico (Aries, 2017) Barnier is avoiding using people who have had dealings with the British government in order to avoid conflict of interests. In light of the findings of this paper, it would appear advisable to at least ensure they have had regular dealings with the British.


My thanks go to all those who completed the survey and those who attended interviews and focus groups. My thanks also go to Siobhan Crichton for her invaluable help in in creating the statistical data used in this report.


1. StataCorp. 2013. Stata: Release 13. Statistical Software. College Station, TX: StataCorp LP.


ARIÈS, Q. (2017). Michel Barnier’s Brexit dream team; Politico. Retrieved from

Brun, H. (2017, March 31st). How Britain’s monolingualism will hold back its economy after Brexit. The Conversation. Retrieved from

Chamber Of Commerce. (2013). Knowledge Gaps and Language Skills Hold Back Exporters. Retrieved from

Duguleana. L. (2014). National Cultural Dimensions and Wellbeing In Some Countries Of The World In 2013. CrossCultural Management Journal, issue 6, pages 305-314

Foreman-Peck, J. (2013). The Costs to the UK of Language Deficiencies as a Barrier to UK Engagement in Exporting; The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

France24. (2017). Brexit: UK’s Johnson warns France against WW2-style ‘punishment beatings. Retrieved from

Guarascio, F. (2016, October 21st). Exclusive - Parlez-vous Brexit? EU negotiator wants Brits to talk French. Retrieved from

Hofstede, G. (2003). Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks CA, Sage Publications.

HR Magazine. (2016). 2016 Results At A Glance, HR Most Influential Thinkers; Retrieved from

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. New York, Public Affairs.

Meyer, E (2014a). Navigating The Cultural Minefield, Harvard Business Review. May 2014 edition; Retrieved from

Meyer, E. (2016). Mapping Out Cultural Differences On Teams. Retrieved from

Shaw, R. (2014). The Culture Map' Shows Us The Differences In How We Work WorldWide. Retrieved from

Whitehouse Consultancy. Profiles of the key negotiators in the EU and UK team. Retrieved from


Other Suggested Difficult Interpretations, from the question “In your dealings with British people are there any words or phrases, where the way you interpreted them was different to what you then found out the British person meant? If so, please tell us more about them here.”

All Pants



knackered = tired; originally thought it meant under the influence

"I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. “ Apparently this is a gap filler while contemplating the topic at hand but it comes off as utter confusion and incompetence."

Nothing like that but I've always liked the British way of often ending an opinion or reaction with something like "isn't it?" I can't put my finger on it but it has a way of softening the statement.

Quite simply, I feel that British sarcasm is often missed by the American mind.

The Phrase "Sorry" is used in many circumstances where the person should not actually be "sorry"

Not really; I have found it generally easier to communicate with British people. Often it's the Americans I deal with in business situations that read emails the unintended way or body language and such. Because people do this so much, I've had to use a lot of these phrases whether I am pro or con to the idea. People are very sensitive and seem to require this level of carefulness or in some cases subordination. The British people I have dealt with are very often so very pleasant and easy to talk to; if there is any concerns about interpretation we hash it out calmly while in the moment. The more I think about it, maybe I should go work in Great Britain.

A colleague said he got "pissed" last weekend, which I took to mean he was mad about something.

Toot your hooter does not reference squeezing someone's breasts!

He / she is a twit - seems harmless to an American but apparently quite the offensive insult in UK

In general, I believe British people are understated and Americans over-state. My opinion is that Americans will assume the worst for themselves from the phrases above.

one fine day

"Whatever", I always perceived it as 'go to hell'

"I hear you”

I understand

You're barking to the wrong tree, I thought that was something like: I stop with this shit, You're looking like a retarded

Yes, many of them. I eventually got used to it and I now have started thinking like a British person in many ways.

In school ""Well done!"" sounded like a patronising sarcastic phrase, now I actually see the value and realise that they meant exactly what was said.

I'm led to believe...

'You must come to dinner sometime' means 'I never want to see you again!'

Without prejudice after a sentence. To cover their back.

I hear what you say: i'm not interested at all

I have lived in England for many years now and I understand that Brits often mean the opposite to what they are actually saying. For the benefit of this survey I have answered the statements as I would have, when I first worked/lived with British people.

There are so many phrases British people use, where the literal meaning has no relevance to the topic being discussed.

For non-native British speaking people, phrases like the ones below can cause a lot of unnecessary time-wasting confusion:
- Start from square one
- Let's get this ball rolling
- Chew off more than you can eat
- A ball park figure
- Horse before the cart
- In a nutshell
- Hold your horses
- Bear with me
- Have your cake and eat it
- The calm before the storm

Nonsense, brilliant, to offer something to someone (British meaning : you are going to pay ), idiot, It does not make sense

I've been lucky to be able to watch a lot a British movies in original version with subtitles as a teenagers and to live with British people as soon as I moved to London so I quickly learnt that words in British English has usually more meaning than its own definition straight of the dictionary.

However, I have two example in mind : at work, I used to say the word 'interesting' a lot to express a positive feeling about an idea or a situation, but a British colleague told me not to use this word as most of the time this is used ironically (and I wasn't ironic!)

Another example is when i worked in a restaurant: 90% of the staff were Italians and the general manager was always telling us: "beware of the British customers, if they are unhappy with the service or the food, they probably won't say a word to you, they may even praise your work, but once they left, they will complain by email to me or [the owner] and we all know that we don't want to read this!" He was then doing a parallel with Italian clients who would shout straight away if he/she was in the same situation.

Removing 'Kind' from 'Kind regards' at the end of an email means they are furious with you

"I'm sorry ...

I'm quite upset ... (furious)"

"Shut up - I took offence they were expressing shock

Butters - this means someone is unattractive

Peng - I assumed negative connotations but it means attractive

Where are you coming from - I thought location they meant what do you mean"

"" Cheers "", can mean "" Thanks "" and not just celebrating a toast.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


How do British People Communicate Differently to Those of Other Cultures? Does Exposure to the British Lessen Such Differences?
Typical Business Phrases and Their Interpretation
University of Antwerp  (Global Advances In Business Communication)
Conference Paper Peer Reviewed
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
790 KB
erin meyer, global communication, GABC, The Culture Map
Quote paper
Michael Coates (Author), 2017, How do British People Communicate Differently to Those of Other Cultures? Does Exposure to the British Lessen Such Differences?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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