Five tips to ask a British person to do something for you

I spent many years working in local government in the UK. Sometimes, the job was quite difficult. I often had to ask people to do things that I couldn’t do myself, and I wasn’t their manager. Directly asking for something to be done did not always get an immediate response and I could not expect they would be cooperative. I learnt that when I had something in common with the person, or I found something out about them, that it made the task easier for them to do and that they were, in a way, more helpful.

However, you may be an excellent communicator in your own culture, but what works well in Germany may not be as successful in native English-speaking culture, and particularly in the UK.

I remember that we employed a German colleague in our office. It was her first job in the UK. She was very capable, able and respected for being good at her job. However, her way of dealing with people left her colleagues somewhat confused. It seemed that she thought her wishes, expectations and demands were immediately obvious to other people. Although people didn’t dislike her, they politely avoided doing things for her.

In business, the UK is different to other English-speaking countries and Germany. In my experience, the UK is a more relationship-based business culture. Day-to-day business activities are done on a more personal level. This is highlighted in Erin Meyer’s book ‘The Culture Map’.

My experience was that I was more successful when I developed a level of trust and mutual bond with other colleagues. I would like to give you some tips that are based on my experience in the UK.

One: I found it good to start with a few moments of small-talk to develop ‘rapport’, in other words, building a connection with the other person. Show that you are focused on and interested in what the other person is doing. Is there something that you have in common with or know about this person? However, don’t keep the small-talk going for too long!

Two: I would be clear and concise about what you are asking the person to do – if necessary, I would put the reasons after the suggestion and not before. Although you’ve made the small-talk and developed the rapport it’s important to be clear about what you want the person to do.

Three: use adjectives and adverbs when you ask the person to do something. This is used a lot in British culture. It is a kind of formal politeness that shows respect and goodwill to the other person.  In my opinion it’s a British and more complex way of using the ‘Sie’ form.

minor, possibly, quite, relatively, somewhat…

Four: Ask open-ended questions when you want to gain commitment from the person. Again, this is a form of politeness, showing respect for the other person.

How difficult would it be for you to…?

When would you be able to do this by?

What’s possible for you?

Five: show appreciation at the end of your request – in my experience British colleagues respond well to this. Phrases you could use are:

‘Thank you for your time’

‘I appreciate you doing this’

Or you could even show some personal gratitude ‘I’m pleased about this’.

So, how do you start improving your business English?

Well, that’s where I can help you. I worked in a variety of industries in the UK (have a look at my LinkedIn profile) so I’m happy to share my knowledge of business English with you. Contact me here.

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