How Giovanni can win over the British

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The Independent Online
This week saw the publication of the Department of Trade and Industry's guide on how to do business in Italy: 'Contacts with the British business community: Some Do's and Don'ts'.

Among the controversial advice offered was the information that Italians are frivolous, loud and that they don't tell the truth - and the warning that British business people should not make jokes about the Mafia.

We are pleased to be able to offer a sneak preview of an Italian view of Britain.

'Esteemed business colleagues,

On my last trip I was visiting with an English family one evening. After the EastEnders is finished and we all looking ruefully into the empty glasses of Blue Nun, they say: 'Paolo, you like-a the pasta?'

And I say: 'Pasta? I'm an Italian.'

And they say: 'Good.'

And they give-a me the Pot Noodles with the Bacon Bits. Mamma Mia] What a

country]

So, heretofore notwithstanding - as the English lawyers like to put in their contracts - is a brief guide we have prepared to all you a- need to know about Britain and the British.

Ciao]

Paolo, Forum Secretary'

Background

To misquote Winston Churchill: 'Britain is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.' How can you begin to understand a country whose national sport is cricket, whose pastimes include morris dancing, whose people can manage to eat lunch in quarter of an hour and enjoy wasting Sunday afternoons choosing bathroom tiles at Texas Homecare and who collectively spend less on clothes every year than they do on dog food?

The British are proud of their eccentricity. Other qualities they prize include a love of democracy, fair play, charity, kindness to animals and fondness for children. (The fact that for the past four elections the British have elected right-wing governments who have displayed none of these characteristics seems not to strike them as odd.)

Do make jokes about the England football team, the Prince of Wales, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Mr Blobby, the Pound, the Church of England, the England cricket team, the Channel Tunnel, British Rail, Group 4 security, the National Health Service, pub meals, Robert Maxwell, sex, Tony Blackburn, motorway service stations, the police . . . in fact you can make jokes about almost everything - the British seem to find it difficult to take anything seriously.

Don't criticise the BBC, The Big Breakfast, Richard Branson, The Beatles or the Queen Mother: these are the only things that the British seem to feel strongly about.

Social behaviour

The British are so reserved you can never hope to get to know any of them properly. Put 12 Roman men and women in a room together and at the end of 12 hours you will probably have had a couple of murders, a few proposals of marriage and at least three conceptions. Put 12 British in a room and after 12 hours they won't even have established eye contact with each other.

Beyond discussing yesterday's football results and tomorrow's weather forecast, the British have practically no small talk. Having no real interest in food and drink, and being easily embarrassed by topics of education, politics, religion and by personal matters, they are easily stumped for conversation.

Useful fillers include: 'Christmas/Easter/Bonfire Night seems to start earlier every year, doesn't it?' or 'They say there's global warming but winters just go on getting colder.' Or just learn to smile politely and nod sagely to fill yawning gaps in the chit-chat.

Do talk about the weather, television programmes, the Princess of Wales, the weather, Graham Taylor, the weather, the Queen and the weather.

Don't talk about politics, Mrs Thatcher, education, religion, sex, football, the weather in Italy (the British get jealous), the Mafia (the British get embarrassed because they think you don't want to talk about it), death, money, literature, the arts or the Common Market.

Business dress

The British take a special pride in spending as little on their clothes as possible (just take a look at the sartorial style of John Major or Kenneth Clarke). In order not to make your British contacts feel uncomfortable, dress down to their level.

For business purposes search out shops such as Littlewoods, Argos or Millets for something suitably formal (preferably in polyester). For evening wear - an after-hours business meeting at the pub, for example - a shell suit is perfect.

Do remember to leave the dandruff on your collar.

The language barrier

You may think you speak English - but English secretaries have their own language and you will have to run their picket line to get to the boss.

Secretaries like to impede your progress by asking apparently inane questions such as: 'Is he/she expecting your call?' (Being sarcastic by replying: 'Well, not unless they're clairvoyant, they won't be' will not advance your cause.)

'He's just stepped away from his desk,' or 'she's not answering her phone at the moment,' mean that the person you want to speak to is making frantic hand signals to their secretary to indicate that they don't wish to speak to you.

Don't be surprised to be put 'on hold' by a secretary and left waiting for 10 minutes. This is just another way of being told to go away.

Office hours

In theory, British companies work from 9am to 5pm with an hour for lunch. In practice, most people don't get to the office until after 9.30 ('the train was late . . . the roads were terrible'), a tea- break is taken at around 10.30 and lasts up to 30 minutes.

The process of actually eating an English lunch may only take 10 or 15 minutes but pre- and post-eating activities such as 'popping down the bank' or 'nipping up to the chemists' can spin this out to well over an hour and a half.

Expect another 30-minute tea break in the afternoon. People start going home at 4.30pm 'so I'll miss the

traffic'.

Don't - even though you may be perplexed by the fact that nobody ever seems to want to do any work in Britain, please don't say: 'No wonder Britain has been going downhill for the past 20 years.' The British are a proud race.

Hamish McRae is ill.

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