How to ask British colleagues for help and get it

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Do you understand the rules of working in the British office? Or do you struggle to get help from your British colleagues?

Let me guess when you first moved to the UK you were surprised at how nice and polite everyone was. Yet, the time went by, you started working in the office, and slowly frustration crept in.

You started thinking:

Why don’t they answer my emails?

Why finding out simple things takes sooo long?

Why do projects go incredibly slow, even though you just need simple answers to move things along?

You know something isn’t right, but you’re not quite sure what…

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just wave a magic wand and get the answers? Or better yet, find out what the missing ingredient is, so you can get the answers AND repeat this every time you need something?

Imagine this – you send an email on a Monday morning requesting information about your new project, you step into the morning meeting and when you step out of it, the answer is there.

Every. Single. Element. You. Need.

No endless waiting. No endless chasing.

Here’s the thing: if you come from a different culture, you might have been setting yourself up for failure by the way you communicate. Yes, the British are polite but they have lots of unwritten rules about what politeness means, and they can be very stubborn and difficult if their politeness standard is not met.

Controversial? Maybe. But it’s true!

The devil is in the details, or more specifically in the unwritten rules of the local culture.

Let’s start with the simple act of asking for help in a crisis.

Asking for help in a crisis situation

So how do you do this? Let me explain with an example from my home country, Poland.

In Poland, face with a crisis situation at work, we are expected to drop everything and focus on the problem at hand.

If I arrive one morning to find out that, for example, we are missing a container that was supposed to be delivered, I would be expected to throw niceties out the window and just solve the issue.

It might look something like this:

I am becoming aware of the issue. Only one of the colleagues knows the details of the container and it’s necessary that they are the ones to contact the logistics company.

The conversation would look like this:

‘Hey, Alicia! Listen, I just found out our shipment got stuck, would you mind calling them quickly to solve this? I know you have all the details, and I am not sure exactly what needs to be said.

Alicia: ‘I’m on it!’.

Simple, quick, and straight to the point.

Yet, if you are British, this conversation would strike you as extremely rude.

Here’s how the same situation would go in the UK:

K: ‘Hey Alicia, how are you?’

A: ‘Fine, thanks, how are you?

K: ‘Not bad. Did you do anything fun yesterday?

[polite small talk conversation]

K: ‘Oh, by the way. I just found out our shipment got stuck. I think you have some details about it?’

A: ‘Yes, I do. Do you need anything?’

K: ‘Oh, thank you! If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind giving the logistics company a ring when you have a minute?’

A: ‘Sure, no problem!’.

Now, if I had this conversation back home, I would probably end up in my boss’ office to talk about my unprofessionalism and attitude at work… Yet, in the UK having small talk and slowly arriving at the main point, even though this is a pressing issue, is a necessity.

Phrasing your conversations like this is actually easier than you think!

If you want to get help from your British colleagues, just follow these simple steps:

  1. Always start with small talk and genuinely get involved in it. Bonus points, if you talk about something related to the other person – like their plans or likes/dislikes.
  2. Arrive at your point slowly ‘Oh, by the way…’ – is a great phrase to use and introduce your main topic
  3. Leave the pressure out – add words like ‘when you have a minute’, and ‘if it’s not too much trouble’ – for some reason, time pressure doesn’t work well in the British office.
  4. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS phrase your request as if you are giving the other person choice. Even if they are the only person who can do it and they have to do it, always use phrases ‘if you could’, and ‘if you don’t mind’.

The first time you do this will be the hardest.

But with each time, as you practice, it will become a natural way to communicate.

I have been in the UK now for about 13 years and communicating in the British way has become my second nature. I actually find people extremely rude now whenever I go home and I have to remind myself that the local culture is just different.

So, in short, remember: the way we communicate is affected by our culture. And if you want to crack the British one – just follow the above 4 steps.

If you find this helpful, check out this FREE guide: 65 phrases that British people use at work.

So can this be the solution to your problems? Do you think it would work for you? Let me know in the comments!


One response

  1. Ryan Biddulph

    What an excellent service. I love this idea. Moving abroad seems challenging; I know this as a 12 year digital nomad. Offering insights into culture as an expat yields invaluable advice. Well done!



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