The 4th of July

Whilst speaking to someone in the States on the telephone last summer I was asked if I was going to celebrate the 4th of July holiday, which was due in a day or so. I was taken aback for a moment by the question? I thought to myself, “But why would I? I mean after all, we (the British) were the ones that lost the War of Independence weren’t we?”

I don’t think that the full historical context was uppermost in the person’s mind when they asked me that question. They were simply spreading the ‘goodwill’ that the 4th of July event can evoke in the States.

Holidays and the celebration of them are not the only differences between cultures. In fact, along with national food dishes they are often the easier parts to understand and join in with.

Business communication

It can be a very different story when we examine the way we communicate in the global world of business.

In the U.S., an extremely vast country, there is a surprising amount of homogeneity; especially in the way that business is conducted. Core values that can drive behaviour in the American office (as well as in US subsidiaries overseas) are a strong focus on: getting the task done, a strong sense and pride in individual achievement and an all-encompassing attitude to time and efficiency. Speed is king. There is, as well, often a greater comfort with uncertainty – ‘bouncing back’ is often seen as much more important than getting every detail right, before moving forward.


American business language can, to a Brit, and to other non-Americans, seem powerful, assertive and dynamic. But enjoying it and understanding it sufficiently to be able to respond are very different things.

Sports language at the business table

The baseball and American football language that flies around the table at meetings can be difficult to make sense of without a rudimentary knowledge of the games they refer to. “To touch base”, “play ball”, “get a home run”, “coming from left field”, “batting a thousand”, has “two strikes against him” and, of course, the “need to cover all the bases” are but some of the colourful phrases in common usage. Its use in business reflects the need of Americans to use language that is full of energy and vitality. Where better to take it from that from two very exciting sports.

Fair play & dodgy wickets

Where the British may reference sport in a business setting it is more likely to refer to “fair play”, “a level playing field”, “giving someone a sporting chance” or a “dodgy wicket”. This use of sporting language reflects a much more measured and conversely less dynamic atmosphere around the table at meetings.
And divided by a common language is only the half of it.

From the others’ perspective

Looking at the reality of how might we (Brits. & Americans) may see and experience each other, some of the following observations may be useful.

Some Americans may see the Brits, as: cynical, cold, distant, argumentative, implacable, distrustful of each other, pessimistic, out of touch, over-cautious, lacking spontaneity, bureaucratic, secretive, uncommitted to results, autocratic.

And Brits may see the Americans, as: naive, childish, superficial, insincere, lacking in conviction or depth, foolish, aggressive, workaholics, scatterbrained and undisciplined, small-minded, poor judges of character, over-reaching of themselves and of course wasteful.

Making sense of it all

The American friendliness and openness which is designed to promote trust as a proactive and constructive approach to life and business may be seen by Brits as somehow naive or childish. We have learnt through our long and often bitter history that to trust less is probably safer. One is less likely to lose ones’ head either in real terms or figurative terms. Americans sees this attitude as cynical and pessimistic. The Brits see it as necessary realism.

Americans are, on the whole much more spontaneous than Brits. They like to ‘brainstorm’ their way through the problems and challenges of life and business, the more ideas the better. The Brits see this as rather undisciplined, disorganised and unpredictable and highly dangerous.

In such uncertainty one never knows what may end up being suggested!

To a Brit. it is much better to prepare precisely what you wish to say, choose your words very carefully, in a ‘blame culture’ like ours a person will be held accountable for what they say.

Americans see this as overly cautious, guarded and lacking in spontaneity. For Americans this dull British approach can almost crush the desire for freedom and creativity. How repressed says one side – how immature says the other.

Changing times

But things are changing. The truth is that in the business world, we in Europe, have progressively borrowed from America more and more cultural traits, business practices, idiomatic expressions and the language of business communication than we may realise or be willing to admit.

In some ways we have all become a little bit American around the office or on the shop floor.

Perceptions from the past

In a recent research project the following question was asked:
What negative stereotypes/prejudices about people from the US have you heard?
These following answers were given by Americans in Europe about their own culture.

What the Americans mentioned about themselves:

  • fat
  • ugly
  • loud
  • impolite
  • impatient
  • pushy/rude
  • bossy
  • ignorant (of world events)
  • don’t understand irony/ have a sense of humour
  • arrogant
  • rich
  • spend too much money
  • racially bigoted
  • language-impaired
  • self-centred
  • overly individualistic
  • don’t work vary hard
  • not on time for anything

The above may be comforting confirmation to the Europeans of how they believe the Americans really are but the current reality is always caught in a time warp of comfortable stereotypes that say more about the past than the present.

Today’s Americans

The Americans who travel the world today on business are a very different group from those that came over to Europe in the 60’s. Today they much more savvy and attuned to the cultural differences around them. They may still prefer the American way of doing things but they are increasingly more open to difference and to experimentation – if it can be proved to work. Perhas it is time to update the stereotypes.

Richard Cook is an intercultural trainer and coach and can be contacted on or on +44 (0)20 8579 1980

Posted via email from The World At Work

Tags: , , , ,

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 29th, 2010 at 12:23 am and is filed under cross-cultural communication, cross-cultural differences, Europe, General, international business, North America . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.