The Atlantic divide

Written by: Dr Liz Alexander Posted: 05/01/2015

Atlantic divide feature imageFrom brash Americans to reserved Brits, there"s a perception that the two nations are very different when it comes to doing business. But are the stereotypes correct? Dr Liz Alexander, a Brit living in the US, investigates

The Persuaders was an early 1970s TV series starring British actor Roger Moore (pre-James Bond) and American movie star Tony Curtis. Both played the roles of playboy millionaires - but there the similarity ended. Moore"s character was a Harrow- and Oxford-educated aristocrat, while Curtis played a "rough diamond" from Brooklyn who"d served in the US Navy then made his fortune in the oil business. Even the Persuaders" names - Lord Brett Sinclair and Danny Wilde - conjured up stereotypes that today, over 40 years later, are still associated with Brits (discreet and reserved), and Americans (brash and overconfident). In some cases, such enduring perceptions are warranted - but not always.

Knowing Americans think we"re all well-bred is presumably advantageous to the million or so Brits who, according to the British Consulate General in New York, work in the US for British companies (the same number of Americans work in the UK for US companies). When Fiona Czerniawska, Co-Founder of London-based Source for Consulting, was speaking with one of the US companies her firm provides research for, she was delighted to hear them say how helpful she"d been. She thought they were praising her insights, until they added: “Yes, it was like spending half an hour in Downton Abbey.”

Ups and downs

In some industries such a reaction can be especially beneficial, as Paul Mower, Director of JTC Group"s New York office, found. Hailing from the UK appears to afford him a greater level of trust when it comes to selling his company"s offshore trusts and corporate services.

As Mower explains: “I deal with attorneys in New York, a few of whom have told me I"m an easier sell to their high-net-worth clients because we"re providing solutions traditionally associated with offshore jurisdictions governed by the British. As such we have an advantage over, say, someone from Argentina selling the same product.”

George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. Yet there"s more to this than our accents - and that"s why challenges around cultural expectations often occur.

When Paul Mower arrived in New York in 2008, he was surprised to find that business socialising was not what he"d been used to in Jersey, or in Switzerland with fellow expats. “In both, going for a drink at lunch or after work was common, but that just doesn"t happen in New York,” he says, adding that New Yorkers appeared less friendly as a result.

It"s different from an American perspective. BJ Richards, originally from West Virginia, relocated when her scientist husband was offered a post at University College London - she works for Source for Consulting as a Senior Analyst. As she explains: “My husband struggles to nurse a pint over the course of a few hours while people talk business, because he"s not used to drinking alcohol during the day.” She adds that just as much socialising with co-workers takes place in the US, but it"s less about going out for drinks and more about inviting couples for dinner.

The way you convey business information can also be fraught with cultural missteps. When Richards gave her first presentation to an audience in London, in which she shared some “not-so-good findings”, she realised in retrospect that she"d “acted like a big golden retriever puppy - very eager, loud and gregarious. That was such an American thing to do it didn"t seem odd to me, but I was told next time I should look more serious and not smile as much.”

Independent communications consultant Corie Madden Pryce, who is married to a career British diplomat and has lived in various parts of the US and Europe serving clients on both sides of the Atlantic, has also been branded an overconfident, loud American, but prefers to think of it this way: “Americans have an amazing energy to move forward, progress, and create. There are more than 300 million of us - a diverse mix of cultures from all over the planet. If you want to stand out in the crowd in the US, you have to be loud!”

Culture shock

Loud or "brash" should never mean being discourteous, however. Certainly not for Brits looking to build trust, inspire respect and develop long-lasting business relationships on the other side of the pond, according to Intercultural Consultant and Founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, Sharon Schweitzer. Indeed, many things taken for granted in UK workplaces are uncomfortable, even offensive, to Americans, she says, including swearing, sarcasm, exchanging insults, outspoken dissent and criticism.

Fiona Czerniawska recalls an interactive seminar in New York in which one American made a point to which she responded: “No, I don"t think I agree with that…” and found herself having to turn things around quickly in light of the distress such directness appeared to cause many of her US attendees.

As Schweitzer advises: “You have to know the topics and behaviours that require sensitivity in each country. In the US, it"s essential to be polite and courteous and not put individuals on the spot. For the most part, people in the US don"t want acrimony and aren"t interested in arguments or debates. In the professional realm we also avoid discussions or jokes involving sex, religion and politics. But anything to do with general current affairs or popular culture, such as the US Open, the World Cup, Olympics, Golden Globes or music awards, is enjoyable and can be a great way for people from different cultures to bond.”

As business becomes ever more globalised, are we likely to find - at least with respect to the US and UK - far greater cultural coalescing than is currently the case? “As demographics are rapidly changing, the US will be more diverse than ever before, with less and less Anglo-heritage,” says Corie Pryce. “I think we were probably more alike 50 years ago, and for the two centuries before that.”

In the meantime, both sides are well advised to be more aware of each other"s idiosyncratic ways of conducting business affairs. Or, as the French would say: Vive la difference!                       


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