While tourists, students and leisure travelers to either country are sure to notice subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences, these disparities are most noticeable when visiting the US or the UK for business. Many an American businessman has been daunted by seemingly bizarre British behaviours in the office (and after work at the local pub), and vice versa – Brits are sure to balk at what they would deem an overly emotional tone at annual meetings. Most glaringly, when it comes to ideas around success and failure, the two countries have vastly different outlooks.
Culture Shock between the UK and the US? Absolutely!
While it seems like a given that an employee embarking on a business trip to Korea, India or Nigeria will experience a certain amount of culture shock upon landing in a distinctly different city with unfamiliar social mores, an unknown language and new flavours and tastes, many people flying between JFK and Heathrow in either direction are not expecting to be flummoxed when they arrive – and they soon find out how wrong they were.
“Sure,” says our protagonist, “everyone drives on the wrong side of the street, seems to speak strangely and dresses completely inappropriately for the task at hand, but everything is more or less the same.” Within two days this belief will be completely shattered, as the countless subtle differences make themselves apparent.
Vocabulary and public holidays may be different and accents will sound comical or bizarre to your ears, but more insidious are the countless subtleties that separate the United States from the United Kingdom. Things that are expected and completely take for granted in the USA (such as aggressively polite customer service) will be lacking in the UK, while Britons may be horrified by what they interpret as disingenuous friendliness by eager and polite Americans.
Queuing (er, lining up), service in restaurants, office etiquette and topics considered appropriate for conversation – these are all vastly different between the two nations, and this cognitive dissonance can cause frustration, sadness and irritation. Don’t worry, the culture shock usually goes away within a few weeks, and soon you will start to intuitively understand the differences between the US and the UK.
Success and Failure: two countries, two approaches
As you can see, the cultural differences between the US and the UK can be overwhelming and confusing, and this can manifest most clearly in an office environment. Everyone is eager to succeed, impress their superiors and make a good impression – and yet it is here that being unaware of differences can become a hindrance.
Here are some of the most important areas in which differences can confuse and hamper you in the workplace.
Approaches to failure
Another adage can help us with this point: “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” This is a slogan that is often drilled into the heads of American school children ad nauseum, and many in the US business world stick to this belief into adulthood. While their British counterparts are obviously just as committed, innovative and intelligent, they do not often engage in bold public proclamations of their skills and ‘go gettedness.’
Lately, one of the biggest buzzwords in the US business climate is “failure” – after all, failing allows you to learn lessons that you can apply to future projects. Being able to create and try new things without worrying about being reprimanded for ‘failing’ allows for new innovations and exciting new ideas.
Conversely, in the UK, the term ‘failure’ has often been synonymous with defeat, loss and shame – but this is slowly beginning to change. As entrepreneur Chris Morling expounds, “I think the key is to create a working environment where the culture allows failure to happen, without blame being apportioned. When you have such a culture, employees feel free to suggest and act on new ideas rather than playing safe and stick to the status quo. It’s this mind-set that can drive a business forward.”
Many industries around the world are moving towards a system that handsomely rewards those who vocally advocate for themselves Americans have fully embraced the idea of self promotion and individual branding – it is common to see lengthy LinkedIn pages detailing achievements and a ‘can do’ attitude, and US business people are often not shy about extolling their own virtues in a business setting.
This bold way of speaking about oneself can seem gauche and braggadocious to their British counterpart, but in a world where “personal branding” is the way of the future, this is vital for future success. If a UK business person wants to compete with Americans in the increasingly globalised marketplace, personal branding and self promotion is a must.
Expression of Opinions and Ideas
In general, the cultural stereotype of the overly emotional American standing next to the reserved and uptight Brit doesn’t always hold true. That said, you can absolutely still see it in play in an office environment. While the American culture expects and rewards grand gestures and emphatic shows of enthusiasm, these types of raised emotions are not often on display in a British office setting.
High fives, excited cheers, slogans, mascots and ‘team building’ exercises are often eschewed in place of a cheeky after work pint (or three), banter and silly (and understated) jokes. While an eavesdropping American would probably deem this type of office environment as a “failure,” it can lead to rousing success in the UK – and vice versa.