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Working With Americans: The Cultural Differences

Working With Americans: The Cultural Differences

Allyson Stewart-Allen (International Marketing Consultant) gives expert video advice on: Is it true that only 28% of Americans have a passport?; Do Americans keep up to date with International Affairs?; In business culture, what are the main differences between the East and West Coasts of America? and more...

Is it true that only 28% of Americans have a passport?

At the time we researched our book, we found that only 28% of Americans had passports. Luckily today, that's a much higher figure, and we're up into the maybe mid-thirty percent range. But it's not necessarily because they are doing more foreign travel outside of continental US or North America. Some legislation came in a few years ago requiring people to have a passport for Mexico and Canada. However, the number is still pretty small in terms of those that leave North America. There's a lot of reasons for that. Mostly because the US economy is so large in and of itself that there's a sense of, "Why go beyond the US shores if we haven't even exploited all the potential in our own backyard?" So you generally find Americans staying in America on business reasons, and even for leisure, because there's just so much potential that's perceived to be there. That's one issue. The other more important issue is that US banks and financiers are typically the ones that will fund, because we have a higher risk appetite in the US, we will fund ventures and ideas from other parts of the world. So British executives and ideas come to us, French, German, from all over the world, and we fund them. So I think what'll maybe change that is when that deal flow dries up, when the demand isn't coming to the US and we're not handed ideas on a silver platter. Then we'll have to go out and look for these things, and then we'll get our passports.

Do Americans keep up to date with International Affairs?

American business people do keep up to date with international business and international affairs, Where it affects their overseas operations. If it's a US company, only with US operations and they're not outside of America, or have plants or employees outside of America, generally we're not going to be as fluent on that topic as American executives who have to pay attention to factories and employees in other parts of the world. International affairs isn't at the top of the agenda for domestic companies.

In business culture, what are the main differences between the East and West Coasts of America?

There are differences between the east and the west coasts of the US. On the East Coast it's a bit more formal, still a suit, still a tie, the pace is faster than the West Coast. The transactional pace that is, so trying to hurry up, do a deal, complete it, close it and move on to the next one. It's perceived to be more high strung on the east coast, and a bit more formal. The West Coast is a bit more laid back, a bit less formal in terms of the protocols. It doesn't mean they're any less serious or less interested, but it's just in terms of the style you will definitely sense it. The hours are just as long though, on both coasts, so don't be fooled, people work just as long but just the styles are definitely different.

What are the main cultural differences between the coastal areas and the heartland?

One of the things that's also different within the United States, besides the coasts, is all of the area in between. And so not only are there differences in terms of political color, so we even have a dichotomy that we'll use in shorthand of the "Red States" and the "Blue States". The Blue States are Democrat; the Red States are Conservative or Republican. So, there's a perception that the middle part of the US is the "heartland", which means generally, it's more sincere, it's slightly less transactional, and more relationship-based. People want to get to know you a bit better. They might do their due diligence a bit more. They're perceived to be truer to their word in the middle part of the country than on the coasts, where the perception is that the people on the coasts are a bit "fly-by-night", "let's-do-a-deal-and-move-on". There are also definitely style differences in the middle part of the country, too.

What are the main cultural differences between Americans and the British?

There are cultural differences between Americans and the British. One example might be socializing. So, for example, having the boss round to dinner. In the U.S. it's not something that you do very often, whereas in Europe, you generally will have the boss over for dinner and in the States we're a bit ambivalent and anxious about having the boss over for dinner because you're on show. They're checking your house, your husband, your wife, your kids, your lifestyle, and there's some fear that they will be passing judgment on that and that factors into your potential for promotion. So it makes us quite nervous to have the boss round. But one of the things you will find that's a key difference is that after hours Americans are very involved in out-of-work activities: church, children's soccer clubs. So there's a lot of volunteerism that happens in the U.S. with business people that isn't necessarily something that happens so much in the UK with executives.

What does the average American worry about?

I think one of the things that your average American executive is thinking about increasingly is the value of their pension. With the sub-prime mortgage meltdown that we're all aware of that's been going on lately. A lot of pension plans that Americans have are increasingly less valuable than ever before. One thing going through an American executives mind is “How many more years do I need to work?” “I have to postpone retirement possibly.” And that is very worrying for Americans and American businesspeople. I think another thing that worries American businesspeople is the cost of healthcare. If they're not employed, then they lose all the benefits of private health insurance. And private health insurance, if you're paying as a private individual, is extremely expensive. So, I think that those are the sorts of things that worry Americans as about, you know, what's my pension worth? And also, can I afford health care if I ever leave the company. So I think that those are really keeping people up at night.

How is success' defined in the American business world?

Success in American business for an American, typically looks like owning your own home, owning a fairly large home, having comfortable cars and at least one, putting your children through private college, pretty much. Also, what your pay check is. And it's very basic in the U.S. in terms of business. You're defined by your bank balance, for the most part. So, there are other accoutrements that happen in the U.K. in terms of, have I been knighted or acknowledged with a title, by the Queen? Do I have access to a certain club? Those aren't the things, really, that define American business success. There it's really more about how much money am I making and can I afford a very nice lifestyle? So, it's actually in some ways it's a lot simpler.

Is it appropriate to talk about ones salary in America?

Salary increasingly is a subject that isn't taboo in what used to be, so its not surprising to have another American colleague of yours ask you how much you make which is absolutely shocking if you are in the UK or another parts of Europe where you don't talk about your salary. In the US it's often the case you will be asked. Whether you answer or not is totally up to you. A lot of people don't bother answering that question and say, "Well it's enough to be comfortable and diplomatically try not to answer that question, which I think actually the right thing to do. But it is increasingly the case that you are ask about your salary partly because maybe from American perspective they have no idea how much in dollars you might be earning in the overseas market if you are in the UK or France or other parts of the world.

How important is family time to an American worker?

The issue of family and being available to family increasingly, now is hugely important. Why? Because Americans travel a lot for work; they drive a lot, they fly a lot within the US as well as nationally. This work-life balance or life-work balance, I think is the more appropriate term for, means that Americans are acessing the quality of life, "I'm traveling the country all the time and I don't see my family and my kids." So, increasingly you're seeing Americans making choices to opt out of certain promotional opportunities and opt-out of a high flying career in order to be around for their families. So it is something that increasingly, we're doing.

How flexible are American companies when comes to balancing work and family?

One of the things that your findings about work in the US is that a company is much more accepting of the fact that you have a family life as well as a work life and a bit merging of the two is okay. So you find people doing a grocery shopping from home, they find Americans working from home more and more and you find Americans having more flexible working time so that they can take their kids to a football match or that really important swim meet or that is something on in a families life. So companies are needing to be and or proving to be much more flexible and tolerant of this things because they realize that if you want to keep these talented employees you also have to recognize that they have a life outside of the office so you are finding companies much more accepting of the family life coming in to the work life. The issue is striking to the right balance what company work put to the US is bringing your children to work with you or doing to much of living from work or rather working from home.

How does socialising after work differ between Britain and America?

One of the things you do find is that, in the U.K., you go out to the pub after work, you know, you have a few pints, couple of glasses of wine, that's perfectly OK, and it's a fairly frequent thing. In the U.S., you generally won't find people going out after work with their colleagues to a wine bar or to a bar. Generally, Americans, they're tired after work and they just want to get home and they want to see their families. Partly because they work incredibly long hours and maybe they don't see their families enough, or they have other extracurricular commitments like soccer, or baseball and little league, or a church or religious activities. So, although socializing with colleagues does happen, it's much less frequent than it is in the U.K. and perhaps, not less acceptable, but certainly alcohol isn't involved nearly as much as it is in the U.K. and other parts of Europe.

How acceptable is it to get drunk in front of American colleagues?

One of the things that you would never really find in the US is someone getting drunk or having too much alcohol. It just doesn't happen. If it does happen, it's seen as incredibly irresponsible, but it's also really an indication that the person must be really out of control, that they have no self-restraint or self-discipline whatsoever. And it's a big deal if someone in the US appears anywhere drunk. It's an absolute taboo. So it's something that you just wouldn't do unless you actually wanted to leave the company.

How is an office romance likely to be perceived in America?

Having friendships with people from the opposite sex, or having friends in the workplace is perfectly acceptable, and is very commonplace, just like it is in the UK. Office romances is another story. The US is really not terribly tolerant of office romances. If they're kept secret, that's another story because then nobody necessarily knows. But open displays of affection between a couple having an office romance is really very much frowned upon in the US.

Should I be up to date with Sports in America?

Being up to speed with American sports is a really important thing to do. Sport is, by U.S. standards, it's something that everybody should be able to talk about. Now, the fact that you're maybe not American excuses you from being an expert on... "Who won the World Series...What do you think of this football team"... but you're expected to know at least something about American sports so that you can talk to it, so that you can ask questions like: "Oh, who's your favorite baseball team?...Oh, aren't they great?...What do you think of this and that?". So as long as you're conversationally fluent rather than necessarily totally fluent on American sport that goes a very long way because it proves that you are interested in them, in their culture, and it gives you something to talk about in common that isn't just about business.

How patriotic are Americans?

One of the interesting things about Americans in business and Americans maybe generally, is the importance of the heritage of the country and America, not only America as a brand but America as an ideology. One of the things that you'll find about American business people is that they're pretty patriotic, just like the rest of America. So we value things that have been invented in America or manufactured in America and maybe there's a bit of arrogance or naivety, depending on your perspective, about products and services that started in America. The view is that inherently they must be really good because America is the greatest country on earth according to people in America. So we are very patriotic. So what that basically means is that questioning our legal system, questioning how we like the presidents, questioning our foreign policy is something that's a bit touchy for American business people, because it feels slightly like an outsider is criticizing the way we work, both economically but also how we work in terms of international relations. So those are subjects that I probably wouldn't really get into a discussion with an American about, unless you know them really well and you're just exchanging views. But generally Americans are really patriotic and to query why we're that way really doesn't settle us.