The US has a large immigrant population and British expats form a significant part of its diverse, multicultural society. It is known to be a place of opportunity and serves almost like an expat magnet due to the many advantages it provides them, such as low taxes, inexpensive food, good weather, ethnic diversity and its many beautiful national parks. The US also prides itself on a strong work ethic, something that expat professionals appreciate.The renowned big cities such as New York and San Francisco are attractive to British expats, who head there for reasons ranging from job opportunities to retirement.
There are a host of quirks, practices and traditions that are quintessentially American, and it may take a while getting used to them. If you are a British expat in the US, understanding the differences in the British and American corporate cultures can enable you to interact better, and can also save you some embarrassment. A keen understanding of the cultural divide is an integral part of settling into and enhancing one’s personal and professional life in a new cultural setting.
Before we delve into the differences in corporate culture, it may be useful to consider some of the basic cultural differences that British expats are likely to notice soon after they move to the US.
The US seems to believe in the principle of the bigger, the better. Everything, from day to day amenities to services and goods, seems to have undergone an upgrade. The roads are wider, the vehicles are bigger, food and beverages come in larger sizes and the back gardens, or ‘yards’ are massive compared to the ones in Britain. The country itself is much larger than the UK, and it is quite common for Americans to make long commutes to and back from the workplace.
Another difference Britons are likely to spot immediately is that Americans drive on the right, while the steering wheel is on the left. Expect a small amount of disorientation, because as a Brit, you may be used to the opposite. Sales tax is also an area of difference, as in America, it is added at the point of sale. Britons will need to factor this in when buying things, especially if they are on a budget.
Both countries speak English, but there are numerous differences in terminology. Some examples of this include using the term ‘hood’ of the car instead of bonnet, or ‘turn signal’ instead of the British ’indicator’. Then there’s also ‘football’ instead of soccer, ‘fries’ instead of chips, ‘ATM’ instead of cash machine and ‘attorney’ instead of solicitor.
The American landscape too is a feature that British expats will find new, and often exciting, because of the way in which the land seems to continue for miles. Since the country is so large, there are parts of the Midwest where the land is flat and scattered with crop fields; the southwest is dotted with the country’s famous deserts; and the Rocky Mountains are a hiking paradise.
It is natural for British people to assume that culture shock is not something they will experience in the United States. The matter of integrating into unfamiliar cultures is generally reserved for countries where English isn’t the main language. In fact, many businesspersons may completely overlook the differences when conducting business abroad, especially with countries with which they share superficial similarities. But this can disguise the underlying differences. Assumptions of similarity may also lead to awkward interactions, which may be deemed as unprofessional.
The British way of doing business
The British corporate culture has its idiosyncrasies. For instance, the way the British adopt a mode of direct communication when it comes to policy, but take on a more indirect approach when giving feedback. This is often unfamiliar and confusing to those hailing from countries like Germany or the Netherlands, where more direct communication styles are prevalent. It is often the emphasis on politeness that seems to create the misunderstanding. Britons tend to also use understatement in their interactions, and to intersperse it with humor. It is only with time that foreigners are able to understand and appreciate these subtleties of the British version of the English language.
Visitors are sometimes taken aback by the British way of welcoming change and giving things a try, even if it means making mistakes. Cultures of other countries, especially European ones, tend to rely on holding back rather than making a mistake, while Asian cultures prefer to avoid making mistakes as the concept of saving face is an important one for them.
British people are warm and friendly and enjoy making small talk, the most popular conversational topic being the weather! But they can take their time in inviting new acquaintances into their homes. Another hallmark of British culture is ‘going to the pub’. Those new to the British culture may find this excessive, but newcomers are never compelled into participating. It is simply an activity that helps people bond and build stronger relationships.
Adjustment is a key part of integrating into a new society and culture; this is as true for personal relationships as it is for professional ones. Researching the new culture is one of the best ways to ease the transition. Cultural briefings are also helpful. Expats aiming to live and work in a new country may also benefit from cross cultural management programs.
Differences between British and American corporate cultures
The United States and Britain may be entangled in what is referred to as ‘cultures of similarity’. This is a phenomenon in which the similarities between two cultures seem to be bigger than the differences; as a result the differences often go undetected. This is especially true of business cultures, where differences can lie under the radar, and are largely ignored, only to resurface as culture shock. Here are some of the ways in which American corporate culture is different from British corporate culture.
British people are used to meetings where the participants are more reserved in giving their opinions and where people don’t generally share their thoughts openly. This is so that discussions can progress in a consensual manner. American business meetings, on the other hand, are mainly focused on brainstorming, where everyone involved puts forth their ideas and views. To the unaccustomed, it may appear as a sort of competition about who can contribute the most.
Small talk and humor in the business environment
With a more reserved sensibility, the British people may take longer to become friendly with strangers and feel comfortable in their company. This may sometimes come across as aloofness, although it does not in any way imply unfriendliness. British people will find that their American counterparts love making small talk and being overtly friendly, even in the business environment. In fact, many a time a brief session of chatting often precedes more serious conversations and business meetings. This might appear as over-friendliness and too loud to British expats, and may even lead to less than positive first impressions on some.
There is also a difference in the kind of humor both cultures enjoy. While the British humor is one of dry wit, the American style may come across as brash. In the UK, people are more likely to discuss world news and global issues than Americans, who prefer to talk about home life, sports news and the entertainment world. To have successful business meetings, it becomes necessary to find common ground and one of the ways to get there is to go prepared.
Enthusiasm is a vital part of the American business environment, and people are expected to be enthusiastic when arguing their point. This is also true when talking to a potential employer. British expats will be more familiar with understated emotional expression and self-control. In the UK business environment, making a sales or achieving something significant is met with self-restraint and even the congratulatory expressions are less overt. In the American business culture, it is quite common to respond to such events with a high-five!
In the US, the east coast takes a more formal approach to business attire, while the west coast is more informal and casual. The practice of casual Fridays is common across the country. The British follow a conservative, classic attitude towards business dress codes that applies to women and men, where darker colors are predominant. Especially at the higher management levels, people go for quality and opt for bespoke clothing and high-end fashion. This is also a sign of status. In the US, very few choose to wear high-end clothing at business meetings and such fashion often goes unnoticed.
In the UK, there is greater stress on a good work-life balance and people like to have a life beyond the workplace where they can engage in other activities like tennis or take vacations. British expats may have to get used to a different way of life in the US, where there is greater emphasis on dedicating oneself to their work. However the importance of a good work-life balance is gaining significance across the world. While Americans were, at one point, expected to devote themselves solely to their place of work, this trend is now changing and Americans are carving out the time to spend with family and engage in other interests. Employers, too, are recognizing the importance of this and enabling their employees to build a more balanced personal and professional life.
After the workday
Professionals in America and Britain live rather different lives outside of work. The British pub culture is at its peak once the workday ends. The pubs start filling up soon after 5 o’clock and it is common to see people in their business attire showing up for a drink. One is more likely to spot Americans at a school play or baseball game. Many Americans, businesspersons included, take part in community activities or volunteerism. They also get together to socialize with colleagues after work.
The concept of success
The UK and the US differ in how they view and define success. In Britain, position is highly important and the more well connected one is, the higher their status. The United States views success in a very different manner, and this stems from its affinity towards capitalism. Here the term ‘successful’ is used to define those who earn well and have had business success. It may happen that such individuals also occupy higher positions in the business world, but position alone is not a requirement for someone to be termed successful.
In the US, professionals do not shy away from discussing their accomplishments and promoting themselves. This is done at interviews, performance appraisals, sales meetings and job fairs. With British people, in contrast, self-promotion is rare and also considered a bit of a taboo. They tend to be uncomfortable with public praise and usually attempt to deflect the praise with some wit. They also avoid promoting themselves to colleagues and doing this may even result in ridicule. To communicate one’s accomplishments, they take a more straightforward approach and discuss the matter with facts and the least amount of exaggeration.
In conclusion, it is important to note that not all Americans display and engage in the above-mentioned behaviors and practices, the same way that not all British people are ‘typically British’. To respond in the most appropriate way in any given situation, it’s important to become familiar with the different aspects of the culture you are living in. Different industries, such as finance, entertainment, etc., may also have different norms and codes of conduct. There are also varying business codes from one company to the next. The cultural backgrounds of the people involved also differ, especially since both countries are composed of a host of diverse nationalities.