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The Atlantic Divide



Sometimes I wish I’d been around in the era of the telegram. Communication systems were primitive and people would be all excited to receive a telegram from a loved one on the other side of the world. It almost made the planet seem smaller and the person was just around the corner. Of course in the modern day we’ve got mobile phones, the internet and video conferences to make the place seems small and I think some of the wonder of communicating has been lost along the way.

And that takes me neatly on to my point. Communication. Many argue that language can be a barrier to communication, and that can certainly be the case. But I reckon that culture is a far larger barrier and language can preclude that, and I’ve got an example to demonstrate it. I work for an American company, based in Minneapolis. We all speak English over in the UK, and they all speak English over in the States. We speak the same language. So there shouldn’t be any problems with communication. In theory.

But reality doesn’t quite work that way. We’ve had lots of problems, and everybody that I’ve spoken to who has worked with Americans has had the same set of problems with eerie regularity. But although it’s easy to generalise and blame our American cousins, it’s not their fault. And I know for a fact that we drive our counterparts mad sometimes, acting in what seems to them to be wildly unpredictable ways. And again, it’s not entirely our fault. The problem is that we all speak the same language and just assume that we’re on each other’s wavelengths. But that’s sometimes not the case.

I do recognise that everybody is an individual and therefore I can’t just refer the “The Americans” as though they are an army of clones, but attitudes and behaviour patterns tend to be very similar within a geographical location. However, America is so darned big and multicultural that there are a great many cultures within the whole country. So rather than generalise, I’m refining my discussion to the Americans I work with and have come into contact with (although not on an individual basis) so you can’t accuse me of being a generalist or a racist! Plus it wouldn’t be fair otherwise.

When I first started working with my American colleagues I treated them exactly like everyone else and quickly realised that they had a sense of humour (one generalisation gone), some were very clever, some were not so clever, and they were all different characters with different interests and lives. Much like anybody else. But as I’ve worked with them more I’ve come to realise that while our language is common, their attitudes to business and they way they talk and think is somewhat different to my UK colleagues. My favourite analogy concerns NASA. To put a man on the moon the USA spent billions of dollars, thousands of people and years of carefully controlled planning and execution before meeting their objectives (which they admirably did). Had Britain tried to do the same you can bet that a group of maybe ten people would have designed the rocket on the back of a cigarette packet, worked for a year or so out the back of a shed, made the rocket out of bits and pieces lying around the local dump and after a massive final push, have sent the ramshackle rocket on its course (after a few false starts when the rubber bands broke). It’s a totally different ethos.

And it’s this difference that has been most obvious to me. The people who colonised the USA may have come from Europe originally, but the European and American cultures rapidly diverged from that point on. It was only a few hundred years ago that this took place but already as nations we seem to be motivated completely differently. And it’s not a bad thing. The French and the English are a completely different race (and not easy bedfellows in general). But we know that’s the case because they speak different languages (note the use of the word ‘they’ as I am in fact Scottish). And the English and French are just as different as the English and Americans. It’s just that you don’t immediately realise thanks to there being no language barrier. So having realised this I can respect it and be less dismissive of my colleagues in future. And remember, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

9 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. You neatly avoided the difference between Scots and the English….surely enough there for a series of articles?


  2. I’ve just realised, the difference between now and when I was born is about the same as that between my birth date and the end of the second world war.


  3. Am I the only person who identifies John as being just a bit pissed off here – or is it just because I hear the same thing (though with much more vitriol and anger) out of Andy’s mouth on a daily basis? What’s that old adage of England and America being two countries separated by a common language, or something like that?

    Without going into this too much – as I know Andy is probably forming a comment in his head as we speak – when he first moved over here he had a difficult time adjusting. Most nights he would begin, “You wouldn’t believe what happened today…” and he’d rant about something until I explained what the Big Picture was – usually he was shocked at the thought process behind the actions/words of some of his colleagues. So the conversation between us would begin with, “You wouldn’t believe…blah blah blah” and end with me saying with a shrug, “Hey, that’s Corporate America” and Andy saying, “Unbelievable.” It’s all about learning to play the game – and it is a game, really.

    Personally, I blame two camps – marketing people, and those guys who make those stupid inspirational posters that say goofy crap like, “Think outside the box.” I believe that the creators of those posters are actually failed marketing people, so I guess I place full blame on marketing people in general. America is all about image, baby, that’s our thing. The English have great sayings like, “That’s a load of shite” and “You’re talking bollocks”. Americans have sayings like, “I feel where you’re coming from” and “That’s an interesting spin”. Could you imagine the phrase, “I feel where you’re coming from” ever falling out of the mouth of your team leader?

    Even though Americans speak with so much fluff in their mouths we have a built-in translator, sort of, so we can cut out all the crap that’s been said and understand what is meant. It’s really so much posturing, while the English tend to be more cut-and-dried. They’re very, “You don’t sweat much for a fat lass” about it, which is good because you always know where you stand, but sometimes it makes them seem like jerks.

    See? Look at how much of this comment is fluff. But hey, I’m American, man, I go with the flow and see where those rapids take me.

    Natalie, you’re talking bollocks again. I do that sometimes.


  4. I’m not annoyed at all. Quite the opposite. All I’m saying is that we speak the same language but have different cultures, and that it’s easy assume that if the language is the same then so is the culture. We’re different – and that’s just fine with me!

    And my team leader would never say that – if he did we’d give him a good slagging off…


  5. Ah, I read more into the “just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there” line, I guess. (I was treated to a right old rant last night so some of it is lingering.)


  6. I like the example about NASA vs. UK style ingenuity. Similarly, I just read an article in Cinefex talking about the same thing regarding the production of The Lord of the Rings movies. In it, Peter Jackson explained how all the Kiwis are so damn clever with #8 fencing wire…

    Must be an island/rural thing or something going on there.


  7. Talking about the difference in cultures is an interesting point; if a difference exists. The Americans have successfully colonised the British culture. The majority of our TV programmes are American imports, we eat pringles, the films we watch at the cinema are 99% American produced, we listen to American music, wear American trainers, and the infiltration of ‘Americanisms’ (the word itself being one; succeeding nouns with ‘ism’ or ‘ization’)is ever more present. The British had a geographic empire, but the Americans have a cultural empire.


  8. As an American, I find the “meeting to plan a meeting” way of corporate working here very annoying, and it is one of the larger reasons that I quit corporate life. I just wanted to get my hands dirty, and try and miss, already. And, work with a much smaller group.

    Another misnomer about America is that there isn’t class difference here as is so frequently pinned on the British. We have it here, and through my new job I’m learning that more than ever. That there are is a class system, though it may be more subtle and more forgiving.


  9. Yep, my colleagues over the pond love meetings. They seem to schedule them and, long after they stopped needing to have them, they keep holding them simply because they’re dates in their diaries!


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