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The Brits vs the Americans – spot the differences

Working cross-culturally definitely has its rewards, but it’s important to make efforts to understand the differences between your own habits and the expectations of those where you are doing business.

The Gherking

I’ve worked and lived in both the UK and the US. There are more similarities than differences between Brits and Americans, but understanding the nuances helps.  It’s also interesting hearing how foreigners perceive themselves abroad.  An ex American colleague of mine with whom I worked in a large UK financial services institution (US shareholder) recently shared some opinions with me as an Amercian abroad (in England).  Below are some of his thoughts.
“Brits are generally more polite, like to avoid confrontation, and are more formal in discussions.  Americans need to understand this and be careful about being too direct, too casual, or too pushy.  Everyone wants to get the deal done, and lots of deals are consummated, but it’s important to be aware of each other’s cultural mannerisms and preferences.
Statute of Liberty NY

Being on time is more of an American preoccupation; people in the UK understand that others get delayed.  Brits enjoy a cup of coffee, a beer or glass of wine when meeting, while Americans tend to stick to tighter time frames in offices with bad coffee served in plastic cups. Anyone watching Mad Men, the HBO series on an ad agency in ‘50s America would be well deceived in thinking Americans drink and smoke in the office. Those days are long gone and in fact, some companies outlaw alcohol on company premises.

Brits are more formal in many ways; in dress, in negotiations, in evaluating a proposition.

Office workers City of London:Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Americans are more apt to dress in business casual and to “shoot from the hip” in presenting their opinions and decisions.

Walking to work New York: The Associated Press:

There is equal entrepreneurship, but it seems like Americans are more likely to just start doing and Brits are more likely to analyze and plan.  Neither is better; sometimes those who act first stumble more quickly, whereas a well thought out business plan has less chance to fail.

Brits are very articulate; they know how to put sentences and thoughts together.  It appears to me that the British educational system puts emphasis on the spoken and written word, and on how to communicate clearly.  Americans, on the other hand, are on occasion not as likely to present their ideas cogently.

If I could do anything over again from my years of working in the UK, I would spend more time getting to know colleagues and business associates socially.  There are tremendous opportunities for Americans to slow down and better understand the people with whom they are doing business.  And I’d learn the art of taking a proper holiday!  In America a typical vacation is five business days (spent with the Blackberry on the beach), whereas my British friends travel for several weeks and come back much more relaxed”.

Of course, any of us who’ve either worked abroad or work with American and English colleagues will have our own views, shaped by the people we’ve met and successes we’ve had.  It would be great to hear your stories and opinions here – your top tips for cultural dos and don’ts of doing business in the UK and the US.  Feel free to share here.

I am an International Strategy and Marketing Consultant with over 20 years experience in marketing and strategy and international operations both in the US and Europe. Broad functional experience in: Marketing and Communications Strategic and Financial analytics including Business Case Development Consulting and Operational management Client Relationship Management Deep financial services sector knowledge. Worked in organisations ranging from technology start-ups, fast-paced direct marketing agency to large corporates. Member of Enterprise Ireland Mentor Panel Member of IIA (Irish Internet Association) International Strategy Working Group Committee member of the MBA Association of Ireland:

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  • Good post Una! Actually, I always admired the way the Americans present. 90% I find it very engaging. It’s true that what collides with the British (or European way) is that they’re always trying to close the sale… To me there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that but unfortunately, the context matters a lot…
    Regarding holidays, that’s one of the things I never understood well while living in the States… They work so hard throughout the year and have a total of only 10 working days for themselves to enjoy? If they took 15 or 20… would that change anything? Would they do it?

  • Nice post Una!

    I have always been conscious of culture similarities and differences; as I have dual-citizenship and I am married to someone of another nationality, in the house, it is like having a multi-celtic festival at all times!

    Over the last 10 years, I have also often worked for American clients and I do travel a lot to the States. Personally, and I know, this is my opinion, I have always loved working on American projects; very different atmosphere than working on a European project. I also love the fact, that in American offices, you can come in and “shout” Good morning” and get replies, while that would be inappropriate in most Brit offices. And, they will often give you a hand and be very helpful; as of for the customer service, LOVE it, that is called customer service.

    Thanks for the post,
    Frederique Murphy

  • Always liked the “Have a nice day” when the call or visit finishes. Maybe if I were American it wouldn’t make to much of a difference, but to a foreigner it really conveys good customer service!

  • Una,

    Nice article it really points out the relevance of cultural in a business environment. It is so important to understand your “audience” in business and to recognise that “country culture often overrides company culture”.

    I have worked with Dell for 11 years, and as part of this role I have been exposed to and worked with many different cultures.
    Recognising and appreciating other cultures is key to succeeding in a global environment and with the advent of social media and social networks the business world is now closer and more tightly grouped than ever.

    A final point I want to make is: embrace different cultures (and personalities) as “diversity breeds creativity”.


  • Hi Una, Many International focussed companies don’t consider enough the impact that cultural difference will have. And its rarely the big ones such as language etc that cause problems, more probable that it is the subtle ones that will create the bigger problems. I personally enjoy dealing with both Americans and people In the UK. When it comes to selling, it is more of a business/solution sell whereas in Ireland more emphasis rests on the relationship aspect of the sale. Certainly in the area of retail, I think we have a lot to learn from our American cousins. I think our (Ireland) retail customer service skills have decreased significantly since the birth and death of the Celtic Tiger. Gerard wrote about this very issue before Xmas:… Another thought provoking post!Thanks,Niall

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for all your comments. I loved living and working in the US – Chicago and Santa Fe, both fabulous places. Corporate America can be quite formal too. As someone pointed out, while commonality of language will make it easier to do business, there are many subtle differences that are easier to miss and can impact, particularly during the early days of new market penetration.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the post, Una, and for stimulating the exchange. In my experience with British counterparts, I found we worked together very easily, maybe because we understood the nuanced differences between us. The fewest cultural differences for me as an American (with dual Irish citizenship) were with my Australian, Irish and, interestingly, Norwegian colleagues who almost always became friends. One thing we Yanks can learn from them all, as you point out, is how to take a proper vacation! Cross-culturalism has become a way of life for me since my wife is from the Philippines, where we are now. Fortunately, the Philippines and Ireland have much in common (more than I expected until my wife pointed it out to me on our first visit there ten years ago). Thanks again, Don

  • Name

    Very interesting. Two comments:
    Re. the Brits being more articulate, that depends on the circles you’re meeting. My impression is that the education system for the ‘elite’ is excellent; that for those below it is abysmal — and thus there is a vast number of illiterates.
    The suggestion that Americans should “slow down” is dead on. Many in the business world are totally manic and hyperactive. I think of the kind of marketing or sales stuff that many produce: ‘250 Techniques To Optimize Your Home Page’.
    Americans also seem to have an intense belief in the ‘miracles’ of technology — jumping at the latest wonder method and moving on to the next one within weeks.
    But then there’s that great American enthusiasm and openness to new ideas — and, of course, we Irish could learn something from them: ceasing to talk so much and actually taking action instead.
    – David

  • Here here David 🙂

  • I agree Una – very important to be culturally sensitive. As a small island community our survival depends on doing business internationally. That’s exciting! Technology gives us the opportunity to transact in a global market place. Social networks and platforms give us the means to stay connected and create new communities. But technology alone will not build or retain the community. We need to develop new skills to make those relationships real. Afterall, people do business with people.

  • Anonymous

    Dead right. I do like the positive enthusiasm of Americans that comes from a ‘can do’ attitude that is infectious when you are over there, just as the ‘well, I don’t know if that’s possible’ attitude you so often get on this side of the pond.

  • Anonymous

    Don, many thanks for your comment. It would be great to get views from you about the opportunities for an Irish business community in the Philippines, if any and some key tips to doing business there – the top 10 does and donts.

  • Interesting . . .

    I just married an American. Is she ‘direct, casual and pushy’? Sometimes!

    And this message would be great for my new mother-in-law to read: “Being on time is more of an American preoccupation; people in the UK understand that others get delayed.”

  • Anonymous

    Hi David, the elite education system in the US is without doubt the best in the world – 90% of the world’s greatest universities are American. But, as you point out – a two-tier system for sure. I think we all love the enthusiasm and can do attitude, confidence and positivity. In the era of the Celtic Tiger, as was said, we are closer to Boston than Berlin.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Richard, how lovely to have you reading bloggertone. Social Networking platforms, as Ina pointed our, are tremendous boost to help us keep our international networks alive. Hopefully, you will keep coming back to bloggertone.
    Many congrats on your recent marriage. Keep up the tennis.

  • Anonymous

    Hi David, the elite education system in the US is without doubt the best in the world – 90% of the world’s greatest universities are American. But, as you point out – a two-tier system for sure. I think we all love the enthusiasm and can do attitude, confidence and positivity. In the era of the Celtic Tiger, as was said, we are closer to Boston than Berlin.

  • Hi Una – good food for thought.

    Working in the Netherlands, between Amsterdam and Maastricht a few years ago, important to be aware of regional subtleties also, but easy to miss while you settle in as you learn the more obvious differences. It makes life interesting and why I enjoy working in international companies.

    Differences between companies can be interesting also as, your approach may need to adapt to a different culture, even for a superficially similar culture. Being a small open economy has some great advantages as long as we can keep US and other MNC’s coming over here as a base.

    (Andrew Harbourne-Thomas – Twitter just thinks my surname is too long)

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